Adolphus Wolgast was born on February 8th, 1888 in Cadillac, Michigan. He would be the oldest of seven children, and two of his brothers, Johnny and Al, would also have professional boxing careers. ‘Ad,’ however, would gain the most acclaim in the world of boxing.
In his youth, Ad would sell newspapers on local street corners. There are countless accounts that selling newspapers was a tough business where territorial riffs and disputes were often settled with punches. It is likely here that Wolgast got into his first semi organized fights, just as many boxers of that era around the end of the 19th century and the start of World War I.
Wolgast would make his professional boxing debut on June 10th, 1906 at the young age of 18 years and four months in Petoskey, Michigan. His opponent went by the name of Kid Moore. Wolgast reportedly had little preparation or skill, but was able to outwork the equally novice Moore over six rounds. Wolgast and Nelson split $2.50 evenly after giving half of a $5 purse to the guy who set up the fight. $1.25 was a lot of money in those days.
Wolgast’s pursuit of boxing took him to Milwaukee, which at the start of the 20th century was a true hotbed of pugilism. Wolgast would have many of his early bouts in Milwaukee’s burgeoning boxing scene. He gravitated to places like Tom Larkin’s Gym in the Patton building on 6th and Grand Avenue or Paddy Dorrell's Beanery on North 5th Street near Wells, which had a ring erected in the back. As his level of competition increased, Wolgast developed his no defense, all out offense style. His defense was described as ‘crouching and taking a lot of shots to the top of the head’ by sparring partner and associate ‘Hobo’ Daugherty in later years.
Wolgast would arrive in Milwaukee using the moniker ‘The Cadillac Kid’, but after he rose to fame he was called the ‘Michigan Wildcat’, though he stated that he should be known as a ‘Milwaukee Boy’ after he had migrated to the West Coast. Wolgast would grow to think of Milwaukee as his home. Wolgast also fought as ‘Kid Wolgast’, ‘Young Wolgast’, the ‘Cadillac Wildcat’ and in 1914 there are references to him using the nickname ‘Michigan Bearcat’. There may have been other variations used by Wolgast on the ‘Kid’, ‘Young’, ‘Wildcat’ and ‘Bearcat’ themes which were all in common use during that era.
We almost certainly do not have the complete boxing record of Ad Wolgast. In pre-World War I America, the boxing scene was regional, with only handfuls of fighters breaking into national prominence while the great majority of fighters fought for little money very frequently, sometimes multiple times in a week. A young Ad Wolgast certainly fell into this latter category, fighting often in the early days of his career to make ends meet, and it is possible that there are yet undocumented fights to be found.
By the start of 1908 however, Wolgast was coming to be known as a potential prospect, amassing a known record of 31-1-6 in the Midwest before leaving for New York City for an April 7th, 1908 match with former bantamweight world champion Owen Moran. Moran weighed 132 pounds for the bout, a full 14 pounds more than Wolgast. The record shows Wolgast lost a Newspaper Decision to Moran after 6 rounds, but his aggression had definitely troubled the veteran throughout the fight. Once a Midwestern prospect, Wolgast was on his way to national prominence.
Before the end of 1908, Wolgast had travelled to California to extend his boxing career further. Due to his rising star status in the boxing circles of the day, his name was starting to get mentioned in newspapers and various fisticuff periodicals in many of the country’s boxing hotbeds, such as New York, Denver, Philadelphia and of course, his adopted hometown of Milwaukee.
One story goes that on the eve of his first fight on the West Coast, two devoted friends from Milwaukee appeared in California, having ridden the trains just to catch up with Ad. One of the two, who would box as Hobo Daughtery, would turn into a lifelong friend of Wolgast’s and served as a sparring partner, cornerman, valet and masseuse for Wolgast through the years of his championship reign.
In his first outing on the West Coast he defeated British fighter Danny Webster, winning by KO in the 18th round of a scheduled 25. Wolgast then defeated Bubbles Johnson in his next bout in a match that earned Wolgast mixed reviews. He dominated the bout, but his aggression and tendency to foul tactics won him some detractors as well.
