In one of the most savage fights of the 20th century, mortal enemies Ad Wolgast and Battling Nelson tore at each other before 18,000 fans in Richmond, California, for the right to be called lightweight champion of the world. On February 22, 1910, these two ironmen, in the days when drawing first blood was still a betting proposition, nearly murdered each other between the ropes. Finally, after nearly two hours of combat, Wolgast won via TKO in the 40th round when referee Edward W. Smith saved a defenseless Nelson from permanent injury. In the end, neither man could escape the frightful punishment accumulated in the ring. Nelson and Wolgast both wound up in sanitariums, with Wolgast, to his last sad and distant days, still “training” for a rematch with Nelson. Andrew Fruman presents a look at the fight from the viewpoint of those involved over a century ago.
Herman G. Deupree of the Indianapolis Star was in San Francisco to cover the bout.
Getting down to calm consideration of the coming championship bout it looks like an even thing. California fans however do not incline that way. They have installed Nelson as a 10-7 favorite and it is probable that both boys will go to the post with the odds 2 to 1. In view of Nelson’s past it is natural he should rule a top-heavy choice.
But the wise fish in the betting ring are nibbling at the juicy odds that Nelson supporters are offering. Wolgast admirers, and they are legion right now, can not understand why the Dane should be considered as outclassing such a sterling battler as the Michigan marvel has proved himself. They argue that there is no evidence that Nelson is the Durable Dane of old. He has been away from the game some time – six months to be exact – and it is reasonable to suppose that the rest has not done him any particular good. Then, too, the champion has not been overly zealous in his preparations for the coming contest. Possibly he underrates or belittles the Dutch-man, but if he does the reckoning may be a sorry one.
Altogether Nelson has not spent more than two weeks in training for the match. This is not time enough to condition himself properly for a long and rough battle. Veteran ring experts, acquainted with the ability of Wolgast, shake their heads in wonderment when they consider the apparent indifference with which the Dane is approaching this battle.
February 20, 1910
Ad Wolgast (pictured left, Library of Congress ) met with Eddie Smith, the Oakland Tribune’s sports editor–and also the referee of the title clash–to discuss the rules of the contest.
“What we want is an even break with Nelson, that’s all. Let us keep at it until one or the other is holding on, and I will guarantee that Mr. Nelson will be hanging on before many rounds have been fought. There is only one thing I want understood, and that is that if Nelson is being beaten and he tries to foul me so that he can save his championship by accidentally losing, I do not want the decision unless I am absolutely unable to continue the fight. We want to win this contest fairly and we don’t want to give Nelson any outs.”
Wolgast shared his battle plan with Smith.
“I am not going to try any such trick as Britt and Gans did. I will go right along protecting myself as best I can, occasionally letting the Dane know that I am here by slamming one or two good ones, but I am going to let him fight himself out on me and when is tired I will take him in hard. If Nelson does fight as he has in his other battles this contest is very liable to go the limit for I will not fight myself out on him while he covers up. If Nelson fights I will fight back but he is not going to hang on and stall like he did at Los Angeles.”
Before going through their training work for 5,000 spectators at San Francisco’s baseball ground that had also gathered to watch Jim Jeffries fight an exhibition, Nelson and Wolgast crossed paths in the stadium offices of local fight promoter Jack Gleason. The fighters were in the same room for twenty minutes, but refused to acknowledge each other except for an icy glare exchanged when Nelson entered.
The Dane bounded through the door and the meeting between Wolgast and the champion was about as cordial as it would have been had Dr. Cook and Commander Peary met at the North Pole. Nelson was almost across the room before he noticed Wolgast and when he did he turned on his heel and shot a look at the German that would have frozen skimmed milk… Neither man spoke and neither made any effort to hide the feeling that he had for the other. Not one word was passed by either to friends standing near by but that took on the part of both men left no doubt as to the feeling existing between the pair.
Eddie Smith, Oakland Tribune
At the workout, Nelson asked policemen to clear a path through the spectators for him so he could watch Wolgast go through his paces. If he was hoping to pick up on anything, Wolgast wasn’t showing his cards as he took it easy, just as he had the previous couple of days.
