Joe Gans: Secrets Of The Old Master
By Mike Casey - Joe Gans was playing it straight and playing it beautifully. There was no ‘arrangement’ on this January day in Tonopah, Nevada, no grubby deals to bind the Old Master’s arms and choke his unparalleled talent. He was out of the cage, in full swing.
Article posted on 19.12.2008
This was bad news for Kid Herman at the Casino Athletic Club. The gutsy Chicagoan had plenty of heart and most of the crowd on his side as he chased and hustled and swung punches in his futile quest to wrench the lightweight championship from Gans’ vice-like grip.
The poor Kid. He must have felt as though the gods had dropped an ebony angel of death into the ring for a bit of mischievous fun. From the clang of the opening gong, Herman’s artillery was hitting gloves and elbows and being deflected by dizzying feints and subtle shifts.. He would discover that Joe Gans, the genius of Baltimore, was only just warming up.
From the second round, Joe began to show his own firepower as Herman was given the first daunting glimpse of the mountain he had chosen to scale. A painfully repetitive pattern took shape as Herman’s punches were expertly blocked and his head jerked back by flashing left and right hand jolts.
When Gans slowed the pace of the fight in the fifth round, Herman might have believed he was finally getting somewhere. Several of his blows found the mark as Gans became uncharacteristically careless. The crowd yelled its approval but the game challenger’s progress was fleeting.
Gans gave himself a mental rubdown, and in the sixth and seventh rounds he ascended to that certain altitude that is inhabited by few others. Here was a man who could call the round and he decided that the eighth round would be the show closer. Joe feinted brilliantly to draw Herman’s fire and then manoeuvred the befuddled challenger into a corner. Feinting with his left, Gans waited for Herman’s own left to break cover and leave the killer opening. Hawk-eyed and blessed with incredible instinct, Joe’s quick and devastating hands could exploit the smallest of chinks in a man’s armour. A quick left and a hard right to the jaw sent Herman crashing to his face with his head in his hands. It was all over.
Back in the days when boxing was huge, when young boys wanted to be fighters and when gymnasiums were two a penny and teemed with emerging talent, proper boxing writers had the luxury of being able to write proper boxing stories. These were men who loved their subject and spent their lives penning passionate essays for the eager masses. They visited gyms and hotels and bars and talked to fighters, trainers and managers. Writers got to know the technical aspects of the game almost as well as its practitioners. Boxing was revered as both a science and an art.
Now, my dear reader, I don’t know if the old scribe TP Magilligan of the Oakland Tribune enjoyed his booze and his baccy. I rather hope that he did, because I would like to imagine him ensconced cosily in the noisy anarchy of a newsroom with a big cigar, a bottle of something tucked in his draw (an age-old journalistic tradition now tragically discouraged) and saying to himself, “This guy Joe Gans is really something and I’m going to write all about him.”
Well, Mr Magilligan did just that and here is some of what he said: “Gans has more fine points of the game mastered than any living man. If you want to see him, take a slant down to Link Dennis’ some time at your leisure and ask to see Joe Gans, champion lightweight pugilist of the world, and without doubt the embodiment of all that is graceful and artistic in ring circles. Here is a 133-pound ebony brown lad who has stowed away many men of his weight and is the modern Alexander of the ring.
“In point of grace, action, intelligence, contour, speed and punching power, this Gans is in a class by himself. Weight and inches, he is the greatest pugilist of the ring today. There is not a boy in his class who is anywhere near the possessor of the ability of Gans. He is a ring artist. Cool, ophidian-eyed, graceful as an antelope and swift as a whippet, he is the envy and dread of all his competitors for lightweight honours. The man is master of his own art.
“Gans is the fighter all over. He is built on lines ideally adapted to the profession.
“The Baltimorean tapers beautifully from his shoulders down to his hips, and his legs are firm and slenderly graceful. He is small-hipped and carries no superfluous weight where it is not required.
“There is no fighter in the ring today who can see an opening with the sureness and swiftness of Gans and he has not a competitor in the business when it comes to the delivery of his blows. Gans hits free from any position and with either hand. And he hits heavy. There is terrible power in those arms of Gans’. He can shoot over a short jolt that will rock an opponent, and the tormenting one himself could not madden one quicker than Gans with those hawk-like jabs and jolts that he sends against an opponent’s head or body.