In December, he fought all-time great Abe Atell to a 10 round draw in a match that helped establish Wolgast further as being a fighter to watch. One account, from The Times sports editor Ham Oliver states ‘Wolgast demonstrated that he has been sadly underrated.’
Wolgast entered 1909 with a lot of resolve to establish himself as a top name. He would go 6-2 in the first half of 1909, when he signed for a match to fight Battling Nelson, the current lightweight champion of the world and the man who had dethroned the great Joe Gans.
Wolgast would go the full ten rounds, and in the eyes of the local newspapers, Wolgast would get the win.Wolgast’s already considerable confidence in his own sturdiness and ability were further bolstered by his fight with Nelson. For his part, Nelson, known as ‘The Durable Dane,' made little of Wolgast’s performance. A rivalry was born.
Wolgast campaigned for a rematch intensely. On the strength of a five fight winning streak that included several bludgeoning performances, including a win over top rated Californian Lew Powell and a KO in New Orleans over Henri Piet, who was billed as ‘The French Champion’, Wolgast would get his chance.
In early 1910, Wolgast had come to an agreement to do a boxing tour of Australia, but he would not make the trip. Wolgast had fought several memorable matches already, and would go on to fight quite a few more, but what happened on February 22nd, 1910 when he met Battling Nelson for the second time was the first of two transcendental moments for the sport of boxing that include Wolgast.
Negotiations were contentious for the fight, with Nelson considering that he had earned the right to call a lot of the shots, including the length of the fight and other nuances. He made no secret of his disdain for Wolgast, who he accused of making too much out of their first meeting. At the contract signing, there was almost a ‘scrap’ as it was clear the two fighters did not like each other.
After much anticipation, the rematch with ‘Battling’ Nelson was set for Port Richmond, California. A makeshift arena of pine was erected, as was common in the day and approximately 18,000 people were in attendance when the two men met.
There is a famous story about entrances for this fight, where Wolgast entered first. Wolgast was made to wait in the ring for a long period of time, and when Nelson finally arrived, he was being carried by a massive Turk assistant, to avoid getting mud from the floor on his boots. Wolgast’s vocal reaction was something along the lines of, “One Turk carried him in, and it will take 10 Turks to carry him out”. Despite the disdain from Wolgast about a champion’s privilege, it is interesting to note Wolgast’s entourage outnumbered Nelson’s.The match is recorded to have started in a bright sunshine after what had been a deluge of rain, at 3:19 in the afternoon. Most of the rules that governed boxing at the time were out the window, with the referee unable to act on normal fouls as agreed to by both fighters. Such was their dislike for each other.
There are several round by round accounts of the fight in the public record, and what is described is almost universally seen as a fight that turned into a dogfight. Thankfully, at least a partial video of the match remains as well. Wolgast held his own, but absorbed a great deal of punishment in the early going. Nelson sent Wolgast to the canvas in round 22 in what seemed to most observers to be the beginning of the end. Some of the live audience is reported to have left. Amazingly, Wolgast survived the round, and then slowly started to turn the tables on Nelson, who had spent a lot of energy keeping a brutal pace throughout the fight. By round 30, Wolgast was doing most of the damage and he seemed to be the one with boundless energy. By round 40, Nelson was such a mess that the referee stopped the fight.
One writer who was present described Nelson, the now former champion, after the fight ‘Nelson could hardly hear or see, the left side of his face having lost all semblance of its former contour’. After 40 of the hardest fought rounds in pugilistic history, Ad Wolgast was the lightweight champion of the world. Wolgast took home a paltry $3500 purse for the grueling win, but reports from the day state that Wolgast made an additional $20,000 betting on himself. Immediately after the match, Nelson was carried from the ring, while one account says Wolgast ‘scampered out of the ring like a schoolboy and galloped through the arena.’
Despite Wolgast’s roots as a Midwest fighter who fought as often as he could to get by, there is ample evidence that Wolgast did quite well for himself financially during his career, and as world champion he knew how to market and create opportunities. And there were a lot of opportunities for a world champion.
Check back for part two.