Before the days of 17 different weight categories with 4 world championship belts and a slough of intercontinental and international belts, the superfight had yet to be invented. Contenders fought champions and contenders fought each other for the chance to be champion, 8 weights, one champion each. Then came two Maverik superstars, both loved and hated in equal measure who stood up and paved the way for the fight that in my eyes is the first true super fight. So today I look back, 110 years to the day, at Jack Johnson vs Stanley Ketchel.
The paths of the two combatants on their way to the top of boxing are uniquely American and unequivocally interesting, especially considering the disparity between the times they lived in and the boxing landscape we know today. First, we look at the champion, The ‘Galveston Giant’ Jack Johnson. Born on the 31st of March 1878 to two freed slaves in Galveston, Texas his early life was tough, expected to work while he went to school, this left him frail and small, something he would later more than makeup for. Leaving school after 5 years of a frankly meager education he took a job on famous Galveston docks before finding boxing and moving to New york. There he sparred relentlessly under the watchful eye of West Indian welterweight ‘Barbados’ Joe Walcott and started to box professionally. He boxed all over America and was even arrested after some of his bouts ad prizefighting was illegal in Texas. He grew into his frame, eventually standing a then imposing 6″1 and weighing 200lbs. Although this doesn’t sound too impressive today the average height in for a man in this period was 5″3 and they rarely weighed over 160lbs. For context, if the American man is on average 5″9 today so if we scale that up Johnson would stand 6″7 and weigh 250 lbs taller and heavier than Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder. No wonder they called him a Giant.
His trademark, however, was his style and charisma, as he boxed he developed the first modern heavyweight style. He would move around the ring utilizing his feints, counterpunching, jab, and footwork to confuse his opponents luring them into his hard punches. This style was extensively studied by Muhammad Ali who credited Johnson for ‘Inventing boxing’ and has inspired the footwork and jab heavy styles of other great champions such as Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis. Renowned boxing historian Bert Sugar said of Johnson “He was one of the greatest defensive fighters of all time, which few people recognize. He’d play patty cake and catch all his opponents’ punches until he got bored. Then he’d knock the guy out.”
He boxed and beat every white and black Heavyweight of his era including hall of fame boxers, former and future champions such as Bob Fitzimmons, Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Joe Grim, Marvin Hart, and Sam McVey, all the while being denied a shot at the title. His shot came however when he traveled to Australia to sidestep the so-called “Colour Bar” , the ban on African Americans fighting for the heavyweight title in America to fight the reigning champion, Tommy Burns. Burns said before the fight “Ill whup that N***er or my name ain’t Tommy Burns!”, his name was actually Noah Brusso. The irony of that statement played out in the ring as Johnson put a beating on Burns so ruthless the police, not the referee stopped the fight. Now the racist white establishment had exactly what they’d always sought to avoid, a black heavyweight champion. This is when the hunt for the ‘Great White Hope’ began, enter, Stanley Ketchel.
Ketchel was born in Grand Rapids Michigan in 1886 to a Polish immigrant family. At twelve years old, he ran away from home, becoming a child hobo, traveling from town to town. In this lifestyle he found he had a talent for bar fighting, walking from bar to bar challenging any man who thought they were tough enough to face him. It is said in 40 contests he lost only twice and knocked out every man he beat. He then moved to California and started taking professional fights as a middleweight. He soon gained a reputation for taking on heavyweights who often outweighed him by 30lbs flooring them with his thunderous punch power. Legend has it he would imagine the opponent had insulted his mother and he needed to take revenge. Unleashing a rage and fury upon them that rivaled the great Jack Dempsy for ferocity and ruthlessness. He eventually won the middleweight title with huge wins over both of the twins, Mike and Joe Sullivan and then two wins over the light heavyweight champion, down at middleweight, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in a 10 round thriller and three round knockout. This placed the man who had become known as the ‘Michigan Assassin’ as the number one white fighter in the world, and the plans came to fruition for him to challenge Jack Johnson, to become the white hope that would dethrone the charismatic black champion who the white establishment hated so much.
Although the money men that surrounded boxing were pitting them as rivals Johnson and Ketchel had far more in common than most and as poor fighters who gain riches quickly, they shared the same passions; fast cars and faster women. The two were said to drink, gamble and frequent brothels together long before the fight came around. So when it came time for them to fight they were said to have planned it together, along with promoter Jim Coffroth a number of strategies were put in place to make the event as big as possible and get as much money from fans and financiers alike. To disguise the immense size difference between Johnson and the 5″7 160lbs Ketchel at press events Ketchel wore a large coat beefed up with many layers, as well as tall heeled boots to make him look taller. The bout was also scheduled for 20x three minute rounds, supposedly to give fans more for their money and give Ketchel more time to win the fight. The final agreement was that both fighters would ‘hold off” for at least 15 rounds, making there was enough entertainment, compounded with the fact Johnson was even money to stop Ketchel inside 15 everyone stood to make a killing if it went that far. These were all agreed and in good faith, the fight was made for October 16th, 1909.
