Did Ad Take One in the Shorts?
The Milwaukee Free Press said he was up and about early the next day, though “the cords of his groin were badly swollen and he walked with difficulty…”
A grave injustice was either perpetrated or averted in a fight for the lightweight championship 100 years ago today. The truth of the matter was buried long ago with the principals in the March 12, 1914 contest: champion Willie Ritchie, challenger and former champion Ad Wolgast, and referee Harry Stout.
When Wolgast went down in the seventh round of the scheduled 10-round no-decision fight in Milwaukee, he was either the victim of a foul blow few at ringside saw but which was confirmed in a post-fight examination of Wolgast by three physicians; or, by starting to count over the ex-champion and ignoring protests that Wolgast had been felled by an illegal punch, Stout foiled a plot to restore the 135-pound title to Wolgast in the exact same manner by which he’d lost it to Ritchie two years earlier.
A third, less invidious possibility is that Wolgast himself blew it by simply not letting Stout count him out and relying on the Wisconsin boxing commission to overrule Stout and award him the title based on the evidence of his purpled groin.
That last scenario, though, would’ve violated every instinct that impelled the Michigan Wildcat to fight through pain that would’ve made other fighters throw the white towel, and that helped Wolgast prevail over Battling Nelson in their epic 40-round war that gave Ad the lightweight title in 1910.
In each of his next two fights Wolgast broke his left forearm in the fourth round, yet battled on single-handedly until the bell ended the 10-round bouts rather than quit and give up what meant everything to him. “I would rather be lightweight champion of the world than President of the United States,” he said in 1911.
According to Dr. S.C. Moore in 1914, the numerous hand and arm breaks incurred by Wolgast in his career derived from the fact that he “delivers middleweight blows with only lightweight bones to stand the shock.”
An even grimmer portent for Ad’s future well being was his reliance on a defense that left the top of his head exposed to his opponents’ fire as he bore in on them from a crouch, his arms crossed in front of his face. Wolgast “wrapped himself in a package the size of a pickle,” wrote Rube Goldberg.
Some said Ad wasn’t the same after an emergency appendectomy in 1911, but those closest to him knew there was more to it when he lost the belt to Ritchie on a foul on Thanksgiving Day, 1912.
“It was condition beat Ad,” said his brother, Otto Wolgast. “Ad hasn’t been training regularly lately and you know what that means, even to a champion… There’s half a dozen boys in the country could have licked Ad today.”
Several of them did just that over the ensuing months, and after being widely consigned to “second-rater” status, Wolgast returned to the city where his climb to glory had commenced six years earlier and startlingly emerged from the ashes.
At Paddy Dorrell’s beans-and-beer joint in downtown Milwaukee, where Ad landed in 1907 after leaving his hometown of Cadillac, Michigan, he introduced himself as “Young Wolgast” and said, “I understand you have a lot of pugs around here. I would like a workout.” They took him to the gym out back and put Red Halligan, a local tough Mick, in the other corner to pound dents in the newcomer’s iron self-assurance. But Wolgast put Halligan to sleep.
Within months he was a local favorite, and after Wolgast beat Harry Baker in his first main event on February 14, 1908, sportswriter “Brownie” Rowland proclaimed, “Milwaukee now has a featherweight championship possibility.” Wolgast left town later that year because authorities slammed the lid down on pro boxing, which was outlawed by state statute.
A week after he won the lightweight title from Nelson, the 21-year-old “Flying Dutchman from Milwaukee,” as Wolgast was introduced at the fight in Port Richmond, California, returned to a hero’s welcome. “I am still the Milwaukee boy,” declared the new champion, “and I can’t see why they are writing about Cadillac. Cadillac is my home, but I fought here first and my friends are here and I’m still the Milwaukee boy.”
Now, in late 1913, he was back. Wolgast’s October 13 fight against a familiar opponent was the first big Milwaukee attraction since boxing was legalized in the state that summer. After nine one-sided rounds Wolgast bounded out of his corner for the tenth and jeered, “Fiftieth round at Port Richmond!” Old Battling Nelson was too spent to correct him, and Ad did it himself: “Fortieth! Fortieth!” He eased up, though, and let Nelson finish on his feet.
“While there is no question but what Nelson is through,” wrote Brownie Rowland, “with Wolgast it’s a different story. He showed himself to be the same wonderful little fighting machine of old.”
Ad was equally fearsome in subsequent Milwaukee bouts with Charlie White and Mexican Joe Rivers, and the old attitude was back as well. “You look like you’re scared stiff, Charlie,” he snarled at White before their fight. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t do anything except kill you tonight, and you won’t know when it happens.”
