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Welcome to Hell: Stanley Ketchel In 1908 – Part 1: The Twin

By Matt McGrain: In December of 1907 the great and recently retired Tommy Ryan sat down with newspaper men to discuss the best fighters of that moment. Tommy, a keen observer of fighters, furnishes us with a pound for pound list for the end of a year that boxing would rather forget.

Mentioning Johnny Coulon and Abe Attell as a stand out fighters amongst the little men, Ryan went on to bemoan the “collection of freaks and misfits” fighting between light and middleweight before launching an astonishing attack on the “joke of a champion” that was Tommy Burns, picking Johnson as the stand-out heavyweight and one of the world’s best. Ryan is pointed in complaining of the lack of competition in these divisions, especially heavyweight and lightweight, but one division sparkles with a depth of jewels the other divisions can’t match. The middleweights.

“Just look at the array of high grade fighters that could be thrown into a tournie and put up dazzling, even fights that would send the fighting bug into spasms of delight. Just think over the possibilities among this quartet of star fighters! Here is the way I have to place them:

1: Jack Sullivan. One of the greatest fighters that ever lived, and probably the hardest man in the ring to whip. I counsel any of them to keep their hands of this bald headed chap.

2: Hugo Kelly, the Chicago Italian, a particularly good and wiling fighter, but one who will have to fight more aggressively to become a real popular idol.

3: Bill Papke, the Spring Valley wonder, of whom I have heard so much but know so little. He is a great man.

4: Young Ketchel, the young Butte man, who sparing into such prominence by drawing with and beating Joe Thomas out on the Pacific Coast, two exceptional performances.

Young Ketchel would die young. Before he did he would tear a hole in the foundations of his fistic world so massive the tremors would be felt one-hundred years into the future. Torn by the sort of savage two-fisted attack that makes an HBO executive turn back-flips, the origins of these tremors begin in earnest in 1908. Tommy Ryan’s imagined tournament would take place, and it would not be Sullivan, Ryan’s pick for pound-for-pound #1 who would triumph, nor would it be the willing Kelly, or even the Spring Valley Wonder, still one of history’s greatest middles in his own right. It would be Ryan’s choice for #4 in the middleweight ranks, Young Ketchel, who would clear out the most stacked division in the era, perhaps the most stacked division in middleweight history, in six devastating months. Being Ketchel he wouldn’t begin his journey against the man ranked just above him or even the #2, but the best fighter in the division and possibly the world, Jack Sullivan.

Ketchel lived his life with the confidence of a man who is perennially turning up to a knife fight with two bazookas. Reason being, he did.

Jack “Twin” Sullivan, finished 1907 not with a win, but with a loss, but the loss was not to a middleweight. Al Kauffman, famed now for his failed attempt at Jack Johnson’s crown only two years later, had become the first man to knock Sullivan out in 1906. Sullivan decided to seek revenge against the heavyweight, a man who outweighed him by some thirty pounds. As rash as it may seem, Sullivan was actually in his element at heavyweight, being the most recent man to have defeated then heavyweight champion Tommy Burns. Sullivan was unquestionably a contender for that title in 1905 and likely held on in those rankings until his elimination by Kauffman. No other fights provides such a keen window into Sullivan’s style – or his mastery of the dark arts.

Weighing in well under the modern super-middleweight limit Sullivan more than held his own for the first ten rounds against the 195lb Kauffman. “Sullivan did his best work in the early rounds,” reported the LA Herald. “For a time it seemed he may even win. It was a give and take affair with Sullivan having the best of it.” Sullivan’s advantage would go away from him some time between the tenth and twelfth, the difference in weight beginning to tell, and in the sixteenth is hurt badly as Kauffman “cut loose [and] forced Sullivan across the ring landing with lefts and rights.” Kauffman would also close out the fight with sickening body blows, the same punches that would later trouble Jack Johnson. So this 25 round war is very much a fight of two parts in terms of the box-seat, Sullivan shading the early rounds, Kauffman dominating later. But there is another fascinating change here. The fight also seemed to have morphed, from a “give and take affair” to something more disjointed and difficult. How did this happen? “Kauffman had a great advantage in weight but this was offset to a degree by Sullivan’s ring experience and thorough knowledge of every artifice in ring trickery.”

