Stanley Ketchel: The Irresistible Assassin
By Mike Casey - There is greatness in life and then there is something beyond that; something indefinable to which we can never assign an appropriate name or description. Willie Lewis was a great fighter. But he was never going to put a serious dent in the Michigan Assassin, Stanley Ketchel. Willie’s manager knew that even if Willie didn’t.
Article posted on 01.10.2008
So Dan McKetrick, a typically shrewd and opportunistic fight manager of the age, employed a two-pronged attack in galvanising his Willie for the great confrontation at New York’s National Sporting Club, known to locals as The Coliseum. McKetrick pumped up Lewis with a heady mix of good old-fashioned wisdom and plain old-fashioned kidology, telling the kid that he would spring the great upset of the age by beating the raging lion that was Ketchel.
While Willie ruminated over all these wonderful words of encouragement, Dan McKetrick enlisted God to handle the tricky part of pulling off the unlikeliest result in boxing.. Jumping into his brand new automobile and heading for the Bronx with his old pal and legendary fight manager, Dumb Dan Morgan, McKetrick stopped off at St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church to indulge in a bout of unusually intense prayer. He even lit a candle at the Shrine of St Anthony and said a few more prayers for good measure. The job was done. McKetrick had all but appointed Willie Lewis a saint.
How could God let the boy down now? Dumb Dan Morgan was confused to say the least. He had agreed to work Willie Lewis’ corner with McKetrick and was now wondering what he had let himself in for. The truth became all too sadly and brutally apparent.
The New York crowd of about three thousand was solidly behind Lewis as he confidently engaged Ketchel in the first round and showed no fear of the Assassin. Lewis, a natural welterweight, was conceding ten pounds to Stanley, who weighed in at 158lbs.
Ketchel tested Willie with a couple of stiff digs to the ribs, but then the miracle that Dan McKetrick had prayed for seemed to take shape. Gasps could be heard around the Coliseum as Lewis suddenly caught Ketchel flush on the bridge of the nose with a terrific right hand smash. When Stanley lowered his gloves, they were covered in blood. Willie had inflicted a serious wound and went full throttle to seize the great prize as he rubbed the blood into Stanley’s eyes and kept punching to the bell.
The Coliseum was in uproar. Even Dan McKetrick was stunned.
It was all too much for Dumb Dan Morgan, who knew what was coming next and left the Lewis corner for a seat in Row 4. Dumb Dan advised McKetrick that he alone would be responsible for picking up Willie’s body when Ketchel had taken his revenge. Not lightly did Dumb Dan refer to Ketchel as The Slasher.
The execution wasn’t long in coming. Poor Willie Lewis wasn’t a saint and didn’t have any miracles. As Dumb Dan Morgan later recalled, “Ketchel doubled him up with a one-two punch to the stomach. Then, as the Kid straightened up, The Slasher nailed him with one of the most terrible right hand punches to the face I have ever seen. It caught Lewis flush in the mouth and drove two of his front teeth right up through his upper lip. It was an awful sight.
“The Kid was helpless, but would not go down. The referee was on the spot too. To stop a brawl like this could cause a riot.”
Ketchel saved referee Tom O’Rourke any embarrassment by quickly finishing off Lewis.
Dumb Dan Morgan later berated Dan McKetrick for making the fight. “Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that young kid had a chance with a killer like Ketchel?”
“Yes, I did,” McKetrick replied. “I counted on the surprise element and sometimes forces are at work you don’t know about. I gambled and lost. It ain’t MY fault the saint didn’t stand up!”
For a man who had lived so hard and fought so violently, the last words of Stanley Ketchel were strangely gentle and poignant. As he lay dying at the Dickerson ranch in Conway, Missouri, his assailant’s bullet lodged in his back, Ketchel looked up at his friend Pete Dickerson and said, “Take me home to mom, Pete.”