“At outfighting, infighting, long range or in a clinch, Gans is a master of the game. He is not strong in what the ordinary acceptation of that word means. But he has a reserve fund of nervous energy that is simply marvellous.”
Kid McCoy, the possessor of a wonderfully creative and lateral fighting brain, once admitted that the one man with whom he could never match minds was Bob Fitzsimmons. The Kid tried everything he knew to winkle out freckled Bob’s secrets in their many sparring sessions, only to uncover tantalising hints and glimpses.
Then along came another budding young master to try his luck at finding the hidden gold. With all the quiet and calculating patience that would eventually make him one of the most majestic and complete of all the great ring mechanics, Joe Gans hung around the Fitzsimmons camp and soaked up all the mental and technical wisdom he could tease out of the great man.
Gans talked to Fitzsimmons, watched him and sparred with him. It was a priceless apprenticeship, and Joe believed he had gathered all the knowledge he could by the time he struck out on his own.
Perhaps the most valuable gold nugget was his firm belief that the cunning Fitzsimmons would never show any fighter his full hand. The mind-bending question he left them all to ponder was whether his hole card was an ace.
We talk here of the true, pioneering scientists of the game. How can we fail to learn from the likes of Fitzsimmons, Gans and the other artisans of that magical era? They learned their trade so thoroughly well. They dedicated themselves to becoming boxing masters and to knowing every move, every nuance and every psychological edge.
For those of us who have a passionate interest in history, there is a veritable treasure trove to be found in the rich annals of the noble art. The boxers of Joe Gans’ era, save for the precious few who could command big money, were as much tradesmen as plumbers and bricklayers. In the much harsher and less forgiving climate of the day, any fudging or dodging of the educational process could mean getting lost in the pack and beaten down in the competitive stampede.
The true devotees like Joe Gans spent hours studying human and animal behaviour and learning the capabilitie of the well trained body and mind. Joe learned to punch correctly, which might well sound like a blindingly obvious requirement, but which in fact is a difficult and evasive art in itself that the vast majority of fighters never truly grasp. Gans knew about weight transference, leverage, pivoting, timing and snap. Like Fitzsimmons and Jim Jeffries, Joe recognised that there was nothing more debilitating or destructive than a short-range jolt to the chin, heart or stomach. Gans learned how to position his feet and how to hold his hands so that the vital and most susceptible areas of his body were protected. He became the maestro nonpareil at slipping, blocking and feinting.
Fighters of his ilk and his era worked tirelessly at becoming better. The law of physics that makes one arm stronger than its counterpart was so offensive to the voracious and defiant mind of Jack Johnson that he worked overtime to make his left arm almost as powerful as his right.
Gans had a similarly contrary and challenging nature in technical matters. Just because something wasn’t so, Joe reasoned, didn’t mean that it couldn’t be.
Spiritual brothers recognise one another instantly and it was former heavyweight champion Tommy Burns who singled out Gans as an exception to the rule nearly a hundred years ago. Even that far back in time, the purists were bemoaning the dwindling number of fighters who were taught to punch in the correct and most effective manner.
A formidable and educated clouter in his own right, Tommy said: “I don’t know why some of the young fellows do not practise short punches, jolts; they’re the ones that hurt If you watch most knockouts closely, you will see that they come as the result of short-snappy punches, and not from wild swings.
“In all my experience in the ring, I don’t believe I have ever seen over a dozen men who could hit correctly. Joe Gans was my ideal so far as hitting was concerned and, for that matter, so far as fighting was concerned. He didn’t have to swing his head off to get results.
“The Old Master used merely to step in with a short blow when the proper opening presented itself, and the spectators went home.
“I will give you an example of the effectiveness of short hitting. You take a fellow looking up in the air and give him a slight punch in the stomach. It takes all the wind out of his sails. Now, the principle of a short punch is just the same. Say you have your hands not very far away from an opponent. You feint at his head, drop the blow and land it on his stomach. He’s not looking for that punch, and he hasn’t got time to block it or prepare for it. The punch lands and it takes the wind out of him.
