Adolph ("Ad") Wolgast was definitely a champion.
Born in 1888 in Cadillac, Michigan, he was the oldest in a family of seven (two of his younger brothers became championship boxers as well). After distinguishing himself in amateur boxing, Ad turned professional in 1910 and captured the World Lightweight title a year later. The forty-round brawl with Battling Nelson that earned him his title was the stuff of boxing legends as Wolgast did the impossible and survived the bloody fight. Eager sports reporters labeled him "the Michigan Wildcat" as Ad won all but one of his first eight-nine bouts. In one famous bout with Joe Rivers in 1912, he and Rivers both knocked each other out. Ad was awarded the fight because he was seen to get up first before they were both counted out (there was some controversy over this decision). He became legendary for his ability to take (and give out) horrendous head punches but Ad Wolgast didn't keep the title long. In a vicious 1912 bout with Willie Ritchie, Ad finally lost his title although his boxing career went on.
The damage that Ad Wolgast took during his boxing career seems incredible. In his one hundred and thirty-five bouts, he sustained numerous injuries include cauliflower ears, countless broken bones (hands, ribs, and arms), and a disfigured face. His wife, Mildred, threatened to divorce him if he didn't quit the ring and he arranged for plastic surgery to rebuild much of his face (including having his nose injected with paraffin to regain its former shape-the paraffin later leaked out). Milwaukee, Minnesota was a major fight center at the time and, through radio broadcasts of his boxing matches, Ad quickly gained fans across the country. After a brief attempt at retirement in 1916 (and the end of his marriage), the fact that Ad was suffering from "punch drunkenness" (a.k.a. dementia pugilistica) became apparent soon enough.
By the age of thirty, the "Michigan Wildcat" seemed far older than he really was. One Milwaukee reporter said that, "a glance at Wolgast's head is enough to show what he had one through". Hospitalized after a "nervous breakdown", Ad Wolgast was declared mentally incompetent in 1917 by a Milwaukee court. During his competency hearing, two psychiatrists who had assessed him testified that, "there was hardly a chance for him to regain his health". He spent a year in Minnesota hospitals before drifting to California and eventually being placed in the psychopathic ward at California's Stockton State Hospital. As a trained boxer, his involuntary confinement definitely led to problems, including beatings by staff, until a California court ruled that he was legally competent in December, 1918.
Since fighting was all Ad knew, he joined a gym owned by Los Angeles fight promoter, Jack Doyle. Although Ad Wolgast dreamed of a comeback, Doyle (who had assumed unofficial guardianship) simply allowed Wolgast to train with no intention of ever letting him box again. Most of the money that Ad had earned in prizefighting ended up going to his ex-wife so he was left destitute (Doyle gave him free access to the gym). Veteran fighters and boxing fans often dropped by to see Ad train and he reveled in their praise of his fighting skills. He also insisted on being treated like a world champion and often became agitated whenever anyone failed to give him the respect that he felt he deserved.
When his condition gradually deteriorated, Ad Wolgast was readmitted to hospital in 1927. While he remained there for the rest of his life, Ad continued to train in his room.; According to his obituary, that typically involved frequent shadowboxing, bobbing, and uppercuts against imaginary opponents. Ad Wolgast seemed largely unaware of his surroundings except on rare occasions when he would plaintively ask where he was and when he would be allowed to leave. His boxing career may have been long over but it still took two hospital attendants to restrain him whenever he was forced to do something he didn't want to do. By all reports, his "tough guy" reputation and violent temper earned him numerous beatings in hospital but he always recovered quickly enough. He went blind in the final few years of his life.
Adolph Wolgast died on April 14, 1955 of heart complications after having spent more than half of his lifetime in hospitals. Although he was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1958 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000, he is largely remembered today only as an object lesson in the dangers associated with professional boxing. While not as famous as other cases of dementia puglistica including Chris Benoit, Ad Wolgast's sad story highlights the cumulative damage resulting from repeated head injuries in boxing and other professional sports.
The dangers involved in professional boxing were clear enough even in Ad Wolgast's day but the lure of fame and fortune meant no shortage of eager boxers willing to take the risk. Ad's lifetime earnings were estimated at more than $200,000 (a hefty amount even in 1915 dollars) although he was still left destitute in his final years. Even when he recognized how badly he had been hurt by boxing, Ad's attempts at retirement were always brief. In one famous 1916 interview, Ad told reporters, "You just can't quit after all.&They say a criminal is drawn back irresistibly to the scene of the crime. Well, so is a fighter drawn back to the old rings, the old crowds, and the old excitement. Why not let the old ex-champs have their little pipedreams?"
In the end, Adolph Wolgast paid the price for his dream.