Joe Gans (Joseph Saifus Butts)
The Old Master
November 25, 1874 - August 10, 1910
Joe Gans became the first American-born, black sports champion when, in 1902, he won the world lightweight boxing title in Fort Erie, Canada, with a spectacular one-round knockout of the defending champion, Frank Erne. Gans was one of the first practitioners of scientific gloved boxing, following the era of bare-knuckles fights. Known as the Old Master, he fought in three divisions (featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight) for 18 years, compiling over 150 career wins and over 100 knockouts. After his death from tuberculosis in 1910, Gans was considered by many to be the greatest fighter who ever lived.
Early Life Gans was born November 25, 1874, orphaned at the age of four, and raised by his foster mother, Maria Gant, in Baltimore, Maryland. As a teen, Gans worked at the Broadway harbor market shucking oysters, where the owner allowed him to practice the fistic art in the market's basement. Gans fought amateur battles in various clubs and theaters around Baltimore. It was after a boxing carnival where Gans won several battles that Baltimore gambler and boxing entrepreneur Abraham Lincoln Al Hereford approached Gans to become his professional manager.
Early Fighting Years Gans dominated the featherweight and lightweight classes during the 1890s to the extent that Nat Fleischer, boxing historian and founder of Ring Magazine, would call him the closest thing to a superman the lightweight division had ever seen. Because of Jim Crow segregation in America, Gans often had to let his opponents win or make a good showing, even though he could have beaten them easily. The most notorious example of this occurred in 1900 at Lou Houseman's Tattersall Athletic Club in Chicago when Gans, as he would later admit, was forced to take a dive against featherweight champion, Terrible Terry McGovern. As a result of the ensuing scandal, boxing was outlawed in Chicago for a quarter century. Gans was blamed for the fix, even though Al Hereford and McGovern's manager, Sam Harris, had orchestrated the deal. Many boxing fans of the era did not want blacks to have the opportunity to become champions and called for Gans to be banned from the sport.
Despite the fixed fight, Gans was too good to be ignored. He persisted and defeated the toughest crop of opponents that anyone had ever faced on his way to the championship. He beat Young Griffo, Elbows McFadden, Kid McPartland, Bobby Dobbs, Dal Hawkins, and scores of other great fighters, on the way to the championship. In 1902 Gans earned a legitimate opportunity to fight for the lightweight title, which he easily won with a one-punch knockout over outstanding boxer and matinee idol, Frank Erne. The easy victory by Gans only increased suspicion that he did not always fight his best, but rather boxed to the orders of his manager.
Gans, who usually weighed around 135 pounds, fought and defeated heavier welterweights and middleweights throughout his career. His 20-round bout with welterweight champion, Barbados Joe Walcott is considered one of the all-time classics. Although the referee called it a draw, newspapers reported that Gans had clearly won.
Gans became a popular champion who defended his title regularly, but some in the boxing establishment did not like the idea of having a black champion. James Edward Britt, a white California fighter, lost by foul to Gans in 1904, but his supporters claimed the championship with the aid of the San Francisco fight trust which controlled boxing on the west coast. Britt lost to Matthew Battling Nelson in 1905, and some considered Nelson the lightweight champion, even though Gans had never lost his title.
The Longest Fight On Labor Day, 1906, in Goldfield, Nevada, Gans and Nelson were matched in the first Fight of the Century promoted by Tex Rickard, who would later achieve greater fame by promoting Jack Dempsey's million-dollar fights. The Goldfield match under the blazing Nevada desert sun drew the largest gate in history at that time, with a purse of $30 thousand and attendance over 8,000. Before the fight, the ring announcer read the telegrams from fans who could not attend, as was the custom. A note from Gans' foster mother stated: Joe, the eyes of the world are upon you¦you bring back the bacon. Newspapers across the country the next day reported on Gans' ability to Bring Home the Bacon. The phrase caught on and is now part of everyday speech. Gans won the fight after 42 grueling rounds. Forced to make an unnaturally low weight of 133 ringside in full boxing gear, he became ill from the weight loss.
In 1907 and 1908, with the death germs of tuberculosis ravaging his body, Gans defended his title several more times before losing it in a rematch to Battling Nelson in 1908. Gans continued to fight, wanting to earn enough money for his family to live comfortably after he was gone. One newspaper columnist noted that, the sorrow and not the merriment of his people are written on his face. He has the saddest eyes¦
Misses the "Great White Hope" Fight Gans was scheduled to train and assist Jack Johnson for his famous heavyweight bout against Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, July, 4, 1910, but Gans was too sick to attend. Emaciated and bedridden in Prescott, Arizona, he left on a long trip east to reach his mother and two children before he died, August 10, 1910. Hundreds gathered at his train stops and thousands attended his funeral in Baltimore, Maryland to say goodbye to the man they called the Old Master.
Legacy Joe Gans overcame the prejudices of his time and proved that black men could achieve success despite the great odds against them. With his winnings from the Goldfield fight, he established the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore, a black and tan club, where he gave the great, rag-time musician, Eubie Blake, his first big opportunity. Nat Fleischer rated Gans as the greatest lightweight boxer who ever lived. Generations of boxers have been taught the moves that were first perfected by the Old Master.
--Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott
A version of this article by the authors appears under Joe Gans in the Encyclopedia of North American Sport, 3 vol., M. E. Sharpe Publishers, 2009.