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imagesJoe Gans was relegated long ago to a seldom-visited corner of boxing history.

Knowledgeable fight fans know that Gans was the first American-born black champion and perhaps the most technically advanced fighter of his time. Between October 23, 1893, and March 12, 1909, he had 191 professional bouts, scored an even 100 knockouts, and (including newspaper decisions) lost only 12 times. Fifteen months after retiring from the ring, he died of tuberculosis, which had almost certainly hindered him late in his career.

Now, thanks to The Longest Fight by William Gildea (Farrar Straus and Giroux), Gans comes to life again.

The Longest Fight will enhance any reader’s appreciation and understanding of Gans. Gildea crafts a sense of time and place and a moving personal portrait of his subject. The heart of the story, he writes, “is what it was like a century ago to be black in America, to be a black boxer, to be the first black athlete to successfully cross the nation’s gaping racial divide, to give early-twentieth-century African Americans hope.”

The book is keyed to the historic first fight between Gans and Battling Nelson, which took place in Goldfield, Nevada, on September 3, 1906. Gans was lightweight champion by virtue of having knocked out Frank Erne in one round four years earlier. At age thirty-one, he was past his prime. Nelson was twenty-four and peaking. Gans-Nelson was contracted as a fight to a finish. It was to continue until one of the combatants was counted out or quit on his stool.

There had been “mixed race” fights before Gans-Nelson, but never one of this magnitude. The bout attracted national attention. Arrangements were made for round-by-round summaries to be disseminated by telegraph throughout the country.

Gans was a gracious well-spoken man, gentle outside the ring, meticulous in appearance and partial to three-piece suits. Nelson was a thug. The champion, in contrast to his opponent, showed such good sportmanship in the days leading up to the fight (and during the fight itself) that a substantial number of white spectators found themselves openly rooting for him.

The bout lasted two hours forty-eight minutes, making it the longest championship fight of the twentieth century. It began in the Nevada desert at 3:23 PM under a broiling sun with temperatures in excess of one hundred degrees and ended at 6:11 PM.

Gans dominated for most of contest. The granite-jawed Nelson committed virtually every foul in the book while being beaten to a bloody pulp and was disqualified by referee George Siler for repeated deliberate low blows in the forty-second round. Most likely, the champion would have knocked his foe out earlier but for the fact that he broke his right hand in the thirty-third round.

Gans emerged from the Nelson fight as a national figure.

“People had begun to take boxing seriously, even though it was illegal in most places,” Gildea writes. “Its appeal was in its simplicity, its violence, and the glamourous figures it produced. Beating Nelson made Gans prominent in a way no other black athlete had been. Money followed the fame. White fighters suddenly realized that a black man could make them a good payday. Promoters vied to gain his attention. Newspaper editorial page writers, who had ignored not only black boxers but virtually the entire black American experience, gave space to Gans.”

After beating Nelson, Gans became the first black man in his home town of Baltimore to own an automobile; a bright red Matheson touring car with a canvas top that he parked outside a hotel and saloon named The Goldfield that he opened in 1907. A half-century later, emulating Gans, Sugar Ray Robinson would park his own fuchsia Cadillac convertible outside Sugar Ray’s Café in Harlem.

Gans also accepted an offer of $6,000 a month for a midwestern vaudeville tour. Putting that number in perspective, Ty Cobb was paid $4,800 for the entire 1908 season one year after he led the American League in hits, batting average, and RBIs.

Gans lost his championship in a rematch against Nelson on July 4, 1908. He receded further into the background with the ascendance of Jack Johnson to the heavyweight throne at the end of that year. But by then, the ripples from his life had spread throughout America.

In Gildea’s words, “Gans was the first African American, after horse racing’s early black jockeys and the cyclist Major Taylor, whose athletic ability even hinted at the possibility that sports could be a springboard for racial justice in American life.”

How good was Gans?

Bob Fitzsimmons called him “the cleverest fighter, big or little, that ever put on a glove.” And Sam Langford said of Joe Louis at his peak, “He can hit. He is fast and is no slouch at employing ring craft. He is the marvel of the age. I consider him another Gans.”

It should also be noted that Gans inspired people in many ways. Goldfield was America’s last mining boomtown. It was short on hotel accommodations, leaving thousands of fight fans to sleep in tents or on hard ground under the starry sky. But it had fifty-three saloons to keep them well-lubricated.

One of those saloons was owned by George Lewis Rickard, better known as “Tex”. It was Rickard who had first suggested to local businessmen that the publicity flowing from a major fight would attract investment capital to Goldfield for mining-related ventures.

