Monday, February 8, 2016

Boxing History: Battling Nelson: The Durable Dane

Remembering...Oscar “Battling” Nelson
June 5, 1882 - February 7, 1954 

Oscar “Battling” Nelson, otherwise known as the “Durable Dane” was one of the toughest fighters who ever lived. He was a rough and tough fighter, who was seemingly immune to punishment. Turning professional in 1896, Nelson would face the greatest lightweights of his era during his career. It was an era in which the lightweight division was full of a varied array of outstanding fighters, from slick and speedy boxers, to dynamite punchers, rough and tumble brawlers, and then some boxers who could do a bit of everything. The men whom Nelson squared up to, or chased down in the ring, included men such as ‘Cyclone’ Johnny Thompson, Adam Ryan, George Memsic, Aurelio Herrera, Young Corbett 11, Jimmy Britt, Abe Attell, Kid Sullivan, Terry McGovern, Joe Gans, Dick Hyland, Ad Wolgast, ‘Philadelphia’ Pal Moore, George ‘One Round’ Hogan, Leach Cross, Jimmy Reagan, and Freddie Welsh.

Nelson was born Oscar Mattheus Nielson on June 5, 1882, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Nelson’s parents move to Chicago when Oscar was a baby. During his career, Nelson built up a tremendous reputation as being seemingly invulnerable to pain or punishment. In an era where fighters were incredibly tough, Nelson was a man who stood out from the crowd. He was a true iron man whose durability was equaled by his ability to hand out frightful beatings to his opponents. He was a potent puncher who favoured fighting on the inside, and could wreck an opponent’s body with a few well placed left hooks. Nelson favoured hitting his opponents as hard, and as often as he could, until they finally wilted, and collapsed. Some went early, others hung around and tried to fight it out with the ‘Durable Dane’. Very few could succeed going toe to toe with Nelson. Yet to try and outbox Nelson was also a nightmare because he would never stop coming forwards, always on the attack. 

Nelson is most renowned for his 3 fights with the legendary Joe Gans. Nicknamed ‘The Old Master’ Gans was a boxer with a superlative mixture of speed, cleverness and dynamite, and Nelson would be his greatest rival. The two men first fought on September 3, 1906, in a brutal epic bout in the desert of Goldfield, Nevada. By this time, Nelson had beaten just about every other top contender in the lightweight division, while Gans had held the World lightweight championship since 1902. The temperatures rose over 100 degrees, the two men fought for over 40 rounds, with Gans pitting his skills and brain against Nelson’s strength, and almost demonic determination. The finish came in the 42nd round when a worn down and seemingly close to defeat Gans was awarded the victory on a foul, thereby retaining his World lightweight title.

Nelson was bitter about his loss to Gans, and had to wait almost 2 years before he could gain revenge. His chance came on July 4, 1908, when he faced Gans once more for the World lightweight championship. Gans was by now suffering from tuberculosis, and after a brave stand, was knocked out in the 17th round. Nelson underlined his superiority over the ailing Gans two months later when he beat him again, this time knocking out the ‘Old Master’ in 21 rounds, after Gans had put up a brave yet, ultimately doomed performance.

Nelson held his world title until February 22, 1910, when he came face to face with a mirror image of himself in Ad Wolgast, who managed to out-slug, and outlast Nelson in one of the most thrilling and brutal contests ever seen in a boxing ring, finally stopping Nelson in the 40th round. At the finish, Nelson was still on his feet, but was blinded with both eyes cut and nearly shut, as well as being covered in various other cuts and bruises. In the end, the referee stopped the match, to save the blind and groggy Nelson any more punishment. Nelson of course protested bitterly at the stoppage. The match itself was probably the nearest thing to a battle to the death that has been seen in the modern ring, and neither man was ever the same fighter again. 

Battling Nelson carried on fighting until 1917, with the increasingly vain hope of somehow regaining the world title, but although he continued to fight at the top level, the spark had gone from his fighting armor. Nine months after losing his world title to Ad Wolgast, Nelson was counted out for the first time in his career when England’s Owen Moran knocked ‘The Durable Dane’ out in the 11th round. The former iron man had finally become a mere mortal inside the ring. However, he still fought with courage and determination in the ring, and despite being past his best, would never take the full count again. Nelson finally retired in 1920, with his last fight being a 12- round point’s win over Slugger McLaughlin. 

Battling Nelson’s final record was 59(49koes)-19-22. He died on February 7, 1954, aged 71.

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