Stanislas Kiecal was born in September 1886 to Polish Immigrants in the tough streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The family had emigrated from the village of Sulmierzyce, Piotrkow Trybunalski.
As a youngster, he fell in with a gang of street kids, choosing to skip school and often getting into fights. At the age of 14 he ran away from home, living in Butte, Montana, he was employed as a bellhop before getting a job as a bouncer.
Tragically, aged only 24, Kiecal was murdered by ranch workers Walter Dipley and Goldie Smith. A false rape accusation from Smith was originally determined as motivation however this was later founded to be untrue.
Stanley had always been brave, whilst still in Michigan he was the only one of his friends who would dive into the Grand River from a moving car off a high bridge. His bravery came in handy as a bouncer when he managed to get himself into many scraps.
He gained quite a reputation during this time for being the best fighter in his town. Soon he was being paid twenty dollars to perform in backroom boxing matches against older locals. It has been estimated that he took part in over 250 unsanctioned bouts.
He began travelling through Montana, taking on all comers. Throughout his travels, he made sure to stay in contact with his Mother, whom Stanley adored. Between 1903 and 1906 he lost just twice in thirty-nine fights, before moving to California in 1907 to further his career.
Ketchel stylistically had many of the features of a swarmer, but mixed that with good power in both hands. His attack was so ferocious that many opponents did not get to exploit his poor defence.
Although not a natural boxer, he naturally possessed strength, incredible stamina and a chin. His nickname was “The Michigan Assassin,” earned due to his one punch power. Veteran manager Dan Morgan described that his nickname fitted him “like a glove.”
The Tacoma Daily Ledger described him as fighting “wide open". But, his continual shifting and swift punching made him a hard target to hit.” Nat Fleischer saw his steely resolve and determination behind “the eyes of a killer.” It was an anger that came from deep within, some said he used to imagine his opponent had insulted his Mother, building his fury.
Jack Root, a heavyweight world title challenger admiringly said,
"He possessed fists of iron, had a fighting heart and his self-confidence was unmatched.”
Mike Silver explains his style simply as
“Hit the opponent as hard and as fast as you can with as many punches as possible from every conceivable angle. He varied his attack to the head and body, but he was more effective at long range because he needed to get momentum into his hardest shots.”
It was described as a triple shift style, with Ketchel deemed the inventor.
Stanley was a tough character to predict. His behaviour was impulsive and was often psychotic. He enjoyed drinking and womanising, spending most of his career earnings on those vices.
Many remarked on his womanising ways when stories begun to emerge after his death. He often carried a gun, and when upset would flaunt it unabashedly. Despite this apparent lust for violence, he was by no means in love with boxing claiming,
"I don’t fight because I like it; I only fight because it can make me more money than I could shovelling sand around the equator.”
The violence that had played such a huge part in the life of Stanley Ketchel continued in the family after his death. His Father was found dead seventeen years later murdered by his son in a dispute over the land that Stanley had left them.
After eight straight stoppages in the state of California he took on Joe Thomas, a man regarded by some as the World Middleweight champion. The first bout was a controversial draw, before he stopped Thomas in the second bout and the title was finally on the line in the third bout, when he beat him by decision.
He then took on World Welterweight Champion, Mike Sullivan who was also regarded as one of the best middleweights of his time. Ketchel knocked him out in the first round. He kept on stopping challengers, but Billy Papke managed to take him to a decision. Papke would win the rematch with a twelfth-round stoppage, but it was a tainted fight.
As Ketchel went to touch gloves, Papke landed a big right hand that dropped Ketchel and he never recovered. The third fight would see Ketchel win his title straight back with an eleventh-round stoppage of his own. Muhammad Ali tends to be credited with predicting the round he’d finish opponents but Ketchel also managed to call his finish this time.
It was prefaced with Ketchel telling Papke
“You’ll be shaking hands with the undertaker when this is over.”
With that win he became the first two-time Middleweight champion of the gloved era.
1909 begun with Ketchel taking on Philadelphia’s Jack O’Brien, the Light Heavyweight Champion. O’Brien was too slick for Ketchel early on, but Ketchel would come roaring back scoring four knockdowns in the final couple of rounds. It was declared a no decision as O’Brien was ‘saved by the bell.’
A rematch was fought where Ketchel knocked O’Brien out in three. He then fought a fourth Papke bout, winning another decision during a fierce thunderstorm. His most famous bout though probably came against Jack Johnson.
A modern-day David v Goliath as he took on the World Heavyweight Champion! The two were rumoured to be friends who gambled and visited brothels together. The story goes that they planned to have their contest go the distance. Ketchel landed a surprise punch to drop Johnson in the 12th round, only serving to anger Goliath.
Johnson got up and landed a combination to both the head and body which knocked Ketchel unconscious for several minutes and saw several of his teeth lodge in the glove of Johnson. Johnson claimed afterwards, “He’s given me a sorer chin than I ever had before.”
Following the defeat his life began to go downhill. Manager Willis Britt died just twelve days later and he spiralled into heavy drinking in San Francisco.
This was hardly new for Ketchel. He enjoyed the finer things in life, from women to alcohol and gambling. The $100,000 he earned in the ring - equivalent to $2.4 million today - was spent by the time he died. However, this time he managed to lose his championship belt in a hotel in Chicago. A diamond studded belt, it was worth $1,200 and never found.
Even in the ring he looked rather lacklustre to start the year. Ketchel took on Sam Langford in a six-round bout and after an all-action bout, but lost a close decision. Following this he started to improve, winning three straight fights by stoppage. They would be his last fights despite agreeing to a bout with Sam McVea that was due to take place in Paris.
His death came in 1910, after moving to the ranch of his friend R.P Dickerson in Missouri. He hired Goldie Smith and Walter Dipley who told Ketchel they were married. Ketchel scolded Dipley for beating a horse so Dipley decided he would rob him.
The next morning, he approached Ketchel whilst he was at the breakfast table with a .22 calibre rifle. He came up behind Ketchel and shouted, “Get your hands up,” instructions Ketchel followed by standing up and turning around.
Dipley responded by shooting him, and ran from the ranch but was caught the next day with Dickerson offering a $5,000 reward. Goldie Smith told police that Ketchel had raped her and that was why Dipley had shot him. That accusation fell apart under police questioning and both were originally charged for murder, with Goldie Smith later getting her conviction changed only to robbery.
The most fitting tribute came from his manager Wilson Mezner who upon hearing of his death declared “Tell them to start counting to ten. He’ll get up.” The funeral was the largest to take place in his home town up to that date. His final words had fittingly been “I’m so tired, take me home to Mother.”
Ketchel left home looking to make a life for himself. He certainly managed that, becoming a titan of the boxing world. Nat Fleischer considers Ketchel to be the greatest middleweight ever whilst Bert Sugar ranked him as the 20th greatest fighter of all time.
His prime was short and we possibly missed out on him adding to his legacy. Victories over Papke and O’Brien highlight his legacy but his most famous achievement came from knocking down Joe Johnson.
This was the prime example of the immense power he had. Bert Sugar spoke of his confidence in his power as he would,
“Throw a punch and be halfway back to the dressing room before his opponent hit the canvas.”
He lived life fast, never averse to taking risks and trying to enjoy all he learnt.