The biggest fight that never was
Nowadays when "Ultimate Fighters" punch, kick, knee and choke each other, as they did at the Bradley Center in August, the State of Wisconsin sees nothing wrong with it as long as the taxman gets his share of the gate receipts.
It was a different story 100 years ago this month when the acting governor, county sheriff and district attorney prevented two of the most famous boxers in the world from going at it in Milwaukee (using just their gloved fists) because then prize fighting was considered an affront to human decency and a corrupter of public morals.
It also happened to be technically against the law, although up to then Section 4520 of the state statutes ("Any person who shall by previous arrangement or appointment engage in a prize fight with another person for the possession of any prize, belt or other evidence of championship, or for any other cause, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison not more than five years nor less than one year, or by a fine not exceeding $1,000 nor less than $100") had been enforced only sporadically, and bouts were openly held in Milwaukee and other cities around the state. In 1908 there'd even been a middleweight championship fight here.
The last-minute decision to prevent the world lightweight title fight between champion Ad Wolgast and Packey McFarland from going on as scheduled at the Auditorium on September 15, 1911 cost outraged local merchants an estimated $100,000 in revenue (more than $2 million in today's dollars), and fight fans the chance to finally witness what The Milwaukee Journal called "the scrap which has been the cause of more heated arguments and talk than any lightweight battle in the last 10 years."
In fact, no fight in all of boxing had been so eagerly anticipated since the "Battle of the Century" in Reno, Nevada, between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and "Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries, the year before.
That Milwaukee would host the mega-event had been rumored for months. "It argues well for the manner in which the boxing game has been conducted in Milwaukee that a match like this may be here consummated," preened an editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel the previous May. "Sportsmen and legal authorities the country over have recognized, to the credit of this city, that Milwaukee has conducted a reasonable line of boxing matches and that most of the objectionable features of the game have been entirely eliminated."
That feeling wasn't unanimous, however, and a subsequent editorial in the Milwaukee Free Press stated the opposition's case.
"These shows have been held under what are probably as good auspices as any boxing events in the country; still, they have been sources of injury to the community. Let those who incline to a challenge of that statement go to the police department. They can learn there of scores of boys and young men whose downfall is directly traceable to these fights. They can learn there that during the day and night of every such fight disorder and crime reach a top notch in the city of Milwaukee...
"Where there is a fight, whatever its character, the dregs of society -- the degenerate, the criminal, the irresponsible -- are bound to foregather."
Ringside seats for the Wolgast-McFarland fight went for a whopping $10, with general admission priced at $2 for the event whose date was picked in hopes that out-of-towners attending the Wisconsin State Fair that week would take in the championship bout before heading home. But it was soon apparent that the fight was in a class by itself as an attraction.
Just a week after promoter Frank Mulkern closed the match on July 21, the Sentinel's A.J. Schinner reported that "interest in the match throughout the country...has reached a stage scarce (sic) believable." And ticket orders weren't coming in just from the degenerate, the criminal and the irresponsible.
"MDs, lawyers and other professional and business men who have never taken in a boxing match before have called for reservations of the best seats," wrote Schinner, "and all of the local elite will go to make up one of the 'classiest' gatherings that has ever attended an event of like nature in this state, or in truth, in this section of the great US."
By September, Promoter Mulkern envisioned a sellout crowd of 12,000 in the two-year-old Auditorium, and a gate of $40,000.
Big crowds turned out to watch champion Wolgast go through his daily training routine in a gym set up at Harry Nelson's roadhouse five miles out of town on the Janesville Plank Road (now W. Forest Home Ave.). A native of Cadillac, Michigan, Wolgast had gotten his start in boxing in Milwaukee. When he went downtown one afternoon to visit old haunts, several hundred persons gathered to gawk and follow him around. McFarland trained in Chicago, and did his part to fan the publicity flames by vowing to make Wolgast crawl out of the ring.
Boxing actually had its own season in Milwaukee then, starting in September and running through May. The 1911 season officially opened September 1 when a large crowd attended a card at the Terminal Building to watch well-known middleweights Jimmy Clabby and Mike Gibbons go 10 rounds. No lawman breathed a word of protest then, so it was a front page shocker when Sheriff William Arnold notified Frank Mulkern on September 9, less than a week before the scheduled championship bout, that he intended to prevent it from happening because "information has reached me that both participants in this coming fight are men of national reputation as 'prize fighters' and that they are coming here to fight each other on the day in question with intent to do each other bodily harm for large financial reward."
District Attorney Winfred Zabel issued an official opinion siding with Arnold. "One of the essential elements of such a contest is the participants intend to do physical violence to each other, and the mere fact that it may be called a friendly bout for scientific purposes points, does not change the character of the contest, which is in all other respects a prize fight."
Mulkern argued that the fight would be no different from all the ones allowed in the past, and said going through with Wolgast-McFarland amounted to an economic imperative.
"The business interests here want the match because it will bring more money in Milwaukee than any other event that could be staged here," he said. "From a financial standpoint it far outclasses conventions and public gatherings. Why, I feel safe in saying that those who will come here to see the contest will spend at least $100,000 in the two days that they will be here. The bout will not be attended by the rougher element, as many fear. Instead, some of the best-known men of the country will be present. Why, I have already reserved boxes for the mayors of Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis."
The next day, Lt. Governor Thomas Morris, serving as acting governor while Gov. Francis McGovern was out of state, ordered Arnold to halt the fight.
When the veto of "the biggest sporting event ever held in Milwaukee or Wisconsin" (Journal) was announced, "indignation was expressed in the street and in every hotel lobby and rendezvous in the city" (Sentinel). Most comments echoed the sentiments of H. Stanley Green, manager of The Plankinton House:
"If the bout was to be stopped on the grounds of law, why was it not stopped months ago? Those who now claim they are compelled to interfere should have interfered the very day the match was announced."
There was talk of seeking an injunction to derail the fight-stoppers, but when Sheriff Arnold said he would consider any injunction an "act of anarchy," Mulkern realized the futility of pressing ahead, and the day before the fight he cancelled it.
Lt. Gov. Morris, Sheriff Arnold and District Attorney Zabel received loud hosannas from church groups for their zealous protection of public sensibilities, but within two years boxing was legalized by the state legislature.
Ironically, a century later boxing is a dead letter in Milwaukee. And the Free Press's long-ago concern that "many a young fellow, who was living a sober and industrious life, has been tempted into the ring by amateur conquests only to degenerate into a loafer and debauchee" would now seem to apply to a lot of sober and industrious young fellows who go into politics and seminaries.
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