Ad Wolgast and the Hard Knock Life
By Aaron Lloyd
World Lightweight Champion Adolphus “Ad” Wolgast was one of the most courageous, interesting, and tragic figures in the history of boxing. Born on February 8, 1888 in Cadillac, Michigan, Wolgast, the oldest in a family of seven, took to boxing at an early age and showed an affinity for the sport during a brief but successful amateur campaign. In June of 1906, he attended his first professional prizefight, both as a spectator and as a participant, when he somehow managed to talk his way onto the fight card, after being short the funds for a ticket! Wolgast won a six-round decision over Kid Moore that day, thus beginning an epic 14-year career that would culminate with him as the lightweight champion of the world, and end with him as a destitute and forgotten man living out the remainder of his life in an institution.
From 1906 to 1909 Wolgast lost only one time officially (5 times counting “newspaper decisions”) in a period of 64 fights. His aggressive, all-action style earned him the nickname “The Michigan Wildcat,” and by the end of the decade he had moved from smaller venues and lower paying fights around Michigan and Wisconsin to more lucrative engagements along the West Coast. In 1909, Wolgast met his eventual nemesis (and then champion) Battling Nelson in a scheduled 10-round, non-title bout in Los Angeles, and after ten brutal and bloody rounds, he was declared the winner by way of a newspaper decision. With the win, Wolgast established himself as one of the best fighters in the division and one of the biggest threats to the lightweight crown; and just seven short months later he would get another opportunity to prove himself, this time with the title on the line.
The rematch with Nelson was set for February 22, 1910 in a city just north of San Francisco called Point Richmond. More than 18,000 fans showed up that day in anticipation of another epic battle, and with forty-five rounds allotted to determining a winner the second time around, there was no question that the fans would get their money’s worth. Bitter rivals to the end, the two sounded off before the fight, both confident of victory. Nelson baited his challenger by saying, “Put a horseshoe in each of his gloves, and bet him he can’t knock me out;” while Wolgast, sans-horseshoes, gleefully obliged.
For forty rounds the two men tore at each other as advertised, landing maliciously with fists, elbows, incisors, and just about anything else they could get away with. Nelson controlled the action through the first twenty-five rounds, getting off first and fighting at an exceedingly spirited pace, but as the fight wore on, the Michigan Wildcat began to hit his stride, eventually winning the marathon battle of attrition. Finally, battered, bruised, bleeding from the nose and ears, and squinting through two slits for eyes, Nelson was declared unfit to continue after the referee determined he could no longer see well enough to continue (at one point he actually tried squaring up with the ring post instead of Wolgast); and after forty grueling rounds, Ad Wolgast was crowned the new lightweight champion of the world. To this day, the Wolgast-Nelson fight is considered one of the most thrilling and fierce battles in boxing history, earning the 19th spot on Ring Magazine’s “100 Greatest Fights of all Time” list (circa 1996), and prompting ringside observer W.O. McGeehan of the New York Herald Tribune to remark, “For concentrated viciousness, it was the most savage bout I have ever seen.”
Wolgast would successfully defend his title five times over the course of the next two years, with the most memorable bout occurring in his fourth defense, the infamous “double knockdown” brawl with Mexican Joe Rivers on July 7, 1912. Trailing in the fight through twelve rounds, Wolgast had virtually exhausted all legal avenues towards victory, and were it not for the actions of a bottle brandishing cornerman (who chased him off the stool between rounds), he might well have conceded defeat. As it turned out, however, Wolgast came out for the thirteenth round intent on giving old Mexican Joe a little “south of the border” action, and at the first available opportunity, he connected with a left hand below the belt just as Rivers connected with a left-right combination to Wolgast’s jaw. The two fighters fell in unison, and the referee, unaware that a foul had been committed, began counting both men out. Wolgast, arguably the more coherent of the two, slowly attempted to rise while Rivers continued writhing in pain on the canvas, and the referee, having finished the ten count, declared Wolgast the winner based on his more “concentrated” effort to get to his feet. Upon hearing the verdict, the crowd (particularly the pro-Rivers contingent) began to voice their displeasure over the unfair ruling, and the referee, a man by the name of Jack Welch, had to beat a hasty retreat back to the dressing rooms in order to avoid the ire of the unruly mob. Nevertheless, Welch’s decision (a TKO for Wolgast) remained the official verdict, and the champion held onto his title under the most contentious of circumstances.
On November 28, 1912, Wolgast’s reign as champion would finally come to an end, when, in an ironic twist of fate, he was disqualified against San Francisco native Willie Ritchie for another flagrant infraction (one that was correctly labeled as such this time). With the loss, only his second “official” loss in more than 84 contests (Wolgast did lose seven newspaper decisions during that span) the Michigan Wildcat, still just 24-years of age, set out to regain his lightweight championship by whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, the years of punishment were beginning to take their toll on Wolgast, and despite finding sporadic success in the ensuing years (he did beat Battling Nelson by way of a newspaper decision in 1913), the former champion would never again challenge for the world title, and he finished the last 8 years of his career with a record of 19-25-10. On September 6, 1920, at the age of 32, Wolgast finally retired with an overall record of 59-13-17 (40 KO’s) and a record of 21-21-7 in newspaper decisions. For the brave champion, his ring career had come to an end, but little did he know, his most difficult battles were just getting started.
Over the course of his 14-year ring career, Adolphus Wolgast fought 429 rounds in 140 fights and suffered countless injuries, including broken arms, ribs, and damage to his eyes, ears and nose (Wolgast had the latter injected with paraffin wax to remedy its somewhat gnarled appearance). Unfortunately, the most extensive injury suffered by Wolgast was the trauma to his brain, and by 1918 (still 2 years before his last official bout) he suffered a nervous breakdown, was declared incapable of tending to his affairs, and was institutionalized in a sanitarium. In 1918, Wolgast escaped from the hospital where he was being held and lived for a time in the mountains of North Carolina, where he was eventually “discovered” and given over to the care of Jack Doyle, a boxing promoter from Vernon, California. Doyle offered to let Wolgast live and train with him, with the stipulation that Wolgast would never again be allowed to enter a prizefighting ring, and as a result, Wolgast spent the next seven years (from 1920 to 1927) diligently training every day, skipping rope, running, and shadow boxing for a fight that never came. Wolgast trained from sun up to sun down, and would retire exhausted each evening with the belief that his title shot was always a day away. For close to seven years, this ritual went on, with Doyle offering encouragement and keeping Wolgast preoccupied and singularly focused, in a sad re-embodiment of his former self.
In 1927, Wolgast’s condition deteriorated to the point that he was once again institutionalized, and it was here, at the Stockton State Hospital in California, where he would spend the remainder of his life. At the age of 61, Wolgast, never one to back down from a fight, suffered a severe beating at the hands of two hospital orderlies, who in an attempt to “test the toughness” of the former ring great, left him with him with broken ribs and permanently disabled. Just a few short years later in 1955, Wolgast, at the age of 67, died of heart failure, thus completing the tale of one of boxing’s most tragic and fearless individuals.