‘He was blond, lean and muscular, but certainly not a physical superman or an immediately daunting vision to behold. The genuinely tough men rarely are.’ – author Mike Casey, from ‘From Hell: Battling Nelson in the Old West’ (http://www.boxing.com/from_hell_batt..._old_west.html)
‘I’ve lost several fights, but I have never been beaten’ – Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson
Oscar Mattheus Nielsen was born in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, on June 5th, 1882, the anniversary of the day Denmark ended being a monarchy and accepted a Constitution in 1849. His parents were named Nels and Mary, and the couple had seven boys and one girl. Nielsen’s family emigrated when he was still in his infancy to Illinois, to Hegewisch, a small town on the outskirts of Chicago.
Despite coming from humble beginnings, and being known as a fighter in his early teens, Nelson received a good bit of schooling which served him to handle his affairs when his career exploded. In later life, Nelson would be very proud of his perfect algebra scores in school.
In an auto-biographical piece written for The San Francisco call in 1909, Nelson himself describes his first fight at the age of fourteen. A traveling circus complete with a boxing ‘champion’ had pulled into nearby Hammond, Indiana. Despite his youth, Nelson was already confident in his fighting ability and he already had a reputation for having a knock-out punch, so he stepped up to the challenge for the prize of $1. The circus, the Wallace circus, gives its name to the ‘Wallace Kid’ who is in the official record as Nelson’s first organized fight. Nelson, due to his job as a meat cutter, was introduced as the ‘Packing House Pride’. The circus ‘phenom’ would be KO’d by Nelson in the first round, and never be heard from again. Nelson writes of the story ending this way:
After ‘dusting his wonder into oblivion’ the circus owner offered him a job, at an astounding $50 a week. Nelson wrote ‘my parents wouldn’t listen to such a proposition at the time, informing him that I was needed at home and was entirely too young to be traveling with such an affair’.
Years later, Nelson’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times dated February 8th, 1954 adds to that legendary first fight with this: ‘The management reneged on a promised $1 payment, however, sixteen years later Nelson ran into the same circus in Lawrence, Kansas sued in court and got his dollar with interest’.
Over the next few years, while still a minor, Nelson fought sporadically in and around Hegewisch, though it is unlikely that the existing record is complete. In May of 1898, Nelson ran away from home and headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where he gravitated to the boxing club there after working odd jobs. Nelson registered fights on back to back days, on the 10th and the 11th. He won both bouts by KO.
Nelson describes many of these early matches in a 1909 autobiography. He describes fighting Ole Olsen for bragging rights right in his home town of Hegewisch, and he describes how things started out rough for him in Milwaukee (he described the city as ‘A Hoodoo’), how it took him several fights to adjust and grow. He describes how he lost several bouts as well, and he details what purses he made for his early bouts, even recalling one fight where he was paid his full $15 purse in nickels and dimes.
Nelson writes about fighting in a barn, the time he fought twice in one day, fighting a ‘negro’ at a picnic. In the barn, the only pay for the two combatants was the coins the audience threw at them, as was a custom at the time. When coins started falling through the floorboards, he and his opponent, a Harry Fails, pulled up the floorboards to get every last cent.
Nelson goes into details about some of the pitfalls he encountered in the rough business of boxing, such as the time a referee raised the hand in victory of his opponent as he lay on the canvas knocked out. One story, once Nelson was a well established Lightweight on the national boxing scene, describes a June 1905 fight with Kid Sullivan, who had Young Peter Jackson and Joe Gans in his corner. Nelson describes being dominant for three rounds, until Sullivan and company resorted to smearing his gloves in “belladonna, or some other drug”. By the end of the fight Nelson “I could hardly tell Sullivan from the referee”. Because Nelson managed to not get KO’d while blind, the match went the distance to an agreed upon draw. Nelson was paid $1000 for the fight, up front.
Throughout 1899 and 1900, Nelson fought frequently in Chicago and the surrounding area, earning his stripes with matches in places such as the Star Theatre or the Orpheus Athletic Club. By early 1901, Nelson had fifteen wins with just 2 losses and 10 knock-outs to his name. On April 19th, Nelson appeared boxing in Milwaukee, which at the turn of the century was a boxing nexus. His opponent was Mickey Riley, a man he would fight several more times while he established himself as a boxer in Milwaukee’s rugged proving grounds. Nelson would never earn a decisive win over the scrappy Riley, and Riley would in fact win their first match.
