Nelson-Wolgast Fight and San Francisco Boxing Scene Review

Lou Eisen / October 18, 2012 - 4:41pm

Arne K. Lang‘s new book entitled, The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914 (published by McFarland & Company Inc.) is a very fun read and a wonderful addition to the library of any true boxing fan. Lang’s book is a masterful paean to a vintage era in boxing history when the world famous California city of San Francisco was THE epicenter of the boxing universe.

Lang’s evocative prose gives readers a real sense of the cultural importance and social significance of these early boxing gladiators and the high esteem in which, they were held by the sporting public. Lang manages to put his readers in the ring with these all-time greats during their most significant matches to the extent that one can almost feel the intensity of the fights they were in and the ferocity of the punishment they received.

Boxers literally came from all over the world to San Francisco at the turn of the previous century hoping for a shot at a world title. The book’s two main protagonists, Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast, are described in great detail. Oscar Battling (he legally adopted it as his official middle name) Nelson, was born in Denmark, but moved to Hegeswich, Illinois with his parents at the age of one. He was a virulent bigot with an unbridled hatred of African Americans, which he was very happy to discuss in public. Adolphus “Ad” Wolgast, aka “The Michigan Wildcat,” came from Pontiac, Michigan.  Both men hailed from families mired in poverty and they both really wandered into boxing quite by accident.

On Feb. 22, 1910, in Point Richmond, Calif., 15,000 avid fight fans braved chilling rains to witness a boxing spectacle they would never forget. Nelson defended his world lightweight title belt (which he had held for 19 months) against the younger man from Michigan. Although Nelson was still considered a formidable customer in the ring, many boxing critics thought he had slipped just a bit and was perhaps on the threshold of the downside of his career (mind you, he lasted 45 rounds under a blistering, hot sun, which only a man at the top of his game could do.)

After engaging in a brutal bloodbath, it was Wolgast who stopped Nelson in the 45th round to claim the undisputed lightweight championship of the world. Wolgast’s reign as champion last 21 months, just 2 more than that of his predecessor. Such was the depth of the talent in that era that few men ever held any title for a very long time with some notable exceptions of course.

Both Wolgast and Nelson had several more great fights in them but suffice to say, they were never as good again in the ring as they were on that day; although that did not stop them from repeatedly trying in vain to regain lost glories.

Lang artfully animates all of the major boxers of that era as well as influential managers, referees, writers, and promoters. Many of the promoters back then were akin to oil wildcatters in both spirit and ambition. They knew the risks, they took them willingly and, much more often than not, they succeeded. Such tough hewn men as Tex Rickard, Sunny Jim Coffroth and Fat Jack Gleason were Damon Runyonesque figures with great dreams and the means and the gumption to turn those dreams into reality. It was Rickard who went on to become the preeminent promoter in boxing until his untimely death in 1929.

The lightweight division was really the glamour division in boxing in that time period.  As such, next to the heavyweights, lightweights made the most money in boxing. Many welterweights often dropped weight just to compete as lightweights so they could earn more money.

Many of the great pugilists from that era managed to become undisputed world champions during their respective careers; while others fell short but were no less talented by any means. Many of those fighters now reside in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. All-time greats such as Joe Gans, Brit Freddie Welsh,  “Terrible” Terry McGovern and Nelson and Wolgast were just some of the magnificent and colorful prizefighters from that era.

Lang also pays respect to many of the outstanding writers from that time that helped to popularize boxing in their daily columns.  It was their words that whetted the boxing appetites of nascent fight fans all over San Francisco and the rest of the United States.

Lang’s book is as hard to put down as Battling Nelson in his heyday and the very rare photographs and illustrations in the book truly enhance the majesty of his words.

Author Arne K. Lang is a sociologist who has taught at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, the University of Nebraska and Tuskegee University. He is considered to be a leading authority on the history of boxing and the history of American sports gambling. He lives and writes in Las Vegas.

If you are interested in purchasing this great book, you can do so by visiting or you may call 1-800-253-2187