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Nevada fight paved the way for pay-per-view

All right, fight fans, here’s a trivia question for you: Where did boxing’s first pay-per-view event take place?

Zaire? Manila? Madison Square Garden?

Would you believe Nevada’s own Goldfield?

That’s just one of the amazing aspects of the 1906 Joe Gans-Battling Nelson lightweight championship fight that ought to be remembered as Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao prepare to duke it out Saturday from Las Vegas before a worldwide audience.

Longtime readers understand that I have a soft spot for the Gans-Nelson fight that borders on obsession. Not only was it historic as the longest championship fight on record, a blistering 42 rounds under the summer sun of Sept. 3, 1906, but it was widely considered the first megafight in boxing history. It marked the start of the career of the lively career of master promoter Tex Rickard, better known for his time at Madison Square Garden, as a purveyor of boxing extravaganzas.

Although their names have largely been eclipsed by time and neglect, “The Old Master” Gans and the “Durable Dane” Nelson rank among the sport’s greatest lightweights. For his part, Gans was simply one of the finest ring technicians of all time. I’d like to think he could have given even the remarkable Mayweather a few lessons.

As a black man in an almost exclusively white sports world, Gans endured a steady drumbeat of racial discrimination that Nelson attempted to feed on in the days before the fight. The depictions of Gans as lazy and disreputable went beyond simple newspaper caricature.

But, in the end, Gans prevailed in a vicious marathon despite breaking his hand and enduring so many low blows that the referee eventually decided to stop the fight.

And at least most of it was captured on film that exists today.

“Screenings of the ‘Gans-Nelson Contest, Goldfield, Nevada, Sept. 3, 1906’ were numerous, though not conspicuous,” writes Dan Streible in “Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema.” “The boom in moving-picture shows was mounting in 1906-7, but the feature-length presentation ran mostly at burlesque and variety houses.”

Edited versions of the fight later appeared in nickelodeons, sort of the YouTube portals of their day.

“Little public debate greeted the pictures themselves,” Streible writes. “Sporting spectators went to assess the boxing itself. As W.W. Naughton wrote, ‘Thousands went to see the shadowgraphs of Battling Nelson and Joe Gans at Goldfield over and over again with the object of enabling themselves to form an opinion as to the genuineness … of the foul claimed by Gans.’ Despite that objectivity, the Gans-Nelson exhibitions were also specified as images of interracial competition.”

As ever in boxing, controversy sells. And race helped sell the Gans-Nelson fight of the century.

Gans, who was hampered by the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1910, fought Nelson twice more and lost both matches. Each battle was filmed, and the fights resulting in the white victor generated a handsome sum of more than $100,000, according to published accounts.

As you can see, pay-per-view has been part of a profitable boxing event business plan for a long, long time.

Thanks to pay-per-view sales, estimated profits for Saturday’s championship are astronomical: as high as $400 million. A majority of the profit, upward of $250 million, will come from pay-per-view sales if the interests reaches 2.5 million purchases.

The Old Master and the Durable Dane couldn’t have imagined they were onto something when their fight was captured on film.

It’s probably too much to ask, but it sure would be refreshing if the Gans-Nelson fight were acknowledged for its place in pugilistic as well as cinematic history.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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