Hell In The Old West: The Bloody Wars Of Battling Nelson
By Mike Casey - The story is old but it still chills the blood upon its retelling. Ad Wolgast, the former lightweight champion of the world was out doing his running when a curious patrol cop stopped him by the roadside. Wolgast was an incongruous addition to the sprawling landscape and the cop knew it.
Article posted on 02.09.2008
“Hey, Ad, what are you doing?”
“Doing my training for the Nelson fight,” Wolgast replied, “and I’m gonna lick the son of a bitch!”
Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Just another pumped up fighter getting in the zone. Except that Wolgast was training for a fight with Battling Nelson that had taken place years before..
Ad was lucky that day. The cop was kind and cared about his welfare. Other figures of authority were not so compassionate to the great old champion as he descended slowly into madness in the later years of his hard life. He was once savagely beaten by a couple of would-be toughs who wanted to brag to their friends that they had thrashed the great Ad Wolgast.
Ad was already suffering from significant brain damage before his violent figh
ting career was over. The man they called the Michigan Wildcat knew no other way to fight than to attack his prey with hell-for-leather, kamikazi-like rushes. He would rip into his opponents and smash away with everything he had. Over the years, the injuries piled up. Wolgast suffered numerous breakages to his hands, arms and ribs. He broke a bone in his right arm in his 1914 fight with Freddie Welsh and fought Cy Smith a year later with a damaged right hand. In a 1916 brawl with Chet Neff at the Dreamland Rink in Seattle, Ad’s ears were so badly bashed up that he later required surgery.
By the time Ad finally quit fighting in 1920, his mind was scattered to the point where he still believed he was back in the glory days. California promoter Jack Doyle was appointed his official guardian and allowed Wolgast to train for imaginary fights.
No amount of fights were enough for Wolgast, even though he had tested his mettle against just about everybody who was somebody during his fourteen-year, 142-fight career. Indeed, Ad’s record is a handy short cut for getting a line on who was who in a tough era that teemed with outstanding talent. The Wildcat waged war with Owen Moran, Frankie Neil, Abe Attell, Harlem Tommy Murphy and Matty Baldwin. He duelled with Mexican Joe Rivers, Willie Ritchie, Leach Cross, Frankie Burns and Ever Hammer.
Yet it was the incredible Oscar ‘Battling’ Nelson who penetrated and lingered in Ad’s clouded and tortured mind after all the years had passed and all the wars had been fought. Nelson continued to haunt a great many of his opponents in similar fashion. It didn’t matter whether he had beaten them or they had beaten him. The impression he burned on men was indelible.
There was nothing strikingly obvious in Battling Nelson’s physique or countenance that marked him out as the extraordinarily tough and resilient man that he was. Yet his nickname of the Durable Dane was thoroughly fitting. He was blond, lean and muscular, but certainly not a physical superman or an immediately daunting vision to behold. The genuinely tough men rarely are. They are simply hard and unyielding all the way through, blessed with that fighting spirit and special armour that is simply indefinable.
Nelson couldn’t compare to George Chuvalo for his ability to stay upright. Bat was knocked down and sent reeling many times. He didn’t have the rugged and uniquely oily skin of the astonishing Joe Grim, which staved off cuts and welts. Nelson, like Wolgast, spilled more blood and collected more bruises than was good for him. But just once in his magnificent career was Bat Nelson knocked out, and only then after fourteen years of brutally hard campaigning. Liverpool’s Owen Moran, known simply as Fearless and a kindred spirit of Nelson in his quietly terrifying demeanour, turned the unique trick when he aced Bat in the eleventh round of their 1910 battle in San Francisco.
By that time, Bat had given and received the kind of punishment that we can only imagine in the mercifully more compassionate era of the present day. He was getting involved in storybook brawls from the earliest stages of his career and making headlines in other ways too. He scored one of the fastest knockouts in history when he despatched William Rossler in just twelve seconds at Harvey, Illinois, in 1902. But it seemed that Nelson always had to pay the piper on those rare occasions when he had it easy.
In December of that year, he locked horns with Christy Williams at Hot Springs in Arkansas in a free-hitting brawl which featured a remarkable fifty-one knockdowns. Nelson decked Christy forty-two times but visited the canvas nine times himself before posting a seventeenth round knockout.
It soon became apparent that Nelson was a dangerous man of destiny who cared little for his welfare in his dangerous pursuit of glory. Such are the special and sometimes frightening qualities that separate the true fighting men from the safe and the compliant. There are no safety nets for such warriors, no carefully structured career paths or get-out clauses, no pension plans to soften a sudden fall. They measure their distance from the starting gate and simply run pell-mell for the finishing line.
This potent drug in Nelson’s system would never be flushed from his bloodstream, as he readily acknowledged during the latter stages of his career when he kept coming back for more against all good advice. “You just can’t quit, that’s all,” Bat explained. “They say a criminal is drawn back irresistibly to the scene of his crime. Well, so is a fighter drawn back to the old rings, to the old crowds and to the old excitement.”
