By Mike Dunn: One of the most controversial title fights took place on the Fourth of July, 1912, in Vernon, Calif., near Los Angeles. Popular local favorite Mexican Joe Rivers – who wasn’t Mexican at all but a fourth-generation Californian of Spanish-Native American descent whose real name was Jose Ybarra – challenged rugged lightweight champ Ad Wolgast in a fight that would forever be known for the rarest of all fistic occurrences – a double knockout – and for the subsequent shocking actions of the ref enabling Wolgast to retain the title.
Rivers was a formidable challenger, having dispatched of both Johnny Kilbane (KO 16) and Frank Conley (KO 12) to earn his shot at the crown in the open-air Vernon Arena before 11,000 witnesses that hot Independence Day.
Wolgast was a rawhide-tough champion from Cadillac, Mich. bearing the descriptive moniker “Michigan Wildcat” because of the ferocity of his attacks. A two-fisted warrior, Wolgast fought out of a crouch and was willing to trade blow-for-blow with anyone. He brought an outstanding 47-1-9 record into the ring with him but much more important than that, he brought his own referee, Jack Welch, with him that day. If not for the presence of Welch, Rivers would have had his hand raised as champion when the fight was over.
It was a fierce battle between the two determined men, each doing damage in the brutal give-and-take manner that characterized the ring wars of that blood-and-guts era.
Wolgast, making the fifth defense of the title he won in the 40th round of a savage war of attrition with Battling Nelson two-and-a-half years before, started strong but was fading under the continued assault of the younger challenger. The champ had been more on the receiving end than the giving end through the first 12 frames of the scheduled 20-rounder and was behind in the scoring.
Rivers had the edge going into the fateful 13th round but both battlers showed the effects of the fierce trading. “Both boys, gory from head to belt, their faces puffed and cut …” is how the ringside reporter described Wolgast and Rivers just prior to the double knockout.
There has been some dispute through the years as to whether the blow that felled Rivers landed low, but the newspaper account said clearly that Wolgast struck below the belt.
“Rivers suddenly collapsed,” the ringside reporter wrote, and there were immediate shouts of “foul” among the spectators. “Wolgast previously in the same round and in several other rounds had struck Rivers rather low and when Rivers went down there was a sudden shout of ‘Foul.’”
Rivers went down in a heap but a moment later Wolgast was down also, falling over top of Rivers’ legs. Just as he was being hit severely in the groin area, Rivers had landed a solid right to the champion’s jaw and Wolgast staggered momentarily before falling.
“Wolgast suddenly crouched and sent a terrific left directly over Rivers’s groin,” it said in the next day’s newspapers. “At the same instant Rivers put his right to Wolgast’s jaw and the champion went down and was practically out. Rivers fell, writhing in pain, and referee Welch began to count.”
Welch later explained that he started counting over Rivers because Rivers went down first. Welch ignored the claims of foul, saying emphatically that Wolgast landed a clean blow. As Welch was counting over Rivers, who was conscious but in terrible pain, he actually helped Wolgast up from the canvas.
“Wolgast rolled off Rivers, his features convulsed. Welch immediately began counting and was still counting when he reached down and helped Wolgast to his feet. There were shouts that the bell had ended the round while Welch was counting. By this time the whole arena was in an uproar.”
The bell rang at the count of 4 and the timekeeper, Al Holder of the Pacific Athletic Club, kept shouting at Welch that the gong had sounded. Welch either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him. That only added to the outrage of Rivers’ supporters.
“The claims on behalf of Rivers were not heeded by Welch. He picked Wolgast up off the floor and declared him the winner. His seconds had to carry him from the ring. Rivers was lying on the floor but in a moment arose unaided.”
Rivers was prepared to continue fighting but Welch “waved him back.” Welch’s actions ignited a near riot in the arena. Several people came through the ropes, including Rivers’ manager Joe Levy, and confronted Welch.
The referee told the protesters that his actions were fair and then quickly fled the ring. The protests continued for nearly an hour after the fight ended but to no avail. Later that night, Welch stated that Wolgast had struck a legal blow to the stomach that caused Rivers to fall. Shockingly, Welch also said he didn’t see Rivers land the punch that knocked Wolgast senseless.
In a remarkable contortion of logic, this is how Welch responded: “Wolgast was clearly the winner. Just before Rivers went down, Wolgast had landed a heavy left to the body just below the pit of the stomach and followed it with another right smash almost to the same place. Neither blow was low. I did not see what happened to Wolgast.”
So Welch saw two legal blows when others saw a left thrown by the champion that was clearly low. The ref saw Wolgast strike Rivers but he somehow missed the right that Rivers threw to knock Wolgast out! Welch would have made a grand politician.
Rivers later displayed “a dented aluminum protector” in the dressing room to validate his claim of a foul. Levy, Rivers’ manager, called Welch’s actions “the worst case of robbery in the history of the American ring.”
“Never before have I seen a referee pick up a man and then give him the decision,” Levy added. “The foul blow struck by Wolgast was seen by everyone near the ringside. It was the fourth or fifth foul the champion had landed on Rivers. The sum total of it all is that Wolgast knew he was whipped and resorted to his foul tactics to save himself.”
The final paragraph of the newspaper article implies that even Wolgast’s people recognized the injustice of Welch’s actions, though they weren’t about to say so. “No one connected with Wolgast’s camp would say a word and all of them quickly jumped in an automobile and left the pavilion.”
Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Lake City, Mich.