My favourite fighter: Ad Wolgast
Garry White on the colourful and tragic life and times of his favourite fighter - lightweight great Ad Wolgast - "Not the greatest fighter of all time or the most well-known, but a life that mirrored the proportions of a Greek tragedy"...
I grew up on stories from the boxing vaults featuring Willard, Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, and others. Their colourful supporting cast resplendent with the images of 'Two Ton' Tony Galento, Primo 'The Ambling Alp' Carnera, lightweight king Benny 'The Ghetto Wizard' Leonard or the iron fists of Harry Greb and his familiar ring moniker of 'The Pittsburgh Windmill.' Their tales were repeated with such eager frequency that I still feel like I have some first-person hold on them or at least a connection to an era that faded into history a good couple of generations before I was born. A near half-century located somewhere between the Wright Brothers taking flight and the first retirement of Joe Louis.
It was a world of exotic names and fighters that often had the look of roughed up matinee idols, as befitted the lost golden age of Hollywood. 'Kingfish' Levinsky, Billy 'The Pittsburgh Kid' Conn, 'Slapsie' Maxie Rosenbloom and 'The King of the Canebrakes', Young Stribling all still linger in my thoughts. Not forgetting our very own boxing ‘Kids’; Berg and Lewis, Jimmy Wilde or the sad booze soaked Benny Lynch.
Then there’s Melio Bettina. His name permanently twinned in my memory with the words “and Melio ‘The Mighty’ they call him” from the commentary of an ancient VHS video where he is served up as an opponent to the aforementioned Billy Conn in a Bert Sugar led expedition to find the greatest fighter of all time.
Harry Mullan’s ‘Illustrated History of Boxing’ settled my devotion. Within its chronological layout, I was always drawn to the black and white still photos and their accompanying vignettes. Most memorable was one of Johnny Wilson, in the run-up to his title fight with Harry Greb, his face exuding nefarious 1920s gangster menace, as it would for someone that was the owner of the infamous Silver Slipper nightclub, an establishment that included among its patrons Al Capone and 'Legs' Diamond.
I would spend my afternoons pretending to study for my A-levels, whilst animatedly discussing these ancient pugilists with my only school friend that was interested. We must have made a curious pair, lounging in the school library, as we speculated on whether a prone Jack Johnson apparently shielding his eyes from the Havana sun had really taken a dive, or whether those were indeed Stanley Ketchel’s teeth embedded in the Galveston man’s glove.
I could easily choose Greb as my favourite fighter, but I will resist the temptation. Above all else, he epitomised the look and character of a prize-fighter. His debonair Jon Dillinger mien, mixed with the chaos that he could unleash from either hand, made for a perfect pugilistic cocktail. His young death on the operating table aged only 32, forever locked him in the Jazz age and lent an almost James Dean-like permanence to his short life.
It was actually Mike Tyson that further drew me to these men. Videos where he would discuss what he had learned from those long days pawing through Jimmy Jacobs’ collection of boxing newsreel at Cus D’Amato’s house in the Catskills. It was one of the reasons why, despite the many challenges, I always loved ‘Iron’ Mike as well. Too often in sport the gifted elite lack any wider interest in the cultural and historical context of the arena in which they excel, whereas Tyson was so fully immersed in boxing that he could accurately be described as a historian of the fight game.
It was Tyson that led me to Oscar 'Battling' Nelson, the monstrously tough lightweight that twice held the championship belt in the early years of the new century. Known as the 'Durable Dane' he would fight anyone, anywhere, on any terms. An occupant of a barely identifiable world, where no safety net existed, hard lives were stoically endured and boxing existed on the very edge of legality.
And through Nelson, I discovered his old rival Ad Wolgast.
Boxing is full of hard luck stories and wretched endings, but of all the sad tales in the annals of the hardest game, Wolgast’s must be among the most shatteringly painful in terms of its protracted descent.
In a 14-year, career Wolgast didn’t just win the lightweight title, but ripped it from the bloodied hands of Battling Nelson, via a now inconceivable 40th-round stoppage, in a contest scheduled for 45 rounds. It was a bout where the ring ropes must have felt like the walls of an abattoir and the canvas akin to a butcher’s apron stained with the cleaved outpourings of the combatants.