Ketchel was just twenty-four years old. Yet how he left his mark in such a tragically short space of time! He had cultivated a reputation as one of the most feared men on earth in a straight fight. He was a natural, vicious, two-fisted fighter with a colossal punch in either hand, who had terrorised the middleweight division and even challenged the great Jack Johnson during a sensational professional career that spanned just seven years between 1903 and 1910.
Ketchel was a natural born puncher. At first sight, he looked scrawny and pallid of complexion. He frequently looked nervous and drawn when he entered the ring. But he generated his great power from wide shoulders beautifully muscled arms and a wealth of natural talent.
He was a mid-western boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, but a Wild West man at heart, who began to carve his indelible mark on boxing with a quick succession of early knockouts in the Montana towns of Butte, Miles City, Helena, Gregson Springs and Great Falls. He quickly became known to local boxing writers as the Montana Wonder.
When Stan graduated to the major league, he locked horns with fellow greats Billy Papke and Joe Thomas in some of the most thrilling fights ever seen in California.
By the time Ketchel moved back east at the tail end of his career, he was in his prime as one of the most destructive fighters the ring has ever seen. His punching power, to this day, is acknowledged in boxing circles as being truly exceptional.
Former Ring editor Nat Fleischer got to know Ketchel well and spoke often of the Assassin’s multi-faceted character. Hype Igoe, a great New York boxing writer and raconteur, was even closer to Ketchel and his ever shifting moods. There is little doubt that Stan had a psychotic nature. He once shot a friend in the foot during a raging temper, then wept uncontrollably with remorse as he picked the man up in his arms and rushed him to a doctor.
Recalling Ketchel, who was known as Steve to his close friends, Hype Igoe said, “He was a many sided individual. He could be as tame as a new born babe, as vicious as a lion trying to protect its cubs, as lovable as a mother and as treacherous as a villain.
“I never knew him to sit down to a meal without first laying his big blue six-shooter across his lap. I never could quite understand just why he went so armed. I nearly died of anxiety in Wheeling, West Virginia, one morning, when we went to breakfast in the Clark House.
“One of the waiters gave Ketchel a snippy answer about the kind of eggs and bacon they had on tap and I saw Steve reach for the gun under the table cloth.”
Ketchel was in a foul mood. He had broken his left hand in his recent fight with Frank Klaus and the pain from the swelling was driving him to despair. Igoe knew that he had to do some fast thinking to avoid a disaster. “I bit into my thin water glass and cut my mouth purposely, and with blood running from my lips I yelled for Ketchel to see me to the wash room. He stuck his gun in his waistband and hustled me off. I insisted that I was bleeding to death and he must hustle me to a doctor. Anything to get away from that waiter. The ruse worked.”
Igoe adored Ketchel and had a somewhat vague and tenuous managerial claim on him when Stanley first came to New York. That arrangement was abruptly terminated. Returning from a trip with Ketchel to Philadelphia, Hype was sitting in a Pullman drawing room when Stanley came in and threw two of his pistols on the table. “I want to talk a little business to you, Hype. I think I prefer having Wilson Mizner manage me from now on.”
“That’s fine,” said Hype calmly.
Igoe might have pulled more strings for Ketchel than Stanley ever realised. Writer Damon Runyon always insisted that the Assassin was ‘carried’ by Sam Langford in their famous six-rounds duel of 1910 and that Hype was instrumental in negotiating an easier ride for Stanley than he might otherwise have had. Well, maybe and maybe not.
On October 15 1910, Ketchel’s favourite gun could not save him from his killer. Stanley had been living a fast life, since losing to Jack Johnson and had travelled to Pete Dickerson’s ranch for some much needed rest and healthy exercise. Ketchel was quickly back to his old self and fighting fit again. He talked confidently of putting on some extra weight and taking a second crack at Johnson.
Not that Stan was abstaining from the good life entirely. He was almost certainly addicted to opium by that time. A renowned Don Juan of the ring, he had been flirting with ranch waitress Goldie Smith, the girlfriend of farm hand Walter Dipley.