On April 5th, 1902, Nelson faced off against William Rossler near Chicago. Nelson KO’d his opponent 2 seconds into the fight. After the referee’s count of 10, the match would go in the books as 12 seconds. Another storied bout occurred on December 26th, 1902 when Nelson was sent to the canvas 9 times by Christy Williams, who got up off the canvas an incredible 41 times before being KO’d on the 42 fall, which occurred in the 17th round. Nelson’s reputation as a gutsy, game fighter was growing in the Midwest.
Nelson would build up a record of over fifty fights in the Milwaukee and Chicago area and he would begin 1904 with his eyes towards the west coast. He had already developed into a fighter who was known for taking punishment and for having an iron chin. His defense wasn’t much, rather he was known for pressing forward relentlessly, taking damage only to dish it out. One anecdote about Nelson that survives to this day is the story that he once won a head-butting fight, where he and his opponent battered each other skull first with their hands tied behind their backs. Nelson won the head-butting contest, and by 1904, Nelson’s aspirations had grown beyond Milwaukee. Nelson would emerge into prominence with the nickname ‘The Durable Dane’.
After a couple of fights to start the year, Nelson headed west, fighting April 5th at the Salt Palace in Utah against Joe ‘Spider’ Welsh. Nelson KO’d Welsh in the 16th round. On May 20th, he made his debut in California, taking on Martin Canole, a tough, veteran fighter who had gone the distance with one of the Lightweight Championship claimants of the time, Jimmy Britt. The results were the same, Nelson won by KO in the 18th round of action.
It should be noted that on April 18th, 1906 San Francisco was leveled by a historic earthquake. Nelson would fight in San Francisco a month after, on May 20th and Nelson also gave donations towards the rebuilding. Nelson was conscious already of his public persona, and he started to make connections in the media that would help him later in his career.
Next up for Nelson would be a match against Eddie Hanlon in a bout that would spike Nelson’s reputation on the West Coast. Hanlon was considered one of California’s finest, and the boxing circles of the time did not expect Nelson, considered a crude mid-westerner, to be up to Hanlon’s level. A report from the time states that Hanlon got the best of the ‘milling’ in the early going, and Hanlon hurt Nelson in the 14th round, but he did not finish the fight and Nelson continued to come forward. In the 15th round, Nelson took over, beating his opponent ‘like a crippled boat before an all-powerful storm’. By the 19th round, Nelson scored the TKO for the win. Reports after the bout called Nelson a ‘Star ring performer’.
Nelson’s level of competition would remain extremely high, as his next fight was on September 5th in Butte, Montana against the extremely experienced Aurelio Herrera. That was followed with a November 29th engagement back in San Francisco against Young Corbett II. Nelson would win both fights, though the Herrera fight is said to be a bitter slugfest between pugilists with kindred spirits that was a war from beginning to end. He was fighting and winning against the best the West Coast had to offer. For Nelson, this would be just the beginning.
His next opponent, Jimmy Britt, had a claim on several versions of a ‘White’ Lightweight title at 133 lbs, and he was coming off a bid to win the World Lightweight Title from Joe Gans that ended with him being DQ’d for hitting Gans as the champion was getting up after being knocked down for a fourth time in the round. Nelson and Britt would become bitter rivals, fighting a total of four times and exchanging titles several times.
On December 20th, 1904, Nelson met Britt for the first time at the Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco with a vacant World Lightweight Title designed for whites on the line. A piece in the Los Angeles Herald dated December 12th described Britt as training hard, while Nelson was maintaining his condition and taking it easy after the Corbett fight, which it reports he came through in good condition. The piece describes a highly anticipated bout that their resident expert could not pick a winner in. Other reports confirm the odds favored Britt. Britt won the 20 rounder on points and kept the title, but Nelson, who never lacked for confidence anyway, wanted another crack at the belt.
Nelson’s reputation would continue to grow. He stopped Young Corbett II a second time in February of 1905, and then faced the savvy Featherweight Champion Abe Attell in Philadelphia for a short six round non-title match. Though Attell thoroughly frustrated Nelson throughout the fight and comfortably won the newspaper decision, Nelson left with further confirmation that long, marathon fights were his territory. He stayed on the east coast, and fought at least two more 6 rounders, earning a draw and a win, before heading back to the west coast for a return bout with Jimmy Britt for his version of the Lightweight title.
