What Really Happened in the Jack Johnson-Stanley Ketchel Fight?

Photo: Ketchel prepares to throw the "sneak" punch

by B.R. Bearden

20.06 - On Oct 16th, 1909, a crowd of 10,000 gathered in Colma, California, to watch a boxing contest between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, "the Galveston Giant", and middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, "the Michigan Assassin". In every way it was a mismatch, as Johnson weighed in at 209 to Ketchel's 160 pounds and stood 6' ¼" over the 5' 9" challenger. But Stanley Ketchel was a born fighter who possessed the power to hurt even heavyweights. It was, despite the size advantage for Johnson, one of those match-ups of Greats that rarely happen. Ketchel is even today considered one of the greatest middleweights of all time, whereas Johnson was easily the best heavyweight in the world at the time and one of the best defensive boxers the division would ever produce.

Lest the fight seem a total mismatch, it should be noted that twice that year Ketchel had fought the light heavyweight champion and future Hall of Famer Philadelphia Jack O'Brien. The light heavy champ had taken the title from no less a fighter than Bob Fitzsimmons, then fought Tommy Burns twice for the heavyweight title, getting both a 20 round draw and a loss. Burns lost the title to Johnson and Ketchel won a 10 rounder against O'Brien in their first fight, then knocked him out in 3 heats the second time around (though O' Brien didn't put his title on the line either time). But bolstered by his double defeats of the light heavy title holder, Ketchel decided to challenge the heavyweight champion Johnson.

Most boxing fans who look into the history of the sport know the bare bones of the fight. It goes like this: Johnson and Ketchel agreed to an exhibition, it was fought as such for 11 rounds, then the vicious Ketchel betrayed the agreement by launching a sneak punch that dropped Johnson. Jack got right up, in a blind rage, and knocked Stanley out with a right hand so hard that it embedded several of the middleweight's teeth in Johnson's glove. Old times told how Johnson stood leaning on the ropes and picked the teeth out of his glove as Ketchel was counted out.

So goes the story and the legend, much of it as reported by Jack Johnson, as Ketchel was murdered one day less than a year later, on October 15th, 1910. Due to his untimely death at only 24 years of age, the middleweight marvel never had a chance to refute or agree with Johnson's version of the fight. We would have to accept it happened as Johnson said except for one crucial factor; the fight was filmed. I have a copy of the fight, an 8mm tape I bought 30+ years ago. I hadn't watched the film in years and I, too, accepted and retold the story much along the line of Johnson's tale. Then, I came across a video tape where I'd transferred some of my old 8mm fight films during the mid-1980s and watched again the "exhibition" of 1909. Contrary to Johnson's story, the film showed an entirely different fight.

Jack Johnson was never a beacon of truth. He was a rascal and a character who was hated by whites and admired by blacks during his lifetime. Over the decades, white boxing fans have come around to admitting that he was a great fighter and persecuted disgracefully. Nat Fleischer, founder and long time editor of Ring magazine, always exposed the greatness of Johnson and today, 90 years after his prime, he is almost always regarded as one of the ten best heavyweight champions of all time.

In 1906 he fought the amazing Sam Langford in a 15 rounder from which more than one version has emerged. Some had it that Langford floored Jack and almost beat him, while others said Johnson was never in trouble from the much smaller man. Johnson dismissed it as a match he easily dominated, yet once he was champion, he steadfastly refused to fight Langford again.

Johnson claimed he could only make money fighting white fighters, yet accounts of the time indicate he would have made much more if he'd fought the likes of Langford and Joe Jeannette. Johnson re-established the color line that had been stepped over by Tommy Burns when he gave Johnson the shot at his title and refused to fight black fighters as champion. As Joe Jeanette said, 'Jack forgot about his old friends after he became champion and drew the color line against his own people." When he finally fell to the giant Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba in the 26th round, April 5th, 1915, he claimed he took a dive. His supporters pointed to the famous knockout picture and say it shows Johnson holding his arm up to shade his eyes, proving he wasn't really unconscious. However, a study of the photo shows the shade from the upraised arm covers his forehead, not his eyes, and is more consistent with the reflexive actions of a man who is dazed or out cold.

And so, in the fight with Ketchel, which he called an exhibition, Johnson couldn't admit he'd been floored by a middleweight and accused the deceased Stanley of cheating and trying to take him out with a sneak punch. When it came to telling the truth regarding his setbacks in the ring, Jack was dishonest to the end.

