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Every Joe Gans Lightweight Title Fight: Part 3 - George "Elbows" McFadden

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  • Every Joe Gans Lightweight Title Fight: Part 3 - George "Elbows" McFadden

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ID:	19396 By Matt McGrain

    This was the seventh meeting of the rival lightweights. In all previous ones McFadden held his own, making a brave stand against the colored wonder. Since then, Joe Gans has been on the upgrade. - San Francisco Call, June 28, 1902.

    Joe Gans celebrated winning the lightweight championship of the world by fighting. It was how he made money. As a rule, the bigger the fighter got and the whiter the fighter got, the more he might find himself making easy money in theatre and foregoing the ring. The likes of John Sullivan spent literally years milking the title in theatre productions that caused for little more in physical exertions than a pulled punch thrown at an over-awed actor. For an African-American champion in a lighter weight class, such opportunities were less common.

    To see Joe Gans in the ring, though, the public would always pay.

    Gans took four fights in two days back in Baltimore, all slated for four rounds, all victories inside the distance. One might sneer at the soft opposition but in fairness, they all managed to do more minutes than Frank Erne.

    Real work was to begin though, and it came in a familiar form.

    George “Elbows” McFadden, “a champion in any other era” according to Nat Fleischer, was a white lightweight who charged himself with a near impossible task in 1899: he set out to outfight not just Joe Gans, but Frank Erne and Kid Lavigne, too. He went 9-2-2 that year, and 2-2-1 against the trinity of Erne, Lavigne and Gans. He met Gans three times.

    No lightweight has ever engaged a higher level of competition in a single year and although the likes of Harry Greb and Henry Armstrong probably had harder years overall, even in that company, McFadden’s 1899 is welcome.

    Most extraordinary was his relative inexperience, remarked upon in the days before his first match with Gans. Boxrec sees him at 20-3-12; by contrast Gans had already amassed a record of at least 68-4-8. Most of all, McFadden was stepping up not by a single class, but by three, by five, out of the pack and into a ring that would birth a legitimate title contender.

    “McFadden gave the most remarkable display of blocking ever seen in a local ring,” reported the Saint Paul Globe the morning following the fight. “Gans tried in every way to get in on the New-Yorker but was invariably stopped. If McFadden blocked with his left he sent his right to the body and sent the left to the face.”

    McFadden, a defensive specialist, earned his nickname not for throwing his elbows, as might be expected, but rather as one who used them to pick off punches, a mobile guard that he used to protect his body, like a pioneering Winky Wright, but also his head, perhaps in an early incarnation of the cross-arm guard. “My elbows ensured their fists stayed away from my chin” was how McFadden himself put it. As an in-fighter and a counterpuncher, a fluid cross-arm guard deployed out of a crouch at close quarters makes sense, as ably demonstrated by Archie Moore some decades later. Whatever the specifics, McFadden relied heavily upon his defence in beating Joe Gans in their first meeting, on April 4th 1899.

    McFadden was a slow starter. He never troubled Gans, really, in their six-round contests. Every time they contended over a longer distance though, McFadden made Gans miserable and never more so than in the first of their three New York contests. Once he achieved for himself a lead in the contest, he rarely let it slip. McFadden’s strategy was essentially to keep Gans physically close to him, buying his way in with his elite blocking and parrying, then being economical with his leads, minimising opportunities for Gans to punish him. It is an intimidating strategy and it worked for McFadden, forcing Gans to move continually. By the close of the 18th round of their first fight, Gans appeared tired to ringsiders. In the twenty-third, McFadden opened with two rights to the body and a left to face which visibly distressed Gans; McFadden then leapt upon him and delivered a right to the jaw followed by a hooked left to the chin and Gans was out.

    McFadden, in his first fight at boxing’s highest level, had done what no man had done before and arguably what no man would ever legitimately do again until the very twilight of Joe’s career: he had knocked Joe Gans out.