The bout was long and typically grueling. In the 18th round, Nelson finally got what he was looking for – rather than box and run, Britt finally stood his ground and a firefight ensued. Nelson expressed in a post-fight piece he wrote for ‘The San Francisco Call’ that he felt he had finally gotten under the skin of the normally composed Britt, and Britt was playing his game. Nelson landed the final blow, the results of which he described this way: Britt ‘was knocked out cold as a wedge’. Nelson claimed the World Lightweight Title.
Nelson headed back to Philadelphia on March 14th, 1906 to face ‘Terrible’ Terry McGovern, who was nearing the end of his storied career. The match was booked for 6 rounds, and most newspaper accounts had Nelson winning the bout.
On May 25th, 1906, Nelson was scheduled to fight for a rematch at the Naud Junction Pavilion with Aurelio Herrera, in defense of his newly won World Lightweight Title. One newspaper account from the day talks of ‘two and a half hours of such indescribable confusion’ that led off the evening. Apparently there was a disagreement about the weigh-ins, and Herrera was never weighed. The resulting war of words between the two managers caused the fight to be cancelled, and local fighter Eddie Hanlon is reported to have KO’d Herrera’s brother Mauro in the alley behind the pavilion during part of the altercation. Though the fight didn’t happen, Nelson’s name was all over the news and the spin of most of the media had Herrera’s camp in the wrong.
The next fight for Nelson was Joe Gans. This would mark the first time the two men would meet, but not the last. The epic battles between the two men would go down in boxing history as one of the greatest rivalries in boxing history.
Nelson had captured the ‘white’ Lightweight title and he reveled in the fame and fortune attached. There was another World Lightweight Champion, however in the form of Joe Gans. Gans had reigned as Lightweight Champion for years and he was legend in boxing circles, earning the moniker ‘The Old Master’. Gans was also black, and at 31 years of age his body had seen a lot of boxing. Gans would be dead in 4 years, succumbing to tuberculosis, and he was already beginning to weaken by the time he met Nelson. This seemed tailor made for ‘Bat’, who wanted to test Gans’ stamina in the fight.
In 1906 boxing was the biggest sport in America, receiving generous print coverage across the nation, and Joe Gans was the biggest name in boxing. Gans, who came up fighting his way out of the slums of Baltimore, had caused a stir when he captured the World Lightweight Title, becoming the first African American to win a title in any sport. Gans had gained the world title and made a fortune in boxing the hard way, facing the racist elements of the times not only in boxing but throughout society every day of his public career. Gans is revered among boxing experts as one of the very elite fighters of all time.
There was some dispute as to who was the legitimate champion, as Gans had vacated the Lightweight title to pursue fighting at Welterweight. It is that vacated title that Jimmy Britt had claimed, and was now around the waist of Battling Nelson. But to most of the boxing world at the time, Gans was the legitimate Lightweight Champion, Gans was the legend who had not been defeated for the title.
The match was set to the finish, with no round limit. The two men met on September 3rd, 1906 in Goldfield, Nevada, a rough and tumble mining town that had a thriving population of 30,000. This fight is on record as being the first event by rookie promoter Tex Rickard, who billed it as ‘The Fight of the Century’. Rickard owned a saloon in Nevada that was said to employ 80 bartenders, and he had aspirations in the fight game. The match is well documented, and the story told is one of boxing’s all-time legendary fights. The gate was over $75,000 dollars, and Nelson would make at least $22,500 for the fight. Kermit Roosevelt, the son of sitting President Theodore Roosevelt, was in the audience for the bout.
The social impact this match would have is perfectly illustrated by an anecdote that is repeated by several sources. As the crowd of 8,000 sat awaiting the fight, the announcer read telegrams out to the audience, as was frequently done at live events at the time. A telegram to Gans from his foster mother was read ‘Joe, the eyes of the world are upon you. You bring back the bacon.’ Newspapers across the country carried it as news, and the phrase stuck. The word ‘bacon’ is still commonly used in this way today.
Gans had won a fortune in his career, but he remained poor and the roughly $11,000 purse was what the telegram was referring to. Gans was put through a lot by the Nelson camp in the build up to the fight, likely knowing that Gans needed the money and would put up with anything. Gans was put through a taxing weigh in process that saw him required to make the 133 lb weight limit in gear at ringside. There were likely heavy racist overtones to the privileges that Nelson was demanding from the long time champion. Nelson was in this fight to win, and it appears they tried every type of psychological pressure to get to Gans before the fight.
