It bears remembering that the great Stanley Ketchel was killed on this day, 105 years ago.
Ketchel was the Middleweight champion of the world, a title he claimed in September of 1907, when he knocked out Joe Thomas in the thirty second round of a forty five round fight. Thirty second round is not a typographical error. Ketchel goes down in history as one of boxing’s “bad boys”, and on the day of his death on October 15th, 1910, he was still the Middleweight Champion of the World.
Ketchel is most famous for his October 16th, 1909 bout with Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson. That story in itself is rife with innuendo and contains a reminder to lost boxing history as we will probably never know all the facts. Stanley Ketchel was a wild man and already known as such in the newspapers of the day, and a fight with the Heavyweight Champion of the World, a man over 30 lbs heavier was right up his alley. That we do know.
Less than a year earlier, the globetrotting Johnson had wrested the Heavyweight crown from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia. Johnson, as the first ever black Heavyweight world champion, was already a media sensation, and Johnson seemed to thrive in the attention and the controversy. Ketchel, who in his youth had fought countless times in the hobo towns and train stations of the mid-west honing his game, had already established his own media celebrity.
The Heavyweight Champion vs Middleweight Champion. With so much at stake and so little regulation and oversight, the details of what really happened on that day may are lost. The match was of such scope in its day that the nascent technology of the video camera was used to capture the fight and events leading up to the fight. Thankfully, the footage still exists and can be seen to this day, but the old time footage leaves a viewer wanting to know more. Unfortunately for Ketchel, it is also the only footage of him that has been found.
Johnson was a large man, known as the ‘Galveston Giant’ for his size, and the difference in physical stature with Ketchel in the fight is evident. The crowd, mostly white men, was packed into the arena which appeared to house thousands. There was talk prior to the fight that Johnson was going to take it easy on Ketchel to extend the fight for the motion picture, and the crowd was restless to see the fight actually go down.
Accounts of the fight tell of a lackluster opening 11 rounds, as the men went back and forth. That Ketchel was ‘game’ is apparent, but the physical difference is immense. The rest of one account follows:
“Ketchel saw an opening in the 12th round and went for the knockout, flooring Johnson with a right. When Johnson arose, Ketchel moved in for the kill and was knocked out by a massive right from Johnson. As Ketchel was counted out, Johnson brushed off a pair of Ketchel’s teeth that had embedded in his glove. Johnson allegedly said, “He crossed me and I made him pay for it.”
Boxing fans who have gotten a little deeper into the history of boxing recall his quartet of fights with Billy Papke, considered to be some of the most brutal fights of a time where the sport was different. The write-ups around the 2006 book “The Killings of Stanley Ketchel” describes him as a “daring rakehell, whose brief and meteoric life burned with violence and tragedy in and out of the ring”. Another book about Ketchel published in 2009 is simply called “Brutality”. Accounts of the first fight with Billy Papke describe the fight as the biggest sporting event in Milwaukee’s history up to that time, and there are accounts of Ketchel bludgeoning sparring partners to the point they had to use umpire chest protectors while in the ring. In the after-fight euphoria, Ketchel is said to have bathed himself in a bathtub full of champagne.
One day short of a year after he fought Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel was shot dead at the age of 24.
As one version of the story goes, Ketchel was shot by the “man whose wife was cooking him breakfast”. He died of a punctured lung, his pearl handled revolver not close enough to save him as he drowned in his own blood. He died in Springfield Hospital where he was taken by special train. Other reports, such as in the Illustrated Record dated October 22nd, 1910 give an account stating that Ketchel was killed over his refusal to put his hands up after insulting a woman. Whatever the case may be, Ketchel is said to have been in Missouri purchasing land and planning a more calm life away from the big cities. Walter Hurtz, aka Walter Dipley, the man who shot Ketchel, served 23 years for the shooting and went on to live an additional 22 years after being set free. Dipley’s claim of self defense was ignored by the court.
Nat Fleischer, the founder of The RING, considered Stanley Ketchel the greatest Middleweight of all-time, and former wrestling champion and boxing judge William Muldoon considered Ketchel to be the best he ever saw. There have been and remain many others that agree.
His historic record stands at 53 wins, 5 losses and 5 draws and 48 of his wins came by way of knock out. He was inducted into the Canastota, New York International Boxing Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1990. On October 2nd, 2015, a statue of Stanley Ketchel was unveiled in the downtown area of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Stanley Ketchel, “The Michigan Assassin”, gone but not forgotten.