Welcome to Hell: Stanley Ketchel in 1908 - Part Four: A Heart Unbreakable

By Matt McGrain: On Thanksgiving day of 1936, Billy Papke was drinking. When the owner of the bar closed up to go home for his turkey dinner, Papke muttered that he would go home too. He drove to the house of his ex-wife. A neighbour later reported hearing five shots. The first two struck Papke’s ex-, killing her. He then turned the gun upon himself and fired at his heart from point blank range. He did not die. He fired another shot. Again, he did not die. Papke fired a third shot and his heart finally stopped beating.

It is impossible to know Papke’s final thoughts. He left the world three sons, so despite the terrible disarray of his personal life, it is likely that his mind went out to family as he died. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that as his once great heart bled out, Papke’s mind raced back to the finest day of his professional life, the ninth of September of 1908, the day he took the great Stanley Ketchel apart at the seams, took him apart so brutally that some thought he might have been taken apart for all time.

Papke had been in pursuit of a rematch ever since Ketchel inflicted his first lost. It became his obsession. He spoke of it at length before his August meeting with Sailor Burke:

“I will beat Ketchel the next time I meet him. The first punch he landed put me out for six rounds. I was careless that was all. The punch broke three of my teeth. I couldn’t open my jaw. I was dazed for six rounds. At the end of the sixth round, when I was sitting in my corner, I came round…I am going to force Ketchel into the ring with me.”

Ketchel wouldn’t take much forcing. After some squirming concerning the weight, most of it by Papke, the fight was made. But just as Papke had looked past Burke, there were disturbing hints that Ketchel was looking past Papke. Acknowledging Papke as the greatest middleweight in the world, himself accepted, Ketchel credited “Smiling Billy” - Papke had been smiling ever since the rematch had been signed - as being his most difficult fight to date:

“He is certainly the toughest man I ever met in my life and I have stacked up against the best of them. He is the only man who fights in the same style I use myself. He keeps boring in all the time…I will either knock him out or else he will put the crusher on me.”

But Ketchel had been increasingly linked with the greatest prize of all, the heavyweight title, then held by the respected but less-than awe-inspiring Tommy Burns. The calls became a cacophony when Ketchel disposed of the heavier Thomas so easily and the figures being discussed as payment were also in a different weight class. Ketchel’s head had seemingly been turned:

“I regard Papke as one of the first stepping stones in my path toward the heavyweight championship. When am through with him I will devote all my time to Tommy Burns.”

Ketchel had done something extraordinary in clearing out the top men of a stacked middleweight division but no matter how massive the river he crosses and no matter what the value of the prize on the other shore, no fighter should ever look to use a rattlesnake as a stepping stone.

Ketchel began as a favourite and eventually men who wanted to bet on the champion were offering three to one. But as preperations continued, the odds began to shorten. Both men worked out publicly, daily, and this time around in front of thousands. Whilst Ketchel’s reputation as the most destructive puncher in all of boxing preceded him, many were swayed by what they saw in each respective training camp. Firstly, Ketchel’s camp appears to have been less well planned and he at first had some issues securing sparring partners. The LA Herald:

“…he is inclined to forget that he is training instead of fighting, and has been accustomed to knocking out these assistants. He has such a frightful kick in either hand…he scares his sparring partners half to death before he even hits them…a new one or two appear in camp every day to work with him.”

As sparring partners poured out of the camp O’Connor took a novel approach. The Herald again:

“Frightened at the results following recent workouts…Joe O’Connor has refused to permit anybody to box with Ketchel unless armoured…Sparring partners at this camp now must wear a baseball catcher’s chest protector to prevent the possibility of the champion’s fist being driven through their bodies, and Ketch as been warned to keep his fists away from all unprotected portions of the anatomy of his sparring partners, including their heads.”

Whilst Kethcel’s display of power was impressive, it was also expected and his inability to headhunt and his lack of quality, stable sparring caused some concern. One partner, Carl Solomon was better known as a wrestler than a boxer.

