1906 Gans-Nelson fight was one for the ages

These days it’s just a junk-strewn lot off U.S. Highway 95 in the heart of Goldfield.

For true boxing fans, the site of the Sept. 3, 1906, lightweight championship fight between Joe Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson ought to be sacred ground. Not only was it where the longest fight in modern boxing history took place — 42 rounds! — it also helped propel outlaw Nevada into prominence as a haven for the “sweet science.”

Historians and scribes can justifiably point to other Nevada matches as holding importance in the history of the fight game in the state, but for many aficionados the answer is Gans-Nelson — the “Old Master” vs. the “Durable Dane.”

Rumors of a possible Gans-Nelson fight began more than a year before the Goldfield bout. The men may be largely lost to popular history, but they were well known to boxing fans in the feisty years following the turn of the last century. Boxing was still illegal in many areas of the country and notorious in most.

“Gans has been training faithfully of late in the hope of getting another crack at (Jimmy) Britt and his manager, Al Hertford, would rather see his brown protege take Britt on than the battling Dane,” the Los Angeles Examiner observed March 3, 1905. “Nelson also professes to wish for another chance to turn the tables upon Britt.”

Gans had beaten Britt on a disqualification a few months earlier in San Francisco, but as the days passed attention turned to a big promotion in Goldfield. The town’s promoters, Northern Saloon owner and future Madison Square Garden promoter George “Tex” Rickard chief among many. More than $30,000 was put up for a championship match, an arena was built of pitchy pine, and soon enough word went out far and wide that a lightweight championship bout pitting Gans against the bruising Nelson was on. Nevada political powerhouse George Wingfield and stock hustler George Graham Rice helped promote the event with an eye on increasing their list of investors in mines of undetermined worth. The image of the black man fighting the white man was irresistible to sports writers of the era and captured the public’s fascination.

Thousands flocked from all points of the map to Goldfield, then a center of mining discovery both real and imagined. Goldfield was too big for its britches from the start. Its promising ore deposits were lusty if eventually illusory, and promoters made as much of their fortunes from investors from the East who dreamed of the rush for gold and silver to be found in the West. The Gans-Nelson fight worked not only as a phenomenal feat of fisticuffs, but also as a great way to put the wonders of booming Goldfield in bold type in newspapers across the country.

The best sports writers made the trip to Nevada, and even the famous Jack London was at ringside to record the bout and collect material for future stories. (After watching Nelson and Gans, he was moved to write the short story “The Abysmal Brute” about a character very much like the Dane.)

The mostly white crowd started out in Nelson’s corner, but in short order came to admire Gans for his unflappable grace despite heaps of ridicule and race baiting. By fight day, newspapers that initially had portrayed him a cowardly caricature admitted he was game and showed admirable skill despite the weather that topped 100 degrees and a steady harangue from Nelson and his entourage.

These days, Esmeralda County Justice of the Peace Juanita Colvin occasionally is asked to answer questions about the fight’s history. She’s still amazed how the town accommodated an additional 15,000 boxing fans and national media, the local telegraph office chirping out round-by-round results.

“The amazing thing for me was how quickly the promoters put that together with limited communications,” Colvin says. “They had telegraph and some telephone service. And within about two months they had gold coins stacked up, the arena built, and the advertisements out. It drew a crowd of thousands of people.”

Joe Gans would do most of his talking in the ring.

On fight day, with the weather sweltering and President Teddy Roosevelt’s son Kermit, at ringside, referee George Siler brought the men together at center ring. Despite holding the world lightweight title, Gans was set to receive just $11,000 for the fight with Nelson grabbing the greater share of the purse at $22,500. Gans didn’t quibble much; a recent divorce had left him nearly penniless. He needed the money.

Former Washington Post reporter William Gildea wrote a book on Gans called “The Longest Fight,” in which he highlights the Goldfield experience. Gans was America’s first African-American champion, holding the lightweight title from 1902-08.

Gildea writes: “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.”

The Nelson fight in Goldfield would be the 31-year-old Gans’ 187th as a professional. Nelson, at 24, was in his tenacious prime.

And they were off. Nelson was indeed durable, and peppered his punches with the occasional low blow and errant elbow. Gans was by far the more skilled practitioner, but his sojourn was complicated when he broke his right hand in the 33rd round. He fought the rest of the fight almost one handed, still kept Nelson on his heels, and at one point even helped the Dane to his feet after a knockdown. Nelson returned the favor with another low blow, and by the 42nd round Siler had seen enough. Gans won on a disqualification.

Nelson, badly beaten, bruised almost beyond recognition, and yet bitter, barked for a return match. He would get two and win both at a time Gans, unbeknownst to many, was suffering from a terminal case of tuberculosis. By 1910 he’d be gone, dead in his hometown of Baltimore at age 35.

For his part, Nelson never seemed to quite get over his loss to Gans that day. Although he’d actually defeat the Old Master twice in the next couple years, revenge would not be sweet. When he penned his autobiography some years later, it was clear he was still stinging from his experience in the Nevada desert.

