STANLEY KETCHEL’S life was an adventure. It ended when he was only 24, shot through the lung by Walter Dipley in a jealous rage over a woman. Ketchel had lived in keeping with the myths of the Wild West. From a Polish family, his original name was Stanislaus Keical. Ketchel was just 14 years old when he fled home to travel America as a hobo.
He wound up in Butte, Montana, a rough mining town where he worked as bouncer in a bar. Here he discovered himself as a fighter, taking on all comers in shows at a local theatre. Ketchel proved to be a natural, gifted with knockout power.
His first recorded professional contest was in 1903. He won it in the first round. He plied his trade in Montana. From being a ferocious brawler Ketchel began to refine his technique, though still winning overwhelmingly by knockout. Maurice Thompson outpointed him but also took Ketchel under his wing.
In 1907 Stanley began boxing in California, boosting his national profile. The following year, in halting Jack “Twin” Sullivan in 20 rounds, he laid claim to the world’s middleweight championship.
Soon his great rivalry with Billy Papke began. In their first contest Ketchel had to settle for a win on points, though promptly restored his aura with subsequent stoppage wins over Hugo Kelly and Joe Thomas.
Papke though was no stranger to violence. He fought his way from the coal mines to the prize ring and managed to rip the title from Ketchel, paying no heed to convention, when they boxed again later in 1908. Before the rematch started the two fighters were brought into the centre of the ring to shake hands. Papke struck Ketchel with one of history’s more notable sucker punches. In those harsher times the referee did not disqualify Papke, but contented himself with reprimanding him. Ketchel hadn’t recovered from the head shot and Papke could command the bout, eventually stopping Ketchel in 12 rounds.
Stanley response was furious. A rematch was arranged before the year was out and Ketchel had the knockout on his mind. He duly delivered it in the 11th round, becoming the first man to regain a lost middleweight title in the process.
1909 was the defining year of Ketchel’s career. He got a taste of battling a larger man when he tackled “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien. Under pressure initially Ketchel eventually made his power tell, knocking O’Brien down four times in the ninth and 10th rounds. Only the final bell made it a points loss for O’Brien rather than a knockout.
They fought again a few months later and Ketchel picked up from where he’d left off. O’Brien was hauled out in three. The “Michigan Assassin” got in a fourth fight with Papke, which he won on points before his fame carried him all the way to a shot at the heavyweight title.
The search for a ‘White Hope’ to challenge Jack Johnson dragged Ketchel into the heavyweight division. The champion dwarfed Ketchel but Stanley approached him with the fearlessness that so characterized his life. Initially Ketchel kept himself out of harms way. Beginning to press, in the 12th round his right found its way to the champion’s jaw, knocking the Johnson off balance. As Jack touched down momentarily, for an instant the impossible seemed possible.
But immediately Johnson rose and angrily restored order, his right hand putting Ketchel down and out for the count.
It has since been suggested that Johnson had agreed to carry Ketchel but became enraged when Stanley went for him, violating the agreement and prompting the champion to bring their encounter to an abrupt end.
Ketchel was certainly keen for a rematch though and, while boxing Sam Langford among his subsequent contests, campaigned hard for another tilt at the heavyweight championship. The ambition hadn’t been knocked out of the young man. In 1910 he went to a ranch in Conway, Missouri to set up training camp. There hired hand Walter Dipley, allegedly jealous over his girlfriend’s attraction to Ketchel, gunned down the prizefighter as he ate breakfast. Dipley was convicted of first-degree murder and served 23 years in prison.
A natural puncher with limitless confidence, the boxer showed no fear. Only 24 when he met his untimely end, if anyone lived fast and died young it was Stanley Ketchel.
LINKED BY TRAGEDY
Ketchel was the first man to defeat Billy Papke. The son of German immigrants Papke was born in Spring Valley, Illinois. Like Ketchel Papke was no stranger to violence and was not prepared to take that lightly. His ruse to win the second encounter involved striking Ketchel before the bout had even started. It still took 12 rounds to finish off the notorious hard man.
Papke suffered for his audacity in their third fight, enduring a fearsome beating. Their fourth and final contest was savage as well but Papke saw it out, though lost on points. In 1912 Papke was in Paris, where he hammered the legendary George Carpentier.
But his life also ended in tragedy. In 1936 Papke murdered his estranged wife, then commited suicide.