Arne K. Lang (editor-in-chief of TheSweetScience.com) has written a book entitled The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 (McFarland & Company).
Nelson and Wolgast fought three times, with Wolgast winning all three. The fight referenced in the book’s title is their second encounter, which took place in Point Richmond, California (a 35-minute ferry ride from San Francisco) on February 22, 1910.
San Francisco in 1910 was arguably the fight capitol of America. Nelson was already a celebrity, having fought Joe Gans three times and beaten him twice. His victory in part two of their trilogy – a July 4, 1908, seventeenth-round knockout – earned Nelson the lightweight championship of the world.
Nelson-Wolgast II was contested on George Washington’s birthday, one of only five federal holidays at that time. The bout was scheduled for 45 rounds or less and was for Nelson’s lightweight crown.
The encounter, Lang writes, “tops virtually every list of the most savage fights of all time.” Wolgast prevailed on a brutal 40-round beatdown.
Both men were plagued by dementia at the end of their years. Nelson stayed healthy longer. But as Lang acknowledges, few fighters as active as he was (Nelson boxed 1,254 rounds over the course of 132 fights) escape brain damage. He died in 1954 at age 72 after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital.
Wolgast, who boxed 1,123 rounds over the course of 138 fights, suffered longer and spent nineteen years in psychiatric hospitals before his death in 1955.
The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 is unlikely to appeal to a crossover audience. But hardcore fight fans will appreciate the thorough nature of Lang’s research and the fact that his book fills in some blank pages regarding a significant fight and a little-known era in boxing history.
There are solid portraits of Nelson and Wolgast as well as descriptions of the major players on the 1910 San Francisco boxing scene.
To Lang’s credit, he doesn’t over-romanticize the era. After quoting fight manager Daniel Morgan, who proclaimed, “In those days, there was a good lightweight on every street corner,” Lang observes, “The good fighters to which Morgan alluded were not always good and, in truth, many were not all that skilled. The sum of their athleticism and their science left something lacking.”
Also, Lang has a nice eye for detail. Writing about the mining town of Goldfield, Nevada (where the first Gans-Nelson fight was contested), he reports, “Goldfield was a place where shops advertised remedies for gonorrhea and diamonds for sale on the same signboard.”
Lang also recounts how Nelson was sent to Toledo by the Chicago Daily News to report on the July 4, 1919, heavyweight championship fight between Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey.
“Toledo was experiencing a terrible heat wave,” Lang writes. “Late on the eve of the fight, Nelson wandered away from his tent in search of a place to cool off and was discovered taking a bath in his underwear in a giant vat of lemonade. News of the incident spread like wildfire and the poor vendor was stuck with a lot of unsold lemonade.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.