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.