Michael Gbenga has done a lot of boxing in his day, nearly 50 professional bouts. But he still shakes his head in awe at Joe Gans, a turn-of-the-century Baltimorean known as “The Old Master.”
Gans spent the better part of a decade as world lightweight champion — and his most famous victory came in a 42-round fight against a guy nicknamed “Battling” in 1906.
“To be in the ring 40 rounds is unbelievable to me,” said the Ghana-born light heavyweight, adding with a laugh, “I’m happy I wasn’t born then.”
Saturday, Gbenga and his wife, Sara Artes, founders of East Baltimore’s Corner Team Boxing & Fitness Club, joined with other Joe Gans fans and some of his descendants to mark the inaugural Old Master celebration at the facility. Gans, who won 145 pro fights and reigned as champ from 1902-04 and 1906-08 (some accounts say from 1902-08 continually), died of tuberculosis in 1910, when he was just 35.
“He’s not really recognized here in Baltimore, and he should be,” said Artes, who lives in the Ednor Gardens neighborhood where she grew up. “He’s still considered one of the best fighters ever. And not only did he use his winnings to invest back into the community, but he built the Goldfield Hotel and club, which was considered one of the first [desegregated] venues in the United States.”
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This year’s inaugural event was meant to serve primarily as an introduction to both Gans and the new facility for Corner Team, which recently moved into an old warehouse at 1101 E. 25th St and is still renovating the building. Artes said they plan to launch the boxing tournament this time next year, in partnership with West Baltimore’s UMAR Boxing and Friends of Joe Gans, a group led by actor Kevin Grace.
“We plan on having a boxing tournament on the first weekend of December every year, and also a day of community service in honor of Joe Gans, his legacy and his contribution back to his community,” Artes said.
Though Gans is largely forgotten today, he was a major sports celebrity in his time, and not just in Baltimore. The first African-American boxing champion, Gans could “hit like a mule kicking with either hand,” legendary heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan once said. Sportswriter Grantland Rice, 40 years after Gans died, insisted that “the greatest fighter I ever saw … was Joe Gans of Baltimore.”
His fights were always big news. The decision in Gans’ favor at a November 1898 bout in New York City “was received with deafening cheers from a crowd of two thousand five hundred men,” The Sun reported at the time. And when referee George Siler stopped that 1906 title fight after Oscar Matthew “Battling” Nelson landed a particularly fierce and decidedly illegal punch to his opponent’s groin, The Sun reported that Gans “was way ahead on points and had smashed and cut Nelson all through the fight without being severely hurt himself.”
“He never gave up, never gave up. That’s huge,” said Gans’ great-granddaughter, E.P. Custis, 70, who planned to attend the event with other members of her family. “It gives all of us, I’m speaking for my sisters and my brother, a great sense of pride, in that we’re related to someone who was such a significant figure — and as a black man, standing up for his dreams, his goals.”
Gans used his winnings from that 1906 fight in Goldfield, Nev., $11,000, to open a hotel. The gold-painted Goldfield, opened at Fayette and Colvin streets in Jonestown in 1907, included a gymnasium and living quarters for Gans’ family. Famed jazz composer Eubie Blake got his start playing piano in the Goldfield’s saloon. Later used as a grocery store and apartments, the building was torn down in the 1960s; a post office now stands on the site.
Suffering from tuberculosis — a condition that may have contributed to his loss to Nelson in a 1908 rematch — Gans died on Aug. 19, 1910. An estimated 5,000 people attended his funeral. He is buried in South Baltimore’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.