The Tale Of The Michigan Assassin

For middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel, the boxing ring was the only theater in which his mania could legally project his voice. Born in 1886 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and orphaned at 14, the ‘Michigan Assassin’ traveled westward as a teenager, distinguishing himself as a feared street fighter in Montana’s tough-knuckle mining culture. Ketchel would parlay his brutal fists and pugnacious disposition into a successful professional boxing career, becoming middleweight champion in 1908. His blazing run ended prematurely with his murder at 24, but despite his brief time at the top he is ranked by some as the greatest middleweight of all-time. Simply put, Stanley Ketchel was one of the most vicious and devastating punchers to ever wear boxing gloves.

Drawing by Damien Burton

Fighting, aggression, and general boisterousness encapsulated Ketchel’s short life. From his days as a brawling youth to his time fighting in Montana bars, Ketchel’s identity was drawn from his ability to physically dominate other men. As an adolescent he knocked out a grown man in a boxing exhibition at a local fair and soon after he turned to boxing as a lucrative financial opportunity. It is estimated that before he turned professional in 1903, Ketchel fought in as many as 250 unsanctioned and undoubtedly brutal fights around Montana, during which he honed his skill and savagery. Whether as an amateur or pro, Ketchel always entered the ring with the same decisive look in his cold eyes, at once nervous and unshakably self-confident, prepared to acquit himself viciously in the vortex that was the early 20th century boxing ring.

Ketchel and Papke.
Ketchel battling Billy Papke.

Never formally trained, Ketchel did not possess exemplary technique. He wasn’t defensively skilled and often fought wide open, confident that his antagonistic style would prove too onerous for his opponent. Strong enough to knock someone out with either hand, Ketchel’s thirst for violence was supported by bottomless reserves of energy that allowed him to continue pressing at a desperate pace in the late stages of a contest. He was a furious, whirling dervish inside the ring, completely intent on annihilating his opponent. According to manager ‘Dumb’ Dan Morgan, “Ketchel was an exception to the human race. He was a savage. He would pound and rip his opponent’s eyes, nose and mouth in a clinch. He couldn’t get enough blood.” Rarely serene, Ketchel’s impulsive, even psychopathic disposition, made his behavior unpredictable. He often carried a gun, and when upset would flaunt it unabashedly.

Ketchel (right) poses with Hugo Kelly ahead of their 1908 tilt.

Ketchel vanquished all of the available competition in Montana, losing only twice in his first forty pro fights, with almost all of his wins coming by knockout. He then moved on to California, with its deeper well of boxing talent and the promise of a chance at a world title. There the career of “The Michigan Assassin” would ascend. Losing to Joe Thomas on points in a controversial decision, Ketchel won the rematch by knockout. This fight, considered by many to be one of the greatest in boxing history given its furious pace and changes of momentum, was followed by a third clash, which Ketchel won on points. And with the victory came the world’s middleweight championship. Fighting frequently, Ketchel successfully defended his title against the highly regarded Sullivan brothers, Mike and Jack, Billy Papke, and then Joe Thomas again.

Ketchel's power overwhelms another opponent.
Ketchel’s power overwhelms another opponent.

As the story goes (although some historians dispute its veracity), in the rematch with Papke, Stanley was blindsided by a cheap shot from the challenger before the opening bell. The blow, which, according to legend gave rise to the customary pre-fight order to shake hands or touch gloves, left the champion dazed and hurt and allegedly affected his ensuing performance; Stanley succumbed by TKO in the twelfth round. Furious at the outcome, Ketchel avenged the loss in a third meeting with “The Illinois Thunderbolt,” punishing his rival without mercy for an eleventh round knockout, the only time in Papke’s career that he was counted out.

After this triumph, the middleweight king headed east, twice fighting light heavyweight champion ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien. In the first match—a classic, competitive bout that was deemed a no decision—it’s possible that Ketchel should have been credited with a KO victory at the end of the tenth and final round. Fortunately for the Irishman, the bell saved him from being counted out, leaving the result in dispute. The outcome of their rematch would be less vague, however, as Ketchel finished O’Brien in three rounds. He then traveled back to California to again defeat Papke, this time by unanimous decision. This was merely a preamble, however, to his next bout, a huge showdown against the legendary Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchell Fighting in the Ring
Ketchel floors the great Jack Johnson.

As dangerous as Ketchel was, there was little chance he could beat “The Galveston Giant.” Winning shouldn’t have necessarily been Ketchel’s objective anyway, if he wanted to comply with the wishes of the motion picture company covering the bout, which wanted it to go an acceptable length for commercial purposes. This necessitated a more reserved style of boxing, which was anathema to Ketchel. Johnson fought in his usual, defensive manner, aware that he stood to receive a sizeable share of profits if the fight went long enough to conciliate the movie-going public. Ketchel, far too aggressive a soul to remain restrained, deviated from the script when he hammered Johnson with a wild right in round twelve and sent the bigger man to the canvas. Johnson rose and immediately knocked Ketchel unconscious with a right hand of his own.

The great Stanley Ketchel.

After the Johnson episode, Ketchel fought five more times before his demise, earning a no decision, losing to Sam Langford, and winning three others, finishing his career with a record of 51-4-4. Only 24, Ketchel was murdered by a farm hand in Conway, Missouri, in October of 1910, for reasons apparently rooted in jealousy and financial gain. His last words, at odds with the fearless image he presented publicly, are said to have been, “Take me home to mother.” — Elliott McCormick

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