Literary Notes: Battling Nelson vs. Ad Wolgast

BY Thomas Hauser ON February 07, 2016
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Arne K. Lang (editor-in-chief of TheSweetScience.com) has written a book entitled The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 (McFarland & Company).

Nelson and Wolgast fought three times, with Wolgast winning all three. The fight referenced in the book’s title is their second encounter, which took place in Point Richmond, California (a 35-minute ferry ride from San Francisco) on February 22, 1910.

San Francisco in 1910 was arguably the fight capitol of America. Nelson was already a celebrity, having fought Joe Gans three times and beaten him twice. His victory in part two of their trilogy – a July 4, 1908, seventeenth-round knockout - earned Nelson the lightweight championship of the world.

Nelson-Wolgast II was contested on George Washington’s birthday, one of only five federal holidays at that time. The bout was scheduled for 45 rounds or less and was for Nelson’s lightweight crown.

The encounter, Lang writes, “tops virtually every list of the most savage fights of all time.” Wolgast prevailed on a brutal 40-round beatdown.

Both men were plagued by dementia at the end of their years. Nelson stayed healthy longer. But as Lang acknowledges, few fighters as active as he was (Nelson boxed 1,254 rounds over the course of 132 fights) escape brain damage. He died in 1954 at age 72 after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital.

Wolgast, who boxed 1,123 rounds over the course of 138 fights, suffered longer and spent nineteen years in psychiatric hospitals before his death in 1955.

The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 is unlikely to appeal to a crossover audience. But hardcore fight fans will appreciate the thorough nature of Lang’s research and the fact that his book fills in some blank pages regarding a significant fight and a little-known era in boxing history.

There are solid portraits of Nelson and Wolgast as well as descriptions of the major players on the 1910 San Francisco boxing scene.

To Lang’s credit, he doesn’t over-romanticize the era. After quoting fight manager Daniel Morgan, who proclaimed, “In those days, there was a good lightweight on every street corner,” Lang observes, “The good fighters to which Morgan alluded were not always good and, in truth, many were not all that skilled. The sum of their athleticism and their science left something lacking.”

Also, Lang has a nice eye for detail. Writing about the mining town of Goldfield, Nevada (where the first Gans-Nelson fight was contested), he reports, “Goldfield was a place where shops advertised remedies for gonorrhea and diamonds for sale on the same signboard.”

Lang also recounts how Nelson was sent to Toledo by the Chicago Daily News to report on the July 4, 1919, heavyweight championship fight between Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey.

“Toledo was experiencing a terrible heat wave,” Lang writes. “Late on the eve of the fight, Nelson wandered away from his tent in search of a place to cool off and was discovered taking a bath in his underwear in a giant vat of lemonade. News of the incident spread like wildfire and the poor vendor was stuck with a lot of unsold lemonade.”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

 

 

 

Comment on this article

miguel1 says:

An incredible moment in history. A fight that turned into a fight on instinct, where neither man would escape without leaving a part of themselves there in the desert.

Kid Blast says:

Huh

brownsugar says:

I really would like to know who paid for the lemonade, and what kind of symptoms these fighters exhibited to have required the state to confine them in a psychiatric hospital, or were these guy penniless at the time,...or is it all in the book?

oubobcat says:

Very interesting read, I have always had an interest in the history of the sport in the early 1900's. There are certainly some great fighters as well as stories from that time.

ArneK. says:

Thanks oubobcat. In regard to brownsugar's question, Ad Wolgast was forcibly removed to a psychiatric hospital because he had become delusional and quick to pick a fight at the slightest provocation. Earlier -- late in his boxing career, but before his career was finished -- he had spent time in a sanitarium where people were treated for "nervous exhaustion." Back in those days, America didn't leave the mentally ill to fend for themselves in homeless camps.

