Back when a color line separated the sport of boxing into what amounted to a couple of pigment-defined leagues, there were still fighters on both sides who seemed able to ferry themselves back and forth across the barrier without issue. They were more exception than rule, but they existed.
One such fighter happened to also be a kind of in-ring provocateur; a black man who dared to employ a style then considered flashy, or even gaudy. Joe Gans wasn’t the first fighter to use a defensive approach in the ring, but he may have been the first to become a star in a lower weight class with such a style. That the “Old Master” dealt out equal opportunity lessons to fighters black and white alike earned him the respect of his contemporaries and successors.
On February 9, 1900, Gans handed once-beaten Spike Sullivan a cracking loss in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nobody knew when exactly Gans was born — not even his foster family. It is believed Gans was born Joseph Gant in Baltimore, Md. in 1874, but when Gans passed away in 1910, his old manager, Benny Selig, told a reporter that Gans had said he was 40 right before his death. The books say Gans was 18 when he officially turned professional, and he fought almost exclusively in Baltimore for the first two years of his career.
The first loss of Gans career came in his first year as a paid fighter, to Paul Johnson in 1894, for what the Plain Dealer characterized as “the title of champion lightweight pugilist south of Mason and Dixon’s line.” One year and a few dozen fights later, Gans lost a questionable referee decision to Johnny Van Heest, but with the spring of 1895 forging ahead, Gans graduated from 10 round scuffles to 20 round wars of attrition.
Gans navigated his way through the early years of boxing’s tenuous legality and in November of 1895, he broke through with a strong knockout over New Orleans pug George Siddons in a scheduled 25 round affair.
After two years of mixing with the kind of opposition that simply gives a fighter rounds — during which he lost on points to San Francisco featherweight Dal Hawkins — Gans fought to a draw in 15 rounds with Young Griffo. They had met one another just prior Gans’ win over Siddons, but the bout was revealed to have been more exhibition than anything substantial. This time, Gans attempted to take out the pudgy Australian, but found he couldn’t break through Griffo’s defense. Two years later, in an interview with the Washington Post, Gans said of Griffo, “It’s a pity that a boxer of his talent never took care of himself, as he was the greatest defensive boxer that ever lived, and the most peculiar feature of his defense was that he was up and at the opponent all the time, fighting close on the inside of the guard.”
Less than one week later, Gans fought Bobby Dobbs for the “colored” lightweight title in Brooklyn, but lost a decision. Then for the next 17 months, Gans fought 26 times with a record of (24-0-1, 16 KO), and one fight ruled a No Contest when electricity went out and the card could not be continued until the next day. Most of his opposition was unimpressive, but he did manage a 25 round decision over former featherweight national amateur champion Wilmington Jack Daly.
The man Gans ran into that halted all momentum was George “Elbows” McFadden in April of 1899. Despite knocking McFadden down in round 5 and even making his man look amateurish at times, Gans began to fade when rounds got into the double digits, while McFadden surged. Gans bled, McFadden rushed forward, and in round 23, a single right hand collapsed Gans into a puddle of crimson.
Gans took three months off, then fought 11 times in the next five months. Among the bouts was a moral victory when Gans earned a draw with McFadden in his second fight back, but Halloween of 1899 saw Gans finally getting revenge and earning a legitimate decision over the New Yorker. His last bout of the 19th century happened to be a draw in six rounds with former lightweight title challenger Kid McPartland.
To usher forth the new century, however, Gans signed to fight once-beaten Irish transplant Spike Sullivan — the older brother of Dave Sullivan, who briefly held the featherweight title in 1898.
Turning professional at 21-years-old, Sullivan wasted considerably less time getting right to better opposition. Though Sullivan called Boston home, he relocated to New York, where the pugilism was plentiful, and came with a bottle of sin to wash it down.
Sullivan fought to a draw in 12 rounds with contender Martin Flaherty in his third fight, then in his ninth fight drew in 15 rounds with Danny McBride, who had previously gone 20 rounds with Gans. With just over one year of experience under his belt, Sullivan then fought to a draw in 20 rounds with McFadden. Despite lacking in experience overall, Sullivan proved he belonged among the bigger names of the lightweight class.
