“Fights of the Century”—Then…And Now
Ever the showman, Rickard displayed the entire $30,000 purse in twenty-dollar gold pieces in full view through a window of a bank in Goldfield…
The recent Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao superfight was only the fifth boxing match in 109 years to be billed as “The Fight of the Century.” The previous century had seen four such matches, with the great boxing promoter George L. “Tex” Rickard responsible for three of them. Tex invented the phrase in 1906 to publicize the Joe Gans vs. “Battling” Nelson lightweight title fight. He made good use of it twice more over the next 15 years for the Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries and Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier heavyweight title fights. Of course logic would dictate that there could be only one “Fight of the Century” but whoever said the business of boxing was logical? The last fight prior to Mayweather and Pacquiao to be labeled a “Fight of the Century” was the Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali heavyweight championship in 1971.
Of the five contests mentioned above only two managed to actually live up to the tremendous pre-fight build up. Despite the huge social and political ramifications of the 1910 heavyweight championship bout between Johnson and Jeffries the actual fight was a dud. Johnson, still in his prime, easily dominated the previously undefeated former champion (who was making an ill-advised comeback after a five-year layoff) before stopping him in the 15th round.
The Dempsey vs. Carpentier extravaganza of 1921 was also hugely significant but for different reasons. Over 90,000 fans—the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event—watched Dempsey flatten the overmatched Frenchman in less than four rounds. Dempsey vs. Carpentier will never make anyone’s all-time list of great fights but its importance to the economic and cultural side of boxing was monumental. For the first time in history a sporting event had drawn over one million dollars in paid admissions. It was also the first time a championship match was broadcast over the radio. The fight jump-started the Golden Age of sports in America and transformed professional boxing into popular entertainment for a mass audience.
As anyone who saw it will attest, the first Ali vs. Frazier fight more than lived up to its pre-fight hype. Like Johnson vs. Jeffries 61 years earlier the event was intertwined with the social and political issues of the times. But unlike that fight it was an intense and exciting struggle between two undefeated heavyweight champions that brought out the best in each man. The combined worldwide audience (live and at theaters showing the fight on closed-circuit television in America or telecast for free via satellite throughout the rest of the world) was estimated at over one billion people, in other words about half the planet. Madison Square Garden, the venue for the fight, priced ringside tickets at $150 dollars. The cheapest balcony seat was only $20 dollars. (The wildly inflated ticket prices in Las Vegas for Mayweather vs. Pacquiao ranged from $1500 to $10,000.)
So which “Fight of the Century” deserves top honors? I think a very strong case can be made for the 1906 duel between Gans and Nelson, arguably one of the most incredible and disturbing boxing matches ever staged. The battle between “The Old Master” and “The Durable Dane” for the lightweight championship of the world was a fight for the ages. It took place in Goldfield, Nevada, a mining boomtown located halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. The town’s financial bigwigs, flush with money, decided that some kind of spectacular public attraction would draw further attention and generate additional infusions of cash into Goldfield’s mining stock. (Much of what they sold turned out to be worthless mining properties, but that’s another story.) A committee of distinguished citizens was formed to come up with proposals. One suggestion was that a giant hole be dug along the main street and filled with free beer. Another idea was to stage a camel race. Enter Tex Rickard, cattle rancher, gambling hall impresario and promoter extraordinaire. Rickard had already made and lost several fortunes. Sensing an opportunity, he proposed an all-star boxing match between two of the world’s best boxers—lightweight champion Joe Gans and his number one challenger “Battling” Nelson. The idea was immediately accepted.
