There are some stories that once you learn of them, they never leave you. They just sit there at the recesses of your mind and merge into focus from time to time. This can only be defined as one such cautionary tale, although, regarding Ad Wolgast, the term “tale” is ill-fitting as it provokes something from myth or legend. This story, despite its unlikeliness and all its ferocity-tinged heart-breaking sadness, is all manifestly true and deserving of a, yet unmade, Hollywood movie.
Ad Wolgast (60-13-7), known as the “Michigan Wildcat” held the world lightweight title for 33 months from 1910-12. He began his career in the far-away distance of 1906 when modern boxing was still in its infancy. It had only been 14 years since James J. Corbett had dismantled the moustachioed John L. Sullivan in 21 rounds, to finesse the prize ring brawl into the sweet science.
Fights rarely required judges and were often fought to a finish, with no limit on rounds, and gloves were little more than leathered elementary school mittens. Bookmakers would still take bets on 'first blood' and the authorities, frowning on both gambling and the violent mayhem inside and out of the ring, cracked down on boxing. The fight mecca of New York even banned the sport for a while and thus realigning the apex to California, whilst Las Vegas was still nothing more than a tumbleweed hamlet in the desert.
Early beginnings in Michigan
This is the brutal era in which Wolgast fought and it is central to our understanding of his character and fate. The old photographs of the “Wildcat” show a slight, hungry, yet muscular figure as befits the son of an impoverished farmer from rural Michigan. As a 16-year-old, after subsisting as a drifter and odd-job man, he happened on the fight-game. His early success took him all the way from the cold Midwest to the Golden State of California, where still aged only 20 he had amassed an impressive career record of 36-2-8 – the stack of draws closely linked to the “no decision” formula that was customary in this period.
He gained a reputation for his all-action style, propelled by a sleep-inducing left hook, powerful attacks to the body and an unfocused, often non-existent defence. Despite the continued step-up in class, his strong form continued and culminated in a ten round non-title fight versus the legendary “Battling” Nelson (73-30-24), Wolgast ultimately winning the newspaper decision in a no-verdict ten-rounder and earning himself a full shot at Nelson’s title, who was already in his second tenure as champion.
Winning the world title in a 40-round epic
Wolgast and Nelson met on 22nd February 1910 in what is remembered as one of the most shockingly brutal fights in the annals of boxing history, a contest that owed little to the sweet science or the noble art of self-defence and everything to a no-holds barred street battle for survival. The fight was scheduled for an absurd 45 rounds to circumvent local regulations against unlimited round contests. Legend has it that in the moments before the first bell, the monstrously tough Nelson advised Wolgast to “bring it all… no fouls!”
Fights of this era that were contested over these preposterous distances were often only sustained by the stupefying style of the practitioners. Old film usually shows the combatants rigidly upright, with high Queensbury defences, slowly circling and feinting one another, with a minimal single punch work-rate. Such a technique was anathema to Wolgast and Nelson. Under the coruscating sun they tore into each other and turned the ring into an abattoir.
Wolgast gained the ascendancy early on but the suicidally brave Nelson refused to quit and dropped the Wildcat midway through the contest. However, his younger rival simply returned to the vertical and dished out more punishment to “The Durable Dane”. The end finally came in the 40th round when Nelson, bleeding profusely, both eyes swollen shut and almost blind, was saved from his courage by the referee.
A two-man knockout
Wolgast defended his title with relish and picked up notable victories, including a reversal of an earlier loss to Britain’s highly-rated future Hall of Famer, Owen Moran (70-19-8). Most prominent was his 1912 defence against “Mexican” Joe Rivers which included a Rocky-esque finale where both fighters simultaneously connected with knockout punches, Wolgast only gaining the victory by virtue of the referee dragging him to his feet whilst disregarding his rival and counting him out. It remains one of the most controversial decisions in a sport famed for its dishonesty and corruption.
After five defences, the end came for Wolgast against Willie Ritchie in San Francisco. Badly beaten and struggling, the Wildcat, not for the first time, threw the rule book away and was disqualified in the 16th round for persistent low punching.
Ad Wolgast fought on for another eight years and over 50 fights, but it wasn’t the same. He lost considerably more than he won and couldn’t rekindle the old spark. The little 5'4" powerhouse, despite still only being in his 20s, found himself losing to fighters he would have walked through in the near past. Still game and insanely brave, he only failed to last the course in three contests and that was ultimately his undoing.
He earned substantial wealth in his ring career but that quickly diminished on beaten up race horses, property scams and anything else the disingenuous could dupe him into purchasing. His mental faculties, as a result of all that physical punishment, declined at the same rate as his capabilities within the ring.
The sad decline
This led to him suffering a nervous breakdown and being confined to a sanatorium, an institution he subsequently escaped from and fled to the mountains to eke out a lonely nomadic existence. Eventually he was found and restored to health; however, following a failed return to the ring, he deteriorated once again and was taken under the guardianship of boxing trainer Jack Doyle.
Doyle would let the now-heavily delusional Wolgast hang out at his gym and practice his fitness work. Eager to get back in the ring and spar, Doyle would always dissuade him and promise “tomorrow”. This routine followed the same cycle for five years, with the full training camp to re-launch his career always one day away.
The Wildcat's short term memory was so shredded that all concept of time and immediacy was ravaged with just the same staccato thoughts and actions being played out on a closed daily loop, like a fruit machine spinning the same number sequence over and over again. With everything diminished all that remained of the old champion was the ingrained instinct to train and fight.
Confinement to a psychiatric hospital
As Dementia Pugilistica gained an intractable grip on Wolgast, even Jack Doyle had to concede that he couldn’t take care of him anymore. In 1927, with Wolgast still only 39, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital and there he remained until his death nearly 30 years later.
In confinement, the same ritual continued into his sixties. Prowling the corridors like a ghost of what he had once been, the training continued with the same intensity, his career to be resumed and the glory days resurrected. His mind would mercifully trick him that the old victories were recent events and allow him to take comfort in the continuation of his impenetrable powers.
Prone to agitation and aggression, Wolgast was a frequent victim of the cowardly orderlies that were meant be protecting him, but who sought to make a name for themselves by abusing an ex-champion. He took frequent beatings, with one particularly brutal occasion leaving him blind and unable to walk. The training had to stop, and he retreated into a lonely, silent and unreachable world. There he stayed until the end came in April 1955, but to Ad Wolgast the clock had already stopped some 40 odd years back at that blissful time and place where he was the undisputed lightweight champion of the world.
In boxing, where this is always a preponderance towards the tragic, his story stands out as a paradigm, of why the sport is known as “the hardest game”.
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