The great Joe Gans is buried here, close to the place he called home, but far from the desert oasis he made famous with his two fists.
Although his name is largely lost to history, there was a time the lightweight known as the “Old Master” made big headlines in newspapers across the nation for not only beating opponents, but for thoroughly frustrating them in the process.
Countless prizefighters could only dream of having feet and hands like the great Joe Gans, who reigned as the first African-American champion in any division from 1902-1908. Although Nevada boxing fans are likely to recall Jack Johnson’s “Battle of the Century” against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910, in Reno, I’d argue that Gans’ 42-round, nearly three-hour marathon against Oscar “Battling” Nelson on Sept. 3, 1906, in Goldfield was of greater importance to the fight game and the Silver State.
Gans not only overcame the “Durable Dane,” who was well familiar with the art of the low blow, but he also managed to win over a largely race-biased press and the nearly all-white crowd that converged on Goldfield to watch the Tex Rickard-promoted spectacle take place in a pine-planked stadium cut and constructed especially for the event.
The nation’s great sports writers and a number of major literary figures of the day were at ringside, including Jack London; and Goldfield’s mining stock sharpies worked overtime to generate investors in claims that were already starting to sputter. It was London, in fact, who would tag the brawling Nelson with the moniker “the abysmal brute.”
At age 31, Gans arrived in Goldfield by train for what was scheduled to be at least his 187th professional fight. The Old Master was flat broke and starting to feel his age. Nelson, at 24, was in his youthful prime. What he lacked in skill, he made up for in sheer tenacity and meanness.
The sports-page puffery of the match vied for column inches with racial pseudoscience and, at times, unabashed bigotry. But a strange thing happened in the days leading up to the big event: Understated Joe Gans won over many reporters while Nelson and mouthy manager Billy Nolan had the opposite effect on the scribes.
The purse was a record $30,000, raised with the help of swindler George Graham Rice and stock hustler and future Nevada powerhouse George Wingfield. Rickard was on the verge of becoming a national figure as a promoter of big events, and it was a scorching September day in Goldfield that burnished his reputation into the brains of the nation’s newspaper readers.
The temperature that day topped 100 degrees. William Gildea writes in his excellent book, “The Longest Fight”: “The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Heat shimmered off the desert floor. The air was so hot it seemed as if it could turn reality inside out and make wide-open space seem claustrophobic. You almost had to concentrate to breathe.”
Although the fight was a mismatch almost from the opening bell, Nelson proved as game as his reputation. Gans knocked him down with regularity, but couldn’t finish him. Gans broke his right hand on Nelson’s face and fought much of the fight with just his left. Referee George Siler, tired of Nelson’s low blows, finally stopped the bout in the 42nd round.
Gans was the winner in the ring and managed to collect on the bets he’d placed on himself. He was a fan favorite that day in Goldfield.
The Old Master wasn’t unbeatable. In fact, he was once accused of throwing a fight. But he was formidable in and out of the ring.
The Gans-Nelson fight was boxing’s first national spectacle and Nevada’s first undeniably big sporting event.
After running a saloon and rooming house in Baltimore called the Goldfield for a few years, Joe Gans died Aug. 10, 1910, not long after Johnson beat Jeffries in Reno.
His simple monument holds a place of honor in the historic Mount Auburn Cemetery just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Although a stone marker in Goldfield commemorates the Gans-Nelson fight, Nevada officials should commission a much larger statue to the event and clear away the debris-littered spot where the longest fight of the 20th century took place back in 1906.
Listen to the late-summer wind through Goldfield, and you can almost hear the roar of the crowd on the day it cheered for a black man to win.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.