The previous day, Nelson (pictured right, Library of Congress) had met with Smith as well…
“There is nothing for you and me to talk over. You have refereed for me before and you know that I do the best I can and try to be fair.”
- Battling Nelson
Smith enquired whether or not Nelson felt Wolgast would do the same…
“He won’t have a chance to do anything for I shall beat him to a frazzle before he has a chance to rough at any. I’ll beat this guy quicker than I have the other men I have met for there will be satisfaction in doing it.”
February 21, 1910
Renowned Pacific Coast Sportswriter W.W.Naughton on the contest…
In a nutshell, the things that conspire to make Tuesday’s match interesting are the facts that Bat-Nelson is supposed to be slightly ring worn and that Wolgast is game, ambitious and vigorous. Many would like Wolgast’s chances better were it not that he is thought to have shown lack of punching power in his affair with Lew Powell, but all things considered, it is felt that Wolgast has a better chance of defeating Nelson than any other man among the latter-day lightweights, and as already stated the possibility that Tuesday may see the Durable Dane’s finish will surely swell the attendance at the Richmond arena.
When the big day finally arrived, a morning thunder storm put the bout under threat of cancellation, but by the afternoon the downpour had eased to a drizzle. Still, the conditions were far from ideal as a cold wind blew in from the bay, and umbrellas were out in force.
Wolgast’s anxious manager Tom Jones was still fretting over the details, and insisted to see the share he had negotiated for the motion picture rights before he would consent to Wolgast fighting. He was satisfied when the stakeholder John T. Clark assured him that the money had been posted.
Jones had sold Wolgast’s share of those rights for either $500 should Wolgast come out on the short end, for $1500 for a victory. Half of that money was to be paid by Nelson, who opted for 35% of whatever money the films would generate.
Jones was also not pleased to see only two ropes circling the ring, and insisted a third rope be installed between the lower and upper strands. There was a bit of a delay, but this was taken care of to Jones satisfaction.
A 10-round preliminary had been set to take place, but was put on hold when one of the fighters managed to get arrested for scalping tickets outside the arena. Once the enterprising scrapper had been released, his manager threw another wrench into the bout’s plans by arguing over his fighter’s purse and after an agreement could not be reached, the bout was cancelled.
All the while, there was little betting amongst the gathering crowd as to the bout’s winner, with the odds on Nelson remaining at 2 to 1. Round betting was still brisk though, as many Wolgast backers taking even money that Nelson would not win inside 26 rounds.
The fans were good-natured while waiting through the delays, and let out a cheer each time the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. At 3 PM when the sun broke through, a cheer went up all around and umbrellas were put away in time for the start of the bout…
Right from the start it was clear that Wolgast was not just Nelson’s equal, but had an edge when he chose to mix it up. But instead of trying to match the Dane’s output, the youthful challenger stuck to his plan, allowing Nelson to force the pace and push him back, but making sure to pick his spots to rip counters in return.
In the fourth round, the champion shook Wolgast with a hard left uppercut, but Wolgast fired back immediately. When Nelson forced Wolgast to the ropes a little later in the round and tried to unload heavily, he found the challenger a slippery target. A little later in the round, Wolgast fought back hard, blasting shots to the aggressive champion’s stomach.
The intense action nearly boiled over in the following round, with the infighting getting a little dirty and referee Smith (pictured right from an Oakland Tribune clipping) having to caution both men for butting. It was a round Wolgast closed strongly in, and the challenger built on that edge with an impressive sixth round in which he landed a couple of hard left hands to the body that drew reactions from the crowd.
Nelson was looking a little sluggish to start the seventh and for a moment or two it looked like Wolgast was starting to pull away, but the determined champion put any such thoughts to rest with a stinging left that nearly sent the challenger through the ropes. Wolgast fought back viciously, drawing blood from Nelson’s nose, but he was again tagged hard just before the bell.
Building on his strong finish to the seventh, Nelson turned up the pressure in the eighth and had Wolgast busy covering up for long stretches and by the end of the round, the harried challenger was himself looking a little ragged.
Nelson kept forcing the issue during a furious ninth round, but caught a right hand late in the session that left blood streaming from his ear. The Dane had been cut on the lips in the second round, and his nose was bloody by the fourth, but he still looked strong and on the whole had the better of the round.
