By William Gildea
Farrar Straus Giroux. 245 pp. $26
The boxer Joe Gans is largely forgotten today. Mild-mannered, he lacked the boisterous charisma of Jack Johnson or Muhammad Ali. But from 1902 to 1908, he was the world lightweight king, America’s first black boxing champion.
In 1906, in the 100-degree fug of the southern Nevada desert, he took on Oscar “Battling” Nelson in a legendary 42-round fight, two hours and 48 minutes, the longest bout of the 20th century. The match and Gans’s story are the subject of “The Longest Fight,” a gem of a book by former Washington Post sports columnist William Gildea.
In lean prose, Gildea gives us a blow-by-blow account of Gans’s career. He pivots from describing the fight to exploring his subject’s life to examining the racism of the age and the contradictions of “sportsmanship” that belittled blacks while making money off them.
Despite what the white sportswriters and cartoonists of the time had to say about it, Gans was one of the smartest athletes ever. “A timeline of outstanding thinkers in American sports,” Gildea writes, “could extend back from Tiger Woods . . . to, say, Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe and Bill Bradley and Bill Russell and Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson and Gene Tunney and, drawn far enough, to Joe Gans.”
Take an example from the 31st round of that Nevada fight: “Gans seemed on the verge of winning,” Gildea writes. “But then, inexplicably, something happened.” He stopped fighting and began hopping on one foot. “Did he have a cramp? Did he pull a muscle?” No, he was camouflaging an injury. He had broken a bone in his right hand while pummeling Nelson’s face into rare sausage. But he couldn’t let Nelson know that. “It was one of the craftiest things I ever saw a man do in the heat of the battling, a thing which thoroughly attested to Joe’s great ring generalship,” the fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard, said.
To think that Gans fought 11 more rounds with that broken hand. Too bad he was competing against one of the toughest athletes around. Nelson, a Danish street tough, was a fierce derecho of a fighter. “The longer a fight, the better Nelson liked it,” Gildea writes. “He had the slow heartbeat of a distance runner. His jaw had the resilience of concrete, and he was always willing to take a punch to give one. Early in his career, one Joe Hedmark floored him seventeen times, but failed to stop him.
“ ‘I ain’t human,’ Nelson delighted in saying.” But in the end, Nelson’s frustration led him to deliver an all-too-human illegal punch that gave the victory to Gans.