Interview with Mark Allen Baker, author of “Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane”

Having known you for years, I have to ask the obvious: Why Battling Nelson as the subject of your first biography and why now?

Having written Nelson’s condensed biography for his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame back in 1992, I became intrigued with the turn-of-the-century World Lightweight Champion. And, as is often the case, the further I explored the man the more fascinating he became. Then, after finding out that his autobiography ended at 1908, yet he lived until 1954, I yearned for the rest of the story.

This begs the question, then why McFarland & Company as the publisher of choice?

Good question, it’s because I have always been impressed by the work published by McFarland & Company, particularly in the area of boxing. For example, Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott’s work Joe Gans, A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion filled a hole in boxing research, as did Arne Lang’s book The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900–1914. As an academic publisher they demand rigorous detail, something I have always admired about McFarland & Company.

So, as a publisher, how did they view the completed work?

They provide a pretty good synopsis of the book on their website (www.mcfarlandbooks.com):

“Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson (1882–1954) was perhaps the toughest professional boxer ever to enter the ring. Although a Hall of Fame inductee, Nelson remains a lesser known great of boxing lore. From the beginning of his career at 14, the Danish immigrant presented himself as a man of integrity who never smoked, drank or took a dive. In the ring and in public, Battling Nelson crafted a Renaissance man image as a lightweight champion, reporter, entertainer, real estate mogul, entrepreneur and ladies’ man. The first ever champion in his weight class to mount a comeback, he strove to break new ground (even if he wasn’t always successful). This book tells the story of a ring legend whose endurance was second to none and whose trilogy with Joe Gans is one of the great rivalries in sports history.”

So, I take it that is another boxing success story?

Hardly, while Nelson was indeed a World Lightweight Champion, the twist and turns throughout his life make it far more captivating. If I was a screenwriter and took the story to a producer, they would never believe it. It is a “rags to riches to rags” story, involving nearly every facet of human emotion. From defeating a strongman at the circus, to a trilogy against the greatest lightweight boxer ever, the book takes you beyond boxing and into a world filled with romance, intrigue, royalty and even suicide.

But didn’t Nelson include all this in his autobiography?

No, at the time he penned his autobiography, he was at the pinnacle of his career and certainly wouldn’t have wanted anything to impact his championship. Since most of what people understand about Nelson ends in 1908, they have no idea what transpired in the over four decades that followed.

Using terms like “romance,” “royalty” and “suicide” hardly sounds like a boxing book, can you explain a bit more without getting too detailed?

As a Renaissance man, Oscar Nelson attracted his fair share of beautiful women, including even an heiress to a multimillion-dollar fortune. And, it was through the latter, one Irma Kilgallen, who would marry Count Jacques von Mourik de Beaufort, that all three elements play out in the book. But, there is more to the story: Kilgallen divorced her husband and later married Chicago, playwright, actor and composer Joseph E. Howard. After a month long marriage, Irma Howard happened upon her husband during a precarious moment and it led to her suicide. It’s this entire melodrama that plays out inside the pages of the book.

Now I’m intrigued, so just how does Nelson play into the picture?

During the entire situation, Oscar Battling Matthew Nelson was having a discreet “on again-off again” affair with Irma Kilgallen.

*Are you kidding me?

Not at all, and there was even more to the story. But, for that you will have to read the book.

Let’s get back to boxing for a second, as you are probably most familiar to readers through your affiliation with the sport. Just how good was Battling Nelson?

Oscar Battling Matthew Nelson was without question the toughest and most durable professional boxer ever to enter a ring. Obscure, although he was selected by the Hall of Fame as part of their third induction class, unheard of yet often appropriately called the most hardwearing boxer in ring history, overlooked, yet boxing scribe Bert Randolph Sugar ranked him number fifty-one, out of one hundred, among boxing’s greatest fighters-ahead of John L. Sullivan, Carlos Monzon, Carmen Basilio and Bob Fitzsimmons. To have been deceased for over six decades and yet still acknowledged at this level-among the most distinguished individuals ever to participate in your profession-is an awe-inspiring accomplishment.

So what’s going to grab the attention of the boxing fan? You do know we have short attention spans, don’t you?

I do. What is going to interest boxing fans is the fascinating underpinnings of Nelson’s career including: a meteoric rise from beating a strong man at the circus to defeating Joe Gans, the greatest lightweight champion of all-time; a tetralogy of unforgettable Bay Area battles with Jimmy Britt; an intense trilogy with elite boxer Ad Wolgast; legendary fight promotions with James W. Coffroth and George “Tex” Rickard and even a return to the big top.

Okay, so that’s Nelson the fighter, what about a bit more regarding Nelson the man?

What you see, is what you got with Oscar Nelson. Fighting in era when his occupation was considered uncivilized and corrupt, he wore his profession on his sleeve, as genuine as they come. However it came at price: his fiancés became as common as sparring partners; his first true love came in the form of a beautiful and wealthy heiress, soon to be a countess, whose family abhorred pugilism and pugilists; his first marriage, to a talented cartoonist, was measured in days, even if her heart wasn’t; and his final love was not found until the last rounds of his life.

You had mentioned to me that not even a Hollywood screenwriter would buy into the reality of this man’s life and you were right. Speaking of which, have you had any movie bites on the book?

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some talk, but as of right now, nothing is etched in stone.

Using one sentence only, can you sum up the life of Oscar Nelson?

As you can certainly tell, that’s not easy, but I’ll try: Oscar Nelson was a bona fide ring champion, whose endurance was second to none, and whose trilogy with Joe Gans was one of the greatest in sports history.

Now, using one sentence only, can you sum up the death of Oscar Nelson?

Another genuine ring hero who died penniless and suffered from a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental process caused by brain disease or injury, and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.

You cheated and had that memorized, didn’t you?

It’s actually a quote from the book.

How has the book been received so far?

Tremendous actually, four to five stars on most scales, but it’s only the first round. Like most biographies, it is going to take some time before historians digest the information and properly place it among the sport’s scholarly works. For me it was a year of my life well spent and I am honored to have had the opportunity. I hope everyone enjoys it.

So after all this, do I dare ask what’s next for Mark Allen Baker?

Well, more boxing! The Fighting Times of Abe Attell, also published by McFarland & Company,  is due out in May and I can’t wait.  Here’s the blurb on that title: Abraham Washington Attell (1883-1970) was among the cleverest, most scientific professional boxers ever to enter the ring. The native San Franciscan fought 172 times in his career–scoring 127 wins, 51 by knockout–and successfully defended his World Featherweight Champion title 18 times between 1906 and 1912, defeating challengers who included Johnny Kilbane and Battling Nelson. Attell’s success inspired his brothers Caesar and Monte to take up the sport–Abe and Monte both held simultaneous world titles for a time. This first ever biography covers Attell’s life and career. Growing up poor and Jewish in a predominantly Irish neighborhood, he faced his share of adversity and anti-Semitism in and out of the ring. He was charged for alleged involvement in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. The charges were dropped but Attell was branded by association for the remainder of his life.

After writing and publishing twenty books, I got to ask: How did you find your agent? 

I don’t use an agent, and never have. When I find one that works as hard as I do, I’ll sign them up. Any suggestions?

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