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Editor’s Pick: The story of Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel and the pantomime that went wrong

Jack Johnson
Philipp Kester/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Stanely Ketchel either agreed to an authentic finish or betrayed Jack Johnson halfway through their swindle. Carlos Acevedo tells the story

AFTER it was all over, after heavyweight champion Jack Johnson had left Stanley Ketchel horizontal, seemingly lifeless, on the canvas, a few teeth newly dislodged; after the referee had tolled the count of ‘ten’ under the big sky of Colma, California; after the crowd, disappointed, streamed out of the Mission Street Arena, the two combatants rendezvoused at a gambling hall to shoot craps. It was only fitting. In the ring, Johnson, over 200 pounds, and Ketchel, the reigning middleweight king, were comically mismatched; outside of it, they were kindred spirits, two reckless sporting men with unbridled desires: for action, for women, for liquor, for cars.

When they met for the heavyweight title on October 16, 1909, boxing remained outlawed throughout most of the United States, and its amoral ethos was closer to the unruly spirit of medicine shows and carny mid-ways. And the Johnson-Ketchel battle might have been better suited for a stage than a ring. From the beginning, this matchup, which was a prelude to the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries extravaganza the following year, was as counterfeit as a goldbrick. But it ended legitimately, violently, when Ketchel either agreed to an authentic finish for the sake of verisimilitude or when Ketchel betrayed Johnson halfway through their swindle.

By late 1909, the Great White Hope Movement was still in its infancy and had not yet produced a saviour that would galvanise the paying masses. As heavyweight champion, Johnson had thus far produced an uninspired reign. Since winning the title from Tommy Burns in December 1908, a bored Johnson had gone through the motions in several newspaper decisions that were closer to exhibitions than title defences.

Ageing Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, whose reputation for engaging in fixed fights and then repenting after they were over, earned him the nickname “Confessor,” weighed 162 pounds when he challenged Johnson in a six-round no-decision bout. With little ambition beyond building a nest egg, O’Brien earned a newspaper draw against a blasé Johnson on May 19, 1909. A month later, a poorly conditioned Johnson went another six in Pittsburgh with Tony Ross, an unheralded local pug who recovered from a knockdown in the first round to last the distance.

Johnson had already committed to facing Stanley Ketchel when he signed a contract to face Al Kaufman, one of the earliest White Hopes, in a 10-round no-decision bout in September 1909. Despite being considered a rising star, Kaufman drew chuckles from Johnson during a training session. After watching Kaufman go through the clumsy motions at a gym, Johnson said that hitting him would amount to “cruelty to children.” Although Johnson had nothing to fear from Kaufman, he agreed to an arrangement devised by his manager, George Little, and the promoter, Jim Coffroth; he would carry Kaufman to encourage the public into thinking that Ketchel would be facing a mere mortal. This comparative ruse was simple – if a lumbering ex-blacksmith such as Kaufman could last the distance against Johnson, imagine what Ketchel would do – and effective during a time when the only witnesses to an event were those who had gathered to see it in person.

To keep pace with a runaway lifestyle, Johnson would have to bank more than the $5,000 he had earned for his non-contact outing with Kaufman. With few recognisable names in his own division, Johnson settled on the most popular fighter in America – Stanley Ketchel.

A bruising power puncher with rough charisma, Ketchel, who had fought mostly in Montana, was a patchwork of marketing schemes, fables, and photo ops concocted by agents who were only a degree or two removed from showmen or being carnival impresarios. Surrounded by hucksters from the moment he arrived in California in 1907, Ketchel fought as “Young Ketchel” under the management of Joe O’Connor. When Willis Britt, incomparable hustler, replaced O’Connor, he gave Ketchel a complete makeover, turning the erstwhile Super-Tramp, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, into a cowboy. With the introduction of film, the American Frontier had become an object of mass media fascination, and Ketchel sported rugged ranch/desperado duds for photoshoots, including a Carlsbad hat, leather chaps, and a bandana.

