GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson and now Floyd Mayweather Jr. are considered by many fans to be the best of boxing’s best. But Mayweather isn’t the only Grand Rapids native who many would say belongs on that list.
The other: Stanley Ketchel. Ketchel is one of boxing’s forefathers. For a time, the middleweight champion was a household name. But just like his life, his career was cut short.
Whether it was out of spite, jealousy or greed, Ketchel found himself on the wrong end of a rifle. Sunday marks 113 years since “The Michigan Assassin” was killed.
WHO WAS STANLEY KETCHEL?
Nearly a century before Mayweather, Ketchel was born in 1886. While Mayweather grew up on the city’s south side, Ketchel was a West Sider, growing up in the city’s Polish neighborhood on Stocking Avenue.
While Mayweather got his start in Grand Rapids’ gyms, Ketchel didn’t pick up the gloves until after he left Michigan. When he was 14, Ketchel left home to ride the rails. He headed west and settled in the rough-and-tumble mountains of Montana.
He took a job as a bouncer in Butte. The bar’s owner was the first to notice Ketchel’s natural fighting ability. Ketchel started on the local circuit, recording his first professional fight in 1903 — a first-round knockout.
The Michigan Assassin’s legend grew, taking higher profile fights across Montana and eventually heading west to California, doing it all without any formal training. Between 1904 and 1908, he had a 39-fight stretch without dropping a decision. Among that stretch was a bout against Billy Papke in which Ketchel claimed the world middleweight title.
Papke quickly demanded a rematch and got it three months later. Papke won with a 12th-round knockout, with historians noting that Papke gave Ketchel a cheap shot before the fight, slugging him with a punch as Ketchel reached out to touch gloves at the opening bell.
Papke’s reign wouldn’t last long. Ketchel got his own rematch just weeks later and knocked him out in the 11th round to regain his championship belt.
‘DAVID VS. GOLIATH’
Titles aside, Ketchel was known for his 1909 showdown with Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion who crushed all challengers. With so many fighters falling short, Johnson was struggling to find an opponent who could put up a fight. That’s when the talks began.
Ketchel and Johnson agreed to a fight on Oct. 16, 1909, in California, but the word fight could come with an asterisk. Many historians have uncovered details that show the fight was semi-scripted, planned to go all 20 rounds to ensure that replays of the fight would be shown in local theaters and bring in more money.
The two men were friends and had a lot in common. They were elite boxers who loved the lavish lifestyle the sport brought them. In other words, they loved to make money and they loved to spend it — on women, beer, bets, you name it.
Ketchel entered the ring as the clear underdog. Johnson stood a shade over 6 feet, more than 3 inches taller than Ketchel, and had nearly 50 pounds on his opponent. Local newspaper reports listed Johnson as a 10-to-4 favorite to win, and bettors expected Johnson to win with a knockout, needing fewer than 15 rounds to dispatch of Ketchel.
In most eyes, the fight lived up to the hype. The two sparred back and forth, relatively even for the first 11 rounds. Whether Ketchel decided to break script or not, things went sideways in the 12th.
Instead of playing it safe, Ketchel went on the attack. Johnson tried to duck, but Ketchel’s hard right fist caught him in the back of the head and forced him to the canvas. Ketchel backed toward the ropes with what one local reporter called “a smile glimmering on his battered, blood-streamed face.”
The smile didn’t last long. Johnson quickly regained his feet and stormed at Ketchel with a lightning-quick one-two punch. A left to the stomach and a thunderous right that knocked him out cold. Though it is hard to confirm on the now 114-year-old video footage, local reporters say after the punch, two of Ketchel’s teeth were caught in Johnson’s glove, and you can see him appear to flick them away seconds later.
It didn’t appear the bad blood lasted long. Boxing historian Bert Sugar told MLive that Ketchel lost every penny he made from the fight later that night shooting dice with Johnson.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Following the fight with Johnson, Ketchel took some time off, not returning to the ring for more than five months. On April 27, 1910, he lost his middleweight title to Sam Langford by a 7-4-2 decision. After three more fights, Ketchel once again left the ring, returning to Grand Rapids to rest his body and plan his future.
