LIKE another thunderous product from Cadillac, Michigan, the famous Shay locomotive, Ad Wolgast tore through the lightweight division for a few tumultuous years before derailing spectacularly in the kind of tragic circumstances all too common in prizefighting. If the appeal of boxing rests on its peculiar ability to dramatise – albeit on a small and unholy scale – certain bleak cultural touchstones – social Darwinism and the Nietzschean will to power, for example – then Wolgast can only be Exhibit #1. In his furious life, both in the ring and out, Wolgast resembled nothing if not a character from a Frank Norris or Stephen Crane novel, naturalism personified. Best remembered for his apocalyptic free-for-all against Battling Nelson in 1910, Wolgast also beat several world-class pros from 1908 to 1912, when prizefighting was in its brutal heyday, and before his peak was cut short by the hard logic of the ring.
At 16, Wolgast, son of a struggling farmer, left home to eke out a bootstrap subsistence throughout Michigan. He sold newspapers, shined shoes, and took on one odd job after another before finally settling on fisticuffs as a vocation. In 1907, after compiling a winning record across Grand Rapids and Petoskey, Wolgast moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he built a bloody reputation as a relentless brawler with a crippling left hook and a ferocious body attack. Two years later, Wolgast settled in California, the centre of the boxing universe after professional fighting had been banned in New York City in 1901.
In Los Angeles, Wolgast raised his profile to a national level with solid showings in a pair of no-decision bouts against Abe Attell and reigning lightweight champion Battling Nelson. If not for the swaggering shadow of Jack Johnson, who dominated headlines from coast to coast, Oscar “Battling” Nelson would have been the most famous fighter of his era. Nelson, who underestimated Wolgast before their first fight in July 1909, sneered at the cocky upstart every chance he got. Finally, seven months after their first encounter, Nelson agreed to meet Wolgast again, this time with the title on the line.