Take me home to mom, Pete: The high octane life and death of Stanley Ketchell
25.02.06 - BY MIKE CASEY: For a man who had lived so hard and fought so violently, the last words of Stanley ‘Steve’ Ketchell were strangely gentle and poignant. As he lay dying at the Dickerson ranch in Conway, Missouri, his assailant’s bullet lodged in his back, Ketchell looked up at his friend Pete Dickerson and said, “Take me home to mom, Pete.”
Article posted on 25.02.2006
Ketchell was just twenty-four years old and had seemed destined from day one to live fast and die young in what would come to be known as the classic rock ‘n’ roll tradition.
Shooting Stanley in the back was probably the only sure way of bringing him down, for 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.
Ketchell became famously known as the Michigan Assassin, a nickname that was beautifully synonymous during his life and bitterly ironic during his death. He was a mid-western boy 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.
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 Ketchell 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.
Eastern fans were treated to Ketchell in all his raging, thundering glory in his thrilling fight with the great Philadelphia Jack O’Brien at the National Athletic Club in New York, and in what must have been a terrific contest with fellow legend Sam Langford in Philadelphia. Stan and Sam fought to a six rounds no decision, exchanging hammer-like blows all the way without either man hitting the deck.
Former Ring editor Nat Fleischer got to know Ketchell 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 Ketchell 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 Ketchell, 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 Ketchell 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.”
Ketchell 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 Ketchell 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.”
On October 15 1910, Ketchell’s favourite gun could not save him from his killer. A renowned Don Juan of the ring, Stan had been flirting with waitress Goldie Smith, the girlfriend of farm hand Walter Dipley, and Dipley had protested to Ketchell about his romancing of the girl. But Stan underestimated the extent of his rival’s jealousy. Relaxed and convivial, Ketchell forgot the old Western rule of never sitting with one’s back to the door as he took his breakfast that morning.
His gun across his lap, Stan never heard Dipley approaching. A .22 calibre rifle bullet ripped into Ketchell’s back, directly beneath the shoulder blade and puncturing his lung. His favourite six-shooter tumbled from his lap and Stan fell to the floor.
Among my collection of photographs of Stanley Ketchell is an old shot that perfectly reflects his character and the wild and rollicking era in which he flourished. Ketchell is flanked by his friend 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 Ketchell certainly knew some people. One didn’t have to look past his eccentric entourage to find larger than life characters. His first manager Willus Britt famously got upset with the San Francisco city council for its negligence in failing to prevent the monumental 1906 earthquake. Britt’s successor Wilson Mizner was right on Ketchell’s wavelength and cheerfully advised Ketchell early on: “Steve, my boy, all I can do for you is improve your mind. Your morals are the same as mine already”.
A furious fighter and bon viveur, Ketchell had the pale an innocent looks of a choirboy, but preferred the more basic pursuits of drinking and whoring in his leisure time.
Ketchell’s fights are the stuff of legend and talked about to this day. His series with the equally tough Billy Papke was among the most brutal in middleweight history. Ketchell outpointed Papke in their first title encounter in June 1908 prompting Papke to try a new ploy in their rematch in San Francisco three months later.
At a time when underhand tactics were all part of a fighter’s repertoire and the rulebook was perceived as something of an inconvenience, Papke shunned Ketchell’s pre-fight handshake and hit the champion with a terrific blow to the head from which he never recovered. Ketchell fought on with typical defiance but could barely see through swollen eyes when the fight was stopped in Papke’s favour in the twelfth round.
Upsetting Ketchell was never a smart thing to do. He knocked out Papke in eleven rounds to gain his revenge, and later confirmed his superiority by beating Billy a third a time.
Starved of middleweight opponents who could realistically extend him, Ketchell moved up two weight divisions to challenge Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship in October 1909. As great a middleweight as Ketchell was, Johnson was just as great a heavyweight and regarded the match as a rather amusing exhibition in which he would ‘carry’ his audacious challenger the distance and give the crowd their entertainment.
The two men agreed to a no-knockdown clause, but asking Ketchell to fake it was always a tall order. He could never resist an opening and he saw one in the twelfth round. A big right sent a shocked and furious Johnson to the canvas, with shuddering repercussions. Jack’s retaliatory blow not only laid Ketchell out cold but also left four of his teeth embedded in Jack’s glove.