An interesting theory about Wolgast's slide was put forth by his longtime aide-de camp, a fellow named Hobo Dougherty. Wolgast was relatively short for his weight class and made himself shorter when he adopted the severe crouch popularized by heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. It was Dougherty's opinion that the seeds of dementia were sowed during this phase of Wolgast's career when too many of the punches that he received landed on the top of his head.

Yes, Battling Nelson was penniless when he was packed away; his substantial investments in real estate went bust during the Great Depression. But he then lived alone in a residential hotel -- his wife had just died; he had no children -- and he had wasted away to 80 pounds. At the required hearing before he was sent to the psychiatric hospital his mind was described as a complete blank.

deepwater2 says:

Thanks oubobcat. In regard to brownsugar's question, Ad Wolgast was forcibly removed to a psychiatric hospital because he had become delusional and quick to pick a fight at the slightest provocation. Earlier -- late in his boxing career, but before his career was finished -- he had spent time in a sanitarium where people were treated for "nervous exhaustion." Back in those days, America didn't leave the mentally ill to fend for themselves in homeless camps.

An interesting theory about Wolgast's slide was put forth by his longtime aide-de camp, a fellow named Hobo Dougherty. Wolgast was relatively short for his weight class and made himself shorter when he adopted the severe crouch popularized by heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. It was Dougherty's opinion that the seeds of dementia were sowed during this phase of Wolgast's career when too many of the punches that he received landed on the top of his head.

Yes, Battling Nelson was penniless when he was packed away; his substantial investments in real estate went bust during the Great Depression. But he then lived alone in a residential hotel -- his wife had just died; he had no children -- and he had wasted away to 80 pounds. At the required hearing before he was sent to the psychiatric hospital his mind was described as a complete blank.


Great read. It seems most fighters from that era enjoyed spending their purses until they were left penniless. My Uncle always said, the men in our family die young, so make the most money that you can and spend it all before you go.

Today, in NYC, the homeless are being forced into shelters. It might seem like a good thing until all the incidents of murder, assault, and larceny pop up.

Most homeless rather face the unknown than enter into the NYC shelter system.

A shelter is needed for sure but mental health issues need medication and counseling. Help the mentally ill homeless, don't just lock em away.

brownsugar says:

Thanks oubobcat. In regard to brownsugar's question, Ad Wolgast was forcibly removed to a psychiatric hospital because he had become delusional and quick to pick a fight at the slightest provocation. Earlier -- late in his boxing career, but before his career was finished -- he had spent time in a sanitarium where people were treated for "nervous exhaustion." Back in those days, America didn't leave the mentally ill to fend for themselves in homeless camps.

An interesting theory about Wolgast's slide was put forth by his longtime aide-de camp, a fellow named Hobo Dougherty. Wolgast was relatively short for his weight class and made himself shorter when he adopted the severe crouch popularized by heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries. It was Dougherty's opinion that the seeds of dementia were sowed during this phase of Wolgast's career when too many of the punches that he received landed on the top of his head.

Yes, Battling Nelson was penniless when he was packed away; his substantial investments in real estate went bust during the Great Depression. But he then lived alone in a residential hotel -- his wife had just died; he had no children -- and he had wasted away to 80 pounds. At the required hearing before he was sent to the psychiatric hospital his mind was described as a complete blank.


I have had to care for mentally ill folks in one form or another for a generation or two. What you describe sounds like the unsanitized version of the truth.
Are there gritty details like this in your book? If so how would I go about getting one.

ArneK. says:

The publishing house is McFarland. You can purchase direct from them www.mcfarlandpub.com). I checked with Amazon and their list price is identical. There is also a kindle version.

If I'm uncertain if I want to add a book to my collection, I go to my local library and -- if they don't have it -- I request it there from interlibrary loan. There's a site called World Cat which lists the libraries that have a certain book and gives the driving distance to that library from your home. This will give you a rough estimation of how long it will take for the book to arrive at your branch library -- regardless, rarely longer than two weeks.

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