On January 23, 1914, he clobbered Rivers—unlucky loser to Wolgast in the infamous 1912 “Double Knockout” title fight—so fiercely that it was written, “After hearing of Mr. Wolgast’s performance, Willie Ritchie will probably experience a frightful attack of the dandruff or some other fierce malady which will prevent him from boxing until 1919.”
But Ritchie had no fear of Ad Wolgast. He’d used superior ring generalship to clearly best Ad in a four-round no-decision bout six months before their title match, and in the latter Wolgast was on the verge of a KO when he fouled out in the 16th round. The Californian derided by Wolgast as an “accidental champion” and even a “female impersonator” had no qualms about defending his title against Wolgast in Milwaukee, though Ritchie wasn’t thrilled when “Silk Shirt” Harry Stout was picked to referee the fight. A Milwaukeean, Stout had refereed Wolgast’s brawls with Nelson, White and Rivers, and eyebrows were raised at the broad leeway he’d granted the Dutchman.
Wolgast had his own worries when just days before the fight he hurt his left hand in a sparring session. “While it was the worst thing that might have happened,” conceded Ad, “the hand is still good enough to beat Ritchie.”
Hours ahead of the main event, police ringed the Auditorium to send everyone arriving in hopes of buying a ticket back home. It was small consolation, but at least they could still talk the next morning, unlike the almost 8,000 attendees rendered hoarse by 10 rounds of action at the end of which most of the newspapers represented at ringside called it a draw or gave it to Ritchie on the strength of the knockdown in the seventh round.
When Wolgast hit the deck one of his handlers ran around the ring screaming foul. But Silk Shirt Harry shook his head and started counting. Wolgast rose at six and lasted out the round and the fight, even coming back strong in the 10th despite, on top of everything else, what turned out to be a broken left hand.
“His claim that I fouled him is a joke,” insisted Ritchie afterwards. “It was a hard punch to the pit of the stomach that sent him down.”
“When he struck me it hurt so I could hardly stand it,” Wolgast said. “But before I had a chance to claim a foul referee Stout started to count me out and I got to my feet and went at it. But it bothered me all through the rest of the fight.”
Dr. C.W. Morter said that considering how he found Ad’s nether parts afterwards, “it is a marvel to know he was able to continue under the circumstances.”
Some papers reported Wolgast was abed for three days after the fight, but the Milwaukee Free Press said he was up and about early the next day, though “the cords of his groin were badly swollen and he walked with difficulty.” But not so much that it kept him from plotting to ambush a sportswriter who called the fight for Ritchie when Ad spied him on a downtown street. A friend prevented it.
As for Harry Stout, after initially saying “I could not see the foul blow as I was back of Ritchie at the time,” he decided he had been in “a perfect position to see the punch” after all and it was “clean as a whistle.”
The controversy notwithstanding, the fight was upheld as shining proof that boxing governed by a duly constituted commission was aboveboard and worthwhile.
A whole decade passed before it was revealed that the cloud over Wolgast-Ritchie III actually formed well before that mysterious seventh round.
In 1924, Manning Vaughan of The Milwaukee Journal disclosed that days before the fight the boxing commission—of which Vaughan was secretary—heard “that Harry Stout, the referee, had been fixed and that it was in the cards for Wolgast to regain the title by claiming a foul. It was said that Stout would disqualify Ritchie the first time he struck low.
“Stout was instructed not to stop the bout because of a foul unless he was absolutely certain that a foul had been committed,” wrote Vaughan. “No doubt these stories and the commission’s instructions biased the referee to such an extent that when a foul was actually committed he refused to allow it.”
Vaughan said that Stout had told him immediately after the fight: “I know Wolgast was hit low, but I did not think the blow hurt him enough to warrant stopping the bout. Besides, there were so many stories in the air that I did not intend to get myself in a trap by a bit of snap judgment.”
The day after the contest the Milwaukee Sentinel’s A.J. Schinner wrote that had Wolgast stayed down and stuck to his claim of a foul, he “would have been vindicated by the commission physician immediately after.”
In 1925 Schinner wasn’t so sure anymore. “The full tale of that battle has never been told and probably never will be told,” he now wrote ominously, recalling that “in his dressing room (Wolgast) showed the writer a red daub on his groin and a bent cup”—but “whether the cup was bent before or after we can’t say—nor will anybody else.”
Whatever the case, it didn’t matter anymore to poor Wolgast. In 1918, his brain warped by the punches he never bothered to block, he was institutionalized in Milwaukee for a year. In 1927 he went off to the balmy house for good.
But his contempt for his old nemesis remained as fierce to the end as when the mere sight of Ritchie’s photo once made Ad explode: “No guy with the handle ‘Willie’ should be a world champion fighter! If he would call himself ‘Bill’ or ‘Billy’ I wouldn’t hate him so much. Willie! What a name for a he-man fighter!”