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Boxing Literature: William Gildea’s The Longest Fight

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A Review By Daniel Kravetz


The amount of corruption and injustice in any given era of American prizefighting has little to do with its popularity or ensuing longevity. To the contrary, as boxing’s prominence in mainstream American sports has waned to a degree, its history has concurrently bent perceptibly toward integrity. To our knowledge, fights are thrown far less now than they were in far more popular periods of pugilism. The mob appears to be divorced from boxing entirely. The governing rules are flawed but they are more equitable than ever before.
 
This argument is reinforced by William Gildea’s new book, The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African American Champion, even if the longtime Washington Post columnist does not make it himself. It also contradicts a familiar cry that comes from members of the present generation of pundits after each fishy fight outcome- the cry that, with just one more whiff of corruption, centuries of organized fisticuffs will finally tip over into a vacuum and become the dodo of athletic competition. Skepticism has rightfully been a part of boxing for as long as the sport has caused money to be gained and lost but the tone of this corresponding anxiety is distinctively modern.

The Longest Fight includes stories of the crookedness that was emblematic of American boxing at the turn of the 20th century, right as its popularity was on the precipice of a fantastic ascent. They indeed suggest that the viability of boxing has never relied on its moral strength. Even in a sport where corruption is still seen as elemental, most of the stories are truly unfathomable in the confines of present-day America. Then again, so is the thought of a caravan of trains delivering hundreds of boxing enthusiasts to a championship match in the middle of the Nevada desert and the idea of tuberculosis plaguing entire cities ( and not just being a word the doctor says before he pokes you with a needle).
 
Such greater and lesser idiosyncrasies of this bygone time are at the heart of The Longest Fight. By one count, the book is a biography of Joe Gans, Gildea’s noble protagonist, that revolves around his extraordinary 42-round lightweight title fight with Battling Nelson in 1906 in Goldfield, Nevada. By another, it is about Gans’ more subdued struggle- one to which the title also alludes- against the goliath of racial oppression. These subjects are compelling enough.
 
But The Longest Fight is also a portrayal of an age that, at least for those of us locked into the present, indeed seems more mythological than historical. The tale is reminiscent of “Deadwood,” the HBO series of the mid-2000s that brilliantly aggrandized the South Dakotan Gold Rush town circa 1870. The parallel between the two works is extended by their larger-than-life characters and the moral bankruptcy that pervades each story, right down to the centrality of a lawless frontier town. But The Longest Fight is not dramatized for effect and the book’s prose is many degrees simpler than the show’s dialogue.
 
Not that simplicity is an inherently superior style but here, the straightforwardness and honesty of the text allows the events therein to carry their own voice- to be funny, sad, interesting or replete with meaning based primarily on their intrinsic quality. The fight is, to be sure, a compelling central narrative, containing as natural a protagonist and an antagonist as a writer could want. Any play-by-play of a 42-round fight will have some redundancy (and this one is no exception) but it has more than enough dramatic turns to sustain the intrigue of the reader.
 
Appropriately, Gildea makes regular departures from this storyline to tangential occurrences from before, during and after the fight, giving equal weight to these contextual tidbits as to the bout itself. These digressions are, after all, just as important in Gildea’s construction of the world that Gans navigated. Take, for example, his brief diversion into the colorful history of the resilient and brutish (and also absurdly racist) character of Battling Nelson.
 
In one story, a circus manager failed to keep a promise to pay a young Nelson a dollar for a fight he won in Indiana and “the fighter collected it sixteen years later when, by chance, he met up with the same circus in Lawrence, Kansas.” In another, Nelson was cheated out of his money while fighting in the south, so he “left Arkansas the way he had arrived, hanging on to the underside of a freight car,” then spent his last five dollars on a steak when he reached Chicago. In still another, he fought in Montana against the equally tough Aurelio Herrera, who “had a cigar clamped between his teeth minutes before he and Nelson began their slugfest.” These vignettes belong in the narrative and they need little Shakespearizing.
 
There are many other scenes Gildea fills with life as he dances in and out of the chronology of the principal fight. There is the story of how Tex Rickard went from marshal to bar owner to reckless gambler to one of the most important promoters in American boxing history. There is the one of how Gans and opera singer Enrico Caruso separately experienced the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 on the same street. There is the bizarre circus of pre-fight festivities in Goldfield and the street scenes of East Baltimore to which Gans returned after the fight was over. There are stories of Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons and Sam Langford and Jack Dempsey and Max Schmeling, all made of legendary stuff. It is hard to imagine our generation seeming so mythical 100 years from today.
 