“But if you tried a swing, the other fellow would have time to prepare for it. I always believe in a boxer holding his hands well in front of him and punching right from where he holds his hands.
“If you start to draw your hands back for a swing, it is just the same as telling the other fellow what you re going to do. It’s what some persons call telegraphing a blow.”
Charley Hamilton was a San Francisco sportsman who got to know Joe Gans when he was doing most of his fighting around the Bay Area. Their time together gave Hamilton some interesting insights into the Old Master’s technique.
“Gans often told me,” said Hamilton, “that there are only two spots on a man’s anatomy that need protection from a knockout. One is the jaw, the other the solar plexus. Others surely must have known this as well as Joe, but he profited by his knowledge.
“His fighting posture protected him at all times. The right hand covering the jaw, he looked from behind his gloves with that thoughtful look on his face, like a hunter taking aim through the sight of his gun. His right elbow was always held as a covering for that tempting target, the solar plexus. Naturally, the left did all of the sharp-shooting. The right was kept moving in a sort of protecting arc before him, ready to catch or ward off anything that happened to be delivered at either jaw or body.
“And that position always had him set to send over a punch with his right hand.”
Hawaiian boxing analyst, Curtis Narimatsu, has long championed the cause of the great Gans, and with every good reason. “Joe’s great eyes and his powers of observation were extraordinary,” says Curtis. “His mental acuity was like his idol, Bob Fitzsimmons. Gans could find openings and punch through or around them. The younger Gans was nimble on his feet and had great hand speed. He was diverse in his attack and had the famous crouch to avoid blows.
“Joe had power and great boxing ability. He was more dangerous than Benny Leonard, who couldn’t punch as hard as Gans. Gans, in my view, would have outboxed Leonard for a comfortable win. Joe also outboxes a flustered Roberto Duran for a comfortable win, and I think that Gans would have similarly seen off the likes of Carlos Ortiz, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Pernell Whitaker.
“Gans was superior to the boxers above and much better pound-for-pound than stalker Joe Louis.
“What set Gans apart were his great eyes and scientific ability.”
What set the great Old Master apart no less were the incredibly tough and unforgiving times in which he plied his trade and the fact that he was still producing titanic performances of courage and skill when he was almost certainly being eaten away by the first terrible ravages of tuberculosis.
In the darker and more prejudiced era of the early twentieth century, Joe was quite cynically exploited. He was regularly beaten down in pre-fight negotiations to the point where his purses were vastly reduced and his natural fighting weight was abused to weaken him. Did he fake it on certain occasions for a better deal and a quieter life? Yes, he did, by his own admission.
Late in his career, when he was at his sublime best and largely free of his shackles, Gans told writer Robert Edgren: “From now on I’m my own man and I’ll never fight another crooked fight while I live.
“I just want you to know how it was. I was always in debt to a man who was handling my business. No matter how many fights I had, I always owed him money and he had me tied up on that. I had to do what he ordered me to.
“I’ve broken away. I’m free and from now on I will give you my word my fights will be straight and I’ll win everyone one as long as I can.”
Robert Edgren believed that Gans was good to his word, but right to the end the unscrupulous were trying to tip the scales against the Baltimore maestro – quite literally so in his epic championship fight with Battling Nelson in the stultifying heat of Goldfield.
Joe was haggled down to accepting a very small percentage of a big purse against Bat, and then there followed another cynical ploy by Nelson’s handlers just before fight time. Gans had made 133 pounds stripped, as agreed. But then came a further clause that required him to weigh 133 in his full fighting togs at ringside.
He was already an ill man and now he was significantly weight-weakened. In Nelson, he was facing a furious fighting man of almost kamikazi-like intensity and in the prime of his life. As one of the most ferocious marathon fights in boxing history played out, Joe demonstrated his astonishing skill and courage. In the later rounds, weakened by the heat and Nelson’s relentless punching, Joe was forced to lean across the ropes between rounds and vomit.
Yet Nelson, a frighteningly fearless man who would lead with his hand and just keep bashing away with his seemingly tireless fists, just couldn’t get rid of the Old Master.
For all his problems, Joe had sailed into a commanding lead over the first 20 rounds, but it was in the torrid deep waters thereafter that he began to slow as the intense punishment took its inevitable toll and sucked away his strength.