Joe Gans, the first African American boxing champion, won the lightweight championship in 1902. Dubbed “The Old Master” because of his extraordinary skill, he had already cleaned out the lightweight division and was forced to take on welterweights and middleweights to keep active. The only serious challenger to his title was a boxing brute named Oscar Mathew “Battling” Nelson of Chicago, by way of Denmark. Nelson’s other nickname was “The Durable Dane.” He was the type of fighter who thrived on fights beyond 15 rounds. Nelson was a rough customer with a reputation as a dirty fighter. He seemed impervious to punishment and his stamina and relentless style was legendary. His trademark punch was a short left hook aimed at the liver, with thumb and forefinger extended to provide greater penetration. Nelson claimed the “White lightweight championship” and was confident he could defeat Gans in a “fight to the finish”—meaning a fight with no time limit. Such a fight could not end in a decision but would continue indefinitely until one of the contestants was either knocked out, quit or was disqualified.
Fights to the finish, a staple of the bare-knuckle era, were not uncommon in early turn of the century gloved fights, especially in the western states. A bout limited to 15 or 20 three-minute rounds would favor Gans. A fight to the finish against iron man Nelson was another matter. Gans, in need of cash, and having run out of challengers who would agree to fight him, consented to a finish fight. He was confident he could knock out Nelson.
Nelson’s almost super human ability to absorb punishment and his endless reserves of stamina was fascinating to some people. Among the curious was Columbia University’s rowing coach Dr. Walter B. Peet. He examined the “Durable Dane” for his endurance and found Nelson’s heartbeat to be only 47 beats per minute compared to 72 for the average person. As the good doctor explained it, such a low heartbeat was only found in the “colder blooded animals which survived the days of antiquity and the cold of the Ice Age.” Further consultation with surgeons and the curator of the American Museum of Natural History concluded that measurements of Nelson’s head revealed “the thickest skull bones of any human being since Neanderthal man.” It seemed obvious that “Battling” Nelson would have the advantage in a fight to the finish.
Nelson threatened to pull out of the fight several times unless he received the lion’s share of the purse. Gans, in desperate need of a decent payday, agreed to accept a $10,000 guarantee while Nelson, the challenger, was to receive $20,000. The fight was scheduled for Labor Day, September 3, 1906. (Ever the showman, Rickard displayed the entire $30,000 purse in twenty-dollar gold pieces in full view through a window of a bank in Goldfield.)
Aware of Gans’ precarious financial condition and how much he wanted the fight Nelson’s manager made the unprecedented demand that he weigh in three times on the day of the fight (at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m.) while wearing his trunks, gloves and shoes. It was a blatant attempt to weaken the champion. Gans would have to weigh no more than 133 pounds or else forfeit $5000 of his purse. The great fighter, confident of victory, agreed to all of the demands.
On the day of the fight Gans was quoted in his hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun: “I have given in on every point just to secure this match. I am betting everything I can get my hands on, and I have got to win. I will have the Dane chopped to pieces and asleep inside of 15 rounds.” Nelson told the same paper, “I am going to give Gans an awful beating, and I think he will be begging for mercy long before the twentieth round is reached. I will let Gans wear himself out, and then I’ll come through and get him. Watch me. There will be crepe in Coontown on Labor Day while the Danish descendants are celebrating.”
A week before the fight all hotel rooms were sold out. Late arrivals slept on the ground. Many of the 200 Pullman cars that had been chartered to transport fight fans served as hotel rooms.
The 24-year-old Nelson had 70 pro fights under his belt. Gans, eight years older, was a veteran of 187 fights. Both weighed in at 132¼ pounds. Gans was favored at odds of 10 to 7.
They entered the ring shortly after 3 p.m. Some 8000 fans filled the wooden arena built especially for the fight. Gate receipts of $76,000 set a new world record for title fights. Among the ringside spectators were a U.S. senator, various mining tycoons, stars of the Vaudeville stage and the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. Before the fight began several telegrams sent by prominent individuals were read to the crowd, including one from Joe’s mother imploring her son to “bring home the bacon,” words that have since entered the American lexicon.
In one last attempt to further undermine Gans’ chances Nelson’s manager, Billy Nolan, argued that Gans should have weighed in wearing bandages on his fists. Gans responded that he would fight without taping his hands. It was a decision he would regret after breaking his right hand on Nelson’s head in the 32nd round.