The San Francisco Call, which lists Kauffman as outweighing Sullivan by closer to 40 than the reported 30lbs, takes up the story:

“There were times in many a round when Sullivan would not strike a blow for up to a minute whilst Kauffman bustled about him…Kauffman found Sullivan a hard target to hit with punishing affect. The Boston man goes with a blow, and he is twisting and turning in and out all the time, like an eel, so few punches land on him affectively. Sullivan also kept Kauffman off balance so that he was seldom able to set himself.”

Sullivan comes out and dominates, but by the tenth he is being bullied and “his left eye is closed and he looks far from happy.” So he abandons his aggressiveness and gives the leading role up to the heavyweight, fighting instead to slow the pace of the fight, reduce exchanges, keep his man off balance and unsure, use his experience and savvy to counter. One-hundred years later an ageing Bernard Hopkins would find similar strategies of benefit in closing a gap of years rather than weight. But there is more:

“He struck Kauffman a terrible blow with the point of an elbow as they clinched…the referee warned Sullivan not to repeat the trick…he was careful after that, but did some damage with is head. In coming out of a clinch he would butt Kauffman in the left eye, and soon a lump was raised on the Californian’s face.”

Kauffman closed the fight out fairly well and although the decision was booed, the press were satisfied that Sullivan had lost “close but clear.” But that only tells us a part of the story. Several precious photographs have survived that day and are passed down to us, and the size difference between the two is stated. Sullivan can be seen shucking and jiving penned into the corner, turning to the referee in protest, the prematurely bald skull he shared with his twin brother making his very appearance in the ring with Kauffman seem doubly bizarre. Sullivan’s performance was perhaps a great one. A stiff puncher, Kauffman tended not to knockout other fighters with a single blow, but of his 21 listed wins 16 came by way of knockout. Sullivan looks a small, old man next to Kauffman, but he was a small old man that knew how to survive.

Seemingly against anyone.

Next up for Sullivan was high-class trial-horse Joe Thomas. Thomas was an enormously game fighter without any fear who seemed to lack the skill and physical ability to cut it with the very best, the type of fan-friendly warrior that every generation kicks up, unlucky enough to find himself boxing in the best division since the stacked lightweight class which peaked in 1899. “It was only at times that Sully really fought,” ran one next-day report, “but when he did, Thomas was completely outclassed.” Again Sullivan is in total control of the tempo an rhythm of the fight, as he was in his losing effort versus Kauffman

In 1917, Jim Flynn would separate Jack Dempsey from his senses in a single round; in 1907 however, he was separated from his own by Jack Johnson. In between he would enjoy mixed results against a who’s who of the era, Billy Papke, Al Kauffman, Jim Johnson, Jimmy Barry, Sam Langford and many more would cross fists with “Fireman” so it was unthinkable that Sullivan would miss out on him. Sure enough, Flynn would be Sullivan’s “warm up” for Stanley Ketchel. The fight was a bad-tempered affair with Flynn throwing Sullivan to the canvas often, forcing him through the ropes and generally man-handling him, all the while shipping more punches than he landed. Sullivan seems to have shown his great variety here, relying upon the left in stark contrast to the Kauffman fight, where he relied as much on his right, also fighting hard inside and outside. The result was a draw in a fight which Sullivan arguably won but where the vast difference in size and strength told. For Sullivan, it was time to go home to the middleweights. Eleven days after his draw with Flynn, Stanley Ketchel had destroyed his brother.