The fight started in the stark heat of the Nevada desert just after 3 PM. Gans opened strong, displaying the footwork, speed and combinations that made him a legend. By the 2nd round, Nelson was bloody, by the eighth round he was taking his first count of the match. Nelson would be down several more times, even being knocked through the ropes at one point, but Nelson kept coming. Nelson had Gans engaged in a war, landing body shots and butts in the clinches that would take their toll on Gans. Nelson’s face was swollen to the point he could not see. Nelson kept on coming and Gans, though fading, kept picking him apart. In the 42 round of the battle, Nelson landed a low blow that caused referee George Siler to call for the disqualification. Gans had retained his title belt in a match most observers felt would be talked about for all times.
Nelson would take almost a year off from competition. His next bout was on July 31st, 1907 against hated rival Jimmy Britt in San Francisco, in a match billed as for the ‘white’ 133 lb title. After 20 rounds, Nelson lost a points decision and dropped the ‘title’ back to the man he had taken it from. This would be Nelson’s only fight in 1907.
Nelson would return to fight four times in the beginning of 1908, starting with a 5th round KO of Jack Clifford in Utah and a newspaper decision loss to Rudy Unholz. He fought a draw with Jimmy Britt in what would be their fourth and final meeting, and he also fought Abe Attell to a draw, all the while pushing heavily in the press for a return match against Gans.
The return engagement would take place on July 4th, 1908 at the Mission Street Arena in Colma, California. Gans had continued to fight though his health had continued to deteriorate since they had met almost two years prior. Gans had defended the Lightweight title several times and he still had the title that had eluded Nelson in their first meeting.
Gans was beginning to fade from tuberculosis. Accounts of the fight report that Gans won the early stages, but that fatigue set in as the fight wore on. His skin turned gray, he had a fever and was throwing up in his corner. He had the shivers later in the fight, but Gans fought into the 17th round before Nelson was able to take him out for the KO finish. Battling Nelson had captured the respected World Lightweight Championship, ripping it from the hands of a long time, legendary champion and etching his name in the record books for all time.
The San Francisco Call, in an article that dated July 9th, 1908, announced the scheduled third meeting between Gans. Just 5 days after the two had met in a historic battle in Colma, the men had come to terms to meet a third time. The tone of the article serves as a reminder of the times, as it describes that Nelson ‘has magnanimously given Joe Gans an opportunity to regain his title’. He also described as generous for upping Gans purse from $5000 to $10,000 in exchange for the rights to the moving pictures. Nelson himself would make $20,000 for the fight.
The moving picture was a new technology, and Nelson was aware of its potential, as he managed to negotiate the rights for the films to several of his fights. Nelson is on record stating that he never saw any money from the rights to any of the moving pictures, though the numbers he was promised for some of the fights were astronomical for the time. Nelson was a few years ahead of his time, as the technology would improve.
The 2008 book “Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema” written by Dan Streible and published by the University of California Press investigates the business dealings that lead to the filming of fights at the start of the 20th century. Nelson paid to independently tape some of his fights when investors could not be found, realizing the potential of the medium. The book details “from 1905 to 1910 Battling Nelson appeared in seven prizefight films, taking an active interest in their circulation”. Nelson was, by many accounts, a shrewd businessman who was looking to cash in on his new found celebrity power.
In retrospect, the third meeting with Gans on September 9th, 1908 would be the penultimate fight of Gans’ career, and he was already a very sick man. After the fight, which lasted 21 rounds, Nelson commented ‘Gans gave me a tougher fight this time’. Nelson scored a second KO victory over Gans, securing his lock on the coveted title and sealing his status as a full-fledged sporting icon. Considering the age, Nelson’s defeat of the feared black champion was likely met with even more relish by a still very prejudiced America.
One newspaper account from 1908 states Nelson owned a 65 acre vineyard and separate hog farm near Livermore, California. Nelson was known to sponsor the local Livermore Echo baseball team, and on at least one occasion he served as a guest umpire at one of their games.
Sometime in 1909, Nelson published “Life, Battles, and Career of Battling Nelson, Lightweight Champion of the World”, an autobiography that tells Nelson’s story from his fight in the Wallace circus to his defeat of Gans. The introduction of the book, written by an unknown author introduces Nelson as “the lightweight champion of the world and richest of all living pugilists”. Nelson was quite prolific with the pen, writing pieces and opinions for newspapers throughout his career and into his retirement.
