For middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel, the boxing ring was the only theater in which his mania could legally project its voice. Born in 1886 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and orphaned at 14, the ‘Michigan Assassin’ travelled westward as a teenager, distinguishing himself as a feared street fighter in Montana’s tough-knuckled mining culture. Ketchel would parlay his brutal fists and pugnacious disposition into a successful professional boxing career, becoming middleweight champion in 1908. His brief, blazing run ended prematurely with his murder at 24, but despite his brief time at the top he is ranked by some as the greatest middleweight of all-time. Simply put, Stanley Ketchel was one of the most vicious and devastating punchers to ever wear boxing gloves.
Fighting, aggression, and general boisterousness encapsulated Ketchel’s short life. From his days as a brawling youth to his time fighting in Montana bars, Ketchel’s identity was drawn from his ability to physically dominate other men. As an adolescent he would knock out a grown man in a boxing exhibition at a local fair; he would turn to boxing shortly afterwards as a lucrative financial opportunity. It is estimated that before he turned professional in 1903, Ketchel fought in as many as 250 unsanctioned and doubtlessly brutal fights around Montana, during which he would hone his reputation for savagery. Whether as an amateur or professional, Ketchel would always enter the ring with the same decisive look in his cold eyes, at once nervous and unshakably self-confident, prepared to acquit himself viciously in the vortex that was the boxing ring.
Never formally trained, Ketchel didn’t possess exemplary technique. He wasn’t defensively skilled and often fought wide open, confident that his antagonistic style would prove too onerous for his opponent. Strong enough to knock someone out with either hand, Ketchel’s thirst for violence was supported by bottomless reserves of energy that allowed him to continue pressing very late into fights. He was a furious, whirling dervish inside the ring, wholly intent on physically annihilating his opponent. According to manager ‘Dumb’ Dan Morgan, “Ketchel was an exception to the human race. He was a savage. He would pound and rip his opponent’s eyes, nose and mouth in a clinch. He couldn’t get enough blood.” Rarely serene, Ketchel’s impulsive, even psychopathic disposition made his behaviour unpredictable. He often carried a gun, and when upset would flaunt it unabashedly.
Ketchel ripped his way through the available professional competition in Montana, losing only twice in his first forty professional fights, with almost all of his wins coming by knockout. He would then move on to California, with its deeper well of boxing talent and opportunities to challenge for a title. There Ketchel’s career would ascend. Losing to Joe Thomas on points in a controversial decision, the Michigan Assassin would win the rematch via KO. This fight, considered by many to be one of the greatest in boxing history given its furious pace and changes of momentum, would be followed by a third bout between the two, which Ketchel won on points and with it, the World Middleweight Title. Fighting frequently, Ketchel successfully defended his title against the highly regarded Sullivan brothers Mike and Jack, Billy Papke, and then Joe Thomas again.
In his rematch with Papke, Ketchel would be blindsided by the challenger at the opening bell. This cheap shot, which gave rise to the famous referee’s order to “shake hands and come out fighting,” badly hurt the champ, and Ketchel succumbed by TKO in the twelfth round. Furious at having been beaten so illegitimately, Ketchel avenged the loss in their third meeting, earning an eleventh round knockout. This was the only time in his career that Papke failed to rise before the referee could count to ten.
After vanquishing Papke, Ketchel headed eastward, twice fighting light heavyweight champion ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien. In the first match—a classic, competitive bout that was deemed a no decision—it’s possible that Ketchel actually knocked O’Brien out at the end of the tenth and final round. Fortunately for the Irishman, the bell saved him from being counted out, leaving the result in dispute. The outcome of their rematch would be less vague, however, as Ketchel finished O’Brien in three rounds. Afterwards, he traveled back to California to again defeat Papke, this time by unanimous decision. This was merely a preamble, however, to his next bout against the legendary Jack Johnson.
As dangerous as Ketchel was, there was little chance he could beat “The Galveston Giant.” Winning shouldn’t have necessarily been Ketchel’s objective anyway, if he wanted to comply with the wishes of the motion picture company covering the bout, who wanted it to go an acceptable length for commercial purposes. This necessitated a more reserved style of boxing, which was anathema to Ketchel. Johnson fought in his usual, defensively-sound way, aware that he stood to receive a sizeable share of profits if the fight went long enough to conciliate the movie-going public. Ketchel, far too aggressive a soul to remain restrained, veered from the script when he hammered Johnson on the back of the head in the twelfth round. It was a surprise punch, and almost unbelievably, it sent Johnson to the canvas. A proud man, Johnson rose and immediately knocked Ketchel out, punching him so hard that Ketchel’s teeth were said to have become embedded in Johnson’s glove.
After the Johnson episode, Ketchel fought five more times before his murder, earning a no decision, losing to Sam Langford, and winning three others, finishing his career with a record of 51-4-4. Only 24, Ketchel was murdered by a farm hand in Conway, Missouri, in October of 1910, for reasons apparently rooted in jealousy and financial gain. His last words, at odds with the fearless image he presented publicly, are said to have been, “Take me home to mother.” — Eliott McCormick