While at home, he ran into a longtime friend Rollin “Pete” Dickerson. Dickerson knew that Ketchel was growing weary of riding the rails and fighting for his livelihood. He owned also owned a ranch in Missouri and suggested he should spend some time there to heal and maybe try his hand as a ranch boss.
That September, Ketchel took him up on the offer and headed to Conway, Missouri. Unfortunately, his return to Grand Rapids would be in a casket.
There are a lot of missing details around Ketchel’s time on the ranch, but the story culminated with gunshots on Oct. 10, 1910. That morning, Ketchel was in the kitchen waiting for his breakfast when new ranch hand Walter Dipley burst through a back door and shot him. The bullet hit him in the shoulder and pierced his lung. Dipley then allegedly pistol-whipped Ketchel, and the cook, Dipley’s girlfriend Goldie Smith, robbed him.
With Ketchel clinging to life, Dickerson quickly chartered a train to take him to St. Louis for medical help, but his fate was already sealed. Approximately 12 hours after being shot, Stanley Ketchel died. He was 24 years old.
Dipley was found the next day and arrested. Smith was also eventually caught. They had both been hired by Dickerson just days earlier.
The story unravels from there. Dipley first claimed he shot Ketchel in self-defense, saying the boxer pulled a gun on him first. Smith claimed that Ketchel raped her and that Dipley attacked him after he found out. Other reports say Dipley attacked Ketchel because he shouted at him the previous day for violently handling a horse. Yet another local legend says Dipley was hired by mobsters to kill Ketchel over unpaid gambling debts.
The couple went to trial in 1911 and were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Smith’s murder conviction was eventually overturned and she served only 17 months in prison for the robbery. Dipley served 23 years in prison until he was eventually paroled. He died in 1956.
Dickerson noted how remarkable it was to see Ketchel’s façade disappear in the hours after the shooting. The boxer, a man known for his fearless fists, knew he was on the losing end of this fight. His last words were, “Take me home to mother.”
The first news reports came as a shock. For the time, the news spread fast. Word of the shooting made it to Grand Rapids within hours, even before Ketchel died. The city’s newspapers were able to include a report in that day’s evening editions, saying the boxer was clinging to life and not expected to survive.
Ketchel’s body was brought back to Grand Rapids by train. The city’s coroners conducted their own autopsy to confirm the cause of death.
His funeral is considered one of the largest gatherings in the city’s young history. Despite a steady rain, more than 5,000 people are estimated to have attended the ceremony at the Basilica of St. Adalbert and the funeral at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Whether Ketchel ever planned on returning to the ring will always be a mystery. Historians differ on he traveled to Missouri to start a new life as a rancher or if he was simply taking a break and resting up for another push toward the middleweight title.
He finished with a 52-4-4 professional record, a large collection of fights by today’s standards but one that was considered cut short in the early 20th century. His place in boxing’s elite echelon varies from historian to historian. Some believe he was among the best of the best. For others, he is more of a footnote in a long list of champions.
Ketchel’s name still pops up from time to time across Grand Rapids. He was immortalized in bronze as part of Peter Secchia’s Grand Rapids Community Legends statue project. Ketchel will be one of 25 people remembered with monuments across downtown, alongside city pioneer Lucius Lyon, Chief Noonday and former President Gerald R. Ford.
Ketchel’s statue, sculpted by Ann Hirsch, was unveiled in 2015. It stands along Bridge Street near Winter Avenue, on the West Side where Ketchel grew up.
When the city was working to bring a new arena to downtown Grand Rapids in the 1990s, Ketchel’s name was floated as an option to recognize a local legend — like how Detroit named its arena after Joe Louis. Eventually, the arena was named after Jay and Betty Van Andel, the Amway co-founder, who was one of the arena’s most staunch supporters.
His name still stands in Plainfield Township. A street bearing his name — Ketchel Drive — runs along Little Pine Island Lake, property that Ketchel bought for his family when he was in his prime.