Nelson kept the pressure up in the following two rounds, but the grind of the battle was starting to show, as Wolgast despite fighting in retreat found the mark continuously with sharp counters.
Wolgast outboxed Nelson, but could not make him break ground. Nelson unmercifully waded in unmindful of the constant tattoo that Wolgast beat against his face and jaw. The bell ended the round with Wolgast hammering away at Nelson’s jaw and face, landing almost at will. Nelson’s face was a mass of blood as he took his seat, with the honors against him.
By the fourteenth round, Nelson was spitting blood and his face was badly swollen, but he kept boring in relentlessly, and at one time accidentally forced Wolgast through the ropes. In a show of sportsmanship, the champion assisted his rival back to the center of the ring before shaking hands. When the action got going again, Wolgast smacked home a couple of lefts and a straight right just before the bell closed the round.
At the start of the fifteenth round, betting at ringside was now even. Nelson had a reputation as a fighter who became tougher and tougher the longer a contest wore on, but even his backers had to be concerned as the pace Nelson was setting had started to slow. Wolgast was also looking much the fresher of the two fighters.
The pace quickened over the following two rounds, with Nelson again continuously forcing the action, never letting up as he barged forward firing to the body and head in the hopes of breaking the challenger’s resolve. At the start of the eighteenth, the round by round reports the following exchange took place.
“How do you feel” asked Nelson as the men came up.
“As if I were punching a bag,” was the quick rejoinder of Wolgast with which he waded in, landing right and left on Nelson’s sore mouth.
Before the round had ended, Wolgast had touched down in his own corner, but it was a slip and he was up quickly, while Nelson had been staggered by a series of hard right hands. The challenger than brought the ire of the crowd and referee Smith upon him by deliberately butting in close. Luckily for Nelson there was no further damage done to his already misshapen visage.
The pattern of the bout continued into the twentieth…
“They slugged and roughed it from one end of the ring to the other. It was the same old story, Nelson and forcing and Wolgast retreating and peppering the champion’s badly swollen face.”
Nelson came out hard in round 21 and landed a ripping right hand that forced Wolgast to clinch, before smacking home another right that almost sent the challenger backing through the ropes. The action slowed though, with Nelson unable to force the issue the way he’d done in previous frames, and Wolgast not taking the lead, but rather sticking to his plan of countering.
In the twenty-second round Nelson landed a long right swing to the jaw of Wolgast and the Milwaukee lad tried to close in and hold. Just as he stepped in Nelson shot another right to the jaw and Wolgast went to his knees. In the inward rush he had caught hold of Nelson around the waist, however, and he immediately pulled himself up to a standing position and tried to clinch. When the men were parted Wolgast was so dizzy that he could hardly get the location of his opponent and Nelson sailed at him with renewed vim.
The end of the round found Wolgast strong however, and for the first time in the history of Nelson’s fights in this section of the country did he have an opponent going and fail to finish him. Wolgast came back strong in the next round, but he was under instructions to let his man fight himself out and he did so with great judgment. It was the last chance for Nelson, for in a very few rounds he had passed the limit of human endurance and was fighting on a grit that no other fighter the ring as ever known possessed.
– Eddie Smith
The crowd was yelling “Fight, fight, fight!” at the patient Wolgast, trying to get the challenger to open up, but he refused to waver as each time he had pressed the issue, he was admonished in the corner by Jones.
The tiring Nelson kept forcing the fight, but he was spitting blood as he went to his corner following the 26th round, and by the following round his left eye was almost completely shut.
When the men came out for the 30th, Nelson’s eye was completely closed. As he had intermittently in the previous few rounds, Wolgast was now starting to get a little more aggressive and for a brief moment he had Nelson breaking ground and covering up.
From the thirtieth round to the final one Wolgast danced about his opponent with the greatest of ease and Nelson could do nothing but take the beating and land an occasional swinging punch behind which there was little or no force. Wolgast obeyed the repeated warning from his corner to not take any unnecessary chances and the battle lost all semblance of a contest. It was from then on only a batter of how much Nelson could stand.
- Eddie Smith
Smith reported that Nelson appeared no longer able to hear the bell. At the end of each round, “he would stand for a second or so and look at his strong opponent, and then he would start for his corner.”
