Ad Wolgast: Till Death Do Us Part

By Ted Spoon on December 18, 2014
Ad Wolgast: Till Death Do Us Part
The Michigan Wildcat was very much of the belief that fighting made you a better fighter.

“There are times when he recalls the days of his boyhood in Cadillac, Michigan, and the sweethearts he had before his name became a terror in the prize ring…” 

His frame is still wrapped in muscle, not that you can tell. Five-foot-four-inches doesn’t usually convey strength. Only when you approach does the atmosphere thicken, like you’ve just spied the markings of a dangerous animal. In this case it’s not so much the exterior, the scar tissue and bent nose as it is the posture. This coiled spring of a man longs to revisit where he’s evidently been.

Following another day’s roadwork the question is put to old pal, now legal guardian, Jack Doyle.

“When am I going to start sparring?”

Every day the same answer, “Tomorrow.” Every time it satisfied. 

Forty-four-year-old Ad Wolgast has been doing the same damn thing since 1920. The promise of a rematch with Joe Rivers yanks him out of bed pronto, but as the sun disappears and the sweat is wiped from his brow, that little conversation is wiped from his memory. 1927 insisted on a change of scenery with a visit to court. There’s no funny irony that he can’t understand the sentence. In his mind it simply equals a new training camp.

“They won’t let me do my roadwork here, but I’m going high in the mountains and fool them all.”

Sure thing, champ. It was off to Patton State Hospital.

This huge complex had only just changed its name. Patton Asylum was what pricked ears. Despite the various disorders most were labelled insane. Phantom assaults made the paranoia worse. Life wasn’t even a number. Today efforts are still being made to identify many of the lost souls who died before 1934, who were buried in the hospital grounds. And it was under these conditions that little Ad made his bed.

Debates continue about the true nature of insanity. In layman terms, Ad was the victim of “too many blows to the head.” Former manager Tom Jones soon visited, as did a handful of reporters. They saw a man still training and speaking in riddles, but in moments that quickly passed Ad became coherent enough to reflect.

“There are times when he recalls the days of his boyhood in Cadillac, Michigan, and the sweethearts he had before his name became a terror in the prize ring.” 

Visitor would hold onto the thread as gibberish resumed. 

January, 1911

Vincent Treanor interviewed boxing’s lightweight champion. The basics were impressive enough; 22, well off, money banked, investments in property, farmland, but Vincent came to know a “quick witted” even “brainy” fellow; you’d never have guessed from watching him fight. A more rugged type of science got the better of opponents. The money it produced rehoused all his family and the plan was to keep punching “for as long as I can make a dollar out of it.” Pride was also a driving force. Ad wasn’t about to vacate the title he’d worked so hard for, that was written all over his travelling trunks. 

Over 60 fights in less than four years brought him to the gold. Six-rounders in Michigan led to fifteen-rounders in Missouri. As that famous stamina began to show there were good learning experiences against Owen Moran, Abe Attell and the man who wore the strap, Battling Nelson.

Ad despised the champion. Their grudge boiled outside of the ring. He was to have no say in negotiations for the rematch. Forty-fve rounds were sure to favor Nelson, the man with surreal durability. Foul punches were legal; Wolgast smiled at that one. Obviously Nelson got the heavy end of the purse and he was the betting favorite. 18,000 spectators filled up a wooden stadium in Richmond, California. Nobody would forget the date — February 22, 1910.

These guys wailed away on each other with gloves that have more in common with mittens than today’s 10-ouncers.  Brutal is the word, but unlike many bouts from this era, full of waltzing n’ clinching, a high work rate defined the action. Unable to enforce any sort of ruling, referee Eddie Smith watched on as their nasty styles rubbed together like sandpaper. 

Nelson rushed Wolgast from the opening bell. Usually he crept out of the blocks. There was no resting up close as shots were fired into the midriff. The shorter Wolgast had plenty of success with his uppercut. In the 22nd something looked ready to break as a straight right brought Ad to his knees. A percentage of the crowd, having been seated in balmy weather for hours, figured the end was nigh and left the scene. Ad got back up. The majority stayed to witness an almighty comeback. 

Rounds still went to Nelson though Wolgast’s good spells increased. With deteriorating mugs they kept slugging away into the 36th, 37th, 38th round. Fights of this duration were often stopped due to exhaustion, but as the 40th drew near (and it may be observed in the surviving highlights), Wolgast unleashed a two-fisted attack. The crowd rose as knees buckled. At the start of round 40, referee Smith rescued the one known as the Durable Dane.

And the punchline is that Wolgast was not a true lightweight. He weighed two pounds under (fully clothed) and would go on to get credit as one of the few who kept within the limit. Facing men 10 lbs. heavier was common and likely part of the reason why he enjoyed roughing it. He wasn’t known to train much either. A little smoke pleased. The Michigan Wildcat was very much of the belief that fighting made you a better fighter. Only through partaking in “a real fight” would Ad be able to tell if a recently injured arm could function.

Many digested Nelson’s remarks about Ad; that he was a flimsy champion, sure to trip up. A few easy defenses marinated this theory. Defense number four was a pick ‘em. 

Britain’s Owen Moran had restyled himself as the number one contender via beating Nelson. The odds forecast a good fight and for twelve rounds it was. Early in the thirteenth Ad got nice leverage to dig his right into Moran’s stomach. He did it twice more and clipped him with a hook on the way down. A report said Owen’s face “whitened and twisted with agony”; a famous picture echoes this. Shouts of “foul!” died. The champion was no joke.

