On this day in 1902, Joe Gans knocked out Frank Erne in Round 1 to capture the lightweight championship. It was a rematch of their fight from the previous year, when Gans had been forced to retire after Round 11 with a badly cut eye. The victory made Gans the first black world boxing champion born in the United States and the second after featherweight and bantamweight champion George Dixon, who was born in Canada.
Gans was one of the biggest stars of boxing’s early, gloved era. He was revered by his contemporaries and bestowed with the nickname of “The Old Master.” He was a true innovator, who revolutionized boxing technique and strategy. On the surviving film of Gans, he looks very much like a modern prizefighter, using footwork, feints and crisp counters. He used a tricky straight right-hand lead in exactly the manner Floyd Mayweather does today.
Gans held the world title for six years, frequently battling larger stars. In 1903 he fought one day in Philadelphia, then traveled overnight to Boston and fought the next day against the legendary Sam Langford, who would eventually become a heavyweight star. After a strong start in the fight, Gans faded late and lost a close decision to Langford.
Gans fought to a 15-round draw in 1904 against welterweight champion Joe Walcott (not to be confused with Jersey Joe Walcott, the heavyweight champion of the early 1950s). A number of contemporary newspaper clippings sited by
Monte D. Cox in his outstanding write-up of Gans credit Gans with deserving the win over Walcott.
Gans won a great, three-fight series against Jack Blackburn, who would eventually become the trainer of heavyweight icon Joe Louis.
The most famous of Gans’ great fights would have to be his 1906, 42-round war with Battling Nelson. It was the longest title fight ever waged under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. After taking round after round of punishment, Nelson finally fouled out deliberately, to lose the bout.
By 1908, Gans was already suffering from tuberculosis when he finally lost his title in a rematch with Nelson. The disease would kill Gans in 1910. His funeral in his native city of Baltimore was attended by 10,000 mourners.
Ring Magazine founding Editor Nat Fleischer rated Gans as the No. 1 lightweight in history. In the years since Gans fought, only Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran have emerged as true rivals to that status. Alongside Langford and three-division champion Bob Fitzsimmons, Gans was the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of the late 19ths and early 20th century and is not out of place as an all-time top five or 10.