For security purposes Rickard had arranged for 300 deputy sheriffs, their open vests displaying holstered pistols, to maintain order. To forestall any shenanigans by his crooked manager Gans announced to the crowd that he had instructed referee George Siler to ignore any attempt by his corner to throw in the towel no matter his condition. Nelson told the referee to do the same for him. By mutual agreement only the referee would have the authority to stop the fight. The crowd, evenly divided in their sentiments, cheered both fighters.
As expected Gans dominated the early rounds by easily outboxing Nelson. His accurate and powerful punches drew blood from Nelson’s nose, mouth and ears. Despite the punishment Nelson kept coming forward. Gans was the division’s hardest puncher but no matter how many times he landed Nelson rarely broke ground. The crazed Dane kept boring in, attempting to place his head against Gans’ chest and deliver body blows at close range. More often than not, utilizing his superb footwork, jab and counterpunching skills, Gans was able to keep most of the action at long range, even managing to knock down his rock jawed challenger twice for short counts. In desperation Nelson began butting Gans. Gans protested to the referee. Warnings were issued but no action was taken.
The pace of the fight was relentless. During the minute rest between rounds each man’s seconds waved huge towels in an attempt to offer their fighter some relief from the sweltering desert heat. Finally, in the 10th round, Nelson bloodied Gans’ mouth with a series of punches. After 15 rounds of fighting Gans had lost, at most, two rounds. The pace finally began to slow after the 20th round. There was more wrestling and clinching as the fighters sought to grab a few moments respite before beginning another assault.
By the 30th round both gladiators were showing signs of exhaustion. They had fought under the broiling Nevada sun the equivalent of two grueling 15-round title bouts. Nelson, although bleeding profusely and with his left eye closed, was still the aggressor and was now landing more often. At one point, after missing a swing, he fell through the ropes whereupon Gans, a consummate sportsman, reached down to help him back into the ring. Nelson responded by kicking him in the shins.
As the bout passed the two hour mark there was an increase in stalling and wrestling. Even the fans were showing signs of exhaustion. At the bell signaling the start of the 40th round the crowd was in awe of the fact that both warriors were still standing.
As described in Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion, authors Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott attempt to understand the mental state of the fighters as the bell rang for the 41st round: “It is quite possible that both Gans and Nelson are in a state of clinical delirium at this point, but their bodies are trained to fight on with or without their minds. Dehydrated, battered and bloody, the gladiators may or may not really know where they are.
“Nelson totters like a bull the picador has struck with forty lances. Gans the matador has been gored, fouled, and kicked, but is still waiting to deliver the coup de grace, a blow that will come at the beginning of the 42nd round that almost decapitates Nelson.” And so it finally ends. The iron man is at the end of his tether and on the verge of finally taking the count. Suddenly he strikes Gans with a low blow. Was the punch deliberate? Very likely Nelson sought to foul out instead of suffering the humiliation of a knockout defeat. Gans sank to the floor and was unable to continue. Intentional or not the foul blow was obvious to everyone in the arena and the referee had no choice but to disqualify Nelson and award the bout to Gans. No one objected to the disqualification.
Gans was carried out of the ring but not before announcing to the crowd that he would meet Nelson again in two weeks to prove he could win without being fouled. A cascade of boos and derision descended upon Nelson. He quickly retreated to his dressing room.
The much anticipated rematch would not take place for another two years. It would not carry the label of “Fight of the Century.” By that time Gans, his resistance compromised by his struggle to make weight for their first marathon fight, had contracted tuberculosis. Gans fought the last two years of his career while slowly dying. The man acknowledged to be one of the ten greatest boxers of all time (some say the greatest) passed away in 1910 at the age of 35. His record showed only 12 losses in 196 fights, including 100 wins by knockout.
Battling Nelson, surely one of the toughest and dirtiest fighters who ever lived, would go on to win the lightweight title and defeat the disease ravaged Gans in two subsequent bouts. But he paid an awful price for his shock absorbing style of fighting. The Durable Dane eventually lost his mind and ended his last days in an insane asylum while still training for a comeback.
Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of the The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishing 2014).