Happy Birthday, Ad Wiater!

By Pete Ehrmann on April 30, 2014
Happy Birthday, Ad Wiater!
Wiater “proved as rugged as the weather back in his hometown. He crowded Joe all night.”

According to Barney Ross, “The only time Louis had a chance to be bested was the night he met that Wiater fellow from Wisconsin…”

Every time a member of the Green Bay Packers sneezes, the fawning Wisconsin media say a prayerful Gesundheit, lovingly analyze the discharge and send it to “storied” (their favorite adjective) Lambeau Field for display at the Packers Hall of Fame.

Or so it seems to we atheists in the land where Packermania qualifies as a state religion.

My own proudly heretical view is that the toughest SOB to come out of Green Bay was the boxer born 102 years ago today who almost threw Joe Louis for the first loss of his professional career.

When the future heavyweight champion fought Ad Wiater in Chicago on September 26, 1934, the Brown Bomber left the ring a winner by the narrowest of decisions.

In his 1978 autobiography, Louis recalled that night at the Arcadia Gardens arena when “Wiater hurt me some and stood his ground. He was a crowder, the first man to bring blood to my face.”

Louis biographer Richard Bak wrote that Wiater “proved as rugged as the weather back in his hometown. He crowded Joe all night.”

If injuries to his arms hadn’t hampered him and eventually ended his career, Ad Wiater might’ve crowded his hometown professional football team right out of the Wisconsin sports spotlight.

The graduate of Green Bay East high school won a couple Golden Gloves titles in the early 1930s. In the amateurs he lost twice by decision to Max Marek, who beat Louis in the 1933 AAU light heavyweight title match, and was outpointed by future heavyweight contender and Louis foe Bob Pastor in a battle of Chicago and New York City Golden Gloves titlists at Madison Square Garden.

When Wiater turned pro in 1933, his manager, Green Bay pickle maker Leslie Kelly, sent him to Chicago to train. That’s where most of Wiater’s fights were held. His first loss, by decision to Ernie Evans, was in Milwaukee. According to The Milwaukee Journal’s Sam Levy, the verdict stunk. Wiater knocked Evans out in a rematch.

His first pro fight in Green Bay was a fifth round TKO over fellow Wisconsinite Merrill “Red” Tonn in 1933. Over the next six months, Wiater won nine in a row, including a decision over Johnny Paychek, who’d fight Louis for the title in 1940.

Johnny “Baker Boy” Risko had been an upper-tier contender for a decade when he came to Green Bay to fight Wiater on August 18, 1934. The fight at City Stadium, then home of the Packers, was the centerpiece of the state convention of the American Legion. Risko had beaten plenty of good fighters—including then-heavyweight champion Max Baer—and was famous enough to be featured in two large front-page advertisements in the sports section of the Green Bay Press-Gazette the week of the fight. Sponsored by the local Stone Motor Company, in the ads Risko gave his hearty endorsement to the “Chrysler Airflow” automobile.

Unlike some celebrity pitchmen, Risko’s honesty was beyond rebuke. Not long before he’d told Arch Ward of the Chicago Tribune, “If there were any good fighters around I would quit. But they are all bums, including myself; but I am one of the least worst.”

Endorsements didn’t come much heartier than the one for Wiater in the Press-Gazette a few days before the fight.

“If you were to talk long with Ad Wiater,” Harry Conley wrote, “and particularly if you dropped any remarks about his being near the top, he would squirm a little, search around for the right expression to use in telling you that the big hurdles were all made in getting the breaks and opportunities… We like to hear this boy, who is getting nearer and nearer to a crack at the World championship, say that right here in Green Bay there are many fighters who have greater ability, finer qualities, and are more capable. We certainly don’t think so, but it gives us an inside light on Ad that does not show when he is in there, driving and hammering out a victory. However, it is the thing that makes us proud of Ad—his love for his home, his hometown, and extremely modest answers to any praise.

“Why do we like the Green Bay Packers? Is it just because they win? They are Green Bay boys to us, and we like Ad Wiater for the same reason, because he’s real, honest, a champion in the making, and on top of it all, just a modest, inspiring youth.”

The Wiater-Risko bout was the first boxing match ever held outdoors in Green Bay, which was too bad for the local hero because it turned out to be the only one in Wisconsin ever TKO’d by the weather. Wiater was ahead on points when severe thunderstorms that caused more than $40,000 in damage throughout Green Bay soaked the fighters and the 4,000 fans at City Stadium. The fight was stopped in the fifth round after lightning struck a transformer and the stadium was plunged into darkness. It went into the record books as “No Contest,” and afterwards Risko admitted that Wiater “hit me as hard as some of the best heavyweights in the business have done.” Veteran referee Walter Houlehan told Art Bystrom of the Press-Gazette that “he never saw a youngster look as good against a veteran as Wiater did.”