Gans-Nelson was Rickard’s maiden voyage into big-time promoting. “I never knew what the fight game offered until then,” he acknowledged later. “I wasn’t a boxing expert. But what happened in the Gans-Nelson show made me think.”

In later years, Rickard would promote the first five fights in boxing history with gates in excess of $1,000,000; build Jack Dempsey into a superstar before the term existed; head a group that financed construction of a new Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan; and play a key role in making New York City the boxing capitol of the world.

*     *     *

Al Bernstein has been calling fights on television, most often as an expert analyst, for more than thirty years. The job requires an understanding of the sweet science and the ability to communicate well. But the most successful analysts have an additional quality. Viewers think that it would be fun to sit next to them on a sofa and watch a fight on television.

Al Bernstein: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports, and TV (Diversion books) reads like a conversation on the sofa. It’s a collection of recollections and anecdotes about Al’s life and the sport he loves. There’s a moving section about Connie Bernstein’s long battle with cancer and the strength of the marriage that she and Al share. And there are portraits of boxers, from legendary greats to four-round club fighters.

In one of my favorite anecdotes, Bernstein recounts how he and Charley Steiner covered the weigh-in for Mike Tyson’s 1995 comeback bout against Peter McNeeley. Al was on-camera and told his ESPN audience, “Let’s see if we can hear from former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. Mike, can we talk to you now?”

“No fucking way,” Tyson answered.

Bernstein reflected on the moment and said calmly, “I’ll take that as a ‘no’. Back to you, Charley.”

“After more than two decades of trying to explain Tyson’s chaotic behavior,” Bernstein writes, “we are left with the simple explanation – he’s a nut.”

In the most interesting passage in the book, Al recalls hall-of-fame announcer Don Dunphy telling him, “The best advice I can give you as a sportscaster is to remember, when you are on the air, it’s not about you.”

Bernstein then casts aside his non-confrontational persona and declares, “The majority of sportscasters working today believe it is always about them. Amazingly, they do so with the endorsement and even encouragement of their networks and their producers. We live in a time when most networks value argument over discussion, opinion over information, and loudness over intelligence. While I don’t take myself too seriously, I take sportscasting very seriously. My claim that sportcasting has changed dramatically (not for the better) is not some idle statement or sentimental bromide about ‘the good old days.’ It’s a well-considered assessment of my profession. I am hardly known as a combative personality. I have steadfastly refused to criticize my colleagues over the years, so writing this is out of character for me. I hope that my reputation will give my words in this chapter even more meaning.”

“We have seen many major boxing matches,” Bernstein continues, “where three broadcasters are debating amongst themselves something only vaguely related to the match we are all watching. This debate has been known to extend for almost an entire three-minute round, while the action in the ring goes virtually unnoticed. An offshoot of this is the use of opinion to replace analysis. ‘Analyst’ is the title of the person sitting next to the host or play-by-play announcer. The title is not ‘opinion giver.’ Opinions may be part of some type of analysis, but pure opinion is never to be confused with analysis. Using opinion under the guise of calling it analysis is often the sign that a color commentator is too lazy to do the homework necessary to provide real analysis. Anyone can have an opinion on anything. Analysis is using knowledge of an athlete or team to explain something that has just happened or foreshadow something that might happen. Being considered an expert does not give you the right to do nothing but blurt out opinions to viewers. More than that is required from an analyst of a sporting event.”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His newest book (And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) will be published later this summer by the University of Arkansas Press.

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

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Christian Mbilli has the Wow Factor: Dismisses Mark Heffron in 40 Seconds

The Gervais Auto Center in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, roughly 100 miles south of Montreal, hosted tonight’s card on ESPN+, a co-promotion of Camille Estephan’s Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. Arum wasn’t there; he was in Leeds, England, but the outcome would have mitigated his aggravation at seeing his fighter Josh Taylor fall short earlier in the day.

Super middleweight Christian Mbilli, of whom Arum owns a piece, needed only 40 seconds to conquer British import Mark Heffron who, on paper, was a very credible opponent. Mbilli backed Heffron into the ropes and collapsed him with a left hook that landed under his rib cage. Heffron, 30-3-1 heading in with 24 KOs, went down on all fours and was counted out. The contest was over almost before it began.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO. With the victory, he advanced his record to 27-0 (23 KOs). His next fight will reportedly come in August with rugged but battle-blistered Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the opposite corner. Mbilli has been chasing a fight with Canelo Alvarez, but has scant chance of landing it. At this juncture of his career, the red-headed Mexican undoubtedly wants less daunting assignments.