Also in 1909, Battling Nelson visited the White House at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. The 2009 book “Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography” by Jeanne Campbell Reesman and published for the University of Georgia Press details the account not only as a sign of Nelson’s celebrity, but as a snub by the President on the heavyweight champion at the time Jack Johnson, who was black.
Nelson spent more than half a year away from the ring, returning to defend the Lightweight Title on May 29th 1909 when he KO’d Dick Hyland in 23 rounds at the same Mission Street Arena he had defeated Gans for the belt. The Los Angeles Herald dated May 29th, 1909 gives the odds of 10 to 4 favoring Nelson, and details bets made by both fighters on the outcome, with each fighter obviously betting on himself. Less than a month later, Nelson defeated Jack Clifford by TKO after 5 rounds in Oklahoma City.
His next bout was on July 13th, 1909, when he took on Ad Wolgast back in California in a non-title bout. Wolgast had come up from the scene in Milwaukee a few years after Nelson had passed through there, and Wolgast had a similar all out style to Nelson where taking punishment to dish it out was the plan. Wolgast would win the newspaper decision, and afterwards Nelson would claim he took the non-title match lightly. For his part, Wolgast launched an immediate media campaign looking for a title shot.
By the start of 1910, Battling Nelson was the best known and richest boxer on the planet, a real international star. One obituary of Nelson’s recalls a story from this time where Nelson became embroiled in a lawsuit with a Philadelphia Hotel that had refused him service, despite Nelson’s boast that he could write a check for $150,000. Nelson apparently made a media spectacle of the situation, taking over a suite at the hotel and issuing the following statement:
“It will be glad news to the lovers of liberty everywhere to learn that Battling Nelson, the famous and unparalleled pugilist, has made a monkey out of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, which has twice refused to accommodate him despite the fact that his money is the right color and merely because he is engaged in the art of fisticuffs.”
On January 21st, 1910, Nelson would defend his title in an eight round match in Memphis, Tennessee against Eddie Lang. Lang would go down to Nelson’s KO punch in the final round.
This left a February 22nd, 1910 return bout with Ad Wolgast. Nelson displayed all the confidence of a champion, demanding a 45 round fight where his much heralded ability to outlast opponents would come into play, and the money offer for Wolgast was less than $4000. Wolgast agreed to all the demands in his eagerness to fight for the belt.
There is a famous story about entrances for this fight, where Wolgast entered first. Wolgast was made to wait in the ring for a long period of time, and when Nelson finally arrived, he was being carried by a massive Turk assistant, to avoid getting mud from the floor on his boots. Wolgast’s vocal reaction was something along the lines of “One Turk carried him in, and it will take 10 Turks to carry him out”. Despite the disdain from Wolgast about a champion’s privilege, it is interesting to note Wolgast’s entourage outnumbered Nelson’s.
The match is recorded to have started in a bright sunshine after what had been a deluge of rain, at 3:19 in the afternoon. Most of the rules that governed boxing at the time were out the window, with the referee unable to act on normal fouls as agreed to by both fighters. Such was their dislike for each other.
There are several round by round accounts of the fight in the public record, and what is described is almost universally seen as a fight that turned into a dogfight. Thankfully, at least a partial video of the match remains as well. Wolgast held his own, but absorbed a great deal of punishment in the early going. Nelson sent Wolgast to the canvas in round 22 in what seemed to most observers to be the beginning of the end. Some of the live audience is reported to have left. Amazingly, Wolgast survived the round, and the slowly started to turn the tables on Nelson, who had spent a lot of energy keeping a brutal pace throughout the fight. By round 30, Wolgast was doing most of the damage and he seemed to be the one with boundless energy. By round 40, Nelson was such a mess that the referee stopped the fight.
One writer who was present described Nelson, the now former champion, after the fight ‘Nelson could hardly hear or see, the left side of his face having lost all semblance of its former contour’. After 40 of the hardest fought rounds in pugilistic history, Ad Wolgast was the Lightweight champion of the World. Reports from the day state that Wolgast made an additional $20,000 betting on himself. Immediately after the match, Nelson was carried from the ring, while one account says Wolgast ‘scampered out of the ring like a schoolboy and galloped through the arena.’
