Larry Gains and the fight against systemic racism

Boxing match between Larry Gains and eventual world champion Primo Carnera © Hawaii Times Photo Archives Foundation/ Credit: Nippu Jiji Photo Archives/ Digitization: Densho /bilingual metadata: Hoover Institution Library & Archives and National Museum of Japanese History

For the week of Monday, December 6, 2021

On December 12, 1900, Lawrence Samuel “Larry” Gains was born in Toronto, Ontario. He went on to become one of the most talented and successful Canadian boxers in the first half of the 20th century, both at home and abroad, and a prominent African Canadian figure.

Gains grew up in the Toronto neighborhood of Cabbagetown, where he developed an interest in boxing at a young age. A big fan of American boxer Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion, Gains joined a local gym in 1920. Gains entered the ring soon after. He lost his first amateur fight but attracted the attention of a trainer, who helped him develop the skills he needed to start boxing professionally in 1923, although this meant giving up a spot on the 1924 Olympic team, then only composed of amateur athletes. With encouragement from Canadian heavyweight champion Horace “Soldier” Jones, and given the lack of options for Black boxers in North America, Gains chose to pursue his career in England and Europe. 

In the decades before Gains became a professional boxer, there had been significant changes to the sport, which evolved from illegal bareknuckle fights to organized gloved fights with administrative oversight and generally-agreed-upon rules. Boxing quickly gained popularity as a masculine activity among the middle class. For a few talented working-class athletes and athletes of colour, boxing represented a lucrative alternative to low-wage employment.

Gains fought his way to national and international heavyweight titles, becoming an African Canadian sports icon, thus encouraging the opening of several boxing clubs for Black boxers in Toronto. As he reached the top levels of the sport, despite an impressive record, he was prohibited from competing due to racist practices. In part, such barriers reflected fears that boxing champions of African descent might threaten the status quo of race relations by challenging illusions of white superiority. Unable to compete for the World title, Gains nevertheless broke a major colour barrier in 1932 when he defeated white South African Dan McCorkindale to take the British Empire Heavyweight title. Through such victories, Gains won popular support and helped create opportunities for future boxers of African descent. 

Larry Gains is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

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. Learn how to participate in this process. 

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.