Co-Feature

Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, rebounded from his poor performance against Agit Kabayel with a second-round stoppage of sacrificial lamb Milan Rovcanin. Makhmudov (19-1, 18 KOs) knocked Rovcanin to the canvas with an overhand right in the opening round. The punch knocked Rovcanin sideways, his head resting on the ring apron. To Rovcanin’s credit, he beat the count and launched a futile offensive after he arose. A similar punch ended the brief bout at the 2:32 mark of the next frame.

Makhmudov is certainly heavy-handed, but he moves at a glacial pace and would be up-against-it against a world-class opponent with faster hands and better footwork. Rovcanin, who had  been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia, declined to 27-4.

Other Bouts of Note

In a bout contested at the catch-weight of 178 pounds, Montreal-based Mehmet Unal, a 31-year-old former Olympian for Turkey, scored the best win of his career with a fourth-round stoppage of 34-year-old Laredo, Texas campaigner Rodolfo Gomez.

Gomez, routinely matched tough and better than his record (14-7-3 heading in), protested loudly when the referee waived it off, but his corner stood poised to throw in the towel. He hadn’t previously been stopped, let alone knocked off his feet. Unal improved to 10-0 (8 KOs).

Super middleweight Mereno Fendero, a 24-year old French Army veteran, improved to 6-0 (4) with a six-round decision over 38-year-old Argentine journeyman Rolando Mansilla (19-15-1). Fendero won every round on all three cards including a 10-8 round on one of the cards although there were no knockdowns. Although badly out-classed, the teak-tough Mansilla, a glutton for punishment, earned his pay.

Local prospect Alexandre Gaumont, a middleweight, improved to 11-0 (7) with an unpopular 8-round split decision over Argentina’s Santiago Fernandez (8-1-1). Two of the judges gave Gaumont six rounds, ridiculed as home town bias, with the other awarding five rounds to the Argentine who received a loud ovation as he left the ring.

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Sweet Revenge for the ‘Cat’: Catterall Outpoints Taylor in a Fan-Friendly Fight

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Former unified junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall renewed acquaintances tonight in a sold-out arena in Leeds, England. Their first bout 27 months ago in Glasgow ended in favor of Taylor, a controversial winner by split decision as most felt that Catterall was robbed. Tonight, the Cat, as he is nicknamed, turned the tables, winning a unanimous decision in a 12-round non-title fight that was more entertaining than their first encounter.

Catterall, who closed a short favorite, came out fast and was plainly ahead at the mid-point of the fight. But Taylor closed the gap and on unofficial scorecards it was an even fight after 10 frames. Then, in the 11th, shortly after the referee halted the action to warn the fighters about something, Catterall turned the tide back in his favor, stunning Taylor with a looping left hand coming out of the break. Seconds later, both fighters went down in a heap in front of a corner post.

Both fighters were marked-up at the finish, more so Taylor who ended the fight with his right eye swollen and nearly closed shut.

A draw would not have been unreasonable, but two of the judges gave Jack Catterall nine rounds (117-111) and the other had it 7-4-1 (116-113).

In his post-fight interview, Eddie Hearn, Catterall’s promoter, conceded that the scores were too wide but opined that the right guy won. Few would disagree, but co-promoter Bob Arum had a different take. “Those scores were a disgrace,” he said, taking the microphone. “I feel sorry for Josh. I thought he won the fight….”

In avenging his lone defeat, Catterall improved to 29-1 (13). It was second straight loss for Taylor (19-2) who had been inactive since losing his unified title to Teofimo Lopez.

A rubber match would be welcome.

Semi Wind-up

In the chief supporting bout, Cheavon Clarke improved to 9-0 (7 KOs) with an eighth-round stoppage of Ellis Zorro. Clarke, who represented both his native Jamaica and England in international amateur competitions, won the BBBoC British cruiserweight title.

This fight didn’t provide a lot of action. The humdrum ended in the waning seconds of round eight when Clarke nailed Zorro with a chopping right hand. He seized the moment, swarming after Zorro, and chopped him down with a series of punches. None appeared to land very cleanly, but Zorro was counted out with a mere second remaining in the round. It was his second straight defeat after opening his career with 17-0. In his previous bout, Zorro was blasted out in the opening round by Jai Opetaia.

Clarke, 33, is eyeing the winner of the forthcoming fight in London between WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith and Richard Riakporhe.

