Book Review: The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914

Arne K. Lang.  The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2012. 187 pages.

Boxing today is nothing like it was a century ago. On one hand, it was a nearly-outlaw sport–many states had restrictions against professional fights or outright bans on public bouts, while others tolerated them. Promoters frequently had to balance publicizing their cards and staying below the police’s radar.Nelson-Wolgast Fight

At the same time, boxing was incredibly popular. Thousands of spectators turned out for fights, which were often held outside major cities due to the ambiguous (at best) legal status of prizefighting. The demand was so great that railroads ran special trains to fight sites.

Arne Lang’s The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 gives the reader a glimpse inside the Northern California and national fight game of a century ago, with a special focus on the eponymous bout, which featured champion “Battling” Nelson versus Ad Wolgast for the lightweight title.

Lang does more than recount the action or provide biographical sketches of the principals: he explores the fight’s milieu, looking at how boxing was presented in San Francisco, both before and after its catastrophic 1906 earthquake, and examining several of the personalities, both local and national, who gave boxing much of its flavor during these years. These personalities included boxers, fight promoters, and newspaper reporters, who did more than any other group to spread word of boxers on the rise.

Using a variety of sources, Lang is able to stitch together a rich tapestry around the Nelson-Wolgast bout. He doesn’t always take those sources at face value, and is able to compensate for their biases, exaggerations, and omissions.

Boxing in this period was in transition; the bare-knuckle era was over, but the sport itself was far from standardized. States had wildly varying limits on bout lengths, with some states only permitting four-round affairs and others allowing matches longer than 40 rounds. It’s a period that’s not often discussed today, much less appreciated, and Lang does a great job of bringing it to life.

This is a valuable book for those interested in sports and boxing history, as well as those interested in how mass-market fights (this one drew more than 15,000) were staged in an era of semi-prohibition. It’s a detailed look back at an age of sports that made up in excitement what it lacked in finesse.