Old kid highley, now 86 but still a wealthy man, living in an expensive suite in a San Francisco hotel, probably remembers more about Tex Rickard's first big fight promotion than any man alive. Friends and partners since Rickard's last venture into Alaska in 1904, the Kid was with Tex when he followed the call of a new gold rush to Nevada and set himself up in a saloon there called, naturally, The Northern. This establishment subsequently went down in western history as one of the most colorful of all the saloons known to that gaudy era; but it is not the memory of its 60-foot bar, or its 80 employees of all kinds, or the fact that Wyatt Earp was one of its floormen or even that in gambling alone they made a million dollars in three years that makes Highley's eyes light up when he recalls the place. The Northern was great, certainly, but the fight between Joe Gans and Battling Nelson which Rickard put on eclipses it in the minds of all who were there.
Rickard did not put on the fight for the sake of the noble sport of boxing. It was conceived purely and simply as a publicity stunt to promote the name of Goldfield. That booming little town in the heart of the great gold country around Tonopah was proving to be a mother lode of riches; but its local businessmen wanted a promotion of a different order to bring Goldfield's mining stocks to national attention. Rickard's first idea, based on the success he had had with small bouts in his Alaska days, was to match Terrible Terry McGovern and Jimmy Britt for a fight to the finish. Fortunately, this fell through; Joe Humphreys, then managing McGovern, took Rickard's offer for a bad practical joke. Rickard himself admitted afterward that Humphreys' error was Goldfield's good fortune; McGovern was well over the hill as a fighter by that time.
But Rickard's next move was a master stroke. He wired Billy Nolan, Battling Nelson's manager, guaranteeing a purse of $30,000 for a fight between the Battler and the Old Master, Joe Gans, on Labor Day 1906. This was the largest guarantee that had ever been offered for lightweights; but if Rickard, who was accustomed to seeing fortunes won and lost on the turn of a card, knew that he was making boxing history, he kept the fact hidden under a studied manner of guilelessness.
Rickard describes in his memoirs how he raised the money. He walked out of the telegraph office and down the dusty main street of Goldfield looking for backers. Al Myers, a successful prospector, said he could be counted upon for $5,000. A little farther down the street George Graham Rice, the fabulous swindler who cost investors an estimated $25 million and won ultimate notoriety in the '20s as "The Jackal of Wall Street," gave his word for $5,000 more and added a promise that he would back the whole venture if he had to.
That, Highley recalls, was typical of Rickard's way of operating. "Tex could always draw in that crowd," he said not long ago. "His very name and reputation attracted the customers. He was a real gambler, always angling for a deal." Certainly the Nelson-Gans fight, and the part that Rickard played in it, had very special qualities. Never one to advertise his methods, Rickard apparently found it convenient in the years that followed to obscure the combination of luck and opportunism and shrewd trading sense that contributed to this and to so many of his later triumphs.
He maintained always, although his actions cast considerable doubt on his words, that the very last thing he ever wanted to do was to be the promoter of the fight. Jack Dempsey, in a series on Rickard published after the promoter's death by the New York American, recalled Rickard telling him how his fellow townsmen set up the Gold-field Athletic Club to handle the fight.
"The loudest talker decided he wanted to be master of ceremonies—and he got himself the job. Somebody wanted to be this and another feller wanted to be that—president or chairman and gosh knows what else.
"Well, after a little time the boys got themselves all checked out with fancy-sounding jobs and then they happened to take note that I was still around.
" 'Hey,' one of them yelled, 'here's Texie and we ain't fixed him with a job.'
" I don't want any job—I'll be just a chipper-in,' I said.