the longest fight

An Old Master's Tale Told Masterfully

Reviewed by Dick Stull, Humboldt State University

6 march 2013       archive

William Gildea's The Longest Fight is an artfully and carefully told story of the longest and one of the most brutal championship fights in the gloved era – and about one of boxing's greatest champions, lightweight Joe Gans. Gildea's story of The Longest Fight is also a vehicle for painting a picture of turn-of-the-20th century American race issues as well as giving the reader a portrait of a courageous black man whom one grows to admire, respect and genuinely like as a human being. Joe Gans, though often revered within "in-the-know" boxing circles, is unknown to most Americans and even avid sports fans as the first African-American boxing champion, a full six years before the more flamboyant and polarizing Jack Johnson became America's first African-American heavyweight champion.

The Longest Fight captures the dust, heat and "wild west" atmosphere of Gans' epic 1906 fight with Battling Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada and contrasts Gans' boxing prowess and personal integrity with Nelson's crass racism and preternatural and brutish indomitability.

Gildea also reveals to readers how Gans is surprisingly connected with art, sculpture, literature, music, and many famous people in American popular culture including Ashcan-era artist George Bellows, writer Ernest Hemingway, Vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams, jazz legend Eubie Blake and, incredibly, the grandson of Brigham Young, whose bronze sculpture of Joe Gans resided for years in the entrance to the old Madison Square Garden.

In the poignant last chapters Gildea describes Gans' railway trip across America and his battle to stay alive (the final "long fight") when dying of tuberculosis in order to see his ex-wife and foster mother one more time. About that last train-ride "home," Gildea tells the story of a conversation that reportedly took place between Al Herford, Gans' long-time manager, and Gans:

"Isn't it wonderful," I asked Gans, "being champion and all that it means? To have all of those folks enthused about you, and all of the money you are going to make? I'll bet your mother is proud of you."

Joe didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he said wistfully, "Yes, Mr. Herford, it sure is wonderful. But do you know what I'm thinking?

"What?" I asked.

"That I'd give it all up – the money, the fuss, the championship, everything – for just one thing."

"What's that?" I asked.

"For a white boy's chance in the world."
Writing with careful journalistic integrity, Gildea avoids sentimentalism but retains the empathic touch in an artful alchemy of historical reporting.

Gildea, William. The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion. Hardcover: 256 pages. Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012) ISBN-10: 0374280975

Copyright © 2013 by Dick Stull

to the top of this page