Nelson was a brutal half-arm puncher in the clinches, but back would come Gans with new bursts of life and breathtaking displays of correct and technical hitting at its very best. Perhaps it was poetic justice that the gods came to save him and award him an unlikely and controversial victory.
He was all but out at the close of the forty-first round, breathless and barely able to see. Nelson, it seemed, had his man. How could Bat lose? In the forty-second round, Nelson moved in to finish the job with a terrible blow that was all his own and one of the most vicious in boxing. It was Bat’s half-scissor hook to the liver, a debilitating punch that required little more than six inches of leverage.
Joe dropped wearily to the canvas, but any elation that Bat might have been feeling was quickly terminated. Referee George Siler ruled the blow illegal and awarded the fight to Gans on a foul. The Old Master was still there, still on top of the world, despite all the efforts of others to bust him down and cut him out of the picture.
Greater Than Leonard?
Long before Roberto Duran came along to complete what many consider to be the great triumvirate of lightweight champions, Joe Gans and Ghetto Wizard Benny Leonard were the two titans who were seen to be neck-and-neck for the grand mantle of all-time number one.
Many observers gave Benny the edge because of his superior fitness. Many others would never hear of it. Those who were lucky enough to see Joe Gans on a regular basis maintained that the Baltimore maestro had no technical or scientific equal.
The perceptive and intelligent Robert Edgren was never a writer to linger in the past. He came in praise of the great talent of Mickey Walker at a time when others of the old brigade were arguing that Mick could never have stood up to the vintage likes of Ketchel and Tommy Ryan.
But Mr Edgren would not be told that Benny Leonard was the superior of Joe Gans. After watching Leonard retain his world title by edging the dangerous southpaw, Lew Tendler, at Jersey City in 1922, Mr Edgren noted: “Leonard is clever and he can hit hard. But if it had been Joe Gans in the ring with Tendler at Jersey City! That would have been something different Joe Gans fought and beat men with whom Tendler never classed.
“Gans knocked out Frank Erne, one of the fastest and cleverest men who ever held the title, with a single punch.”
And how Gans did that! He noticed that Erne had a clever trick of feinting and drawing back about a foot before springing back in with a blow. Joe caught Frank on the rebound with a perfectly timed right to the chin. End of contest!
Grantland Rice pretty much concurred with Robert Edgren’s opinion of Gans. A poll conducted by Mr Rice saw Gans finishing first and Benny Leonard second. Wrote Mr Rice: “Joe was still a great fighter when he was wasting away with tuberculosis. At his peak he could about call the round and winning punch. This doesn’t include fights where he was under orders to do certain things that were out of line, all under the direction of his white manager.
“Young Corbett could whip Terry McGovern, but Nelson could take Corbett. And both Gans and Leonard were better lightweights than Bat Nelson.”
Nat Fleischer, the erstwhile dean of boxing experts, was always a little more obscure on the subject. When Nat sat down to compile his all-time rankings in 1958, he awarded pole position to Joe and second place to Benny.
Ten years on, however, Fleischer had this to say about it: “Could Joe have matched Benny in physical condition if they had met at their best? The answer is an emphatic NO.
“I saw Benny Leonard at his best, and, second judgements into the discard, I don’t believe that Gans could have whipped the New Yorker in 45 minutes of spirited and artful action.”
One can see Fleischer’s point in preferring Benny in a 15-rounds fight. The Wizard’s superior fitness would certainly have played a very significant part over that comparative ‘sprint’ distance.
But this writer still wonders. Gans had such a cool and calculating mind. Was he anything less of a wizard than Leonard? If anything, he was even more so, and I believe his lively and inventive brain would have given him the ability to adjust to any distance and any set of circumstances.
The evidence is extremely weighty in favour of Joe Gans being the greatest lightweight that ever lived. He was most definitely one of the greatest pound-for-pound ring mechanics of them all. And let us never forget that he achieved much of what he did with one hand tied behind his back.
He was all in by August 1910, dead at the age of thirty-five just a year after his last recorded battle against Jabez White. Some folks will tell you that the good Lord claims men like Joe at a young age because they are destined to serve a higher purpose.
One hopes those folks are right.
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a features writer for East Side Boxing. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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