Sunday, April 3, 2016

TBG Book Review: The Impossible Dream: An Autobiography by Larry Gains

Review by Peter Silkov

'The Impossible Dream: An Autobiography by Larry Gains'

By Larry Gains and Foreward by Max Schmeling

Larry Gains was a heavyweight fighter in the 1920s and 30s, and in terms of physical attributes and pugilistic skills, it could be said that he had all of the tools needed to take him to the ultimate prize in boxing, the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  He stood just less than 6’ feet 3” inches, and in his prime, weighed around 200 pounds.  Most importantly, Gains was fast and mobile for a big man, with a razor sharp jab, and knockout power in his right hand. Add this to a sturdy chin, and high degree of ring ’smarts’, and you have a fighter who could have been designed to rule the heavyweight division.  Yet, Gains had one huge drawback going against him. He was coloured, and to be a coloured fighter in the 1920s and early 30s, was a formidable hurdle for a fighter, especially if he was a heavyweight.  Although a few black fighters had been able to win world championships during the 1920s in the lighter weight divisions, ever since Jack Johnson had lost the heavyweight crown to Jess Willard in 1915, the heavyweight crown had been jealously guarded against the challenge of any coloured man.

Larry Gains & Family
In his autobiography, “The Impossible Dream,” Larry recalls a long and eventful ring career and his quest to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  In the end, Gains would be ultimately frustrated, as the powers that ran boxing at this time and especially, the heavyweight division would not allow Gains even a chance at the World heavyweight title.  Gains was a popular fighter worldwide, but his access to the heavyweight crown was always barred.  In this respect, Gains was tremendously unlucky. His career overlapped that of Joe Louis, who was destined to become the first coloured World heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson, and like Johnson, one of the greatest to ever wear the heavyweight crown.  Louis would win the title in 1937 and by this time, Gains’ own boxing career was winding down. Had he been given the same chance as Louis, when he was in his prime during the early 1930s, Larry Gains’ life might have been changed vastly. He would be remembered today as much more than just one of the best heavyweight contenders never to get a shot at the title.

However for Larry Gains, such dreams would prove to be just that, and nothing more.

Peter Jackson's 1888 World Coloured Trophy
The fact that the boxing authorities of that time devised the “Coloured Heavyweight Championship of the World” as a devise to try and keep the top coloured fighters occupied, and therefore, safely at a distance from the ‘real’ world titles, says an awful lot about the bigotry of the day.

Lawrence "Larry" Gains was born in Toronto, Canada, on December 12, 1901, and began his professional boxing career in 1923, after a very short time in the amateurs.  Gains did not start boxing until he was past 20, and this late start showed in his career, as he proved to be a late developer, hitting his prime in his early 30s.  

Larry Gains grew up in a poor, but happy family.  As a 12 year old, he would meet the then World heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who was both idolized and vilified, for being the first coloured fighter to wear the heavyweight title.  It was a deeply moving encounter for Gains, and would spark his earnest quest to emulate his idol, Johnson, and rule the heavyweight division.

Gains Vs. McCorkindale
The fighters that Gains fought during his career included Frank Moody, George Cook, Max Schmeling, George Godfrey, Mike McTigue, Charley Berlanger, Don McCorkingdale, Primo Carnera, Walter Neusel, Len Harvey, Jack Peterson, Obi Walker, Ben Foord, Tommy Farr, and Len Harvey.

Despite the racial atmosphere of the times, Gains was a great traveler, who fought all around the world, from Canada, to America, England,  France, and Germany.  Furthermore, due to his personable nature, Gains was popular wherever he went.

Larry proved to be popular in Europe, especially France and England, where many of his most important, and memorable fights would take place.  Although the World heavyweight title would be kept away from him, Gains did win the Commonwealth, Canadian, and the World Coloured Heavyweight titles during his career.  Later in his life he would settle and live in England and Germany.

Tommy Farr & Larry Gains
Gains’ recollections show him to be an extremely cosmopolitan person, who had the knack of being able to mix with talented people from many diverse backgrounds, from fellow boxers such as Jack Dempsey and Sam Langford, to writers, including a young Ernest Hemingway, to musicians, such as Cab Calloway. Gains comes across as a man who enjoyed life, and was interested in the world and the people in it.  There are many lively anecdotes about the places Gains travels and fights in, and the colourful people that he meets.

One of the charms of this autobiography is the lack of bitterness that Larry seems to hold over what might have been, if the infamous ‘coloured bar’ had not deprived him of a shot at his ultimate dream.  Shot through with a nice helping of rare photos, “The Impossible Dream” is a bittersweet tale of Gains’ crusade to overcome the racial prejudices of his times, and gives the reader a fascinating insight into the boxing world of the 20s, and 30s.  While he was destined never to reach the ultimate prize himself, Larry Gains’ popularity during his own career did much to pave the way for Joe Louis being allowed to enter the sport’s most jealously guarded peak.

*The book contains many photographs, the photos on this page are not from the book. 

*First published in 1976, although rare, copies are still available here:

Copyright © 2016 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

1 comment:

  1. Article with more information about Larry Gains.