In the pantheon of mythical characters from boxing history, a few stand taller than the rest. Some by popularity, others by lack of film and evidence to contradict the pugilistic ageism, but all have achieved an urban legend status among boxing fans.
Harry Greb fought much of his career with only one well-working eye, while many historians would give one of their own to see footage of the man in action. Joe Choynski, a man who fought on boats and in theaters and opera houses, may have given future revolutionary black fighter Jack Johnson free lessons while in a Galviston, Texas jail after knocking him out in 1901. And though a farmhand named Walter Dipley sealed a 24-year-old Stanley Ketchel’s fate in 1910 with a rifle, Ketchel chiseled his own glory between the ropes.
Three fights out of four, Ketchel used Billy Papke as a foundation for his claim to immortality. But their meeting on November 26, 1908 was the most critical to Ketchel’s claim.
Born Stanisław Kiecal in 1886, Ketchel later ran away from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. and anglicized his name. Just barely a teenager, Ketchel became a train-riding hobo before finding himself in the rough mining town of Butte, Mont. According to Ketchel, upon arriving in town, the bouncer at a local brothel challenged him to a fight out in the street, which Ketchel won with a single punch. Ketchel took over the bouncer’s position and soon began fighting for money when and where he could.
In 1903, Ketchel turned professional as a welterweight with a quick knockout, then lost a points verdict in the following fight. In many ways, those first two bouts were a microcosm for Ketchel’s style in that he was a bruising puncher but visually crude, and he could be out-boxed — if you could get through the pain first.
Through over three years as a professional Ketchel amassed a record of 35-2-3 with 35 knockout and 1 No Decision. But California remained a sort of untamed holdout in boxing as regulations in the state were hazy at best and many a fighter migrated toward the Pacific to make money fighting, including Ketchel.
Ketchel scored three knockouts over weak opposition in 1907 while fighting in a few Northern California cities, then he was put in with the far more experienced Joe Thomas that July. Local papers mistakenly reported Ketchel’s first name as “George,” but nonetheless said Ketchel gave a good account of himself, nearly putting the larger Thomas out in the 11th round before a timekeeper mistake ended the round early and the bout declared a draw after 20 rounds.
Thomas lasted 32 rounds before being knocked out in their rematch two months later, and in December of 1907 Ketchel again bested Thomas, but this time on points in 20 rounds. The San Francisco Chronicle called their third fight “fierce,” while the Fresno Republican said it was “sensational.” Adding to the drama of an exciting fight itself was a terrible storm that rattled the tent the fight was held in and broke many of the lights attached to it. The crowd reportedly almost ran off mid-fight, fearing the combination of wind, driving rain and badly-wired lighting, but were convinced to stay by promoter Jack Gleason.
Tommy Ryan, who claimed the middleweight championship in 1898 and never officially lost it, vacated the title in favor of fighting at a higher weight. In the apparent rush to fill the vacancy, the third Ketchel-Thomas bout was tenuously billed as for the middleweight championship, retroactively, despite both men being welterweights.
Before the first half of 1908 was up, however, Ketchel defended his claim to the middleweight title against twin brothers Mike and Jack Sullivan, both by knockout. And that’s where Billy Papke entered the equation.
Born to German immigrants in Spring Valley, Ill., Papke turned professional in 1906 at the age of 20, demonstrating a slightly more refined style than Ketchel despite his relative inexperience. Papke ran the Midwest circuit, bringing his record to 23-0-4 with 18 knockouts. His wins included one over almost-contender Tommy Sullivan, and one over former middleweight title challenger Hugo Kelly, which Ketchel attended in Milwaukee, Wis.
The Chicago Tribune eventually reported that Ketchel and Papke would tangle and fight odds initially favored Ketchel. Before long the odds swayed toward Papke, then evened out by fight time.
Through 10 rounds at the Hippodrome in Milwaukee, Ketchel smothered and stifled Papke, out-working him while imploring referee Jack McGuigan to break clinches quickly. Perhaps Papke never found the rails again after getting decked by a right hand that cracked his tooth in round 1, but Ketchel’s win was convincing. Both men displayed respect toward the other afterward — the kind of respect that often comes from serious rivalries.
Papke took two months off before stopping two men in one night at the Armory Athletic Association in Boston. Five nights later, Papke won a newspaper decision over Sailor Burke, who had been attempting to forge a worthy career with stoppages over Kid Williams and the legendary but aging Peter Maher. Ketchel made quick work of Hugo Kelly, then halted Joe Thomas again before a return with Papke was booked, but this time closer to Ketchel’s California haunts in Vernon, just south of downtown Los Angeles.
Adding to the mythos of their rivalry, some years later a story developed that Papke sucker-punched Ketchel in the throat when the two went to shake hands at the start of the bout. The tale would be repeated for decades, even by lovable fight historian Bert Sugar, despite no contemporary reports substantiating the rumor. Instead newspapers wrote that Papke hurt Ketchel early and sent him to the floor five times in the opening round. Ketchel survived for a while, fighting as a mutated, grotesque heap for the rest of the bout. After taking frightening beatings in rounds 11 and 12, the fight was finally stopped when former heavyweight champion James Jeffries, who then played referee, counted Ketchel out.
