Most boxing fans who look into the sport’s history know the fight’s bare bones. It goes like this: Johnson and Ketchel agreed to an exhibition fight, it was fought as such for 11 rounds, then the vicious and vastly under-sized Ketchel betrayed the agreement by launching a sneak punch that dropped Johnson. Jack got right up, in a blind rage, and knocked Stanley out with a right hand so hard that it embedded several of the middleweight’s teeth in Johnson’s glove. Old-timers told how Johnson stood leaning on the ropes and picked the teeth out of his glove as Ketchel was counted out.
So goes the story and the legend, much of it as reported by Jack Johnson, as Ketchel was murdered one day less than a year later, on October 15th, 1910. Due to his untimely death at only 24 years of age, the middleweight marvel never had a chance to refute or agree with Johnson’s version of the fight. We would have to accept it happened as Johnson said except for one crucial factor; the fight was filmed. I have a copy of the fight, I hadn’t watched the film in years and I, too, accepted and retold the story much along the line of Johnson’s tale. Not too far back as I saw people continue this story I figured why not re-watch the fight? Johnson was known to be full of shit when it came to telling the truth. The story of how he lost the title to Big Jess Willard was a perfect example of Johnson’s penchant for revisionist history when it came to trying to further his legend. The truth was the Bigger, stronger, and most importantly younger Willard just kicked Jack’s ass!
Now watching an old fight film means no HD but also no commentators with biased opinions ruining the experience of watching the fight. In the first round of the fight, Ketchel leaps to throw a left hook, trying to reach the taller man. Johnson used the technique of leaning back on his right leg and pulling away from a punch, something Muhammad Ali would later employ, making it even harder for Ketchel to reach him. Johnson hits Stanley a solid right cross that has none of the looks of “exhibition” about it. The first round tells me that this is no exhibition as Johnson claims.
In round 2, Johnson becomes very aggressive, throwing blows that give no indication of being less than full force. He hits Ketchel with a solid left, then Stanley retaliates with a body shot that doubles Jack over. With his full 209 pounds behind it, Johnson hits Ketchel a perfect right cross with such momentum that Jack must leap over the falling middleweight to keep from going down atop him. He stands over the fallen Ketchel for a moment, as if daring him to get up, Johnson then moves to the corner as the referee begins counting. Stanley rises to one knee, shakes his head, and takes the full 8 count before rising. He survives to the bell, despite Johnson’s attempts to land a finisher. Does this sound like an exhibition to you?
In subsequent rounds Johnson bloodies Ketchel’s face, while Stanley continues to come after his tormentor. Rounds 3-7 are mostly Johnson, taking advantage of his enormous size and reach advantage to punish the game, Ketchel. The blows are landed with force, the blood is real, and the only exhibition is how well Ketchel can take a punch from a bigger man. In round 8 Ketchel swarms all over Johnson, leaping to land his fist to the heavyweight champion’s face, driving hooks to his ribs when he tries to tie him up. Johnson goes into his famous defensive posture and turns the initiative over to Stanley. In rounds 9-11 it’s mostly Ketchel, as Jack seems content to defend and land the occasional shot when a wild Ketchel swing leaves him open. The crowd is getting into it, as they begin to see the possibility of Johnson being defeated by a middleweight. Once again not a hint of an exhibition or a setup.
And now we come to the 12th round. Both men have been marked up, Ketchel’s face is bloody, and they circle each other like stalking beasts. After a sharp exchange, the fighters separate. Ketchel cocks his right hand back all the way to his hip, an action so obvious one can’t imagine how Johnson would call it a “sneak” punch, but another example that for the most part, the best way to tell if Johnson is lying is to notice if his lips are moving!. Throwing from his right hip, Ketchel comes in with an overhand right that hits Johnson so hard, it actually spins him around. Jack lands hard on his butt. The crowd jumps to its feet.
Jack Johnson tries to get up but sinks down again. He seems surprised and dazed and looks at Ketchel as if to say, “How the hell did you do that?” The referee starts to count.
Johnson rolls over to his hands and knees, using the palm of his right glove and the surface of his left to try to push himself off the floor. The count continues as he straightens his arms and walks his legs up under him, obviously hurt. He does not “bounce right up” as his and other accounts claim. Somewhere around the count of 6 or 7, he’s on his feet. It was that close.
Johnson may still be dazed, but now Stanley unwittingly plays into his hands. The smaller man, eager for the knockout, rushes in wide open and Johnson catches him with a tremendous right cross, its impact magnified by the forward motion of Ketchel. Stanley is rocked back on his heels by the punch, then collapses to the mat as the momentum of Johnson’s punch carries him over the fallen man. Jack himself falls to the mat on the opposite side of Ketchel, having put all 209 pounds into the punch. He rises as the referee starts to count over the middleweight champ.
Jack moves to the ropes and while the ref counts Ketchel out, he wipes off the surface of the left glove with the palm of the right. (The surface that he used to push off the floor, not the glove that knocked out Ketchel) It is probably true that Johnson found Ketchel’s teeth embedded in the glove, but that was after the fight. The old-timer’s tales of him picking the teeth out as Stanley was counted are simply bull shit. Johnson wiped the left glove only, then placed his arms on the ropes. “I thought I killed him,” Johnson would later say of the knockout; Ketchel was out for 10 minutes.
For the most part, the biggest Johnson fans say it was ” pre-arranged ” to save face from the knockdown, but Johnson also toys with 5’7″ Tommy Burns, and that one wasn’t fixed. And he did the same to the 5’9″ Flynn. In the end, Stanley Ketchel was a tough dude who gave the great Jack Johnson all he could. Too bad Johnson was able to go around telling his bullshit story because Ketchel died a year after this fight and could not tell his side of the story. Jack Johnson was no doubt a great fighter but the people that want to put him up there with the Ali and Louis’s of the world are really stretching it. This fight was not fake or fixed or an exhibition!
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