Additionally, in the build up to the Thomas fight stories had appeared questioning Ketchel’s commitment. He had been seen “breaking his curfew” and “associating with undesirables.” Worse, there were rumours of his using opium, rumours The New York World would later feel confident enough to print. Although there were no such stories during the build up to Papke II, this story combined with Ketchel’s interest in the heavyweight title and the difficulties he was experiencing in camp began to create doubt.

But nothing so affected the odds as much as Papke himself.

“Papke is one human iceberg,” observed The Herald. “He refuses to credit the stories that Ketchel is…[an] invincible human marvel, and the fact that he is sensationally slugging in his training camp…does not affect him in the least. He figures that he is a certain winner.”

Most fighters re-write the fights they have lost. The enormous stores of ego that allow men like Papke to take to the ring against dynamite punchers like Ketchel is huge and even more fragile in a case like this where the man has already been defeated by his opponent. Papke told the press over and over again that he had been unseated from his sense in the first round against Ketchel but still survived to hear the bell. If Ketchel could not knock him out then, how could he do so now? Papke had no doubt. He publicly laid the then huge sum of $500 on himself to lift the title.

“Papke continues to grind away in a systematic manner,” continued The Herald. “[he is] working for conditioning and the development of his wallop.”

Papke wasn’t planning to utilise his advantage in foot speed as it was clearly displayed in the first fight. He wanted Ketchel in the furnace.

On September the third, Papke knocked one of his own sparring partners. His training for power seemed to be paying dividends. In contrast to Ketchel, Papke treated his ringmen with care, “and does not punish his sparring partners” but within seconds of his workout with Jim Tremble Papke sent over a picture-perfect right. Tremble needed to be helped to his corner. The Herald:

“Papke expressed his regret afterwards and said he would be more careful in future. Sentiment regarding the possibilities of the result…is changing fast and the fans are beginning to ask themselves how Ketchel came to be such an odds on favourite. Now that they have had ample time to visit both camps and see the fighters…Papke money is dead easy to find.”

A “prominent sportsman” explained to the journalist his reasoning for backing Papke:

“I find Ketchel to be a slashing, rushing, open fighter…Papke is cool-headed and can slug…Papke has a terrific wallop and if he ever cracks Ketchel on the jaw with a square swing or hook there will be a new champion. Papke’s confidence also impresses me.”

The day before the fight, The Herald compared Ketchel to Jim Jeffries, who would be refereeing him the match, labelling him “the pugilistic marvel of the decade, ranking as prominently today as Jeffries ranked in his prime.” The Evening World labelled him “another Fitzsimmons, the greatest of the modern fistic artists.” The World also knew Papke. “It will be a desperate scrap.”

Billy’s ring walk was almost Zen-like, “a broad smile on his features, in excellent humour with himself and all the world…he was almost childlike in his supreme confidence,” (The LA Herald). It is also important to note that Papke, “immediately walked over and shook hands with the champion.” Much has been written about the first round of this fight, and more about the supposed “sucker-punch” Papke is said to have landed at any point between the referee’s instructions and the first bell. For the most part, this is gross exaggeration. Papke did decline Ketchel’s second handshake, ring-centre, after Jim Jeffries had waved them in, but only because this was almost exactly what Ketchel had done in the first fight. Indeed, a Daily Arizona sub-header remarked that “Papke, Remembering Former Experience, Refuses To Shake Hands At Call Of Time And Sails Into Champion Like A Thunrderbolt,” As well as noting that the “sucker punch” that Papke claimed decided the first fight was landed in near exact circumstances, it is also important to stress that the punch was landed after time was called. The punch was not illegal and nor was it a matter for debate in the press reports the following day, although it did become a minor issue later that week, around the time negotiations for a third fight began in earnest. According to The Evening World, Papke had even announced before the fight that he would not be shaking hands before the bell, specifically because Ketchel had taken advantage of him in their first fight. The same article states that Papke invited Ketchel to “come on and fight” before attacking, giving Ketchel every chance to withdraw his extended hand.

Whatever the specifics, Papke took a vicious initiative and remained in control throughout perhaps the most devastating beating in all of ring history.

