Born: May 19, 1872
Died: December 25, 1928
Bouts: 142 found
Wins: 85 found
Losses: 18 found
Draws: 32 found
Newspaper Wins: 1
Newspaper Losses: 3
Newspaper Draws: 2
It’s no secret that the Twin Cities was the prizefighting Mecca of the late 19th Century. “A pit of vipers of many shapes and sizes” the way that one 1880′s newspaper called the Twin Cities, while describing the vast amount of talented fighters at every possible weight class. Out of this “pit of vipers”, came a small and lethal 124 pound Featherweight whose venom was nearly always a toxin few men could handle. His name? Oscar Desire Gardner.
Oscar Gardner was born in Minneapolis on May 19, 1872. He began working in a Minneapolis mattress plant, on the east side of the city, and it is there that he came across Professor Downer’s Gymnasium. Downer taught young Oscar the punches and techniques of pugilism, and Oscar proved to be an apt pupil. He later moved to Sioux City with some friends looking for adventure. While there he found work in another mattress factory. Prizefighting, or boxing as we call it today, was growing rapidly across the country in popularity, and the guys at the factory often engaged in after work fights for amusement and gambling. Years later, Gardner credited those days as garnering him with valuable experience, even if against unskilled men, as it allowed him countless opportunities to experiment with different punches and maneuvers. Blessed with a solid chin, fast hands and feet, and excellent power and ring savvy, his fistic career took off and his star never looked back. His one weakness was his brittle hands, as he broke them no less than 7 times during his long career, causing him to lose matches he otherwise would have won.
Gardner went on to be one of the more active fighters of his era, and was a local celebrity going into his match with future world champion, Solly Smith in May of 1893. Smith was much more experienced and was supposed to be the easy victor; instead, it was Gardner who easily whipped the future champion and became an overnight sensation around the country. Oscar was on a winning streak and had not lost a fight going into his grudge fight with fellow Minnesotan, Tommy Dixon “The St. Paul Kid”, in July of 1893. It would be Gardner’s first loss, as he was stopped in the 13rd round. He and Dixon would have 4 more fierce battles throughout their careers.
Gardner went on to beat all of the best men of his day, including Smith, Dixon, Johnny Van Heest, Billy Murphy, Eugene Bezenah, Jack O’Brien, Jack McClelland, Dave Sullivan, Billy O’Donnell, Eddie Santry, Eddie Lenny, and Harry Forbes. He twice was screwed out of the Featherweight Championship. The first time, was his match with the immortal George “Little Chocolate” Dixon, who was a champion looked at as unbeatable at the time of their championship battle in 1898. Over 25 hard rounds, nearly every paper in the country reported that Gardner had, by no small degree, the better of the champion that night, yet when it was time for the verdict to be read, the referee raised Dixon’s hand. The crowd booed and hissed. What most people didn’t know, was that Dixon’s manager ran the Lenox Athletic Club, the venue of the fight, and it was he who had hand-picked the referee that night. After the fight, the Dixon was recorded as having walked to Oscar’s dressing room and said, “Oscar, I don’t want you to think that I had anything to do with that decision tonight. I have the winner’s end of the purse, and if want any part of it, it is yours for the asking.”
The second robbery came when Oscar faced the legendary “Terrible” Terry McGovern, the man who had taken the title from George Dixon via knockout and was stiffening every opponent they put in front of him. He defended his title against Gardner in March of 1900, and in the very opening round, Oscar caught Terry coming in with a counter hook, and down went the champion. As Oscar stood over his adversary, a badly hurt McGovern grabbed onto Oscar’s leg and refused to let go. Gardner tried to pull away as the referee counted but could not, and actually fell down. He got up, only to have McGovern still clinging to him. Oscar cried “foul”, but the referee would not disqualify the champion. By the time McGovern had gotten to his feet, 16 seconds had passed. Gardner saw the referee check on McGovern to see if he was alright and became discouraged, and sensed a set up. After that, he lost his heart and was later knocked out by the champion in the 3rd round.
Gardner went on to fight the very best men of his era, and rarely trained for any of them, always seen smoking an oily cigar and drinking beer, Oscar once commented, saying, “I haven’t time to train. I am so busy fighting that I get on and off trains and just have time to get into the ring. If I didn’t drink beer or ale or do something to sustain me, I wouldn’t be able to whip anybody in the country. My wind has no time to go bad. It is a sort of continuous performance with me. One fight makes me fit and ready for the next one. I have a system of my own.”
Gardner was granted a 3rd try at the title in 1901 in a rematch with McGovern, but by 1901, Gardner was on the decline, and the legendary champion dominated Oscar, stopping him cold in the 4th round. He retired later that same year. After boxing, Gardner worked as a security guard out east and later moved back to his beloved Minneapolis and opened a very successful saloon on the corner of 1st Street & 1st Avenue. It is reported by both Gardner and those who managed him, that his ring record was an astonishing 472 wins, 42 losses, and 23 draws. Whether exhibitions were included, we will never know, but his record as it has been found by historians today, stands at 86 wins, 21 losses, and 34 draws with 59 KO’s…not a bad record by anyone’s standards, and truly an all-time great.