The cowboy persona was only part of the Stanley Ketchel fantasy. Among the outlandish tales repeated ad nauseum by newspaper reporters who often doubled as dime novelists (and repeated in subsequent years by a phalanx of writers) was that Ketchel was an orphan whose parents had both been murdered before he was a teenager. In fact, Thomas and Julia Ketchel lived well into the 1920s, the Jazz Age, long after Stanley had died. But boxing reportage in its primitive American years suggested a quote from film director John Ford: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Although his colourful background may have been partly concocted by publicity men who specialised in bunco, Ketchel was as rough and ready as advertised, a man whose ring temperament was an extension of his natural character. In fact, his first newspaper appearance, in Butte, Montana, reflected his temperament in bold ink: “Brass Knuckles in a Fight: Stanley Ketchel Said to Have Used Them in a Fight with Cloyd Nevins – Both Arrested.” This street brawl, which took place when Ketchel was 18, may have landed him in jail, but future scraps would lead him to national fame.

Whether or not Ketchel was a pre-teen runaway who scuffled in hobo jungles and crisscrossed the American badlands in freight cars, pursuing fisticuffs and adventures with equal passion, his record in the ring reflected authentic combat zeal. Fierce brawls with Joe Thomas and Billy Papke, along with kayos over both of the Sullivan Twins (Jack and Mike), solidified his standing as a crowd favourite. By 1908, Ketchel, only 21, was the middleweight champion of the world. But not even such a distinction could bring Ketchel (or his manager, Britt) the kind of money a hedonist needed for women, gambling, drinks, cars, and, incredibly for an athlete, opium. In mid-1909, Britt convinced Ketchel that the only way they could hit paydirt was by challenging Jack Johnson. Less than two years earlier, Stanley Ketchel had been a welterweight.

Realising that Ketchel had no chance of defeating Johnson, Britt approached the heavyweight champion with a proposition to choreograph the fight. In an article written in the 1940s, Johnson refused to use the word “fix” regarding the Ketchel match. “However,” he wrote, “there was a deal. Or rather there was an understanding to protect the much smaller man, Ketchel.”

Persuading Johnson to collaborate had been simply a matter of making the right offer. During an era when agreements between fighters were common, Johnson wound up making more than one prearranged title defence during his reign. As in his 1916 farce against Arthur Cravan (the proto-Dadaist poet who dabbled, unconvincingly, in fisticuffs), film proceeds triggered Johnson into participating in a sham contest. “If I had any remaining doubts about fighting Ketchel,” he once wrote, “the promised rewards from the film dissolved them.” By extending the fight beyond a handful of rounds, Johnson and Ketchel could count on significant interest from the sporting public in boxing strongholds. But adding an unexpected highlight – a knockdown, for example – would draw untold bigoted thousands out of their homes to vaudeville halls, fairgrounds, burlesque tents, and nickelodeons.

On October 6, 1909, the San Francisco Examiner may have inadvertently triggered the script for Johnson-Ketchel when it published an interview with ex-heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, now a promoter in Australia (where Johnson had stopped him in 1908). Burns opined about the financial viability of a Johnson-Ketchel film. “A set of pictures showing Johnson on the floor would be better than a goldmine out this way,” he said. On the following day, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that Johnson had signed a deal that would guarantee him 40 per cent of the film profits, which would turn out to be a considerable amount of money.

With the official announcement of Johnson-Ketchel, the ballyhoo was on. To convince the skeptical public that Ketchel was a legitimate challenger, Britt used what old-time managers used to call “the sweat of his imagination.” The same way PT Barnum would display the stitched mashup of a fish and a monkey at the American Museum and call it the Fiji Mermaid, Britt outfitted Ketchel for maximum deception at a photoshoot with Johnson: boots cobbled with three-to-four inch heels, a padded overcoat that might have doubled as a mattress, and a 10-gallon hat that skewed his proportions even further. Even resembling a man who had been dressed by the inmates of a lunatic asylum, Ketchel was visibly undersized compared to Johnson. No matter. The buildup went on, even if the participants seemed nonchalant about it.

At Seal Rock House in San Francisco, Johnson pitched a leisurely camp, where he also invited his inauspicious concubines Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber. (Occasionally, Johnson would also spend some of his many off-hours with prostitutes.) To his merrymaking nights, Johnson added a unique variation of roadwork in the mornings and afternoons: he burned rubber throughout the Bay Area in his flashy Thomas Flyer, $3,000 in its day, an eagle as its bonnet mascot. Johnson, who had dreams of being a race car driver like Barney Oldfield (whom he would eventually challenge in a disastrous heads-up competition in Brooklyn), roared away hours of training time. Even Ketchel seemed mystified by this obsessive motoring and used primitive pop psychology to declare an edge in his favour. According to Ketchel, a man known for breakneck speeding himself, Johnson risked deterioration behind the wheel. “I quit the automobile because it kept me too light and played the deuce with my stomach and nerves,” Ketchel told the San Francisco Examiner. “It’s an awful strain on a man, and I attribute my gain in weight to the fact that I sold my buzz-wagon. I meet Johnson occasionally when I am doing roadwork. He is always in his automobile, of course. I passed him the other day when he was pulled up, and I couldn’t help noticing how thin he looked. There were great beads of perspiration on his forehead, too, and I made up my mind that he was having the same experience that I passed through, and finding that steering a motor was keeping him under a strain.”

