Ketchel, Stanley

views updated

KETCHEL, Stanley

(b. 14 September 1886 in Grand Rapids, Michigan; d. 15 October 1910 near Conway, Missouri), middleweight champion and Hall of Fame boxer.

Ketchel was born Stanislaus Kiecal, the son of Polish immigrants Thomas Kiecal and Julia Oblinsky, who were farmers. Growing up on the family farm, Ketchel was a restless youth who yearned for adventure and idolized the outlaws of the American West. He left home at fifteen to ride the rails and survived by living in hobo jungles and working at occasional jobs, such as quartz miner and field hand. The young Ketchel eventually drifted into Butte, Montana, a rough-and-tumble mining town, where he found work as a bellhop before becoming a saloon bouncer. A natural brawler with a passion for fisticuffs, he fought for money in unsanctioned bouts whenever possible and soon found work at Butte's Casino Theater taking on all comers for $20 a week. Ketchel engaged in more than 250 of these brutal affairs while honing his trade. He also worked as a sparring partner for the talented local fighter "Cyclone" Maurice Thompson to improve his technique. Thompson befriended Ketchel, taught him the tricks of the trade, and as legend has it, convinced the young boxer to Americanize his name.

Ketchel made his "professional" debut on 2 May 1904 at the Casino Theater, knocking out the local champion Kid Tracy in one round. Ketchel continued fighting in and around Butte throughout 1906, winning most of his bouts and knocking out thirty-five of forty opponents. "I used to hit them so hard," Ketchel boasted, "they used to fall over the footlights and land in the people's lap." His nonstop aggression and punching prowess coupled with the speed and alacrity with which he dispatched opponents made him a favorite with the rowdy fans and prompted a now-forgotten sportswriter to dub him the "Michigan Assassin."

In 1907 Ketchel caught a freight train to California, then a hotbed of boxing, but had difficulty finding fights until he knocked out the promising middleweight Mike McClure. Ketchel also fought the middleweight contender Joe Thomas three times. The first bout ended in a disappointing draw. The rematch proved to be a vicious brawl, in which a bloodied Ketchel rose from the canvas more than once and eventually knocked out his more experienced opponent. Ketchel won the third dustup via a thirty-round decision. He next demolished Mike "Twin" Sullivan in one round. On 9 May 1908 Ketchel won the middleweight championship from Mike Sullivan's twin brother Jack "Twin" Sullivan, knocking him out in twenty rounds in Colma, California.

Ketchel was an active champion, putting his title on the line four times in as many months. In June he decisioned Billy Papke in ten rounds, in July he knocked out Hugo Kelly in three rounds, and in August he knocked out his old nemesis Thomas in two rounds. He again faced Papke, who was to become his most bitter rival, on 7 September 1908 in Vernon, California. At the outset of the bout, as Ketchel raised his arms to touch gloves, Papke unleashed a solid blow to Ketchel's head, knocking him to the canvas. A bewildered Ketchel never recovered and absorbed a terrible beating before being knocked out in the twelfth round. On 26 November, however, Ketchel knocked out Papke in the eleventh round of another classic brawl to become the first man to regain the middleweight championship.

Although he could be quite amiable outside the ring, the ruggedly handsome Ketchel, or "Steve" as he was known, remained wild and untamed, a lover of fast cars and faster women. He was known to tote a revolver and once shot an unfortunate trainer in the leg for waking him too early before a fight. In 1909 Ketchel and his wily manager Willus Britt traveled to the East Coast to enhance Ketchel's growing popularity. Ketchel met the New Yorkpress in full cowboy regalia to exploit his wild west image and rode down Fifth Avenue in an open car wearing an outlandish pink dressing gown and tossing peanuts to a cheering crowd. He told Nat Fleischer, the founder of Ring magazine, that he expected to "go out like a light … with an automobile engine jammed through my wishbone." On 26 March 1909 Ketchel fought the crafty light-heavyweight Philadelphia Jack O'Brien in New York City. Out-boxed and badly cut going into the tenth and final round, Ketchel unleashed a furious onslaught that ended with O'Brien out cold but saved by the bell. In a rematch three months later, Ketchel easily disposed of O'Brien in three rounds. Ketchel next met Papke in their fourth and final bout on 5 July. Fought during a raging storm in Colma, it was the most thrilling of their brutal encounters, and Ketchel won a twenty-round decision to retain the crown.

On 16 October 1909 Ketchel challenged the legendary Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship, also fought in Colma. The bout was to be filmed, and both men allegedly agreed to fight to a draw, with Johnson "going easy" on Ketchel, to ensure a profit and possibly set up a lucrative rematch. With his superior height, reach, and defensive ability, Johnson easily dominated the early rounds. In the eleventh, however, Ketchel, overwhelmed by the desire to win, let loose a barrage of punches that stunned the champion. At the beginning of the twelfth, Ketchel raced across the ring and landed a wild right hand that knocked Johnson down. Johnson, seemingly more angry than hurt, quickly rose and, as Ketchel rushed in to resume his assault, connected with a crushing right hand that knocked out Ketchel.

Ketchel returned to the East Coast and engaged in five more bouts during 1910, including a no-decision affair with the ring great Sam Langford. Britt died after the Johnson fight, and the noted wit and Broadway hustler Wilson Mizner became Ketchel's manager and confidant. Under Mizner's tutelage Ketchel's wild lifestyle spun out of control, and although he kept winning, his strength and skills diminished. In October 1910 Ketchel traveled to a ranch owned by his friend R. P. Dickerson outside of Conway, Missouri, to resume serious training. Unfortunately he soon wrangled with the ranch hand Walter Dipley over the latter's mistreatment of a horse. The jealous Dipley suspected Ketchel of "having his way with" his common-law wife Goldie Smith, who was also the ranch cook. On 15 October Dipley shot Ketchel in the back while the champion was eating breakfast. Ketchel's body was returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and buried in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Ketchel, five feet, nine inches and 154 pounds of pure fury, is generally considered one of the best middleweights of all time and a true boxing legend. He emerged from the hobo jungles, honky-tonks, and mining towns of the American West to capture the middleweight championship at the age of twenty-one. During his reign he tore through the division, laying waste to all worthy contenders. Although a natural middleweight, Ketchel's strength, stamina, and ability to absorb punches made him a formidable opponent for boxers in the heavier divisions, including the great Johnson. Ketchel's two-fisted, swarming style, devastating blows, and devil-may-care attitude captured the imaginations of Americans and made him a wildly popular champ. His official record is 64 bouts, 52 wins, 4 losses, 4 draws, and 4 no-decisions with 49 knockouts. Ketchel was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

A full-length biography of Ketchel is Nat Fleischer, The Michigan Assassin (1946), a colorful though perhaps fanciful chronicle. John D. McCallum, The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions (1975), includes a solid account of the boxer's tumultuous life both inside and outside the ring, as does Nigel Collins, Boxing Babylon (1990), which concentrates especially on the events leading up to Ketchel's death. A profile of Ketchel is in Bert Randolph Sugar, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (1984). A news account of the Ketchel shooting and a capsule summary of his career is in the New York Times (16 Oct. 1910).

Michael McLean