A perfect storm of promotion is a rarity. Examples are often restricted to the heavies, and divided along the lines of race or politics. When Ketchel dispatched Mike “Twin” Sullivan in a single round in defence of his claim to the middleweight title the final piece fell into place for just such a promotion, in the middleweight ranks. A confused title picture would be one fight closer to clarity as the best boxer in the division met the best puncher. When Ketchel flattened Mike in seconds, a man previously stopped by only Joe Gans over 10 and 15 rounds, the business became personal. The LA Herald:

“From a fight fan’s point of view nothing better than this Sullivan-Ketchel match could possibly be offered in the pugilistic line. Ketchel, the most spectacular knocker-outer of the current crop, is to hook up with the larger of the famous Boston Twins…the winner of the…scrap will be the bona fide champion…to add a bit of spice to this go Sullivan…will be seeking revenge…to wipe the Ketchel blot off the family escutcheon…the two are to weigh in at 156 pounds at 10 a.m on the morning of the fight. This is an easy notch for both men.”

In fact, there was some concern in the press that Sullivan would not be able to make the weight, but he had been carrying excess in his heavyweight duals and trained down like he boxed, economically and steadily, in complete control. By the week of the fight he was a pound heavier than Ketchel, who was at the limit. Training ad begun for both men on or around April 16th and both camps were welcoming to journalists and the public, both exuded confidence. Sullivan spoke often of how he expected to outbox his opponent, wearing him down gradually “with jabs” over the agreed 35 round distance.

Ketchel spoke with more minimalism: “What will I be doing all this time?” he quipped softly to one journalist who confronted him with the Sullivan plan. “Ketchel…is endowed with great strength and has a certain awkwardly clever style that is difficult to solve…it is difficult to hit him effectively,” admitted the writer, but still the press favoured Sullivan overall. So did the professional gamblers, most of the big money going on the Boston man including a $1000 bet laid by one Battling Nelson. Not so the people. The “small bills” made Ketchel a favourite. Many pressmen were perturbed as to the reason for this, touching upon everything from Ketchel’s “robust complexion” to Sullivan’s unfortunate baldness, but the most crucial factor may have been the announcement that referee Billy Roche would be ensuring that the “Queensberry rules are not infringed upon in any particular…Sullivan is a master of these [infringements].”

In the final week of training, Ketchel worked the harder of the two, training “unusually heavily given the [thirty-five round] route he has to go.” On the Sunday, six days before the fight, he boxed eight fast rounds with the light bag and then eight with the heavy, before sparring six rounds with two different partners. By contrast, Sullivan was the very picture of relaxation. He boxed two rounds with none other than Joe Gans, their “work drew rounds of applause from the spectators…Sullivan did not try to use his superior weight against Gans but each depended upon his skill with the gloves.” He then boxed more stiffly with heavyweight Jack Burns, dropping him with a straight right hand. He seemed as ready as a fighter could be.

The day before the fight Ketchel, weighing a pound below the limit, trained very lightly. Sullivan, bang on 156lbs, did light roadwork.

Sullivan entered the ring first, taking up the northwest corner, the sun to his back. Ketchel, arriving moments later, stalked across to his opponent and confronted him. Sullivan moved to the other corner. Ketchel had enforced his right to chose which corner he would take his rest in, having won the pre-fight toss.

They began at a stiff pace. Ketchel set it, fighting directly, determinedly, but missing often. Sullivan broke into a smile and eventually a laugh as Ketchel repeatedly missed him. Ketchel took the first round on his aggressive pursuit of his elusive opponent and Sullivan finished the round as cheerily as he had begun it, seemingly fighting his own fight. Observers noticed a thin trail of blood coming from Sullivan’s nose as he returned to his stool, squinting at Ketchel through the blazing sun.