To incorporate more lyrical descriptions of historical events, Gildea relies on the newspapers of yesteryear. Nowhere is this choice more welcome than in the descriptions of Goldfield. Here, Gildea quotes a local paper to describe the town, “a sadly hideous aggregation of tents, huts, shacks, adobes, frame houses and three good stone buildings,” where “for three months, it scorches the life out of you, freezes and chills you for another three and blows what’s left of you into the dust for the remaining six.”
 
Of course, the text invariably returns to the trajectory of Gans, from the chance adolescent encounters which led to his evolution into a master prizefighter to his tumultuous career and life to his protracted and premature death. Throughout the text, Gans is portrayed as a stoic figure- comical at times- tempted by vice at others but essentially a level and upright man. He was gifted in many ways but one gleans from Gildea’s account that his most impressive trait was his mettle, a quiet but remarkable stubbornness.
 
It was this trait that capacitated Gans to spar 60 consecutive rounds just one week before his 42-round fight with Nelson. It also allowed him to fight through unthinkable racial barriers in and out of the ring, become a champion, remain on the precipice of poverty even as a famous figure and still resolutely continue on to the next fight in the next town. And via this same resolve, Gans never allowed himself to lose his composure in the face of the exorbitant and unwarranted hatred and oppression he faced throughout his life. Whether or not any or all of the above makes Gans heroic is something that Gildea also leaves to the interpreter.
 
Even without Gildea’s prompting, readers will inevitably contrast Gans with Jack Johnson, the world’s second African-American champion. Due to Johnson’s flamboyant defiance and heavyweight stature, he was far more reviled by whites and this is partially why he is a far more recognizable figure. But the lesser-told story of Gans is just as revelatory of racial barriers both then and now.
 
Gildea patiently chronicles how, over time, Gans earned consistent acceptance and support from white audiences and newspapers. Gans, he writes, was one of the first black athletes “whose athletic ability even hinted at the possibility, just the possibility, that sports could be a springboard for racial justice in American daily life.” But whatever acceptance Gans did gain was filled with patronization, the worst of which were claims that he was “black- yes- but white to the core” and “the whitest black men that ever entered the ring.”
 
Moreover, the impact of a white cheering section had little bearing on the lack of equal treatment Gans and other African-Americans received outside of the ring. Gildea uncovers stories of a post-fame Gans being banned from hotels, arrested and convicted of petty crimes he obviously did not commit and being denied a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt White House in the same year that the brutish, racist Nelson was welcomed. Even as some white fans were embracing Gans’ victory in Goldfield, others were rioting against black residents of cities across the states in response. 
 
There is an exceptionally poignant quote of Gans at the end of round 41 of the 42-round book. It will not be rewritten here but it brings all that Gans achieved into perspective and it shows his own consciousness of how little he actually transformed life for himself, let alone for fellow African-Americans. It also shows how profoundly sad his life was as a result.
 
Today, there are a far greater number of respected and embraced black figures in politics, the corporate world, the arts and, of course, in athletics. Collectively, they are one among many signs of progress toward a more racially just society, yet another example of the stark differences between the present and the relative wilderness of the early 1900s. But on occasion, the claim is made that these figures should be upheld as a sign that we have wholly transcended the time in which one can say that race is a barrier to a comfortable life.
 
Gildea quotes one article of the era that claimed Gans “had overcome ‘bitter prejudice’ by his ‘quiet, reserved deportment.’” As different as life is now from a century ago, that false and convenient assumption that Gans did indeed overcome prejudice and, moreover, that the way to gain acceptance was via acquiescence and conformity, does not have an entirely unfamiliar ring, especially when it comes to boxing.
 
This parallel is another lesson- or at least a point of discussion- drawn by contemplating the present through an archival lens and it too reaffirms the value of any well-told and purposeful chronicle from the annals of prizefighting, a sport mirroring American society as much as any other. The Longest Fight meets this definition. It tells a good concise story and lets that story speak volumes.
 
Questions or comments can be directed to dkravetz@gmail.com.


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