Fighting 21 times over the next two years, the quality of Sullivan’s ledger dipped as he collected wins and experience. During that time, Sullivan defeated “Hammer Man” Harry Greenfield in London for what was billed as the junior lightweight championship, but not universally recognized yet. Nonetheless, his (20-0-1, 12 KO) record over that period was respectable. It was McPartland who handed Sullivan his first loss at the Lenox Athletic Club in New York in May of 1899. The Boston Herald said of the upset, “[McPartland] bested his man at every point and gave him the most severed punishment Sullivan has ever received. Sullivan showed remarkable recuperative power, and often came back surprisingly strong.”
Like in the fight, Sullivan came back strong and rattled off 12 stoppage wins in a row in less than three months, just before the start of 1900. In January, Sullivan rematched McFadden, again in New York, and was once more held to a draw. The rough McFadden had no shortage of tricks up his sleeve, but the Boston Herald said, “…to many it looked as if, under all circumstances, [referee] White should have declared in Spike’s favor, but there was very little fault found with the verdict.” The Trenton Evening Times reported, “McFadden fouled repeatedly and enough to have been disqualified a dozen times.”
Regardless of the verdict itself, the draw actually damaged McFadden badly enough that he had to cancel his bout with “The Chicago Mystery” George Kerwin. Past abstract vengeance, it was greatly needed experience for Sullivan, who had signed on to fight Gans just days later.
From the 19th century to the 21st, one thing that has not changed is the comparative meaninglessness of claiming to be the best small fighter in the world. The lineage of titles and claims of larger human beings could be traced back many years, whereas a true lightweight championship was still a relatively new idea in 1900. “Kid” Lavigne became the first officially recognized champion of the division in 1896, and Frank Erne had defeated him in July of 1899.
The idea, at least as far as Gans’ manager Al Herford was concerned, was to match Gans against Erne for the lightweight title regardless of the outcome against Sullivan. When New York Jack O’Brien pulled out of a February 2 fight with Erne for the championship, Herford volunteered his man to step in on late notice, but Erne instead took on Chicago Jack Daly in the latter’s hometown in a non-title bout.
Herford, announcing the fight via The Sun in Baltimore, said, “We met today at 5 o’clock at George Considine’s. I wanted the match to be made for the winner to take all, as ‘Spike’ makes all his matches that way. We argued at least 30 minutes but it was of no avail, as he said the loser must have some expense money.” Additionally, Herford made a $1,500 bet on his charge to win, and demanded 50 percent of the gate to make the fight happen.
Days before the fight, Erne’s manager Bob Smith reached out through the press to offer Gans a shot at the title some weeks after the Sullivan bout, inadvertently turning Gans-Sullivan into a lightweight eliminator.
The Sun said of the bout in a preview two days prior, “Sullivan is very thin, though he is wiry and muscular, and, despite his long reach, is said to be strong at infighting. It is argued that if George McFadden, with his left, could handily reach Sullivan, Gans, who is cleverer than McFadden, should have no trouble doing it. Sullivan is not underrated by Gans or his manager, and this is proven by the careful training he is undergoing.”
At 3 o’clock local time, both Gans and Sullivan tipped the scale under the agreed upon 133-pound limit, and the ring at the Broadway Athletic Club was readied for milling, with veteran referee Charlie White waiting to officiate.
Gans opened the bout jabbing and taking the fight to Sullivan, who almost literally had no clue what he was supposed to be doing. Said the Boston Herald, “Gans did the leading from the word go. In the first round, Sullivan sprinting out of harm’s way, Gans landed a left swing on Sullivan’s jaw, and, as Spike retreated, Gans sent left and right to the head.” At some point Sullivan faced Gans and stood his ground, but it was a clear early victory for the latter.
Sullivan went on the offensive in rounds 2 and 3, but reports stated that Gans’ footwork made the difference and he avoided the Bostonian’s rushes more often than not. In the 4th round, Gans used body work to set up hooks upstairs, forcing Sullivan to retreat again and look for answers. Instead, Sullivan found more leather connecting with his face and appeared dazed at the bell.
