A veteran sports journalist rehearses the story of Joe Gans (1874–1910), who in 1906 won a titanic 42-round boxing match, lasting nearly three hours, against a bruising white boxer.
Gildea (Where the Game Matters Most: A Last Championship Season in Indiana High School Basketball, 1997, etc.), who wrote for the Washington Post for 40 years, begins and ends with the flickering footage of the fight now residing in the Library of Congress. The author devotes more than half of the text to an account of the fight with Oscar “Battling” Nelson in Goldfield, Nev., though he continually cuts away to tell about Gans’ background, his several wives, the era’s virulent racism, other fights and fighters, the history of Goldfield and numerous other asides intended both to provide context and increase suspense. Nelson emerges as a particularly crude specimen, so much so that the huge crowd—virtually all white—rooted enthusiastically for Gans and offered no protests when the referee awarded the victory to Gans because of a low blow; Nelson had been head-butting and committing other fouls throughout. (His gutter racism outside the ring was no improvement.) Whites in the East and South promptly terrorized blacks. The final section deals with Gans' post-fight celebrity and wealth and with his intransigent refusal to retire, even while tuberculosis was ravaging his body. The final scenes—the fading Gans trying to get home from Arizona to die—are moving. Writers Rex Beach and Jack London have cameos, as do other notables, and the author wonders if George Bellows might have used Gans as the model for the black fighter in Both Members of This Club.
With fascinating period detail and skillful writing, the author highlights his subject’s considerable appeal and symbolic significance but speaks a bit too gently about his flaws.