For his part, Ketchel had different reasons for slacking in camp. Going all-out in training would prevent him from gaining sufficient bulk to sell the fight to the public, which was to remain blinkered at all costs. Even with a light workout schedule, Ketchel needed help from Willis Britt to pull off his final bluff. During the weigh-in, Ketchel reportedly scaled over 170 pounds, nearly twenty-five pounds more than he had weighed just two years earlier. Later he would explain how he reached that unrealistic figure: “Britt had the scales in a dark corner,” Ketchel said. “He was helping the weight with his finger.”

On October 16, 1909, a sold-out crowd of approximately 10,000 gathered at Market Arena (with hundreds more milling outside) to witness a fight that had baffled the public since it had been announced. For eleven rounds, Johnson controlled the casual sparring, scoring two accidental knockdowns along the way. Johnson recalled the action and non-action for The Ring more than thirty years later. “It was easy for me to tie up Stanley and many times I held his left hand behind his back, completely immobilizing him,” he wrote. “But I never tried to hit him hard. Once, he stepped into a left hook and to my surprise he went down. He took a … count and I made sure to hold him in the clinch for the rest of the round.”

Then came the shocking 12th round. The two men were milling on the perimeter when Ketchel suddenly rushed forward and launched an overhand right that sailed through the air like a brick. Johnson saw the punch coming and ducked his head just low enough to avoid its full impact. But the glancing blow sent Johnson crashing like a tumbler to the mat, where he spent only a moment, smiling, before rising.

With Johnson back on his feet, Ketchel charged again. This time, Johnson was ready. A ricocheting cross to the jaw short-circuited Ketchel on the way in, and a follow-up right left him sprawled on the canvas, where a few fitful movements were all he could manage before he was counted out. “I can never remember hitting a man harder,” Johnson would recall later.

Various interpretations and explanations of what happened in the 12th round have been offered throughout the years, but only two came from figures directly involved in the fight. Jack Johnson claimed that Ketchel had double-crossed him, unexpectedly opening up in what was meant to be a harmless pantomime. Another principal behind the scenes was George Little, who managed Johnson at the time of the Ketchel fight. His version of the events leading up to the match was by far the most revealing.

For his entire career, Johnson had operated a revolving door of managers, and at one point or another, he would be at odds with all of them, sparking lawsuits, recriminations, physical assaults, and feuds that played out on the sports pages of newspapers across the country. Little, whose managerial career had been brief, expressed dismay at the workings of boxing. “Dishonesty is a very mild term to connect with the fights and promoters on the coast,” Little told the press. “Nearly all the matches were fixed out there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Johnson and Ketchel even went so far as to practice the knockout. Can you beat that for crookedness? Why, Johnson and Stanley went through the knockout stunt three or four times one night in Willis Britt’s room. They piled pillows on the floor and rehearsed it.”

In addition to claiming that the fight had been rehearsed, Little also revealed a shocking twist to the initial plans. Ketchel, it seems, was not a natural thespian. “Britt and the others piled up the rugs and mats in the parlor and there Johnson was coached upon his facial expressions and his spectacular fall. But it was found that while Johnson was letter perfect in his lesson, Ketchel could not study his to the right standard. At last he said to Johnson: ‘Jack I can’t go down naturally and I think it best when the time comes you knock me out entirely. I guess I can stand the punch.’ And that was what Johnson did; he knocked Ketchel out effectually and with such force that he knocked out several of the middleweight’s teeth.”

As with much of boxing in those primeval days, the truth is difficult to ascertain. One thing is certain, however: films of the fight were blockbuster business. Despite what had happened in the ring, Johnson and Ketchel remained friends. When Johnson and Ketchel met that night to shoot craps, Ketchel lost $700. They must have had a good laugh over that.

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