After the fight's conclusion, both men were arrested for flouting California’s anti-prize fighting law.
Footage of the contest still exists, with the intensity in the ring captured only by a single primitive camera. The movements are dark and distorted as if being viewed behind a sheet of tracing paper. It is an interim world marking a place between unreachable Victoriana and today’s multi-camera high definition outlook Yet it ensures that I don’t have to imagine Ad Wolgast in the same way that I have to a prime John L. Sullivan. Equally, though, the images are elusive, inconclusive and thus add further fuel to a fertile imagination.
Born in 1888 into grinding poverty in Cadillac, Michigan, Wolgast began his boxing career aged 18 and fought 15 times before his 19th birthday. A world champion at 22 he was all but washed-up by the age of 28. His career ultimately enveloped 90 contests of which he won 60, with the majority of his 13 losses coming in the final stanza of his tenure between the ropes.
But the bare figures yield him insufficient service. The fighter, known as the 'Michigan Wildcat' was just that. He had little interest in defence, was seemingly impervious to punishment and would walk through punches to hunt his opponent down. His smashed in nose and unsmiling face is a feature of so many of those old photographs.
His career and life really had it all, to such an extent that it is hard to believe that he has never been the subject of a Hollywood movie - apparently, Frank Stallone (Rocky Balboa’s kid brother) was looking at a potential screenplay some years back, but nothing ever came to fruition.
Once in the 13th round of a 1912 title defence, both Wolgast and ‘Mexican’ Joe Rivers connected at the exact same time with knockout blows. The referee controversially awarded the fight to Wolgast as he had allegedly begun to rise before the ten-count had been finalised. It is tempting to think that this moment of barely believable drama could have inspired the equally unrealistic conclusion to Rocky II.
Wolgast remained at the top for close to three years before losing his world title to Willie Ritchie. The despairing champion departing via disqualification as he resorted to hitting low after his opponent sent him to the floor in the 16th round.
He fought on, but his performances steadily declined. His physical and mental faculties deteriorating from all those monstrous ring battles although his fighting heart and instincts were undiminished. His money deserted him in all the usual ways via knackered racehorses and dodgy investments with snake oil salesman. He got into fights everywhere and with anyone, sometimes - it seems - with women.
Before his 30th birthday a court found him incompetent to manage his own affairs, and following a mental breakdown, he was sent to a sanatorium. An unwanted destination that he escaped from to live a lonely 'Grizzly' Adams-style nomadic life in the rural California woods.
Returning to society, he made a brief and injudicious comeback to the ring before his last fingertip holds on reality were finally beaten out of him. He was taken in by a local trainer Jack Doyle, who allowed the heavily delusional ex-champion to hang out and train at his gym.
The Wildcat's short term memory was so shredded from his years of punishment between the ropes, that all concept of time and context became permanently ravaged. His mind calibrated to play out the same staccato thoughts and actions on a closed and continuous daily loop. He was able to convince himself that he was still invincible and that he was training for a comeback. With everything diminished, all that remained of the old champion was the ingrained instinct to train and fight.
Eventually, 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, where he remained, largely forgotten, until his death nearly 30 years later.
Even as an old man the certainty of his impending comeback never diminished or wavered.
The glory days were permanently only one training camp away, as he jogged the hospital's corridors and his eyesight eventually began to fail. It didn’t matter that the likes of Nelson, Ritchie, and Rivers were all now old men as well; his consciousness had repositioned him forever to that time when he was among the greatest lightweights in the world. Nothing could challenge or break that spell, not even the orderlies who would frequently mistreat and abuse the old champion.
And that is the tale of the 'Michigan Wildcat.'
Not the greatest fighter of all time or the most well-known, but a life that mirrored the proportions of a Greek tragedy.
One whose fate I still find impossible to consider without the urgent requirement to dry my eyes.
For this reason, it makes him my favourite fighter. I am not sure why that is, but it does.