Dipley had protested to Ketchel about his romancing of the girl. The situation between the men was already tense, as Stan had earlier riled Dipley after scolding him for beating a horse.
Relaxed and convivial, Ketchel had observed the old Western rule of never sitting with one’s back to the door when taking his meals. On the day of his death, Goldie Smith had changed his place setting. His gun across his lap, Stan was blind to Dipley’s menacing advance.
“Throw up your hands,” Dipley commanded, taking aim with a rifle. Ketchel looked over his shoulder and smiled, believing he was the victim of a prank. He got up and was in the act of turning when Dipley shot him. The .22 calibre rifle bullet ripped into Ketchel’s back, directly beneath the right shoulder blade and surged upwards to puncture a lung. His favourite six-shooter tumbled from his lap and Stan fell to the floor. Dipley left the room but then returned to snatch up Stan’s revolver. He cracked Ketchel across the head with the weapon before fleeing.
Ketchel died at six minutes past seven that evening at the Springfield hospital. Pete Dickerson had organised a special train and taken three physicians on board. They had performed an operation on Stanley earlier, but had failed to locate the bullet.
Dipley, originally announced as Walter Hurtz, was pursued by a possee of police officers, bloodhounds and local citizens. Pete Dickerson offered a reward of five thousand dollars for his capture.
Among my collection of photographs of Stanley Ketchel is an old shot that perfectly reflects his character and the wild and rollicking era in which he flourished. Ketchel is flanked by Pete Dickerson and heavyweight boxer Joe Harmon. Stan is in the middle of the picture, standing beside a friend whose name still rings like a bell after all these years: Emmet Dalton. Emmet was breathing the fresh air again after a lengthy prison stint for his role in one of the most audacious and storied bank raids of the Old West.
On October 4 1892, the Dalton Gang rode into the town of Coffeyville, Kansas, with the intention of achieving a notorious first by clearing out two banks at the same time: the First National and the Condon. They were quickly rumbled by the townspeople, who armed themselves and shot down the outlaws in a furious gunfight that last for little more than fifteen minutes. Emmet Dalton took a bullet in the back but was the only gang member to survive and was sent to the Kansas State Prison.
Stanley Ketchel certainly knew some people. Rumours persist that he and his family had ties with Cole Younger of the James Gang. Ketchel’s ring battles are the stuff of legend and talked about to this day. His series of fights with the equally tough Billy Papke, the great Illinois Thunderbolt, were among the most brutal in middleweight history. Both men were imbued with a near maniacal will to win. Ketchel outpointed Papke in their first title encounter in June 1908 prompting Papke to try a new ploy in their rematch at the Jeffries Vernon Arena three months later. Stanley looked his usual nervous self as he entered the ring in a tattered dressing gown, a worn hunting cap and green gauze shorts. But he couldn’t have imagined the immediate and vicious turn of events.
Billy shunned Ketchel’s pre-fight handshake and hit the champion with a terrific blow to the head from which he never recovered. Papke tore into the attack, flooring the dazed and bleeding Ketchel three times. Stanley was struck repeatedly by full-blooded blows to the face in that opening round, as well as by a mighty blow just above the heart that might have killed or seriously wounded a lesser man.
Incredibly, Stan survived and fought on with enormous courage until Papke knocked him out in the twelfth round. Ketchel was carried back to his dressing room, his eyes blackened and shut, his lips cut and swollen to a grotesque size.
He knocked out Papke in eleven rounds to gain his revenge, but it was their final battle that proved to be the shining jewel in the incredible quartet of fights between two special men. Thunder and lightning seemed to follow Ketchel and Papke everywhere they went and it followed them quite literally to Jim Coffroth’s Mission Street Arena in Colma.
A raging thunderstorm knocked out the arena lights in the early going, but Ketchel and Papke were in a violent and detached world of their own. They never stopped ripping and tearing at each other as the rain lashed down and the lightning lit them up like stage actors under the spotlight. Both gladiators bled freely and the ring was stained crimson from the blood that oozed from Papke’s nose and mouth. Stan broke his right hand in the sixth round and his left thumb was also dislocated.
