Brass knuckles on Broadway - the tale of a forgotten ringwalk pioneer

Gary Lucken
29/11/2016 8:27am

Recently Boxing Monthly featured an article by Chris Williamson on the new CD The Greatest Boxing Ringwalk Songs. Gary Lucken has since done some digging and thinks he may have found the earliest ever use of ringwalk music in boxing history ...

Old-time scrapper Ed Gross is not someone who often, or indeed virtually ever, bothers the pages of boxing history – but he has a forgotten claim to fame.

It turns out that the little known heavyweight, who plied his fistic trade in the late 19th and early 20th century, was a pioneer of the dramatic musical ringwalk.

Gross was a once popular African-American pugilist in the great fighting city of Philadelphia who has long since vanished from memory after a generally less than stellar career. But for one bout more than 100 years ago he became the centre of attention with a spectacular stunt – donning swanky clothes and marching through downtown Philly at the head of a noisy brass band before jumping into the ring and slinging leather amid scenes of musical mayhem.

In January of 1905 flamboyant local promoter 'Diamond' Lew Bailey, so-called due to his love of flashy gemstones, matched Gross to fight Bob Kerns [pictured above] on the undercard of one of the regular Thursday night shows at Bailey’s boxing hall, the Broadway AC.

The Broadway was a famous fixture of the Philly fight scene for many years and came to be known as 'The Bucket of Blood' because of the copious amounts of claret spilled at the venue on the corner of 15th Street and Washington Avenue.

The 6ft 1in Kerns hailed from Topeka, Kansas, but had moved east to launch a boxing career and had become known as 'The Kansas Cyclone'.

Outside of the ring he worked in the sporting goods department of a large local store and, despite having lost his previous handful of bouts, he was popular with workmates, shoppers and fight fans.

According to the Philadelphia Record newspaper, Kerns “made a host of friends in this city, owing to his good-natured, gentlemanly conduct” and “soon had a warm place in the heart of almost every man who worked in the place as well as with many of the firm’s customers”.

When news broke of his bout with Gross there was said to be “a big demand for reserved seats from his co-labourers” and around 200 of his store colleagues booked ringside spots and armed themselves with tin horns and megaphones to ensure there was no shortage of noisy support on the night.

Local man Gross, whose day job was dealing in old bottles, seems to have been equally popular and because of his trade was well known among local barkeepers and saloon owners.

He had fought several times before, usually losing, but the Record said of him: “He is a jolly, good-natured fellow, fond of joking and skylarking and is well liked by everybody who knows him”.

When word reached Gross of his opponent’s large and vocal support he immediately decided to go one better.

The Record explained: “He was determined not to be outdone and he hired a brass band and early in the evening of the contest he paraded the principal downtown streets at the head of the band.

“Gross was dressed in a swell suit of clothes and wore a high hat. At the head of the band he entered the boxing club, and it is safe to say that never before in the history of boxing in Philadelphia did a boxer make a grander entry into a local boxing hall.”

The Broadway, with a capacity of around 2,000, was said to be “packed to suffocation” with fans of Gross and Kerns plus supporters of the eccentric 'Human Punching Bag' Joe Grim, who was due to contest the headline bout against Jack Blackburn (later to win fame as the trainer of World Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis).

Amid chaotic scenes police were forced to tell 'Diamond' Lew to stop selling tickets and “several hundred sports anxious to gain admission were turned away and even newspaper men who came late were refused admittance”.

When it came time for Gross and Kerns to fight the club erupted, the brass band competing with Kerns’ followers to create a cacophony of noise as Gross entered the ring.

According to contemporary reports, what followed “was a glorious affair while it lasted”.
The Record reported: “The band played its loudest every time Gross landed a good punch, and the Kerns rooters, with their tin horns and megaphones, tried to drown it out when the Western man got in a blow.”

Gross and Kerns were said to have “mixed it for three rounds” before Kerns “cut loose in true Western style” in the fourth, knocking Gross down three times before the referee stepped in to save Gross from further punishment.

The Record said: “When the end came in the fourth round Kerns’ lusty-lunged henchmen broke loose and the place was in an uproar.

“No championship decision ever rendered in the country was greeted with more noise and good-natured racket than Bob Kerns’ victory over Ed Gross, and it is safe to say that it will be a long time before the scene is repeated.”

Gross may have lost but his musical march through the city of Philadelphia and subsequent ringwalk at the Broadway (appropriately named in the circumstances), decades before such a thing became a staple ingredient of big fight nights, merits a special footnote in the annals of boxing.

He seems to have retired from the fight game after a couple of more contests and what became of him after that is unknown. No pictures of him seem to have survived.

As for Kerns, he also carried on fighting for a while before quitting the ring following a first round KO by the great Jack Johnson in January 1906 back in his home city of Topeka.