The Business Of Boxing

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Rickard had the money, though, and he wanted to let people know it. He took the entire purse, thirty-three thousand dollars, and stacked it, in the form of shiny new twenty-dollar gold pieces, in the window of the bank next door to his casino. Then he made sure that pictures of the money got to every major newspaper in the country.

The brainy Gans and the brawny Nelson were two of the best fighters of their day and certainly two of the most popular “little men” of all time, so the fight generated a lot of interest. For the few days prior to the bout, Goldfield wasn’t a town but a fair, with gamblers, hucksters, tourists, and businesspeople swarming into the hamlet from all over the West. On September 3, 1906, some eight thousand spectators packed the arena Rickard had built in ten days out of green lumber that could easily be dismantled and resold afterward.

 

It was a fight to the finish; Nelson had insisted on that condition since his main attribute was the ability to take unlimited punishment. But then Gans was known for his ability to dish it out, and as the bout wore on, it was clear that no amount of strength could make up for Gans’s superior ,talent. By the fortieth round Nelson looked like a sure loser.

They knew that this match, if promoted properly, would bring in an unimaginable sum—a gate of as much as a million dollars—and only Rickard could do it.

He began hitting Gans below the belt, butting him, and gouging him with thumbs and elbows. Referee George Siler overlooked these tactics for a while, but in the fortysecond round a terrific shot to the groin sent Gans to the canvas. This foul was so flagrant that Siler disqualified Nelson and declared Gans the winner.

The match did not turn Goldfield into a metropolis. Its population today is less than one-tenth the attendance at that fight. But the bottom line for Rickard was a profit of nearly fourteen thousand dollars—tax-free in those days.

“If you’re talking ‘pivotal,’ that fight was it,” says the boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar. “That was the Rubicon between boxing as a sport and boxing as a business. Before that was B.C. ; after that was A.D.

The financial success of the Gans-Nelson bout made various state governments see the business sense of relaxing their antiboxing laws. Some states repealed them; others simply stopped enforcing them. By about 1920 questions about the legality of boxing had virtually disappeared.

It’s interesting to note also that there was relatively little racial tension surrounding the Gans-Nelson bout. White-versus-black boxing matches can indeed be charged with politics, racism, and hatred—but mainly if they are heavyweight fights. In the lighter weight classes, black boxers encountered some discrimination, but they were at least able to fight and beat white boxers, even a century ago. Black heavyweights were another matter. They were seldom able to get matches with white fighters and were never allowed to compete for the championship.

The reason is pretty simple. As Norman Mailer once wrote, “The heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a very real possibility that he is.” The possibility that the toughest man in the world could be black was not something many white people wanted to face in the early part of this century.

About the time Gans was beating Nelson, a black heavyweight named Jack Johnson was making too much noise to be ignored. He’d beaten all the best black heavyweights, plus whichever white ones would fight him, and now he was issuing public challenges to the heavyweight champion Tommy Burns. It took a while, but Burns finally agreed to meet him at Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908, after Johnson had followed the reluctant champion halfway around the world seeking a match. Johnson won easily, and the first black heavyweight champion of the world was crowned.

“Kid,” Rickard told a sportswriter, “I’ve got in them ten rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent.”

This was an intolerable situation for many white Americans. The novelist Jack London spoke for millions when he appealed to the man who had retired undefeated as heavyweight champ in 1905. “But one thing remains: Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Enter Tex Rickard once again. This time his guarantee to the two fighters was a fantastic figure: $101,000, with 75 percent to the winner. In addition, both would get a $10,000 bonus for signing and a percentage of the film rights. Most experts, out of sentiment more than good sense, assumed that Jeffries would win, and if so, the distribution of the fight film to movie theaters nationwide could fetch more than a million dollars (in today’s dollars that might translate to roughly $35 million).