Ketchel initially intended on refusing an immediate rematch, and Papke was expected to fight Kelly for a third time. While attending Battling Nelson vs. Joe Gans III in Colma, Calif., Papke’s manager E.T. Jones said, “There is no chance for an immediate fight with Ketchel, even if we should give him the match. His manager, Joe O’Connor, told me on the train that Ketchel would not be in shape to fight before Christmas holidays at the earliest. He took a good deal of a beating from Papke, and it will take him some time to get right.”
A black fighter name Sam Langford had also been itching for a fight with Papke, who had been highlighted on fight cards not far from Langford’s adopted home of Boston. Then often referred to as “The Boston Tar Baby” and “The Boston Assassin,” Langford already vanquished highly respectable fighters like Joe Gans, George “Elbows” McFadden, Joe Jeannette and Young Peter Jackson, and lasted the 15 round distance with a comparatively hulking Jack Johnson for the “colored” heavyweight title. But when asked at Nelson-Gans III about fighting Langford, Papke clearly drew the color line, saying, “There are plenty of white men in the world to fight. I never fought a colored man and never intend to do so.”
On the other hand talk of a third Papke-Ketchel bout was all but constant in Bay Area newspapers, and by then a promoter named James Coffroth had already made his Mission Street Arena nationally famous by hosting a few world title bouts. While not fully civilized like out East, California was becoming a solid draw for fighters and fight fans alike, and Coffroth is widely considered one of the first hugely successful boxing promoters.
Promoter Jack Gleason sneaked in and bid on the fight, however, and the manager of the Occidental Athletic Club had the fight announced just days after the rematch, pegging the date on Thanksgiving eve, November 25. Both fighters made the trip to Northern California to train for the highly anticipated bout, with Papke arriving to train at Billy Shannon’s villa — a popular destination for fighters who could afford to train comfortably. Shannon had fought as a lightweight in the 1890s and began operating his villa as a saloon and boxing retreat after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Another former fighter, light heavyweight Joe Millet, set up a training headquarters in Colma, which had come to be specifically known as a small boxing haven near South San Francisco. Ketchel set up camp at “Millet’s Corner,” which one month later was used by Sam Langford when he toppled “Fireman” Jim Flynn.
Whereas 1904 Olympic gold medalist Charlie Mayer was a regular sparring partner for Ketchel in camp, Papke sparred often with well-known heavyweight Al Kaufman. Both men participated in wrestling exhibitions during workout sessions in the days leading up to the fight, as fighters often did in those days, though Ketchel was reported to have also added it to his regimen, bringing in old foe McClure to help him in with his wrestling skills.
Approximately two weeks before the bout Papke’s weight was reportedly around 154 pounds and he flirted with press at his open workouts, even taking an overnight trip to a Sonoma vinyard. Meanwhile, there were reports of concern in Ketchel’s camp over his inability to drop weight.
In the weeks leading up to the bout a conflict arose between Coffroth and Gleason as to who had the right to stage the bout. Whether by default, popularity or simply being able to offer a better draw, Coffroth dug in his heels and articles were drawn up for a rubbermatch at Coffroth’s arena on Thanksgiving, November 26 — one day later than originally planned. An attempt by Gleason to file an injunction two days before the fight was refused by a Judge Sewell.
Newspapers reported odds for Papke at 10-to-7 one day before the bout, but rumors of Ketchel being in poor condition widened the numbers to 10-to-6.
When asked to predict the outcome, former heavyweight champion James Corbett said, “In the first fight, Ketchel knocked Papke down in the very first round, and then it went the full ten rounds, and it might have gone further. Then at Los Angeles it was Papke who sneaked the first punch across, and still the fight went the distance. I tell you that this fight is bound to go more than fifteen rounds.”
Corbett was actually mistaken about the result in the rematch. As for his prediction, earlier in his interview, Corbett suggested that the first man land his power would be the victor, and he should have gone with that answer.
Very early in the fight Papke seemed to go to the ropes, perhaps remembering how Ketchel complained about the clinching in their first encounter. But this proved to be a grave mistake as Ketchel doubled Papke over with a right hand to the body before unleashing hell until the gong sounded.
The Fresno Republican reported from ringside, “In the first round Ketchel drove Papke into a neutral corner landing right and left almost at will and thereafter the Illinois contender was always at a disadvantage. Stepping aside at critical junctures, Ketchel swung his right time and again flush upon his opponent’s jaw, now and then alternating with left drives to the body.”
Several news outlets reported Martin Carter, owner of Nutwood Stock Farm, collapsed and died of a heart attack or stroke between rounds 3 and 4. Carter’s death was predictably attributed to the gripping action, but even though Papke’s nose bled freely in by the 4th, the beating hadn’t even begun yet.
By most accounts, the fighting was what one would expect from two punchers eager to mix: sloppy, physical and overflowing with collisions. Both men were beginning to slow, but the momentum tipped Ketchel’s way and he used his body punching to keep it like that.