The second round was rougher, Ketchel rattling Sullivan’s kidneys in a prolonged clinch, Sullivan “lifting Stanley off his feet” with a huge right hand uppercut, blocking well against the punches that Ketchel brought back. By the third Ketchel was already hunting the body with both hands, Sullivan blocking well to the head, winking happily at his opponent when he managed to get one through. Sullivan seemed primed to take over in the fourth. “Ketchel was right on top of his man,” noted the LA Herald, “but was unable to land. Jack mystified Stanley with clever footwork as the later tried with both hands at the gong.” In the fifth Sullivan “laughed again as Ketchel missed yet another left to the body…feinted Ketchel out of position and they clinched.” In the 8th, Ketchel was cut again, this time over the left eye, which “made him vicious” and he drove Sullivan back to the ropes “missing wildly” with two lefts before slipping to the floor and being rattled at the bell by a returning left hook. Ketchel was winning rounds but at a terrible price. Meanwhile, boxing with great economy, Sullivan was tricking his way through the fight whilst Ketchel expended energy on wasted punches and rushes.

“Ketchel…is a most difficult man for a fighter to handle in the ring, as he is always forcing the pace and never gives his man a moment’s rest…he can hit readily from any position and his opponent never knows where the next blow is coming from…with his wonderful strength and vitality he can use these tactics until his opponent becomes utterly disheartened.”

This comes from sportswriter of the day R.A Smyth, about this fighter and this fight, but it could just as well be written for any swarmer, anywhere. There is no compromise for a man of this style. He puts his body on the line until he breaks his opponent’s heart or until he cannot go on any more. Historian Patrick Myler described Ketchel as “bereft of technique.” I understand why this was written but I disagree, and hope to show the Ketchel technique over the course of this series, but it is sufficient to say here – Ketchel wanted to drag his opponents to the furnace and shut them inside. The fire would consume the oxygen or the flames would destroy the flesh. You don’t need a scalpel to burn your enemy down. You just need a fire and the will and the strength to use it. Ketchel had perfected the art of the furnace, but was about to paint his masterpiece. In round nine began Sullivan’s decent into Dante’s Inferno.

The round began quietly, Ketchel chasing Sullivan around the ring to little affect, some ineffective punching was exchanged. Half way through, Ketchel caught Sullivan a hard right-hand punch to the jaw and followed it with a left to the body. A genuinely two-handed fighter, he had landed his first flush combination. Sullivan’s response? To laugh once more. But this time he did not manage to escape, did not manage to counterpunch but instead got hit again, hard. And then again. Ketchel’s variety of attack cannot be overstated, he worked body and head with straight, hooked and uppercut punches and he seems in this round to have utterly destroyed the surety of Sullivan’s guard. Sullivan was still landing at the same rate – but Ketchel was no longer missing.

Sullivan finished the ninth staggering Ketchel with a shot to the chin. He ended the tenth with a “hurricane finish” forcing Ketchel back with headshots. He would not win another round. He would never be the same again. He would win only three of his next ten fights. He was being finished as a fighter. “One of the bloodiest contests seen in recent years” was all but settled. “For the next ten rounds Ketchel battered Sullivan about the ring severely punishing him about the head and body,” said The Herald. “He knew he was beaten many, many round before the end actually came but he saw no way he could get out of his predicament gracefully,” observed The San Francisco Call.

Indeed, Sullivan’s grace deserted him. He would be dropped five times in the coming rounds, four times by body blows, and each time he would attempt to claim a foul. Each time the referee dismissed the claims and Sullivan was forced to climb back into the furnace. When the end came in the 20th, it was pitiful. Forcing Sullivan to the ground with a straight left, Ketchel leapt upon the tortured great as soon as he rose and drove him down again with a left-right combination. Sullivan hauled himself up for once last try. Ketchel smashed through the guard with another left hook to the body and Sullivan fell once more. He shook his head. “No.”

Sullivan had quit.

When he came to his sense he tried to claim a foul once more. The referee dismissed him out of hand. Sullivan continued to make his case in a post-fight interview. His words were not carried far, likely because they held no truth, but possibly because Sullivan found it difficult to make himself understood -his lips were so grotesquely swollen he found it hard to talk. Ketchel was magnanimous:

“Sullivan is a good fighter who knows all parts of the game and a hard fighter to knock out. I am ready to meet any fighter my manager selects.”

That man would be Billy Papke, a man with a pathology so savage that it would grow to consume himself and all he loved. A man who stoked his own furnace.

Part Two is coming soon.

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