Here's what the film of the fight shows:
In the first round, Ketchel leaps to throw a left hook, trying to reach the taller man. Johnson used the technique of leaning back on his right leg and pulling away from a punch, something Ali would later employ, making it even harder for Ketchel to reach him. Johnson hits Stanley a solid right cross which has none of the look of "exhibition" about it.

In round 2, Johnson becomes very aggressive, throwing blows that give no indication of being less than full force. He hits Ketchel with a solid left, then Stanley retaliates with a body shot that doubles Jack over. With his full 209 pounds behind it, Johnson hits Ketchel a perfect right cross with such momentum that Jack must leap over the falling middleweight to keep from going down atop him. He stands over the fallen Ketchel for a moment, as if daring him to rise, then moves to the corner as the referee begins counting. Stanley rises to one knee, shakes his head, and takes the full 8 count before rising. He survives to the bell, despite Johnson's attempts to land a finisher.

In subsequent rounds Johnson bloodies Ketchel's face, while the latter continues to come after his tormentor. Rounds 3-7 are mostly Johnson, taking advantage of his size and reach to punish the game middleweight champion. The blows are landed with force, the blood is real, and the only exhibition is how well Ketchel can take a punch from a bigger man. In round 8 Ketchel swarms all over Johnson, leaping to land his fist to the heavyweight champion's face, driving hooks to his ribs when he tries to tie him up. Johnson goes into his famous defensive posture and turns the initiative over to Stanley. In rounds 9-11 it's mostly Ketchel, as Jack seems content to defend and land the occasional shot when a wild Ketchel swing leaves him open. The crowd is getting into it, as they begin to see the possibility of Johnson being defeated by a middleweight.

And now we come to the 12th round. Both men have been marked, Ketchel's face is bloody, and they circle each other like stalking beasts. After a sharp exchange, the fighters separate. Ketchel cocks his right hand back all the way to his hip, an action so obvious one can't imagine how Johnson would call it a "sneak" punch. Throwing from his right hip, Ketchel comes in with an overhand right that hits Johnson so hard, it actually spins him around. Jack lands hard on his butt. The crowd jumps to its feet.

Jack Johnson tries to rise, but sinks down again. He seems surprised and dazed and looks at Ketchel as if to say, "How the hell did you do that?" The referee starts to count.

Johnson rolls over to his hands and knees, using the palm of his right glove and the surface of his left to try to push himself off the floor. The count continues as he straightens his arms and walks his legs up under him, obviously hurt. He does not "bounce right up" as his and other accounts claim. Somewhere around the count of 8 or 9 he's on his feet. It was that close.

Johnson may still be dazed, but now Stanley unwitting plays into his hands. The smaller man, eager for the knockout, rushes in wide open and Johnson catches him with a tremendous right cross, its impact magnified by the forward motion of Ketchel. Stanley is rocked back on his heels by the punch, then collapses to the mat as the momentum of Johnson's punch carries him over the fallen man. Jack himself falls to the mat on the opposite side of Ketchel, having put all 209 pounds into the punch. He rises as the referee starts to count over the middleweight champ.

Jack moves to the ropes and while the ref counts Ketchel out, he wipes off the surface of the left glove with the palm of the right. (The surface that he used to push off the floor, not the glove that knocked out Ketchel) It is probably true that Johnson found Ketchel's teeth embedded in the glove, but that was after the fight. The old timers tales of him picking the teeth out as Stanley was counted out were simply wrong. Johnson wiped the left glove only, then placed his arms on the ropes. "I thought I killed him," Johnson would later say of the knockout; Ketchek was out for 10 minutes.

A year later, Ketchel is dead, murdered by the jealous boyfriend of a woman he may have made a lewd remark to as she fixed his breakfast. Johnson will go on to claim the fight was only an exhibition and he was dropped by a "sucker" or "sneak" punch. However, the film of the fight clearly shows it was no exhibition and from round one both men were hitting with serious intent.

In 1985, seventy-six years later, Michael Spinks would do what no other light heavyweight ever could when he took the heavyweight title from an aging Larry Holmes. But in 1909, middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel came within a count of 2 of taking the heavyweight crown from one of the best of the heavyweight champions still in his prime.

For frame captures of the fight, check out my web site: click here


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