Later in the year Ad got a similar kind of pain, not in the ring but at home. He woke up screaming from a burst appendix and went under the knife shortly after. Getting back to full strength wasn’t easy. His return, a four-rounder with the talented Willie Ritchie did not go to plan. He assured James J. Corbett that short distance fights were not his thing. The ex-heavyweight champ looked into his eyes and nodded. Willie would get his shot, soonish.

Of all the weight divisions in boxing the 135 lbs. class has cropped talent like no other. Many believe that middleweight is where you’ll find the optimum balance of speed, power and technique, though the smaller cats might just possess a superior blend on average. Ad was lucky to be sandwiched between the eras of Joe Gans and Benny Leonard, but rarely is this landscape barren. While fighting pneumonia Ad read up on a chap who was creating a stir on the west coast.

“I am keeping my eye on him all right. I would be foolish if I tried to overlook him, for he will have to be reckoned with.” The date of reckoning occurred precisely a year after the Moran bout, July 4, 1912. For some it topped the Nelson epic. 

Mexican Joe Rivers had a compact build like Wolgast and bags of endurance; a little more finesse. The early rounds went to the challenger. Teeth-chattering blows made it a bloody fight from round two onwards. Rivers had the edge for a while though it felt like the kind a cowboy has over a bucking horse. Ad’s punches were fearsome. They found the mark better as Rivers slowed down. Then they both slowed. In the ninth they almost fell through the ropes. Rounds 10-12 raged on. Something had to give.

Everything did.

Just before the close of round thirteen the two fighters collapsed with Ad on top. 11,000 spectators stood up. Many thought Wolgast went low. Referee Jack Welsh swore he didn’t. Some say Wolgast simultaneously fainted. Others insisted he caught a clean punch. Different angles told a different story. The bizarre climax had Welsh assist Ad to his feet and proclaim him the winner. “Double Knockout” had a better ring to it.

Later in life Rivers gave a slightly pro-Rivers account of things. He did however state some truth. “It was a brutal fight. We were both in bad shape.”

Ritchie licked his chops at the outcome. Ad seemed to acknowledge the danger and frequented the gym. Joe Mandot made him look rather average so he trained harder still. It wouldn’t save the day. On November 28, 1912, Wolgast was an ex-champion. There was a hint of karma.

Newsmen of the day, tired of Wolgast’s dirty schemes, may have been guilty of twisting the knife in his time of failure. It’s true that he was floored in the sixteenth, the same round in which the bout ended but fouling was not the hallmark of a one-sided fight. Ritchie’s right eye was completely shut and the left was going. Many believed he did not have the power to finish matters. A little reserve on the champion’s behalf may have pushed things into favorably deep waters.

Sixteen months on gave Ad a chance at redemption.

For a measly 10-rounder he performed well. Round seven provided the scoop when a right body punch floored him. Or was it low? That’s how a percentage of the audience saw it, and had Wolgast stayed on the floor protesting…maybe he won back some fans by not doing so.

There was a final throw of the dice in 1916, the year in which Wolgast was first declared insane. Then champion Freddie Welsh won in an 11- round disqualification. Fans doubted whether a foul was intentional. One thing was for certain, and new blood Richie Mitchell spelt it out, “Ad is not the fighter he once was.”

At his best Wolgast was raw aggression with a pinch of method. He moved well in spurts and defended by wrapping himself into a small package, though there was always a gap near the top to thump away, to rattle his brain. Reporters scalded him for missing wildly. Maybe with the right trainer and ethic he could have lengthened that reign…and probably reduced its drama.

In between needless bouts those close to him began to frown. The women who use to chase him dwindled until the one who loved him filed for a divorce. She took most of his assets. The remaining lump of change would be put to terrible use, buying worthless property and crippled race horses. The death of his father in 1925 bequeathed $150,000. It turned to sand.

When Jack Doyle rescued Ad he was essentially repaying a debt. It was Wolgast who, when cruising in the fast lane, brought him fortune. Free of charge training sessions at Jack’s boxing quarters reeled the customers into his nearby café. Ad came back to this gym, buzzing about daily, waiting for that ‘rematch.’ Court relocated the dream.

Time fell into oblivion in Patton asylum. It did the same in Stockton State hospital. His mind degraded further. “Just the other day I knocked him out in three.” These thoughts could spark a violent streak. The ageing battler was also a bit of mark. In 1949 two men ganged up on the still fiery 61-year-old; he got battered. Blindness ensued.

The 1950s were quite a different time. Lightweight champ Jimmy Carter was black — someone Ad would never have defended against for generational reasons. After covering one of Jimmy’s bouts the odd reporter took it upon themselves to track down a lost warrior. Reality began to hit home when navigating gloomy corridors. Open sesame and there was Ad, sat in a wheelchair, grey and pensive. Maybe 10% of the following chat was legible. Tomorrow’s column reminded those who bay for blood of the dangers involved; a just service, though compassion has this flaw. 

It skews our understanding of those who want none. 

Over in a Chicago hotel, nine months away from death, Battling Nelson recalled that “cheesecake champion” who stole his title. Ad was in no position to counter. Respiratory problems were grinding him down.

The final bell went inside a loveless room on April 14, 1955. 

Vital signs faded as they watched on. 

Was that a grimace or a snarl? 

“…Seconds out, Ad.”

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  1. Mike Casey 02:08am, 12/19/2014

    Lovely work, Ted!

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