In a hellish first round, Papke knocked Ketchel down for the nine count no less than three times. Papke had adjusted. In the first fight he had used his superior foot speed to make space for his attacks, but Ketchel’s more scientific approach had baffled him. Papke’s new plan was seeming suicide against the world’s greatest puncher, but his step straight into the heat of Ketchel’s attack with a short right hand robbed the champion of his shifting offence. Married to a sneak uppercut that Papke developed especially for the occasion, it baffled Stanley long enough for him to take control. Exchanging furious punches on the inside, Papke suddenly went to the body, and when Ketchel attempted to reply in kind he launched a left to the head and a right to the eye and “opened up a gash. As Ketchel staggered, Papke swung a left full in the face, sending Ketchel to the floor.” (LA Herald)

Referee Jeffries would describe this as the winning punch after the fight, and Papke would agree with him.

Stunned, Ketchel hoisted himself onto all fours, and “gazed in a dazed manner about himself” (LA Herald) before hoisting himself up at the count of nine. Jeffries stepped aside and Papke “launched himself at [Ketchel] and a smashing right swing sent him half way across the ring and down on his face” where he “lay still for five seconds before [he] began to work his way to his feet…just as Jeff[ries] counted nine” The Washington Times then described the pitiless third knock down, on Ketchel who “was able to stand but a second later was pitchted face-first into the canvas again when Papke sent another hard blow to his defenceless face.”

During the round, roars had reverbarated around the ring, but at the bell there was silence. Ketchel’s eye was closed. In the corner he was lanced to no avail and sent back to a slaughter without ring parallel. “Not since the end days of the fight to the finish was a more bloody contest seen,” offered The Evening World. For the next seven rounds, Ketchel somehow found the reserves to meet Papke as an equal, but “whenever Ketchel tried his famous shift The Thurderbolt quickly stepped close inside,” driving Ketchel back, forcing him to fight in the purest terms rather than employ tactics. In the second, Ketchel missed frequently and was punished, his face a “mass of gore.” By the fourth, Papke, still smiling had reduced Ketchel to “a terrible condition.” In the fifth, Ketchel had his first real success as they exchanged uppercuts and body-blows, but still Papke was unmarked. In the sixth Ketchel landed his best punch, a right to the solar plexus but was “clearly in distress…Papke was smiling.” Some sources have Ketchel winning the seventh and he “tried to smile” as he returned to his corner, blood pouring form his blind eye.

In the eighth, Ketchel was brutalised horribly, shipping multiple flush headshots, blood now pouring from his nose. The 1900’s crowd began to call for the fight’s end, a rarity for the era. Both men were smothered in Ketchel’s blood. By the ninth both of Ketchel’s eyes were shut and he staggered blindly about the ring as Papke thrashed him. In the tenth, The San Fransisco Call describes Ketchel’s face as “barely human looking.” Ketchel prepared himself for the eleventh by trying to scrape the blood from his eyes, the left still gaping from the failed lancing between rounds one and two. The LA Herald:

“The minute between rounds was not enough for Ketchel to recover his wits and although he responded to the gong he was unsteady on his legs and beclouded of brain and about all he could do was cover up and try to stall the round. Papke would not have it…forcing an opening he [landed] a clean right to the head flooring Ketchel for the count of nine.”

Only a heart unbreakable could have drawn Ketchel from the canvas in that moment. Papke, still smiling the same smile he had worn on his way to the ring, approached, but Ketchel was not even looking at him, rather he was looking out to the crowd, arms hanging at his sides, and he “did not raise his hands to ward off the punch that toppled him from the championship pedestal.”

Ketchel’s condition was horrific. The Evening World:

“Both his eyes were closed tight. His face was battered out of shape, as if Papke had knocked him about with a baseball bat instead of two fists. His face was crooked as if his cheekbones had been beaten in. His mouth was a mere gash. His whole body was covered with unsightly lumps where Papke’s iron fists had landed…it will be months before he fights again, if he ever does.”

Jeffries, no stranger to the worst savageries of the ring, labelled Ketchel the gamest fighter he had ever seen. Papke agreed with him. Ketchel offered “no excuses” then demanded an immediate rematch through broken, bleeding lips. Then he vanished. Papke made him wait eleven days before confirming a rematch would be made. The day before, Ketchel had been able to leave his house for the first time for a “trip to the baths.” Papke had come to terms over his first theatrical engagement.

