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.
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
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
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
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
The true devotees like Joe Gans spent hours studying human and
animal behaviour and learning the capabilities 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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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