The 20-rounds decision in Ketchel’s favour was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers, but referee Billy Roche was adamant he had rendered the correct verdict.
“Ketchel was the aggressor at all times. Furthermore, he landed cleaner and harder punches and scored the only knockdown in the tenth round, although nearly everybody seemed to think that Papke had slipped to the floor. There is absolutely no question that Ketchel earned a clear-cut decision.”
How great a middleweight was Stanley Ketchel? The answer to that question is that he was simply awesome. In the opinion of this writer, he would easily master the middleweight division of today.
Many people imagine that Stan’s punch rate would be slower than that of modern fighters because of the greater distances of his era. Not so. Ketchel couldn’t punch fast enough and his stamina was astounding. He proved in one of his classic fights with Irishman Joe Thomas that he could maintain that staggering pace for more than thirty rounds. Ketchel, like so many of his wonderful peers, shatters the myth of old-time fighters being slow and ponderous.
The Michigan Assassin had the durability of Harry Greb but was blessed with vastly superior punching power to Harry. Stan preferred to tee off his big shots from long range but was no less of a demon in the clinches. He worked constantly and viciously, keeping up a brutal tempo, and his punch resistance was exceptional.
When he clashed with Joe Thomas at the Mission Street Arena in Colma, California, on September 2 1907, the crowd could scarcely believe the pace and savagery that both boys maintained over the incredible span of thirty-two rounds.
Before the fighters entered the arena, a large black pigeon flew across the crowd and perched itself on the southerly fence facing the ring. Some suggested the bird was a bad omen for Thomas.
The bout was scheduled for forty-five rounds, but Ketchel had a thunderous look in his eye and appeared to be gambling everything on a fast finish. Thomas, a teak-tough man in his own right, relished the chance of an old-fashioned war. The two fighters tore into each other with wild abandon, hooking and slashing to head and body.
Experienced writers at ringside, not given to being easily impressed, began to exchange disbelieving looks as the action speeded up with the passing rounds. Logic dictated that the combatants should have punched themselves out early, but they were still hitting each other with hard and fast blows in the sixteenth. This was when Thomas failed to see a big uppercut coming from Stan, the shattering effect of which brought a mass cry of “Oh!” from the crowd as it crashed against Joe’s chin. The mighty blow lifted Thomas off his feet and brought him down on his knees.
Showing extraordinary heart, he clambered to his feet at the count of nine but was soon down again from a brutal shot to the ribs. The crowd cheered Joe as he defied the odds to get to his feet again, the bell coming to his rescue.
Ketchel was finally slowing, and perhaps even his relentlessly positive mind was being infiltrated by small seeds of doubt. Stan seemed to lose his way for a while as Thomas began to score with jolting right hooks. But Ketchel’s indomitable spirit was the foundation on which all his other great fighting qualities rested. The Assassin never quit and never backed off. In the most daunting of circumstances, he would always find another rally, another wind, another breath of fire. He drove Thomas into the ropes with a terrific attack but still couldn’t finish his opponent.
The odds shifted back in favour of Thomas in the twenty-seventh round as he suddenly found a picture perfect right hook to send Ketchel crashing to the canvas.
If ever a man was in his natural element, it was Ketchel in the hell fire of such a brutal marathon. He demonstrated his recuperative powers by calmly watching the timekeeper and nodding in time to the count before rising up and pitching himself back into the fray. But now the Assassin was in dire straits, very tired and nearly blinded by the cuts to his eyes. Joe was suffering from a damaged eye and his battered and flattened nose was barely recognisable.
Finally, in the thirty-second round, Ketchel broke Thomas as he had broken so many others. Nobody really knew how Stan managed to muster his last great charge, but he seemed renewed as he bombarded Joe with an array of jabs and hooks. As Thomas staggered wearily, he ran into a powerful left-right combination that sent him first to his knees and then onto his stomach. Once again, he attempted to rise, and he was almost upright when his body suddenly gave a jolt and sent him back down for the count.