The loss signaled the end of Nelson’s title reign, but Nelson would pursue a return bout from the start. Wolgast, once the eager challenger, now was happy to play the role of champion and make Nelson wait.
Nelson rested and recovered, but the title was still on his mind. He signed for a fight on November 26th, 1910 against Owen Moran, a true bantamweight who was cut from the same ‘fight all out’ cloth as Nelson. The winner of the match was promised a shot at Wolgast and the Lightweight title.
Before meeting Moran, Nelson fought twice in October of 1910 as he worked himself back into fighting shape for the upcoming big fight. On the 10th, he scored a 3rd round KO of Monte Dale in Saint Louis, and on the 31st he took on veteran Anton LaGrave in San Francisco, fighting a 15 draw.
Moran, a British fighter who went by the nickname ‘The Fearless’ was also campaigning for a match with Wolgast, partly based on owning a win over the champion Wolgast in a short match. Moran was a technical scrapper who would have a hall of fame career, and right around this time in his career, Moran started to find a KO punch.
One account of the fight states that Moran threw everything he had at Nelson at the start, only to see Nelson laugh off the attack and return with a barrage of his own. The two went back and forth in a slugfest, but it would be Nelson who would eventually hit the canvas from a Moran crack to the jaw. For Moran, who never attained a world title, being the first to KO the ‘Durable Dane’ would go down as one of the highest points of his career.
For Nelson, the loss was a disturbing sign. Nelson had lost fights before, and he had been down a number of times, but he had never been put down for the count before until Moran did it.
Nelson would return to the ring in the summer of 1911 for what would be his final fights on the West Coast, in Washington and Oregon. The boxrec.com account of the Oregon fight with local boxer Tommy Gaffney tells of Gaffney stunning Nelson with a punch in the first round, only to have Nelson beat him up from the second round on. Gaffney complained of fouls at the time of the stoppage.
By September of 1911, Nelson’s focus on his boxing career steered him to the northeast and the boxing hotbeds of Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
His first match was in Boston, for the prolific Armory Athletic Association on September 19th, 1911 against Billy Nixon. Nelson won by TKO in 10 rounds. Through the end of the year, he would fight 4 times a month on average.
His next match was on the 3rd of October against tough Milburn Saylor, a 22 year old who had gone the distance against Jack Britton and Johnny Kilbane and had defeated the highly experienced Matty Baldwin. Saylor would earn the win after twelve rounds, as Nelson could not slow him down. Nelson would fight Willie Beecher in Madison Square Garden on the 11th of October, earning a newspaper decision. He would follow that with a match on the 17th of October against Philadelphia Pal Moore, another up and comer who was just 20 years old. Moore would outpoint Nelson over twelve rounds. Two days later, Nelson would lose a 6 round bout in Augusta, Maine to veteran George Alger.
The San Francisco Call dated December 23rd, 1911 describes Nelson’s December 22nd loss to ‘One Round’ Hogan describes a Nelson who was increasingly reliant on fighting on the inside looking for his patented left half-scissors hook to the liver and he seemed to be slowing down. Nelson did finish the year going a respectable 6-1-3 in the final ten bouts of 1911.
As 1912 dawned, Nelson was still looking to get back in the title picture, despite the signs that the ring mileage was taking his toll and that he was going to be 30 years old. Nelson fought Jack Redmond on New Year’s eve and won, and on January 9th, 1912 he faced Tommy O’Rourke and lost a newspaper decision. These matches were in Gretna, Louisiana and Springfield, Missouri respectively, as Nelson was starting to slip from the limelight.
Overall, in 1912, Nelson would notch 2 wins, 4 losses and 5 draws as he spent the year fighting in such places as Tamaqua, Pennsylvania and Hammond, Indiana. He went 1-1 on a trip to Canada, fighting twice on the span of 11 days. On November 28th, he fought Leach Cross at the New Amsterdam Opera House in New York. Cross was a veteran known as a crowd pleaser and the fight went the full 10 rounds. Cross won the Newspaper Decision on the official record.
Though his boxing career had been in decline for some time, by the start of 1913 Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane, was still an commodity. He was in the eye of the media constantly and Nelson remained a celebrity long after his boxing days were finished.