On the march
By 1904, Battling Nelson was on the march. In September of that year, he survived a shuddering knockdown to take a 20-rounds decision from the formidable Mexican Aurelio Herrera in a punishing fight at Butte, Montana. Bat ran into something of a soul brother in the ferocious Herrera, who attacked with similar viciousness and could hit with terrific force.
Two months after that unrelenting slugfest, Nelson stopped Young Corbett in ten rounds at San Francisco, which secured him a match with the skilful Jimmy Britt for the vacant world lightweight crown. Britt proved too slick for Bat in boxing his way to a points victory at the Mechanics Pavilion in San Francisco, but Nelson had arrived in the big time and his reputation as a man to be feared had spread far and wide.
To Bat, fighting meant one thing: winning at all costs and bringing into play any tactics that would get the job done. He was dangerously reckless, to himself and to his opponents, but was unswerving in his belief that fighting was a dog-eat-dog business.
Nelson would willingly sacrifice his head to draw fire and test his adversary’s power of punch. He would batter his way forward, firing all the time and weakening the other man with persistent body punching. Bat’s left hook was a debilitating weapon and he would extend his thumb and forefinger upon delivery to heighten its penetration.
Much is made of how Harry Greb and Sandy Saddler would beef up their attack with imaginative twists of the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Nelson was a master of such guerrilla warfare, although considerably less subtle and apologetic. Gouging, elbow smashes to the face and the odd knee to the groin were all among the spicy ingredients that Bat added to his eclectic recipe.
Nelson was ready when he got his second chance at Jimmy Britt in the great old fight town of Colma on the San Francisco peninsula, in 1905. Colma was always a fittingly eerie location for life and death battles. To this day, its seventeen cemeteries still occupy more than seventy per cent of its land area.
Nelson tried everything he knew to put Britt in the ground, but masterful Jimmy boxed and side-stepped beautifully for the first sixteen rounds as Nelson chased and hustled and tried to goad the champion into trench warfare. In the eighteenth, Britt made his big mistake. Nelson charged out of his corner in his frustration to trap his evasive foe and make some kind of definitive impact. Bat got his break. Staggering Jimmy with a hard left, Nelson jumped on his man with a hail of follow-up blows. In his distress, Britt allowed himself to be sucked into the eye of the storm as he began to trade. Opening up with both fists, he tried to slow the manic Nelson by punishing his body with a volley of punches. It was a situation in which Bat revelled. Far from being discouraged, he upped his work rate and soon had Britt’s knees buckling as the crowd roared.
Nelson was a terrific in-fighter who simply wouldn’t relent once he had established his foothold.
Britt, the ring scientist, the beautiful boxer, was suddenly swinging wildly and crudely in his final fling at taming the madman who seemed to be eating him from the waist up.
In later years, ringsiders would describe this frenetic round of ceaseless hitting as one of the toughest and most violent in ring history. It ended spectacularly when Nelson nailed Britt with a right to the heart and knocked him out with a final left hook.
There is a commemorative plaque in the once thriving mining town of Goldfield to the Herculean struggle that took place there between Battling Nelson and Joe Gans in September, 1906. Just a simple plaque, baking in the sun and the deadly quietness.
On one of my trips there in 1980, almost seventy-four years to the day after that great fight, I remember a trucker jumping down from his rig and announcing to the local coffee shop proprietor that it was 102 degrees that morning and rising. Even the natives were having trouble staying upright in the unforgiving heat. I kept wondering how two men of even the exceptional qualities of Nelson and Gans could have fought each other for some forty rounds in that furnace.
At that time, Goldfield was a wondrous and rollicking hub of activity, the biggest town in Nevada with a population of some thirty thousand. Stores and saloons abounded. The biggest saloon was Tex Rickard’s Northern, whose mighty bar required eighty tenders to man it. The imposing Goldfield Hotel was the most opulent establishment of its kind between Kansas City and San Francisco.
But the heat didn’t keep too many people in the shade when Battling Nelson squared off with Joe Gans. Bat knew exactly what he was up against in the man they called the Old Master. Gans wasn’t merely a revelation, he was a genuine boxing revolutionary, a man of multiple skills whose planning and strategy were far ahead of his time. To this day, Joe is still reckoned by many to be one of the most complete and accomplished ring mechanics there has ever been. Just as one struggles to highlight a significant weakness in the perfect welterweight package that was Sugar Ray Robinson, so the ghost of Gans continues to teasingly invite us to spot the slightest smears in his make-up. There were certainly none to make a great fuss about, save for his general fitness, which was not on a par with that of his great all-time rivals Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran.
Joe contracted tuberculosis late in his career, and it is not known when exactly the true effects of that then deadly illness began to sap his strength and strip him of his powers. Those powers were awesome. A master at holding the centre of the ring and handling any given situation, Gans was a sublime boxer and a tremendous hitter. He was one of the first genuine combination punchers and his speed of hand and foot was arguably unexcelled. He could counter punch with precision, work the body and was a wizard at slipping, feinting and blocking.