Harry B. Smith of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “[Papke] was slow to begin, landed with less force to his punches than the San Francisco fans had been led to expect, and from the fourth round on was going to clinches and holding on repeatedly in order to save himself. But the clinches did the Illinois boy little good, for Ketchel did more than fight in the open, and landed innumerable left uppercuts to the body and punished his man severely around the kidneys. Those were the blows that took the steam out of Papke and made him an easy victim. As he tired from the beating he was receiving, Papke grew more and more careless in guarding himself from the breaks.”
Papke’s reaction to Ketchel’s rushes led both mean clear through the ropes and on top of a row of newspaper reporters in round 5, but Ketchel began laying serious heat on the champion when action resumed and that trend continued into round 6. Papke managed to draw blood from Ketchel’s nose in the 6th, but the round ended with Papke walking to his corner unsteadily and Ketchel applauded heartily.
W.O. McGeehan, also reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle, said, “In the eighth and ninth rounds, Papke, despite the terrible beating that had been administered to him, seemed fresher and more active than Ketchel, and even at that stage of the battle those who were backing him still believed their man would win. They thought that the whirlwind pace would tell upon Ketchel and that the German boy, slower to anger and slower to get into the white heat of fighting, would be stronger in the end. But Ketchel was like a wild animal that had tasted blood and would not be satisfied until he was at the throat of his victim and tearing the body.”
In the 9th round, Papke went to the canvas after absorbing another body punch but a knockdown was not officially counted. Round 10 saw Papke attempting to set a trap, lightly tapping Ketchel to the body as the challenger tired, then attempting bigger punches upstairs. But the tactic wasn’t sustained and Ketchel’s late round rally only served to soften Papke up for a likely finish.
While Papke survived, hoping Ketchel would lose all steam, he found himself sapped. Backing out of a clinch with his hands down in round 11, Papke caught a wild left hand flush and dropped, his head smacking the canvas loudly. Papke reached his feet at the count of eight, but he was useless by that point and Ketchel swung another dozen or so punches before Papke was again down. It appeared as though Papke was nearly out, and indeed referee Jack Welsh counted past 10, and Papke got to his feet too late.
Ketchel’s corner rejoiced while Papke’s corner protested, claiming Papke couldn’t understand the count. Nonetheless Ketchel became the first middleweight champion to regain his title, and only the second overall world champion to regain a title after legendary featherweight champion George Dixon.
Following the bloody affair Ketchel said, “I can’t say anything good about that fellow, so I won’t say anything. I knew I had him from the start, and I guess I convinced him that I can lick him any time. I can whip anybody if I train properly and if I work at Millet’s.”
A clearly disappointed Papke complained bitterly. “I never fought as poor a fight in all my life and I would like another chance at Ketchel,” he said. “I thought that I was counted out unfairly. I heard Welsh say six and then I heard him count eight. I was waiting for nine, and the next I knew they told me I had lost.”
And finally, referee Welsh responded, “Papke has no right to complain. He got all the count that was coming to him. In fact, the second time he was down the timekeeper counted eleven over him. He couldn’t have done anything if the fight had gone on, for he was dazed and staggering. … He was out all right by all the rules of Queensberry.”
In the end, Coffroth wound up actually paying about $2,000 to promote and host the bout, as the gate turned in only slightly over $18,000, while Papke and Ketchel’s guarantees totaled $20,000.
Ketchel went on to fight Papke again in 1909, that time confirming his dominance over his rival and winning a decision in 20 rounds despite breaking a hand and dislocating a thumb. He also scored wins over Porky Dan Flynn and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and even faced Langford in a six round bout in 1910. Only one fight eclipsed his four-fight series with Papke, and it required a truly transcendent figure in Jack Johnson.
In October of 1909 Ketchel was infamously laid out by Johnson, then the heavyweight champion, after breaking what Johnson would later say was a pre-fight contract to let the fight go until the 20th before Johnson won by stoppage. As the story goes, Ketchel, confident that he could win legitimately with his power, knocked a surprised Johnson down in the 12th round. Johnson arose and dispatched Ketchel with a single punch that was said to have left Ketchel’s teeth embedded in Johnson’s glove.
The raging light of the former middleweight champion was snuffed out one year later in October of 1910, when Walter Dipley killed Ketchel, who was training on a ranch in Missouri.
There was really only one more peak for Papke, and that was knocking out an 18-year-old Georges Carpentier in 1912. He fought six more times after that, winning one, and officially retiring in 1919. Papke would meet his own violent end in 1936 when he shot and killed his wife Edna before delivering himself vengeance and salvation by committing suicide.
It could be the cerebral punishment or it could be the base nature of boxing that attracts a certain kind of character, but some of the most intense relationships humans have ever had with the sport have come to ruinous, brilliant ends. In the theater of the unexpected, that is perhaps the most expected result.
In the moments that exist between violent beginnings and torturous curtain calls, monstrosities play to the delight of the crowd. And all it ever did, and does, is feed legend.