The Michigan Assassin
By Jason Petock (October 16, 2005)  
Stanley Ketchell
Boxing’s legends of yesteryear often are forgotten as easily as important dates and missed birthdays when it comes to referencing them these days. Modern society lives in the here and now and anything that did not happen yesterday or a couple of hours ago usually is old news or irrelevant. The fighters of old did not possess the flagrancy or one-upmanship of the boxers of today. Their trunks were not sequenced or complemented with flattering colors and extended leg lengths, and they did not enter the ring to the spectacle and pomp of multiple explosions and technicolor lighting. I often think that even if those boxers had been around today they still would not wear those peacock feathers. Fighters like that came to their jobs with one thing in mind and one thing only – business.

Stainislaus Kiecal was one of those fighters, better known to the boxing community as Stanley Ketchel. Born on September 14, 1886 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ketchell was a fighter who would be called a journeyman or club fighter by the ‘experts’ if you asked them today. He was a murderous slugger with a solid punch and what he lacked in technique or ring savvy he made up tenfold with the heart of a lion. While some would question his elevated status as a legend of the ring, it is only somewhat warranted since he floored legendary Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in the 12th round of their bout. Johnson won the fight after that with brutal right uppercut that starched Ketchel and left him down for the count. Even in defeat his knockdown of Johnson was relevant because Johnson outweighed him by 35 pounds at the time.

Stanley’s lack of skill in the ring was due to the fact that he never really had any proper boxing training. Running away from home as a teenager, Stanley was in search of thrills and excitement. He made it all the way to Chicago, Illinois from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan and ended up hooking up with a pug who used to fight by the name of ‘Socker’ Flanagan. Flanagan took him under his wing and gave him a crash course in pugilism and offered him a job to boot. Ketchel continued on his travels after that, landing in the mining town of Butte and working as a bouncer at a hole in the wall called the Copper Queen. While moonlighting from his other gig he would make an extra 20 bucks a week boxing anyone who would step forward and face him at the local theater in Butte.

His first professional fight was against Kid Tracy in 1903. He dispatched of Tracy easily, knocking him cold in the first round. Legend has it that one of Tracy’s pals was hiding behind a curtain on stage waiting for Ketchell to get close enough to him so that he could bean him with a stuffed sock and allow his buddy to win. This story has not been confirmed, but it does provide and interesting and entertaining addition to the life and times of Stanley ‘The Michigan Assassin’ Ketchel.

While Ketchel was not the most talented boxer in the world and he did not have the most scientific approach to the discipline, he still managed to compile a record of 52-4-4 (49) with 4 no decisions (no decisions were common for the time). In his first 46 fights he only lost twice, both times to the same individual, Maurice Thompson, who also shared a draw with him. In Ketchel and Thompson’s rematch, which was scheduled for 45 rounds (imagine that?) both fighters lasted up to the 32nd round when Ketchel battered Thompson and he slumped onto the bottom rope in a heap. Both human beings had endured devastating amounts of punishment, but Ketchel had finally matched his man. Thompson’s corner threw in the towel, knowing clearly that their man had been defeated.

Leading back up to the aforementioned bout with Johnson, Stanley was primed and confident on his meeting with Jack Johnson. He had been known as a rough and tumble fighter and had fought epic wars with the best of them, and he felt it was his time to challenge for the Heavyweight crown. The throne eluded him however in losing to Champion Jack Johnson and this sent him spiraling downward into a deep depression. It is rumored that Ketchel even experimented but the validation of such claims has never been proven on record.

‘The Michigan Assassin’ met a tragic end on October 14, 1910, when at the relatively young age of 24 he was shot in the back by a jealous boyfriend who became enraged when Stanley put the moves on his girl. The assailant shot Ketchel with a .22 Marlin rifle. What makes this story even more tragic is that Stanley was in training camp at this farm in Conway, Missouri for his comeback attempt at Jack Johnson’s title when he was shot. The person who shot him was a farmhand on the ranch where Stanley was training. ‘The Michigan Assassin’ would never get that chance again to meet the best of the best in the ring one more time. Stanley died at the hospital that evening. Both the shooter and his significant other were charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. The ranch hand and shooter, Walter Dipley, served 24 years and the girlfriend, Goldie Smith, served 12.

Looking back on Stanley Ketchel’s short but eventful career and life, one can only imagine what more he could have done inside the ring. Had he not been killed abruptly, what else could he have done in boxing? Who else would he have beaten or been beaten by? Would his second meeting against Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson have played out the same, or would he have beaten Johnson and changed the whole dynamic and history of boxing as we know it? All of these questions are mere speculation, but one thing that is not is the relevance of Stanley ‘The Michigan Assassin’ Ketchel and where he stands in the hearts of fans everywhere.
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