The first native-born black American to win a world
title, Joe Gans impressed the boxing community with his scientific
approach to the sport. Gans never moved more than a few inches to
avoid a punch, studied his opponents' strengths and weaknesses much
more intently than other fighters of the time, and directed his punches
with pinpoint accuracy to key points of weakness.
Gans's first-known boxing experience took place at the Monumental
Theater in Baltimore when he won a "battle royal," a wild
contest in which several black fighters entered the ring at once to
fight until one remained. Gans's superiority in this brutal exhibition
attracted the interest of boxing manager Al Herford, who directed
Gans to a professional career. Gans started boxing professionally
in 1891 in Baltimore. Over the rest of the decade, he compiled an
enviable record of 58-3-6 with two no-decisions.
In 1900, Gans, then 26 years old, faced Frank Erne
for the world lightweight title. Erne peppered Gans with a blistering
left jab throughout the fight, seriously cutting Gans' left eyelid.
Realizing that to continue would risk blindness, Gans asked that the
fight be stopped in the twelfth round. Gans spent hours analyzing
Erne's style until he developed a strategy to counteract that murderous
left. In their rematch two years later, Gans executed his plan perfectly
and knocked Erne out in one round to recapture the lightweight title.
Also in 1900, Gans met Hall of Famer Terry McGovern,
who knocked him out in the second round after four earlier knockdowns.
This match raised eyebrows as few believed Gans would fall to the
wildly swinging McGovern. Later, Gans regretfully admitted to taking
a dive in this fight.
Never weighing more than 137 pounds, Gans often fought
heavier men. He lost a fifteen-round decision to Hall of Famer Sam
Langford in 1903 and fought to a draw with Joe Walcott in an attempt
to take the welterweight title in 1904. Gans relinquished the lightweight
title to fight Walcott, though in some quarters he still was considered
In 1906, Gans met Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada,
in a fight arranged by Tex Rickard. Neither Nelson nor Rickard had
much regard for black fighters. Gans, although he was the defending
champion, was offered only one-third of the purse, and Nelson insisted
that Gans make the 133-pound weight limit, rigidly enforced with three
weigh-ins on the day of the fight. Gans knocked Nelson down a couple
of times and each time helped him up. In the 42nd round, Nelson felled
Gans with a low blow. The referee called the punch a foul and declared
Gans the winner. Nelson knocked Gans out in the rematch to take the
title, and then knocked Gans out again in their third meeting. At
the time of his last two fights with Nelson, Gans already had begun
to feel the effects of tuberculosis. He died from the disease in 1910.