The fight took place at the Mission Street Arena, Colma, California, There was a crowd of over 10,000, a huge draw especially when you consider over 3,000 were turned away. The promoter stated after the fight that a gate of $40,000 had been taken in, a monumental sum of money for the time. The fighters received 60 percent of the gross receipts, of which Johnson got 65 percent and Ketchel 35 percent. Each boxer also posted a forfeit of $5,000 to go as a side bet, showing it was not all as friendly and staged as it has been rumored to be. As they stepped into the ring the size difference became clear, with Johnson looking every bit his weigh-in weight of 209lbs. The fight started as agreed, slow, methodical and staged with each man circling the other, Johnson often laughing joking and taunting Ketchel, one of his trademarks. He pawed out his arms smothers Kecthel’s gloves, holding him at bay the way an adult does a petulant child. Ketchel was fast however darting around and landing the occasional punch from close range.
There was also a prominent presence from ringside, former champion Jim Jefferies, an ardent racist and man who had said prior to this fight he would be the one to dethrone Johnson if Ketchel couldn’t do it here. He was said to be shouting encouragement to Ketchel throughout the bout as well as aiming racial slurs at Johnson. In the third round, Ketchel leaped into a combination and Johnson pushed him off landing a sharp right hand and flooring Ketchel. Stanley took a knee and waited for the count of five, Johnson didn’t pounce though, remembering the agreement and the money he stood to make. For the next several minutes Jack circled, jabbing Ketchel at will, maintaining the distance and carefully trying not to hurt the little man who was diving in aimlessly at him. This pattern emerged to be the main story of the fight as Johnson jabbed and grabbed controlled the smaller man pushing him around the ring and playing up to the crowd as he went. Then bang.
As Johnson pushed Ketchel off him at the start of the 12th round Ketchel exploded into the punch of his life, a huge overhand right that connected perfectly with the jaw of the champion and sent him lurching toward the floor. Johnson was livid, Ketchel had just torn up the script and the fight was on. Johnson looked dazed when he hit the floor but as he rose to his feet at a fast count of 5, it looks as though Goliath had risen again after David had hit him with the slingshot. He looked 40 feet tall as he walked back over to Ketchel, his shadow seemed to block out the blazing Californian sun and spell an awful doom for the middleweight king. Defiant, Stanley cracked a smile, covered in blood from the power of Johnson’s jabs and prepared to throw the right hand again but before he could do so Johnson pounced. He launched his entire 209lbs through a huge right hand that slammed into Ketchel’s mouth, there was so much power in the punch that as his opponent crumpled to the floor the entirety of Johnson flew up into the air and clean over the now unconscious Ketchel. The Associated Press reporter said of the punch “with the fury of a wild beast he leaped across the ten feet that separated them. His right fist shot to the white man’s jaw…Ketchel dropped in a heap, and Johnson, unable to stop his rush, sprawled across his beaten rival’s legs and fell full length himself”
As he rose to look down on his vanquished foe he noticed a rip in his glove, he looked closer and found three of Ketchel’s front teeth embedded in his right glove, a testament to the supreme power Johnson had just exerted in vanquishing his foe. The last 34 seconds of this fight live in infamy and will cement the legacy of both of these champions in years, decades and millennia to come.
This was truly the first crossover weight super-fight between great and established champions from different weight classes. Without this fight, we would have had no Charles v Marciano, no Duran v Leonard, no Hagler v Hearns, no Mayweather v Pacquiao. These two iconic champions and their amazing skills and personalities bought boxing mixed weight super fights the norm and a spectacle that we as boxing fans still crave to this day. Stanley Ketchel was murdered one day before the one year anniversary of this bout and Jack Johnson although winning fame and riches in this and subsequent bouts was imprisoned under the racist Mann act and sent to prison. Upon release he was forced to fight well into his 50’s to pay the bills and eventually died in a car crash in 1948. These two icons of our sport are often forgotten but their similar paths, from poverty to riches and back again, entertaining millions along the way and paving a path for thousands of champions who have followed.
Article dedicated to the memory of Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchel.
Ewan Breeze – Rebel Boxing for SimBoxx🥊
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