The Dane fought in Havana and Juarez late in his career and lived until 1954. He never again fought in the Silver State.

The 42-rounder in Goldfield would go down in boxing history not only as the longest fight and an early battle of the races — ironically, with the black man coming out as a crowd favorite — but it was also the first major bout captured on film.

Goldfield’s mineral fortunes have risen and fallen in the century since the Gans-Nelson fight, but the town’s golden place in boxing history is secure.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

NSPCA Gets Kittens From LA
Man killed during road-rage incident
Las Vegas police are looking for two men involved in the shooting death of a man outside a 7-Eleven story at Bonanza Road and Maryland Parkway on Nov. 12, 2018. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System hosts Veterans Day Car Show and BBQ
The 4th Annual Veterans Day Car Show and BBQ is held in celebration of Veterans Day at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System Medical Center in North Las Vegas, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wildfires in Southern California
Wildfires hit Ventura County, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dedication of Nevada's Battle Born memorial
The state of Nevada on Friday dedicated its Battle Born memorial honoring 895 state residents who have died in America’s wars.
Las Vegas police and Sunrise Children's Hospital hope to prevent infant deaths
The Metropolitan Police Department and Sunrise Children's Hospital held a press conference to get the message out on preventable infant deaths attributed to "co-sleeping" and other unsafe sleeping habits. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
No serious injuries after car hits tree in south Las Vegas
One person reported minor injuries but wasn’t hospitalized after a Wednesday morning crash in the south valley.
Nellis Air Force Base keeps airmen fed
Nellis Air Force Bass airmen have delicious and healthy food items, and a variety of dining facilities to choose from. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Suspicious package found at central Las Vegas post office
Las Vegas police determined that a suspicious package found Monday morning at a central valley post office was not a threat.
Suspicious package found at central Las Vegas post office
Police evacuated the area around the Garside Station post office early Monday morning near Oakey and Decatur boulevards.
With husband's passing, family in limbo for workers' comp claim
Meredith Tracy's husand, Russell Tracy, died more than a year ago on his first day working for a new company when he fell 22 feet into a manhole that was not properly safeguarded. His employer was fined $82,000 in penalties for unsafe practices, but the company has denied her workers' compensation claim, leaving her with no compensation since the death. Rachel Aston Las Vegas Review-Journal @rookie__rae
With husband's passing, family in limbo for workers' comp claim
Meredith Tracy's husand, Russell Tracy, died more than a year ago on his first day working for a new company when he fell 22 feet into a manhole that was not properly safeguarded. His employer was fined $82,000 in penalties for unsafe practices, but the company has denied her workers' compensation claim, leaving her with no compensation since the death. Rachel Aston Las Vegas Review-Journal @rookie__rae
Las Vegas family shares flu warning
Carlo and Brenda Occhipinti lost their son, Carlo Jr., or “Junior,” to the flu last year.
Author Randall Cannon shares an anecdote about Stadust Raceway
Author Randall Cannon shares an anecdote about Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the TV show "Bonanza," and the actor's passion for auto racing at Stardust International Raceway in Las Vegas during the 1960s. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal.)
Project Neon 85 percent complete
On Wednesday morning Oct. 31, Interstate 15 northbound lane restrictions were removed opening up Exit 41 to Charleston Blvd. On Thursday Nov. 1, Interstate 15 southbound lane restrictions were removed. The new southbound off-ramp to Sahara Ave. and Highland Dr. also opened Thursday, November 1. With Project Neon 85% finished the flow of traffic on Interstate 15 has substantially diminished. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Girl killed after jumping from bridge onto 215 Beltway in Henderson
Eastbound lanes of the 215 Beltway are shut down by the Nevada Highway Patrol after a female juvenile jumped from the 215 overpass at Stephanie and was struck by a FedEx tractor trailer. Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal @Vegas88s
Kristallnacht story
An interview with 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Alexander Kuechel who survived seven concentration camps and didn’t leave Germany until after World War II was over. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 dead in central Las Vegas crash
An early Wednesday morning crash left at least one person dead and another injured. The crash was reported just around 3 a.m. at the intersection of Flamingo Road and Swenson Street. At least two vehicles were involved in the crash, one of which caught fire. Debris was scattered across the intersection as police combed the area as they investigated the scene. Flamingo is blocked in both directions between Swenson and Cambridge Street. Northbound Swenson is blocked at the intersection.
Richard Knoeppel named the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year
Richard Knoeppel, an architecture design instructor at the Advanced technologies Academy, named the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mojave Poppy Bees
(Zach Portman/University of Minnesota Department of Entomology) Male Mojave poppy bees exhibit territorial fighting behavior. The Center for Biological Diversity wants the bee, found only in Clark County, to be added to the endangered species list.
Clark County Schools announce random searches
Clark County School District middle and high school students will be subject to random searches for weapons under a new initiative to combat the wave of guns found on campus. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like