Baltimore's battler faced all comers Boxer: Just 5-foot-6 and 133 pounds, Joe Gans was the world lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908.

Remember When

March 01, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

"A popular saying at the turn of century was that Baltimore was known to the world as the birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner, the jurisdiction of Cardinal Gibbons and the home of Joe Gans," said The Sun in 1960.

Joe Gans, the small (5 feet 6 inches) and light (133 pounds) welterweight and former oyster shucker, had risen from the obscurity of the Baltimore slums to become the world's lightweight boxing champion in 1902 when he beat Frank Erne.

He was champ of the 135-pound class for six years, winning 147 fights and losing only eight, his last in 1908 to Battling Nelson.

"Who can say that, pound for pound, such fighters as Dempsey, Jeffries, Louis, Tunney, etc., are any better fighters than Joe Gans, Benny Leonard, Harry Greb, Stanley Ketchel and a few more lightweights or middleweights I can mention?" asked Grantland Rice, dean of the 20th-century sportswriters in 1950.

"The greatest fighter I ever saw -- meaning boxing skill, punching power, gameness, smartness, everything it takes -- was Joe Gans of Baltimore. As Bat Nelson once said when Gans hit him in the side with a right-hand punch -- 'I thought he had used a knife.' And Gans then was dying of tuberculosis. He wasn't always allowed to fight on the level -- to give his best, but when he was, he had no equal," opined Rice.

"While the pugilist was known the world over as Joe Gans, this was not his correct name. The mistake was made in his early fighting days and he never took the trouble to correct it," said his obituary in The Sun at the time of his death in 1910.

He was born in 1874, the son of Joseph Butts, a well-known baseball player. When he was 4 years old, he was adopted by Maria Gant and took her name. Later, when he was fighting and his last name was misspelled in a news article, he simply adopted the version used by the sportswriter and became known as "Gans."

First fight

In 1890, Gans fought his first battle at the Avon Club, knocking out his opponent and winning $4 of a $5 purse.

"He was just as unassuming after as before the battle and this trait followed him when he battled for and won the world's championship. His list of battles is a long one. He did not jump into prominence by defeating one or two second-raters. He climbed the ladder slowly and surely, until he attained the topmost rung," The Sun said.

"Joe Gans, one of the greatest boxers I ever saw, moved around very little. Joe was always perfectly balanced and posed to block and counter hit, or to lead when he made an opening," wrote Robert Edgren, boxing expert and sports columnist for the New York World in 1922.

Ned Brown, former president of the Boxing Writers Association, wrote in 1964, "As for Gans -- well, Gans was Gans, and at his peak he was the best fighter, pound for pound, that ever laced on a glove.

"He was the most accurate puncher I ever saw, cool, a terrific hitter with either hand, and had the eyes of an eagle and possessed more boxing savvy than any man."

Gans' three fights with Battling Nelson were among the greatest in ring history, say historians.

One of the most memorable matches took place Sept. 3, 1906, when he won a 42-round verdict in the desert heat over Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., to retain the lightweight crown.

From that fight, Gans realized a purse of $11,000, which was the largest of his career.

After giving some of his winnings to his mother, he invested the rest in a new, small hotel, the Goldfield, at East Fayette and East streets in the Jonestown district of Baltimore. Painted gold, it contained a saloon, gymnasium and living quarters for his family.

On July 4, 1908, a crowd of 10,000 men and women gathered in an open-air arena in the San Mateo hills, near San Francisco, to witness a rematch between Gans and Nelson. "He knocked out Joe Gans in the seventeenth round after a fight as desperate as any that had been seen here in years," reported The Sun.

"Three times Gans was sent to the floor in the final round, in each case taking all the time allowed. A blow from Nelson's left glove to the pit of the stomach ended the fight and Gans toppled over and rested on his knees, his face wearing a most painful expression. He tried in vain to regain his feet, but failed, and was counted out," reported the newspaper.

Waiting for news

In Baltimore, a crowd of 3,000 stood in front of the Goldfield Hotel waiting for news of the fight. When they learned that Gans had been beaten, "They were astounded. A few jaws dropped and then the crowds began to slink away," said The Sun.

Some say it was his weakened physical condition, brought on by tuberculosis, that contributed to his defeat.

"He had battled with the disease for several months. He went to the high altitudes in Arizona with the hope of recovering, but the disease was too deeply seated and he had a desperate struggle in a race with death to reach his home to die," said his obituary.

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