Wiater’s growing reputation put him “in kind of a tough spot,” wrote Bystrom 10 days after the Risko fight. “The best boys won’t take him, for fear of ruining a reputation at the hands of a comparative unknown, and the second-raters don’t want him for they know they haven’t a chance.”

Right below that pronouncement in the Press-Gazette was a boxing result from Chicago the night before: “Joe Lewis, 187¾, Detroit, knocked out Buck Everett, 183, Gary, Ind., (2).”

The misspelling of his surname notwithstanding, Joe Louis had a growing reputation of his own. A national Golden Gloves light heavyweight champion in ’34, he had reeled off six impressive wins as a professional. When Louis – “a sharpshooter … who waits for an opponent to lead and then unleashes crashing wallops to the head or body” and Wiater –  “an aggressive, methodical fighter who has demonstrated ability to absorb hard punches without weakening”  –  were matched, the Press-Gazette said it “may go a long way toward determining which will come closest to his goal –  a world’s title bout.”

In the first round a Louis wallop caught Wiater on the jaw, and he went down. But he leaped up before the referee could even start counting, and any notion that Louis was in for another easy night were dispelled over the next few rounds as the Green Bay fighter kept on top of Louis and outfought him.

Forty-one years later, Wiater told Press-Gazette sportswriter Jim Egle that Joe “was going to quit by the eighth round because he’d taken too much of a beating. Somehow his manager stuck a pin up his seat to make him fight.”

That doesn’t seem very likely, but according to one Chicago newspaper “Wiater became the aggressor again in the seventh, and short, jarring wallops to the head had Louis worried. At this stage the battle was even, but Wiater weakened in the last two rounds, enabling the Detroiter to score with punishing blows.”

The Associated Press called it “close all the way with neither having a wide margin,” but said Louis took the last two rounds “with a fast flurry of punches to gain the decision.”

Triple champion Barney Ross was there. Two years later he recalled: “The only time Louis had a chance to be bested was the night he met that Wiater fellow from Wisconsin. Wiater hurt Joe a couple times, but the Bomber never flinched.”

Jack Blackburn, Louis’s trainer, has been quoted as saying, “When Joe pulled through those ten rounds, I knew that I was handling a great fighter.’”

A talked-about rematch didn’t happen, and in his next fight Wiater lost a decision in eight rounds to Corn Griffin. He beat Art Sykes and Larry Udall, but then dropped successive verdicts to Al Ettore and Roy Lazer. By then, bone chips and calcium deposits in his elbows, aggravated by his style of mixing it up inside, were an increasing problem. He had surgery in 1935, with the result that he never again was able to fully extend his arms.

“After the operation I lost everything,” Wiater recalled in the 1985 interview.

He won just one of his last four fights (with two draws), and after Leo Lomski knocked him out in mid-’36, the 19-6-3 (10) Wiater retired. He worked for 41 years working in a Chicago printing plant and was everlastingly grateful for the things he didn’t get in boxing –  “I’ve got my brains. I didn’t get them knocked out. Thank God I didn’t get them knocked out”  –  and what he did get from it:

“Because of being in the ring, I’m a better man,” he told the Press-Gazette. “I am more understanding, more tolerant.”

Wiater died at age 88 in 2000, and today Cheeseheads who can rattle off the names of everyone who ever played on the Packers’ taxi squad probably never heard of him.

The man for whom their green-and-gold mecca at 1265 Lombardi Ave. is named would set them straight. On Wiater’s application for a Wisconsin boxing license one of his character references was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Curly Lambeau.

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  1. R. J. Rolak 01:10pm, 05/04/2014

    Send me editors e-mail address for International Boxing story and photo:

  2. Dan Cuoco 03:12pm, 05/02/2014

    Pete, looking over Louis’ early record and opponents Wiater was always one that stood out as his one true test early in his career. I always wondered what happened to him. Thanks for bringing his story to life.

  3. NYIrish 04:02am, 05/01/2014

    Great piece of history.

  4. Bob 07:45pm, 04/30/2014

    Another great “find” by Pete Ehrmann. I’m embarassed to admit I was not aware of Ad Wiater. Terrific story. That region of the country (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan) sure produced its fair share of rough fighters over the years.

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