Larry Gains (1900–1983)

Backgrounder

Born and trained in Canada, heavyweight boxer Larry Gains gained prominence in the 1920s and 1930s by winning the Canadian and British Empire Titles. Despite his reputation as one of boxing’s top competitors, discrimination and racism in the interwar years worked against his ability to challenge for the World Heavyweight Title. Like all Black boxers at the time, he was restricted to the segregated World Colored Championship. While the majority of his bouts were held in Europe, Gains represented Canada as national champion and attracted large crowds to his fights. His drawing power was so strong that he broke the colour bar at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, becoming the first Black boxer to compete in the famed venue. Known for his quick feet, strong left hook, and nearly impenetrable defence, Gains posted impressive victories over multiple fighters who would go on to win the World Heavyweight Title.

Born 12 December 1900 in Toronto, Ontario, Lawrence Samuel “Larry” Gains was one of the most talented boxers in the first half of the 20th century. His maternal grandfather, Dave Henderson, escaped enslavement in Virginia and came to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Gains grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Toronto’s east end, where he was a big fan of American Jack Johnson, the first Black Heavyweight World Champion. As a young man, Gains trained at the Praestamus Athletic Club, which was an organization for Black boxers in Toronto.

Gains’s first bout came in an amateur competition where he faced Charlie McDalton, who had been Canada’s amateur champion for the better part of a decade. Gains lost the fight, but impressed a local trainer who worked with him over the next six months, primarily on developing his left hand. In the rematch, Gains defeated McDalton in a second round knockout.

As his reputation grew, earning a living as a boxer emerged as a possibility for Gains. In order to further his career, he turned professional and moved to England in 1923. It was difficult for Gains to find top-level fights in North America, where racial discrimination limited his opportunities. While fighting internationally was common for professional fighters, Black North American fighters frequently moved to Europe with the hopes they would have their athletic achievements assessed on an equal basis with their white opponents. While fighters like Gains did find some success, they did so under the constant shadow of boxing’s global colour line, which restricted their chances to face top-level opponents and earn title opportunities.

After losing his first fight in England, he relocated to Paris where he found success before moving to Germany in 1924. His biggest fight during this time was on 28 August 1925 when he knocked out future World Heavyweight Champion Max Schmeling in the second round. He won his first professional title in February 1927, becoming the Canadian Heavyweight Champion. A year later, struggling to secure fights against top white boxers, he compromised with the World Colored Heavyweight Title. He then settled in England and, in 1932, broke the British Empire boxing colour bar by challenging for and winning the Empire Heavyweight Title. Racial discrimination continued to limit his career as non-white athletes were barred from competing for the English Heavyweight Title and promoters maintained an unofficial colour barrier for the World Heavyweight Title, both championships for which he was a legitimate contender. He officially retired from boxing in 1941. Gains died of a heart attack on 26 July 1983 while visiting family in Cologne, Germany.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here:  https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn.

Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada wish to thank Peter Meyler for nominating Larry Gains under the National Program of Historical Commemoration.  Peter Meyler is an author of a number of works in Black Canadian history.

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