Ketchel, whose body was still filling out at the age of twenty-one, claimed the welterweight championship of the world after this epic win, and Stan’s thoughts on his immediate future were interesting.
“I have proved to the sporting public that I am the best welterweight in the world today. I will not fight any of the middleweights at the present time. I am a welter and I claim the title in that class. When I entered the ring today I did not weigh over 145lbs. I have been fighting all classes of men from the lightweights to the middleweights, but now I am going to draw the line and stick in the welterweight division.
“Outside of this fight today, the hardest battle I ever had in my life was when I fought Maurice Thompson at lightweight. When Thomas hit me today in the twenty-seventh round, I thought that was the end for me. But luckily, like in other fights I have gone through, I quickly recuperated and had my man going from that time on.
“To show how confident I was of winning, I bet something like six hundred dollars on myself at the prevailing odds of 10 to 6. I am only twenty-one years old and that’s young enough to leave me a few years to fight in.”
One of the greatest ringmen of Ketchel’s era was the gifted Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, who clashed with Stan at the National Athletic Club in Philadelphia on June 26 1909. It was a memorable encounter between a killer of the ring and a disciple of the school of science. O’Brien was a boxer through and through, but he was also a remarkably tough and resilient man in the heat of battle.
For seven thrilling rounds, Philadelphia Jack mixed skill with hardiness as he threaded his precise punches through the violent Ketchell storm that raged around him. Stan confounded observers once again with his near inhuman stamina as he just kept ripping away at whatever part of O’Brien’s body he could hit. Many more of the Assassin’s blows were missing, however, and it was the hometown boxing master who was forging ahead. Ketchel’s face was smeared with blood as Philadelphia Jack’s unerringly accurate jabs repeatedly found the mark.
But the tireless Ketchel kept coming on and finally dropped O’Brien near the ropes in the ninth round with a crunching blow to the pit of the stomach.
A big body attack by Ketchel in the tenth culminated in a final shot that sent O’Brien down with eight seconds left on the clock. Philadelphia Jack’s head came to rest in the resin box that his handlers had forgotten to clear from the ring at the end of the previous round, knocking him unconscious. Referee Tim Hurst’s count had reached four when the bell sounded.
Confusion and arguments about who had won the fight continued through the night and into the morning. This was the unsatisfactory era of the no- decision, and most of the newspapers awarded the verdict to O’Brien by the narrowest margin. This created uproar among those who had bet their money on Ketchel. Today, most record books accord the win to Stan.
Hype Igoe, recalling the end of the battle years later, wrote: “Then came the question of who won the fight. The clock said that O’Brien had been saved, yet we writers argued the point over beer and chips for three or four hours afterwards.
“Tad Dorgan and this writer finally convinced our sports editor Bill Hicks that he couldn’t possibly give the fight to a man like a mummy on the flat of his back.”
When he was finally beaten by a bullet to the back, people wondered if Stanley Ketchel would still find a way of regaining his feet and firing back a salvo.
But let us not end on a melancholic note. For Stanley’s twenty-four years were packed with incident, glory, happiness and unintentional comedy. Jerked along in his ferocious slipstream were some marvellous characters.
His first manager Willus Britt famously got upset with the San Francisco city council for its negligence in failing to prevent an earthquake. Wilson Mizner, frighteningly accurate in his judgement of his fellow human beings, advised Ketchel early on: “Steve, my boy, all I can do for you is improve your mind. Your morals are the same as mine already.”
But perhaps my favourite little gem comes from boxing scribe Harry D Cashman, who wrote of the ‘fatal error’ of Willie Lewis shortly before Ketchel knocked him out. As Willie came out for the second round, manager Dan McKetrick whispered in his ear that Ketchel could not hurt him. That, argued Mr Cashman, was the fatal error.
“Stanley woke up. Bing! Goodnight!”
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).
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