He had an unmarked face except for a modest scar above the outer corner of each eye and a small amount of puffiness below the left — remarkable for someone approaching, at minimum, his 187th professional prizefight. He was trim, with broad, sloping shoulders, but stood just 5 feet 61 / 2 inches and weighed about 140 pounds. A photograph of him taken in 1906 shows him shirtless, arms folded across his midsection, his upper body spectacularly muscled.
One August evening that year, Joe Gans rode a train deep into the Nevada desert. The newly built rail line extended south for twenty- six miles, the brief last leg of a trip that had taken him from San Francisco’s East Bay up the mountains to Reno, then to a seemingly endless journey to Tonopah, Nevada, and on toward a mining boomtown called Goldfield. A group of settlers had named it three years earlier after prospectors had come upon yellowed rocks that held the promise of a great gold strike.
In thirteen years as a professional boxer, Gans had crossed the country several times by train. On different occasions he had traveled from the East Coast to fight in Oregon, San Francisco,Los Angeles, and Seattle. He had seen the desert. But it had never been his destination. And it never would have been except that he, like the prospectors aboard the train, was being lured across a wilderness of sand and sagebrush by a quest for wealth. They went for the gold. He went for the payday that came with defending his world lightweight championship. His glories in the ring notwithstanding, he was virtually broke.
The newspapers were predicting an epic encounter between him and Battling Nelson, a fighter succinctly and gruesomely described by Jack London as “the abysmal brute.” Gans and Nelson would meet on Labor Day afternoon, under the desert sun. There would be no scheduled end to the fight. It would be a fight to the finish, usually when one man dropped and stayed down until the count of ten. Fights with no prescribed end could feel, to a fighter, like an eternity. They left most scarred. M ore than once, a manager threw a towel into the ring because he had no doubt that the next blow would leave his fighter dead. Sometimes the towel landed too late.
Gans anticipated danger. It came with his business and his skin color. He was the first black American boxing champion, but that achievement brought him more peril than renown. The discrimination that black boxers faced reflected American life. In 1906, racial injustice was far worse than it had been three and a half decades earlier when W alt W hitman recognized the separation of races as one of the flaws that made the country’s future “as dark as it is vast.” Gans had received death threats throughout his career, and he wouldn’t be surprised to hear from someone betting for or against him at Goldfield that he had better win or lose as directed or risk not getting out of town alive.
No entourage accompanied him aboard the Tonopah and Goldfield train. It wasn’t his style to make himself the center of attention, even if a black man dared to. He passed the time in thought, knowing that trouble was coming, merely unsure what form it would take. Only recently — quite belatedly, out of misplaced loyalty — he had he fired his manager, Abraham Lincoln Herford, known as Al. For years, this burly, cigar- smoking white man had treated him as a serf, pocketing most of his earnings while posing as his best hope.
What little Herford left him, Gans gambled away. He was bad at picking winners at the racetrack, and he was a loser at cards and dice. He always kept enough money, however, to maintain a fine wardrobe. He wore three- piece suits with a handkerchief jutting from the breast pocket, white shirts with starched collars, a diamond stickpin, a loop of gold watch chain across his chest, and a derby when he stepped out at night. One of his outfits was especially celebratory: a pale green suit, Alice blue socks, and yellow shoes. Daytimes, he preferred turtleneck jerseys or sweaters, slacks, and a cap.
Appearances aside, Gans was as poor in 1906 as in 1896, when he emerged from his native Baltimore to seek the lightweight championship. If the heavyweight division was boxing’s most prestigious, the lightweight ranks were its most competitive. A boxer could make good money as a lightweight. The division was filled with great fighters, and almost every one was vicious and unforgiving. Nelson, born in Copenhagen and nicknamed “the Durable D ane,” was a brawler who could withstand the hardest punches. If knocked down, he could be counted on to get up and keep swinging as though he hadn’t been touched. He hit below the belt, he held and hit, and he gouged eyes. There wasn’t a dirty tactic that he hadn’t tried.
Like prospectors out for gold, Gans would work with his hands, and his work, like theirs, would take time. It might punish and discourage him. The desert fed discouragement. So did Nelson, who was twenty- four and in his fighting prime. Gans was thirty-one. He had been boxing almost half his life, and there were indications that his best days in the ring had passed. As he sought a divorce the previous year, The Washington Post paraphrased his testimony in Baltimore’s Circuit Court No. 2, saying that even Gans himself believed “the zenith of his success had been reached and that he was now on the backward track. . .that he was about all in as a professional scrapper.”
Gans’s wife demanded $200 to cover her lawyer’s fee and $25 a week in alimony pending the outcome of his suit. Gans explained that he was not only broke but also in debt to Herford for thousands of dollars, with little hope of repaying him. No one could say that he was exaggerating his decline as a boxer and his capacity for earning money in the future, including the presiding judge, who awarded Gans’s wife a customary $25 for her lawyer’s work and $5 a week in alimony pending the court’s decision.
Herford had a reputation for paying his fighters next to nothing.
Boxing was a bettor’s province, and for years Herford had raked in money by betting heavily on Gans — not only that he would win, but when he would win — in what round. He often arranged to have Gans go easy on white fighters, enabling them to last a respectable amount of time so as not to embarrass them too badly. Gans had the talent to score a knockout in the round Herford ordained — and bet on. When Herford let him fight without restrictions, he was practically invincible. In time, Herford found fewer and fewer takers for his bets; almost no one wanted to bet against Gans. So he persuaded Gans to lose intentionally. One effect of this was to take money out of the pockets of poor blacks who bet on Gans religiously — and the thought tormented him. Six months before his trip into the desert, he admitted his folly to a newspaper reporter and vowed to fight honestly every time. Leaving Herford behind, Gans headed to Goldfield nagged by regret.
Note: Despite breaking a bone in his right hand in the 33d round, Gans defeated Nelson in the 42d round; the referee stopped the bout because Nelson, who was badly hurt and had fouled throughout the fight, dropped Gans with a low blow. Gans earned $11,000, less than half the sum his white challenger was paid. With his winnings, Gans, who held the lightweight title from 1902 to 1908, built the Goldfield Hotel and Saloon in Baltimore, where Eubie Blake played ragtime. Gans died in 1910 of tuberculosis.
Excerpted from The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion by William Gildea, who wrote for The Washington Post from 1965 to 2005. It was published in June by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.