On January 23rd of 1913, Battling Nelson married Fay King in his hometown of Hegewisch, Illinois. King was a well-known cartoonist and newspaper columnist at the time, and their matrimony came with all the trappings of a celebrity wedding. Newspaper accounts of the time report that roughly 10 days earlier, Nelson and his bride to be were left standing at the altar at the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, where King was working at the time. The two eventually did marry, and a honeymoon to Australia was planned. Three days after the vows were exchanged however, there was talk in the gossip columns of a divorce, and King at one point even claimed that Nelson had kidnapped her and forced the wedding. By May, the couple was back together. The couple would divorce in 1916, at least partly because Nelson could not stay retired.
Despite the nuptials in 1913, Nelson was back in the ring pursuing his career with a vengeance. His wife made her own money, and was a celebrity in her own right, leaving Nelson to feel that he had to keep boxing to maintain their lifestyles. He fought four times in February of 1913 and twice each in March and April.
Nelson would be away from the ring for a few months, but on October 13th, 1913, he would return to his old stomping grounds of Milwaukee to face Ad Wolgast, another Milwaukee product and the man who had taken the Lightweight Championship of the World from him back in February of 1910 in the now legendary 40 round bout. Wolgast too, had come to the end of his title reign already, losing his title to Willie Ritchie. Wolgast was also trying to get another shot at the title he lost, and for Wolgast, the 40 round war of attrition last time the two fought was his finest hour. Wolgast would win the newspaper decision after 10 rounds.
Nelson would be in semi-retirement, fighting only once in 1914, at the Soo Opera House in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan against Clifford Ford, who had a documented record of 0-8 at the time. Nelson won the 6 round bout in the record books, but by now he was a shadow of his former World Championship self.
T signs that his career was coming to an end were abundant, but Nelson returned to the ring in 1915, fighting a series of three matches in Cuba in March and April of that year. Nelson picked up three straight wins against less than top competition, running his current winning streak to four. Another international fight, this time in Mexico on September 6th, 1915 and a November bout in Kansas City stopped his career rally short with two more losses. It appeared to all the world that Battling Nelson was done.
Despite not having fought in over a year, an opportunity materialized for one last chance at the Lightweight World Title that was once his, facing current champion Freddie Welsh. Nelson returned to the ring on March 17th, 1917 for a match against the inexperienced Pierce Matthews, presumably as a tune up match for his world title engagement with Welsh. Fighting in Saint Louis, Missouri, Nelson KO’d Matthews in the eighth round of a scheduled twelve round bout. His next bout would be one last chance at winning back his Lightweight title.
Freddie Welsh was also nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, and he was fighting in as many 10-12 round bouts as he cold, with the stipulation that if he was still standing at the end of the fight, he retained the belt. World War I complicated business in all areas, not just boxing, and few states in the USA were allowing full 20 round bouts at the time.
On April 17th, 1917 the then thirty five year old Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson entered the ring for what would be his last fight. Freddie Welsh held the World Lightweight Champion at the time despite coming off a three fight losing streak, because he had not been stopped. Welsh would defeat Nelson by newspaper decision over twelve rounds. Welsh would go on to lose four fights in a row, culminating with the loss of his title to Benny Leonard. Welsh too was nearing the end of his fine career, but it is a sign of how far Nelson had slipped that he was the only win the faded Welsh could pull off in an eight fight span.
Battling Nelson retired with an official record of 69 wins (40 by KO, 10 NWS) 33 losses (3 by KO, 14 NWS) and 27 draws (5 D-NWS), though it is almost certain the record for his earlier career is incomplete. He held the the World Lightweight Championship for roughly eighteen months, and he defended the title 3-4 times.
After his retirement, Nelson still used his names ‘Battling Nelson’ and ‘The Durable Dane’ to help sell cars and car accessories, his image appearing in magazine advertisements throughout the country. Though he made a fortune and had opportunities available, Nelson is reported to have lost what he had left of nearly half a million dollars in career earnings in the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression.
Nelson was still an active part of the boxing world in his retirement, appearing as a guest and also working as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Nelson remained close to Nevada saloon owner Tex Rickard, whose initial foray into promotion was the first Nelson-Gans fight. Rickard would be the biggest promoter on the planet. One piece, called “Bat Nelson and the Toledo Whammy” written by Aaron Lloyd recounts a Nelson story around the famous July 4th, 1919 Heavyweight Title fight between Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey, the match that would send Dempsey’s career into the stratosphere. In what is perhaps an interesting insight on Nelson, the piece says in the opening paragraph “the Durable Dane proceeded to fulfill his journalistic duties, all the while disregarding societal norms regarding personal hygiene and appeals to cleanliness”. In the searing heat of the Ohio summer, there were said to be tubs of lemonade being prepared for the show that Nelson, who was apparently drunk, took a bath in. Word spread that the lemonade had suffered a “Bat Nelson-related contamination” and the lemonade man lost his entire investment. Nelson was still making news.
