The CBZ Newswire

‘Slave for Mayhem’ & Excess, Ketchel Takes Papke in Milwaukee

by on Jun.02, 2009, under Boxing News, CBZ Columnists, Pete Ehrmann

A look back at middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel vs. Billy Papke 
By Pete Ehrmann


A hundred and one years ago Thursday, one of the most legendary champions in boxing history defended his title in the Beer Capital of America, and then celebrated by washing his feet in $2,700 worth of wine.

In 1908 that was more money than the average wage-slave earned in an entire year. But the only thing Stanley Ketchel was a slave to was his appetite for mayhem in the ring and for doing whatever the hell he felt like out of it.

“By turns wild, lovable, treacherous and amiable, his dominant trait was violence,” wrote Peter Walsh in his history of the middleweight division, “Men of Steel.” “He brutalized opponents and sparring partners alike and took pleasure in cruel practical jokes. Such disdain for others endeared him to the fight mob; here was a man after their own heart, a firebrand who hit hard, drove fast, chased women and toted a gun. They called him the ‘Michigan Assassin.’”

Billy Papke, Ketchel’s opponent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was called the “Illinois Thunderbolt,” and his reputation for ferocity equaled Ketchel’s. No wonder The Milwaukee Journal reported on June 4 that the city “has been fight mad all day,” and predicted that the Hippodrome on W. Wells St. between N. 5th and 6th Sts. (now site of the Midwest Airlines Center) “will be jammed to the doors tonight” for the middleweight championship contest.

It was. Five thousand fans paid up to $10 to get in. Promoter Frank Mulkern said 8,000 more were turned away.

A front-page cartoon in the Milwaukee Free Press that morning showed Papke and Ketchel standing against the local skyline, while off to the side a walking keg of beer labeled “Made Milwaukee Famous” said forlornly, “Guess I had better take a back seat.”

Prize fighting was technically illegal in Wisconsin then, but fights were held in Milwaukee because Mayor David Rose ran a wide-open city. Back in 1901, when bouts billed as “exhibitions” to get around the proscription against boxing were held in Milwaukee, Gov. Robert A. LaFollette warned Rose that if he didn’t do his civic duty and stop them, LaFollette would dispatch the state militia to do it.

“You had better send enough militiamen and deputies to fight the entire police force in Milwaukee,” Mayor Rose telegrammed back. “I am running this town and I am going to permit boxing.”

No surprise, then, that a huge cheer went up when Rose entered the Hippodrome to see the fight, bowing majestically left and right. Other celebrities on hand included lightweight champion Joe Gans, featherweight champ Abe Attell, and wrestling king Frank Gotch.
Ketchel won the decision after 10 exciting rounds. “Milwaukee has seen some tough fights and some tough fighters,” wrote George E. Phair in the next day’s Milwaukee Sentinel, “but never a fight as tough as last night’s, nor a fighter as tough as Stanley Ketchel.”

The Assassin’s victory wasn’t considered an upset except by the very superstitious. For 27 years, Milwaukee clothing storeowner Joe Henderer had lent his scale to boxers to check their weight. Reported the Sentinel: “And in the course of those years fighters innumerable have tipped their beams. And in all these years not one of these men has won his fight. The scales have proved a hoodoo every time. Man after man, after weighing in, has gone to defeat in the ring.”

The day before the fight, Henderer took his scale to Ketchel’s training camp on Whitefish Bay Road. “There Ketchel, all unsuspecting – perhaps not caring – stripped and weighed in. Those who knew groaned.” By beating Papke, exalted the paper, “Ketchel has broken the hoodoo!”

Papke’s hoodoo in the fight was the first punch Ketchel threw, a right hand right after the opening bell that knocked him down. “That took some of the steam out of me,” Papke admitted afterwards. “Had I been as careful as I ought to have been, Ketchel would not have slipped that over on me.”

(In a rematch three months later in California, Papke made sure it didn’t happen again. When the Ketchel reached out to shake hands, Papke clocked him with a right hand. Ketchel beat the count but never recovered, and Papke stopped him in the twelfth. There was no pre-fight handshake in the November rubber match. “You’ll be shaking hands with the undertaker when this is over,” snarled Ketchel. “I am going to cut you to pieces for 10 rounds and in the 11th I’ll hit you so hard you won’t get up.” Which is how it went.)

At his victory party in Milwaukee, promoter Mulkern later recollected, Ketchel spent more than a third of his $7,000 purse on wine in which to soak his tired dogs. Other revelers made more traditional use of the free-flowing booze, and Sentinel sportswriter Phair must’ve gone repeatedly to that bottomless well. There is no other plausible explanation for his reaction when the man anointed by the Milwaukee Free Press as “the greatest piece of fighting machinery at his weight that the world has ever known” gave him a playful cuff on the noggin. Phair got up, removed his coat and told Ketchel: “You may be the champion of the world, but I am champion of this joint and I am going to prove it. Come outside and fight it out!”

More sober heads fortunately prevailed. Phair went on to a long life (and fame as a writer of baseball stories and verse), but Ketchel did not. In 1910, a man who claimed Ketchel had messed around with his wife shot him dead.

  • Share/Save/Bookmark
:, , ,

Comments are closed.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!