In round 5, a left-right combination not long after action began sent Sullivan to the floor. Up at the count of four, Sullivan’s legs were giving out and another left hook put him down once more. Again Sullivan got up, and this time he fought his way out of trouble, all the way to the bell despite slipping in a clinch.
The Sun reported, “Gans forced Sullivan to lead in the sixth round and beat out the Irishman’s punches every time with a left swing to the head. Spike tried hard to swing his right to the head but the Baltimore boy had always room to get away with fast foot work. Gans scored time after time in the seventh round. It looked as if Sullivan would surely get his quietus in the eighth round, but he rallied from fierce attacks and in mixups succeeded in getting a right to the body and a left hook to the jaw, which made Gans more careful.”
To most eyes, it surely looked as if Sullivan was only surviving, staving off the inevitable for as long as possible. Gans went predatory, and his prey was on the run and occasionally lashing out.
Gans absorbed a barrage of punches to the trunk in round 9, and Sullivan had seemingly clawed his way back into the fight. But in round 10, it looked as if Gans had only been biding is time; Sullivan resumed a potent body assault, but Gans opened up and stamped out whatever momentum Sullivan had been building by clipping him with combinations to end the round. And it only got worse from there.
A slow round 11 set Sullivan up to be massacred. The Sun, describing the action, said, “In the twelfth round there were many hard blows exchanged. Toward the close of the round Gans landed lefts and rights on the Irishman’s face, making the blood spurt from Sullivan’s nose and ears. A right on the face in the thirteenth round delivered by Gans put Sullivan to the floor. Spike regained his feet within three seconds but was knocked down again by a left jab on the face.”
It was clear Sullivan was floundering in the jaws of the beast, but his corner allowed their man to come out for round 14 a complete mess. A right hand from Gans staggered Sullivan into his corner, and Gans unleashed a sustained salvo on a nearly helpless Sullivan. Finally after a massive right hand decked Sullivan, someone in his corner threw the sponge into the ring to signal the end.
But not one for giving up that easily, apparently, Sullivan tried to push referee White aside and move in for more. As White waved his hands and attempted to prevent Sullivan from embarrassing himself further, one of the men in the latter’s corner, a New York fighter named Dan Donnelly, stormed the ring and clocked White with a right hand that literally sent him flying through the ropes and onto the floor. As White was peeled off the floor unconscious, one of his friends ran toward the ring reaching for his coat pocket as if to draw a pistol, but New York City policemen intervened and arrested Donnelly to the tune of fans screaming things like, “Kick Donnelly’s head off!” and “Kill him!”
Rather than celebrate the win, Gans found himself in the middle of a melee that would later harm the sport very directly.
White said afterward, “I am not here to permit a bout continue when it takes on a brutal aspect, and Sullivan was so clearly outclassed that to allow him to go further would have been brutal. We are badly enough harassed now by the efforts in the Legislature to repeal the Horton law, and if I can help it the opponents of boxing shall get no further argument against the sport.”
Lawmakers were indeed intent on repealing the Horton Law, which legalized boxing in the state of New York in 1896. The motivation was likely at least somewhat financial, but the brutality of boxing was often cited as a reason why it should be outlawed, and rowdy shenanigans like the Gans-Sullivan post-fight brawl gave anti-boxing voices plenty of ammunition. In August of 1900, the Horton Law expired, and boxing was once more banned. After Gans’ win over Sullivan, the New York Times reported that “the death-knell of prizefighting in New York had been sounded.”
Gans would go on to eventually win both the lightweight title and immortality. Years after Gans’ death in 1910, founder and editor of The Ring magazine, Nat Fleischer, would name Gans as the greatest lightweight of all time.
Sullivan never managed a high profile win after losing to Gans, apart from a decision over Gans’ old foe Bobby Dobbs in 1903.
Another timeless theme in the sport of boxing is dealing with the package deal grief and nonsense that always follow. Around the dawn of the 20th century, the element of racism and lawlessness provided an extra sense of danger to go along with the pageantry and excitement of it all. At the time, exasperation feels like the only proper response, but in hindsight, every misdeed simply adds to the history.