They came up slowly and immediately closed in volleying at each other’s stomach, Wolgast landing frequently. Suddenly, Wolgast swung with his right, catching Nelson flush on the mouth and a stream of blood followed. Nelson presented a gory picture as the blood covered him from head to foot. The round ended in Wolgast’s favor.
The half-blind Nelson took a beating the following round, and by the 34th round “seemed to have lost all his vim and seldom made any determined effort to land.” In his corner, manager Jack Robinson wanted to stop the contest, but was overruled.
At the end of the thirty-eighth round the writer had made up his mind that the affair had gone far enough and that Nelson had no possible chance to win. He did not even have the chance of a winning on a foul, for Wolgast, with victory close-clutched in his hands, fought an exceedingly cautious battle. I then went to Nelson’s manager, Jack Robinson, and advised that he throw up the sponge. He replied he would do so if Nelson could not show better in a round or two. At the end of the thirty-ninth I asked Nelson to stop, but the game little fellow tired hard to wave his tired arms and protested by repeating, “No, no, no.” in a faint manner.
I then cautioned him that he would have to prove to me that he had the strength to continue, and when he failed to do this in the fortieth round and was being slowly beaten down by a very patient assassin, I stopped the contest and save the gamest man that ever pulled a glove on his hand from being knocked out and perhaps seriously injured, or from five rounds more of a beating that his wonderful grit and pride did not deserve.”
– Eddie Smith
Upon the close of the contest, Wolgast’s seconds lifted the new champion on their shoulder as the crowd cheered. Nelson was lead to his corner, before being carried from the ring by this seconds. For his efforts in defeat, Nelson received a greater roar from the crowd.
February 23, 1910
Wolgast was enjoying the adulation of the fans in San Francisco, and other than a slightly bruised left eye, showed little effect of having fought 40 rounds the previous day. Everywhere he went, the crowds gathered trying to have a look at the new champion. He was asked if he would give Nelson a return bout…
“If it looks like a drawing card, why shouldn’t I? I have licked him twice and I can do it again. I am out for the money and if I get it whipping scrappers that are easy for me, I would be a fool not to jump at the chance.
“Nelson will have to wait awhile though and when we do sign articles – providing such a thing happens – he will have to come to my terms. He held me down pretty tight and I think it is my turn to return the compliment.
“So far as our personal difficulties are concerned, they are a thing of the past. I had my revenge yesterday.”
- Ad Wolgast
Meanwhile, the beaten man was not looking too good.
His face disfigured and discolored, his cauliflower ear swollen to twice it’s normal size and his body a mass of bruises, the once invincible lightweight presents a pitiable appearance. Veterans of the game who have seen Nelson declare that they never, even in the days when bare knuckles were used in settling ring supremacy saw a fighter so battered up in fistic engagement.
Nelson had a few things to say on his defeat.
“While I did not realize it at the time, I can see now that I was not right when I started to train for this battle. In the first few days of training I took off about five pounds. This is not natural for me but I did not worry about it, as I soon took on the weight again when I eased up on my training.
“I am frank also to admit that I underestimated the ability of Wolgast. True, he made a splendid showing against me in Los Angeles, but at that time I was clearly out of condition and I placed no importance on his so-called victory.”
- Battling Nelson
Nelson went on to say that after he finished his upcoming theatre engagement in Chicago, he planned on heading to his New Mexico ranch to relax. He reportedly had a fight in the works for April against Cyclone Johnny Thompson, and planned to seek a return bout with Wolgast. Nelson said he would gladly put up a side bet of up to ten thousand dollars for the rematch.
The Dane added:
“In the meantime, I am willing to see him get all the glory he can out of his title. As far as our differences are concerned they are settled.”
Despite the graphic nature of his injuries, Nelson was in reasonably good cheer and was reportedly walking about in a “lively manner” and by 9 p.m. had started off for Chicago. Before leaving San Francisco, he made a few jokes over his appearance, adding that he looked worse after losing to Joe Gans years earlier in Goldfield.
Wolgast decided to stick around town a little longer and it was reported he would be boxing exhibitions over the next couple days, before planning to head back east the following week.