On the 18th Ketchel met with the press for the first time since the fight. His quiet confidence was noted but he was seen by many as damaged goods. Then he up and vanished once more, according to some for Mexico. “For all the information his manager gives out, Ketchel may be in Odessa. O’Connor is to smart to let anyone know his business and there is suspicion that he doesn’t know it to well himself.” (The San Francisco Call).

When on the first of November the two fighters arrived in San Fracisco, the pattern continued, with Ketchel unavailable to the press and O’Connor refusing to divulge, or not aware of, how Stan had even come to the city. Papke, on the other hand was a huge hit with the locals and the press alike. His fighting style, obsession with Ketchel and the way that his life ended has given a certain impression of Papke, but in fact he was quite the gentleman, “as modest a person as one could meet in quite a long time.” (The Call). He spoke well of his opponent and the city he was a guest in. Conscious of the impression his ring demeanor left upon the press and public, he also talked of his ambitions to go to college, and stressed that in-spite of newspaper cartoons to the contrary, “I have never worked down a mine.“ Papke was determined that he should be liked. Ketchel, on the other hand was “doing nothing to enhance his popularity locally.”

Papke installed himself in San Rafael and began light training the very next day. He would soon be joined there by an exclusively heavyweight stable of sparring partners including Al Kauffman, who would before long challenge for Jack Johnson’s soon to be won heavyweight title. He broke the habit of a lifetime, sparring on the Sabbath for the benefit of the near star-struck locals. Ketchel set up shop further south, in Alameda. He started training later than Papke, but more in earnest. Whilst “Smiling Billy” as Papke had been christened after his smiling destruction of Ketchel, was slightly underweight, Ketchel had an estimated six pounds to shed. The betting opened with Papke a 10-8 favourite, even money to knock Ketchel out once more inside the distance.

Ketchel’s first public workout on the tenth, however, was something of a revelation. “Certainly, Ketchel did not loosen up like a man who saw the gymnasium for the first time in months,” said The Call. “He went at his work with vim and dash.” It seems almost a certainty that Ketchel’s vanishing act of the month before had allowed him to make those first tentative moves back into training away from prying eyes. By the thirteenth it was clear that something special was happening as Ketchel trained “harder than he ever had before in his life.” He was talking again, too:

“If I didn’t think I could beat him, I would not fight him…I will beat him and do it so completely that after it is over the fight fans will forget that he ever did beat me, or if they remember him at all it will just be to wonder how he beat me…I will tell you one thing and mark me it will come true. If I knock him off his pins once in the coming fight it will be all over for him…I feel certain I will trim this new champion worse than he trimmed me.”

From hell, to the wilderness, to the ring again, Ketchel was ready for the furnace.

Papke, for his part, accelerated to a pitch. By the 23rd he was boxing 7-10 fast rounds almost daily with heavyweights, knocking the 185lb Dane Ollie Cornett out on his feet in three rounds, “an eagle pecking a snake to pieces…a ring mathematician who leaves nothing to chance.” (The Call) The main sphere of Papke’s improvement seems to have been in a shortening of his punches, born almost completely of his “switch-killing” punch, that step inside married to a straight right hand that had posed so many problems for Ketchel. He had also added a higher guard, which he showcased against the baffled Kauffman who again and again failed to reach Papke as the champion stabbed at the heavyweight before covering up.

At the final press conference on the 26th, Papke predicted a win inside of ten rounds:

“It is possible that there are some middleweights who might beat me, but Ketchel is not amongst them. Ketchel will merely prove a warm up for me. I’ve got that boy, there is very little danger of me losing to him. I honestly think Mr.Ketchel is getting in the ring with me just to receive the losing end of the purse. He is a game fellow and will probably take a good beating. I hope he does. I intend to give him a beating he won’t forget for the rest of his life.”

Ketchel did not come to the conference, but predicted a win inside of twelve rounds. The San Francisco Call, present for every round of sparring and more, liked Papke’s prediction better:

“Ketchel has but one chance to win. He may land one of those wild swings. Outside of that he has as much chance as a one-legged man winning a roller-skating race…Papke is a better boxer and just as hard a hitter, knows pugilism better, has a better head, hits truer and shorter…this writer is neither a profit nor the son of a profit but if Papke doesn’t lay [Ketchel] low within fifteen, he misses his mark and misses it badly.”

