Goldfield’s famed fight for the ages

The longest prizefight in Nevada history was a 42-round marathon between middleweight boxers Joe “The Old Master” Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson, who was also known as “The Durable Dane,” in the mining town of Goldfield on Sept. 3, 1906.

The fight came about when a canny local saloon owner and entrepreneur, George Lewis “Tex” Rickard, decided that booming Goldfield, which had become the largest city in Nevada, should host a championship prizefight to help cement its status as a promising, growing metropolis and, not coincidentally, persuade any out-of-towners with the means to invest in Goldfield.

Working with a couple of other less reputable promoters, George Graham Rice and Larry Sullivan, Rickard formed the Goldfield Athletic Club for the purpose of attracting a bigtime fight.

Rickard proved to be up to the task, raising sufficient funds for a purse ($33,500) and overseeing the construction of an 8,000-seat arena for the fight on a site that today is a litter-strewn lot off U.S. 95 in the center of Goldfield.

The fight had an additional element that made it of interest in many quarters — Gans, the world middleweight champion, was black while Nelson was white.

According to historian Richard O. Davies, author of “The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip,” Gans, unlike black heavyweight boxers who could not get fights with white boxers, did not apparently face the same institutional racism because “the symbolism of masculine supremacy was not in play as with the heavyweights.”

That did not, however, keep him from having to accept a smaller purse for the fight than his white opponent. Nelson was guaranteed $22,500 while Gans would receive $11,000.

Additionally, while the amiable Gans generally was viewed favorably and was the betting favorite, that didn’t prevent a local newspaper, the Goldfield News, from noting that white boxing fans were in the uncomfortable position of “wishing to see a Negro defeat a white man.”

The 31-year-old Gans had fought a large number of opponents during his career, earning the nickname “The Old Master” because of his experience and technical knowledge of the sport. He was polite and affable, which was in stark contrast to Nelson, who was a bit obnoxious.

Seven years younger than Gans, Nelson was known as more of a brawler. He had a reputation for illegal headbutts and low blows, and was pushy and rude in the days leading up to the fight.

An interesting wrinkle to the fight was that it was to be a “fight to the finish,” although should it go 45 3-minute rounds, the referee would stop it and declare a winner.

On the day of the fight, the two boxers climbed into the ring before a full crowd of 8,000. Like the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight in Carson City, the bout was being filmed for later viewing.

In the early rounds, Gans put on a boxing clinic, landing numerous jabs and deftly escaping Nelson’s punches. But an hour into the fight, he began to tire and his punches began to display less power.

Meanwhile the seemingly indefatigable Nelson continued to tie up Gans and avoid any semblance of a knockout punch. He also repeatedly headbutted Gans and landed a few punches that the crowd saw as being below the belt.

In the 33rd round, Gans broke a bone in his right hand after landing a punch to the challenger’s legendary thick skull. According to observers, he hid the injury by pretending to have hurt an ankle.

As the fight continued into the 40th round, both men were exhausted, sunburned, bruised and bloodied. In round 42, Gans managed to land a powerful left hook, which Nelson seemed to shake off. In retaliation, Nelson swung low and landed a punch to Gans’ groin, which knocked the champion to the canvas, in clear agony.

The crowd screamed at Nelson’s illegal punch and after a moment, the referee declared Gans the winner by disqualification. Davies noted that many post fight analysts believed Gans’ left hook in the 42nd round had convinced Nelson he couldn’t win fairly, so, in desperation, he unleashed the low blow.

The fight did what it sought to do. The town received a big economic boost during the fight weekend and, at least for a little while, Goldfield was on the map.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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