At Goldfield, Joe fought heroically against Nelson and prevailed in controversial circumstances. Gans had already reigned long and successfully as world champion and was still claiming the title. Nelson begged to differ.
What unfolded was a titanic battle of wills, in which the science of Gans was pitted against the all out aggression and high octane punching of Nelson. Joe’s clever mind calculated the most prudent game plan, which he followed with his usual, measured discipline. Bat rushed him as only Bat knew how, but the Old Master was always one step ahead of the game as he jabbed solidly and made himself an elusive target. Ringsiders marvelled at Joe’s footwork and the cool way in which he feinted Nelson into making errors. A 20-rounds fight that day would have been a stroll in the park for Gans and a comfortable points victory. But this was the long haul territory in which the tireless Nelson revelled and excelled. Many lesser men would have been demoralised into giving up the chase, yet the stinging punches of Gans seemed to refresh and galvanise Bat like splashes of cold water. He just kept coming, never missing a chance to hammer away with his renowned half-arm punches when he could get inside.
Was this man Nelson human? That was the question that even the worldly Gans must have been asking himself as the brutal fight wore on. The correctness of Joe’s punching was a thing of beauty as he snapped back Bat’s head with monotonous regularity. What right minded human being could have possibly enjoyed such punishment? Everything about Nelson’s demeanour conveyed the message that he was in his own special heaven.
Both men had been severely beaten and drained by the time they staggered into the home stretch beneath the Goldfield sun, but Nelson’s sheer persistence now had Gans teetering on the brink of defeat. After forty-one torrid rounds, Joe had to feel his way back to his corner like a blind man as the last reserves of his strength leaked away. Nelson had him. Gans reeled and stumbled around the ring in the forty-second as Nelson eagerly rushed for the kill. But then Bat delivered the punch that would deprive him of certain victory and make him resentful of Gans for a long time afterwards.
The controversial blow was Bat’s speciality and he had delivered it perfectly so many times before: a half scissor hook to the liver whose journey seldom amounted to more than six inches. It was a terrible, paralysing blow, and Joe dropped like a man who was dying. Then referee George Siler dropped a bomb of his own. After hesitating, he ruled the blow illegal and declared Gans the winner on a foul. Nelson was furious and dedicated himself to levelling the score.
He had to wait patiently for two years before exacting his revenge and knocking out the jaded genius in seventeen rounds at Colma. Three months later, at the same venue, Bat confirmed his position as the world’s top lightweight when he knocked out Joe in the twenty-first. Over two years and the incredible span of eighty rounds, the two titans of the game had finally concluded their business.
Wolgast at Point Richmond
For all the punches he had taken, the injuries he had sustained and the blood he had spilled, Battling Nelson had still to approach the cathedral of his marathon wars in the Old West. There, at Point Richmond in California on February 22 1910, he would scale the giddiest heights of all against a man of similarly unshakeable resolve in Ad Wolgast.
The descriptions of that long and violent fight continue to ricochet and echo through the corridors of time. Historian Nat Fleischer described it simply as ‘a truly Homeric engagement’.
Nelson tried his heart out against Wolgast that day, but the Durable Dane finally slammed into the buffers against a mirror image of bloody-minded tenacity. Bat started fast, which he didn’t usually do, probably goaded by Wolgast’s pre-fight taunts. The two men detested each other and Nelson would scathingly refer to Wolgast in later years as “… the cheapest man I ever met.”
The rules of boxing simply vanished as the two warriors tore at each other with the apparent blessing of referee Edward Smith. Nelson shook Wolgast with some meaty rights in the early rounds as Ad countered and concentrated on pounding Bat’s body in close. The fighters butted each other all the way through, punched low, gouged each other’s eyes and threw in more than the occasional elbow smash to the face for good measure. In the sixteenth round, Nelson locked Wolgast’s head with his left arm and banged him to the kidneys with a succession of vicious rights.
But nothing would deflect Ad from his task. He was the younger man by six years at twenty-two, while Bat was already a grizzled veteran at twenty-eight. After thirty-seven rounds of savage fighting, Nelson was all but done and even referee Smith didn’t want to see any more. He asked the champion if he wanted to continue, but Bat typically waved him away. The head and body shots from Wolgast had reduced Nelson to a pitiful state. His legs could barely hold him up and blood ran from his nose and ears. Finally, after nearly collapsing from a Wolgast smash to the chin in the fortieth round, Bat was rescued and the fight was halted.
Both courageous battlers were smeared in blood at the end. Both were bruised and swollen. Battling Nelson could barely see out of the two slits of his eyes. The gruesome vision he presented said everything about his fighting heart and spirit.
He looked as if he had been in a gunfight. And how else was a devil-may-care gunslinger supposed to look in the thunderous theatre of the Old West?
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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