    Retrospectively, the enormity of this achievement cannot be overstated. Arguably, this is the best result under Marquis of Queensberry rules from the nineteenth century.

    McFadden dropped a razor-thin decision to Frank Erne a month later and then met Gans in a rematch; this fight was close and not decisive. Gans worked left-handed, jabbing and hooking, McFadden pressured him and threw bodypunches. As the rounds progressed, Gans began the painful process of uncovering McFadden’s great weakness – an excessive reliance upon specific punches on offence. When he jabbed, it tended to be to the body; left-handed headshots seemed his shot of choice in clinches. Right-handed bodyshots, too, were expressly favoured, at least against Gans. The list of punches that required neutralisation was short. Having perhaps been unlucky not to be awarded a draw against Erne, in his second fight with Gans McFadden seems lucky to have received one, although he did pull out all the stops in an astonishing last round, fighting a stunned Gans “to a standstill” after being dropped himself in the twenty-fourth.

    Gans finished the job he started in that second fight almost exactly three months later in the pair’s third meeting of the year, finally out-pointing McFadden over the twenty-five-round distance, but only after a difficult, bruising tussle. McFadden fought one of his most aggressive fights but despite great success to the body he was firmly outboxed by Gans who repeatedly tagged McFadden flush.

    “Elbows” confirmed his defensive prowess and punch resistance in seeing out the distance, but Gans had finally solved the McFadden problem. McFadden would manage another draw with Gans, over ten rounds in 1900, but he would never again defeat him.

    McFadden’s 1899 performance, though, was astonishing. As well as defeating Gans and dropping the narrowest of decisions to Erne, he beat former champion Kid Lavigne, by knockout. Since, he had lost two six-round fights to Gans and one to Gus Gardner. He almost immediately rematched Gardner over a longer distance and won by disqualification. That his 1902 title shot against Gans was to be his only fight for a title is a testimony to the strength of the era. His continued absence from the Hall of Fame is an absurdity.

    Although it would seem to make sense that the contender who most troubled Gans pre-title should be his first defence, the fight came about almost accidentally.

    McFadden had a fight scheduled for San Francisco, but prospective opponent Jimmy Britt injured his hand; McFadden’s manager, Billy Roche, received a telegram inviting his charge instead to fight the newly crowned Joe Gans.

    Although there are some stories that he was unhappy with the notion of yet another fight with Gans, McFadden accepted. He would fight anyone, and in the days of the colour-line appeared never once to have thought about it. Whatever the race or size of the prospective opponent, McFadden’s reply only ever concerned remuneration, although it should be admitted that McFadden may have preferred Britt. For his own part, Gans had “established a precedent for American pugilists to ponder” in meeting McFadden, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “one of the hardest propositions of his weight now in the game. Gans is not an actor, nor does not care to shine in any place but the ring.”

    Both men were primarily motivated by money, but their willingness should not be overlooked. Gans-McGovern VII was on.

    McFadden arrived in San Francisco on the 9th of June 1902; Gans was just a few days behind him. Gans was remarkably confident for a man who had previously been knocked out by his opponent, although as was almost always the case pre-fight, much of his talking was done by manager Al Herford.

    If talk was cheap then the public were buying; Gans was made a significant favourite in the betting, which would nevertheless remain light. Herford was disgusted at the odds. “I think Gans will win sure," he told pressmen, "but I have been at the ringside every one of the six times they have come together before and I know it is not a 2 to 1 bet that my man will win."

    As far as I can tell, the two-thousand dollars he wished to wager remained in his pocket.

    “The fight will take place at Woodward's Pavilion,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “Both men are reported to be in splendid shape and should the contest be honestly fought those who attend will doubtless be treated to a boxing exhibition of the highest order.”

    As we saw in Part Two, however, Chicago cast a long shadow (to be continued)

  • #2
    Incredible effort here. Are you doing these in Scotland?