In the 1940’s, a newspaper piece by Bill Connolly was written as a retrospective on the ‘Durable Dane’. The piece, written when Nelson was in his 60’s details that Nelson “is working for wages now, 12 hours a day, at the Chicago Post Office, and his boss is a man he defeated in the ring, a Jimmy Hutton.” As of this writing, there is no Jimmy Hutton on the official record of Battling Nelson.
Late in life, Nelson’s mental state deteriorated, he may have suffered from lung cancer, and his wife passed away. Shortly after wife Edna’s death just short of her 50th birthday, Nelson was found to not have his faculties and he was committed by Judge Walter J. Stevens to the State Hospital in Illinois. There are various reports regarding Battling Nelson’s death, though they all agree he died on February 7th, 1954 at the age of 71. Boxrec details that he died from injuries sustained as the victim of a street crime, while an obituary from ‘The Victoria Advocate’ dated February 8th, 1954 simply reads:
Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson, former world lightweight champion who was one of boxing;;s most colorful fighters just after the turn of the century, died here Sunday at the age of 71. Officials of the Chicago State Hospital, where the rugged old battler was committed a month ago, attributed the death to senility. Nelson’s nickname was hard-earned in contests with every lightweight of any importance on the route to the lightweight championship of the world, which he held from 1908-1910.
Nelson’s funeral expenses were paid for by his ex-wife, Fay, who was still employed by a newspaper as a columnist in the 50’s.
Battling Nelson was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Hi Miguel -- I personally can't get enough Battling Nelson stuff. Few people can appreciate what a prominent sports personality he was in his heyday. One testament to his popularity is the number of boxers who came down the pike after him and were billed as Battling Nelson or Young Battling Nelson. Box Rec lists 56! (Nelson once said something to the effect that if he had received a royalty from every boxer that borrowed his name, he would have survived the Depression with his finances intact.)
Readers might want to know that his self-published book "Life, Battles, and Career of Battling Nelson by Himself" is available free on the Internet (spoiling the value of it for collectors that own a copy, but that's another story.) I found the book disturbing for Nelson's easy acceptance of the toxic racial climate of his day.
Regarding that fight with Christy Williams. I'm still searching for a report of it in an old newspaper, but I don't believe for a moment that there were 51 knockdowns. When writing about boxers of Nelson's era, I find myself using words like reportedly, purportedly, or supposedly too damn often because I don't trust the "facts." But that's part of the appeal of studying that era -- separating fact from fiction.
I'm not in the habit of giving advice to writers -- I can always use some good advice myself -- but "The Shadow" makes a good point when he suggests you chop your future submissions into smaller pieces. It's simply an adaptation to the short attention span of folks that do all their reading on the Internet.
The careers of prominent boxers tend to follow an arc -- the ascent, the heyday, and the descent -- convenient cutting points for the storyteller.
Wow that is a lot of terrific feedback. Thanks Mr Lang, for checking in on a couple of my posts here, I appreciate your time greatly. I have a list of things to do and one of those is to followup with shadow as well. Still no word back from Woodsie, he must be a busy chap.
The racism of that era was not even comparable to today. It was accepted. I've seen a ton of it in this old archive, and it never stops striking me. With Nelson, it may just be my impression, and my small knowledge of European cultures that I credit him more with playing along with whatever made him money, and being a white hope sold in that era. But it is incredible what guys like Gans and Johnson must have gone through.
Im currently working on a couple of more pieces, one is on Dempsey, who is very prolific. The racism is an issue there as well, as the papers from 1920-1925 seem to have several reports of matches with either Joe Jeannette or Harry Wills being worked on, but obviously none happened. There is a 1955 book that details an exhibition where Dempsey actually walked out of an exhibition with Wills in front of 12000 people rather than face him (1918). Dempsey himself seems to have skirted the issue, but again, his management wanted to make the most money, and that meant dealing with the race issue. With all due respect to Georges Carpentier, who is a great, iconic fighter, I could see wher eDempsey would rather fight him for a small fortune than to test himself for a lot less against a guy like Wills.
Anyway, thanks again for the gret and encouraging feedback..