In truth, Ketchel hated Papke by now. He is said to have uncovered that hatred finally just before or during the first round, supposedly telling Papke that “it took you twelve rounds to knock out a blind man. Well I’m going to let you keep your eyes open until round eleven so you can see me knock you out!” My guess is that this did not happen. Instead, Ketchel revealed his hatred in a different way, launching the most savage attack of his violent career in the very first round. Driven to the ropes, Papke tried to fire back with his fight-winner from ten short weeks before, but now it was Ketchel’s turn to show adaptations. Throughout the fight, he would step away and to the side in response to this attack, making new space for himself, sometimes forced to take Papke’s punches, but now able once again to deliver his own wider blows, often two-handed. Papke did not panic, instead he went to his other prize punch, the uppercut, and Ketchel met him like for like, inviting Papke to measure artillery. Papke was forced in these opening seconds to either attempt a new adjustment or accept Ketchel’s invitation to burn. For a man like Ppake this was likely no choice at all, and they swapped furious punches across the ring, the round decided by a blistering right hand to Papke’s body.

Papke won the second but Ketchel was now concentrating firmly upon the body, and whilst he was hit hard and often upstairs, he had the run of it in terms of bodywork. Papke had seem shocked in the first though he now was recovering his confidnce, but a messy third followed. The beginning of the fourth saw some bad moments for Ketchel as he “missed with a wild left…and a fearful right to the jaw.” A bad start to the fifth saw Ketchel missing wildly again, but suddenly he found his stride in earnest. The New York Times:

“Stepping aside at crucial junctures, Ketchel swung his right time and again flush on his opponent’s jaw, now and then alternating with left drives to the body…he drove a hard left to the stomach and Papke had not put up his hands before he encountered a hard right to the jaw.”

At some point in this round, either a straight left to the stomach or a “ponderous right hand to the jaw” (LA Times) sent Papke spilling from the ring (it is a testimony perhaps to the speed with which Ketchel was mixing up his attack that the press can’t agree upon the offending punch!). Papke grabbed his man as he fell throw the ropes and Ketchel toppled down with him onto the pressmen at ringside, fighting even as they were pushed back into the ring.

In the sixth, Papke baulked. He backed up, boxing cautiously for the first time in the brutal series, but Ketchel came right after him. The two swapped punches, Ketchel paying the toll to get inside and work the body, and when they came away both were bleeding from the nose. Papke went to his seat “uneasily” at the end of the round (LA Times).

The seventh began messily as the two were separated by the referee for the first time. Ketchel employed his switch, also for the first time behind this action, landing “a left to the body and two left uppercuts to the head.” Papke “bled freely” at the end of the round. By the ninth Papke was “tottering about the ring” and, according to the New York Times, Ketchel was “apparently withholding” the knockout punch. Papke “fought back desperately” but Ketchel lashed punches almost exclusively to the body. Papke rallied in the tenth, countering Ketchel’s body punches with his own.

The bell rang for the eleventh, the round Ketchel had told Papke he would put him out if the legend is to be believed. Uncharacteristically jabbing, Ketchel followed up with a violent push, charging in behind Ketchel and landing “two hard rights to the stomach.” The Times takes up the story:

“As they broke out of a clinch, Ketchel swung at three-quarters-length landing squarely on the point of the chin. Papke struck at full length, his head rapping the floor with terrible force. He had just enough strength to regain his feet.”

In an eerie echo of Ketchel’s own desperate struggle in their second fight, Papke had regained his feet at the count of nine but was unable to defend himself. Ketchel approached him but unlike Billy he was not smiling as he “sent his right to the head four times in quick succession and almost pushed Papke to the floor with a left hook. Papke fell forwards on his knees his hands supporting him, his head bowed as if in agony.”

Twenty six years almost to the hour before three bullets at point blank range would end his life, Billy Papke’s heart failed him for the first time.

For Ketchel, 1908 was over.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Article posted on 18.10.2011

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