I must admit to having a love/hate feeling about the Ketchell-Johnson fight. It makes for a great story, but it was a pre-arranged farce which didn’t show either man in a good light. The primitive, herky-jerky film of the encounter continues to come up among the TV clips of old fights, invariably accompanied by some rinky-dink music to heighten the comedy. This is a great shame, because it is this impression of Ketchell and Johnson that lingers in the minds of modern day fans who believe everything they see and stubbornly refuse to dig for the truth.
How great a middleweight was Stanley Ketchell? The answer to that question is that he was simply awesome and would still terrorise the division today. Some time ago, in a sixties documentary about Jack Johnson I saw a brief flash of Stan against an unidentified opponent.
It was a revelation. The film was professionally shot at the correct speed and showed Ketchell ripping at his man with the speed and savagery of the young Roberto Duran. I imagined that Stan’s punch rate would be slower than the fighters of today, because of the greater distances of his era. Not so. Ketchell couldn’t punch fast enough. He proved in one of his classic fights with Irishman Joe Thomas that he could maintain that staggering pace for more than thirty rounds. How I wish I could track that film down. It was a stunning eye-opener, which shattered the myth of old-time fighters being slow and ponderous.
Every punch Stanley Ketchell ever threw was intended to knock his opponent out. The Michigan Assassin had the stamina 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. The bout was scheduled for forty-five, but Ketchell 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.
Ketchell was finally slowing, and perhaps even his relentlessly positive mind was being infiltrated by small seeds of doubt. What was this Thomas guy made of? He was supposed to be out of it by now, but the tough Irish so-and-so just kept coming back. Stan seemed to lose his way for a while as Thomas began to score with jolting right hooks. But Ketchell’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.
At ringside, the wagering was now as frenetic and ever changing as the pace of the fight. The odds shifted back in favour of Thomas in the twenty-eighth round as he suddenly found a picture perfect right hook to send Ketchell crashing to the canvas.
If ever a man was in his natural element, it was Ketchell 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 and the punches that kept coming from his equally courageous foe. Joe was suffering from a damaged eye and his battered and flattened nose was barely recognisable.
Finally, in the thirty-second round, Ketchell 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.
One of the greatest ringmen of Ketchell’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. Ketchell’s face was smeared with blood as Philadelphia Jack’s unerringly accurate jabs repeatedly found the mark.
In the seventh, Ketchell astonished the crowd as he dropped his arms to his sides and took a big breath. He might well have been summoning the gods to loan him a tornado, for what followed was a ferocious two-fisted attack that sent the shocked O’Brien from one corner of the ring to the other. Still the boxing master was producing skill of the highest degree as he clung precariously to his points advantage, but his sterling work seemed to charge Ketchell with extra strength instead of weakening him. Stan gashed O’Brien’s eye and continued to pound away at his more skilful adversary throughout the eighth and ninth rounds.
In his desperation, Philadelphia Jack clinched and feinted and stalled, looking for any way he could to avoid being swept away. In the dying moments of the ninth round, he found himself teetering on the edge of the cliff as Ketchell dropped him near the ropes with a crunching blow to the pit of the stomach.
O’Brien got to his feet and slumped down on his stool. For all his pain and woe, he was still ahead and now just one round away from adding the scalp of the great Stanley Ketchell to his belt. Just one round. Like a collapsing marathon runner who can see the tape but cannot grind out the last inches, Philadelphia Jack fell short of his target in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. A big body attack by Ketchell in the tenth culminated in a final shot that sent O’Brien down. 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 amongst those who had laid their money on Ketchell. Today, most record books accord the win to Stan.
Stanley Ketchell fought for the last time on June 10 1910, when he knocked out Jim Smith in five rounds in New York. Overjoyed by his win, Stan leapt over the ropes and jogged away into the adoring throng. By that time, the Michigan Assassin had knocked out 49 of his 54 victims. He had engaged in 64 fights in all, losing just four.
When he was finally beaten by a bullet to the back, people wondered if he would still find a way of regaining his feet and firing back a salvo. One man certainly believed it was possible. When news of Ketchell’s death reached his manager Wilson Mizner, Mizner wired back, “Start counting ten over him – he’ll get up.”
MIKE CASEY is a boxing journalist and historian, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization and founder and editor of The Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for boxing historians and fans. (www.grandslampage.net)
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