Also

Welterweight Paddy Donovan, a Traveler from Limerick, Ireland, advanced to 14-0 (11 KOs) with a ninth-round stoppage of former British lightweight champion Lewis Ritson (25-4).

Donovan, trained by former middleweight titlist Andy Lee, fought off his back foot for the first seven rounds as Ritson forced the pace. He changed tactics in round eight which was a strong round for him and then closed the show in the ninth. A series of punches had Ritson plainly hurt and the referee stepped in after 32 seconds and waved it off. It was Donovan’s fifth straight win inside the distance.

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Okolie Demolishes Rozanski to Jump-Start a Busy Boxing Weekend

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The weekend boxing activity got underway today in Rzesnow. Poland where, to the dismay of the locals, Lukasz Rozanski, was blown away in the opening round by UK invader Lawrence Okolie. Heading in, the Pole was 15-0 with 14 knockouts, was coming off back-to-back first-round stoppages, and had never fought beyond the fourth round. And he was a world champion of sorts, making the first defense of his WBC bridgerweight title.

Okolie (20-1, 15 KOs) knocked him down hard on the seat of his pants with a straight right hand, the first of three knockdowns. The final knockdown was the result of a combination that knocked Rozanski to his knees with his head landing outside the ropes. There were only seconds to go in the round, but when Rozanski arose on unsteady legs, the referee properly waived it off. At age 38, his first career loss may also mark the end of his career.

A 2016 Olympian co-managed by Anthony Joshua, Okolie (pictured) was making his first start with trainer Joe Gallagher after previously working under Shane McGuigan and SugarHill Steward and his first start since losing his WBO cruiserweight title to Chris Billam-Smith.  At six-foot-five and with an 82-inch reach, the 31-year-old Londoner is a very interesting specimen. His stated goal when he turned pro was to unify the cruiserweight division before moving up to heavyweight.

Had Rozanski won, there was talk of him fighting Badou Jack. The guess is this may be Okolie’s first and last fight at bridgerweight (under 225), a division recognized only by the WBC which invented it. (The WBA is poised to follow its lead. The WBA board of directors recently approved the addition of a super cruiserweight weight class.)

Saturday

The action tomorrow in regard to major fights begins at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen where the Fighting Dane, Dina Thorslund (21-0, 9 KOs), defends her WBC/WBO female world bantamweight title against Turkey’s Seren Cetin (11-0, 7 KOs). Thorslund, whose name appears on many pound-for-pound lists, is appearing in her 11th world title fight.

The marquee event takes place in the late afternoon (USA time) in Leeds, England, where Josh Taylor (19-1, 13 KOs) clashes with Jack Catterall (28-1, 13 KOs) in an eagerly-anticipated and twice-delayed rematch. Catterall will be seeking to avenge his lone defeat.

Their first encounter took place in February 2022 on Taylor’s turf in Glasgow, Scotland. Taylor won a split decision. To say that it was controversial would be putting it mildly. One pundit called it the biggest robbery in British boxing history. At stake was Taylor’s unified welterweight title which he would lose in his next outing when he was upset by Teofimo Lopez.

Catterall has fought twice since that night in Glasgow, most recently scoring a 12-round decision over globetrotter Jorge Linares who announced his retirement after the match. This is Taylor’s first ring outing since the Teofimo fight in New York. He and Catterall have engaged in a nasty war of words since their first encounter and the match – televised live exclusively in the U.S. on ESPN+ and around the world on DAZN — is an advance sellout. Check local listings for start times.

There’s been steady money on Catterall today and, if the odds hold up, Josh Taylor will assume the role of an underdog for the first time in his career.

Lastly

We’re back to ESPN+ again for a show in Shawinigan, Quebec, Canada, a co-promotion between Eye of the Tiger and Top Rank.

In the featured bout, Christian Mbilli (26-0, 22 KOs) meets England’s Mark Heffron (30-3-1, 24 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight contest.

The Cameroon-born Mbilli, a 2016 Olympian for France who turned pro in Montreal, is ranked #2 by the WBC and WBA; #3 by the IBF and WBO.

In the co-feature, heavyweight Arslanbek Makhmudov, the Russian Lion, returns to the ring looking to rebuild a reputation that was badly tarnished last December when he was manhandled by underdog Agit Kabayel in Saudi Arabia. Makhmudov (18-1, 17 KOs) opposes no-hoper Milan Rovcanin (27-3, 18 KOs) who has been feasting on fourth-raters in his native Serbia. The TV portion of this Saturday Night card has a scheduled starting time of 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

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