This one is definitely dedicated to fellow fight fan Waz on his birthday. I’ll watch any boxing film. I don’t care if it’s Brian Dennehy inexpicably rocking some kind of mankini to rock the spiky-haired kid from ‘Twin Peaks’ in ‘Gladiator,’ John Garfield as Charley Davis in ‘Body and Soul’ or Stacy Keach and Bridges on their way up and down the rankings in ‘Fat City’ – high art, low art, factually correct or mind blowing in its exaggeration of the sweet science, as sports go, none can match the pathos, tension, politics and violence of boxing. It’s built for cinema. In fact, given the dire state of the sport, fictional depictions could prove to be more engaging than the real thing.
I just finished reading (and I’m late to the party with this one), ‘The Killings Of Stanley Ketchel’ by James Carlos Blake – like Nick Tosches’ ‘Night Train’ did, it affords some artistic license to an already gripping, grim real-life narrative – bizarrely it was the mighty Jason Dill who put me onto the Ken Burns ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ Jack Johnson documentary recently, and re-reading some Hemingway short stories, the incorrect recounting of the ‘Steve’ Ketchel story, later corrected by another character in ‘The Light of the World’ indicated that I was destined to take a further look at the life of Stanley and become, as is my custom, to become briefly preoccupied.
it’s odd that there hasn’t been a Johnson biopic, but it’s even odder that Stanley Ketchel hasn’t been immortalized on-screen. It wouldn’t be particularly glorious, but it would be an absorbing narrative. It’s no surprise that Ernest took an interest in the machismo and eventual downfall of this young middleweight, who according to some sources was a drinking companion of Jack Johnson and the frequently racist writer Jack London. An overview does him little justice, but this Michigan (between this, and my last blog entry, I seem preoccupied with the place from 1900-1920) born brawler was destined for greatness, with a ferocious style, a wide open lack of defence and phenomenal punching power.
Any fighter who psyches himself up by fooling himself that the opponent insulting his mother as Stanley reputedly did, is my kind of sportsman. This of course, would explain the look in his eyes, and the sheer onslaught he’d unleash. The Joe Thomas bout from 1907 remains the stuff of legend, with he and the the ‘Michigan Assassin’ going toe to toe for no less than thirty two rounds.
Ketchel’s 1909 bout with Jack Johnson is riddled with associated myths – the titular quote above was apparently muttered by Johnson repeatedly between rounds, but stranger still, the height and weight difference between both fighters was substantial – bear in mind that Jack was a heavyweight, making this an oddball exhibition fight. Most seem to believe in the more convenient notion that it was intended to be playful, until Stanley made a serviceable attempt to knock the champ down in the twelfth round sending him to the canvas, causing Johnson to eventually rise and deliver the mother of all right crosses; 212 pounds in a blow delivered with such gusto (or rage) that even Jack goes off-balance and hits the ground.
The truth is that they both seemed intent on attaining bloodshed from the opening rounds – that Ketchel could even rock a great in his prime, despite their physical differences made him a true force to be reckoned with. And the tales of embedded teeth are an exaggeration too. Teeth were doubtlessly lost (seriously, check the footage of that knockout blow) but it’s blood that Johnson wipes off.
Drinking, whoring and all that other good stuff took its toll in the following months, and on October 14th 1910, through a strange duplicity, an enraged Walter Dipley, with the help of his girlfriend Goldie Smith, set Ketchel up to be robbed and murdered, with a weak alibi and a lie about Stanley attempting rape. Ketchel died of a gunshot wound to the back that travelled through a lung. His final words were reportedly “I’m so tired. Take me home to mother” – a more sensitive, spiritual approach to his maternal figure than as the victim of an imaginary slandering that guided those fists, as he passed away the following evening. Johnny Depp was reportedly told by some hack spiritualist that he’s the reincarnation of Stanley Ketchel. Nonsense of course, but if that chancer’s prediction causes Depp to use his clout to get a biopic rolling, then I’m happier than the proverbial porker in excrement. I live in hope.
The way boxing was marketed in Ketchel and Johnson’s era is attractive to me – huge levels of detail, appropriately punchy imagery and a fair dose of the literal. Photography wasn’t rare by any means, but illustrated accounts of fights, elaborately detailed, often with a fair amount of satire, cropped up time and time again. Below is the build-up to the Johnson bout, plus cartoonish descriptions of the 1909 O’Brien knockout, the 1908 Sullivan fight and Billy ‘the Illinois Thunderbolt’ Papke’s questionable 1908 victory – earnt through blows at the handshaking stage in the match, and dealt with two months later when Ketchel annihilated him.
Additionally, I owe ‘Ring’ founder Nat Fleischer a lot – a heavily updated copy of his ‘Illustrated History of Boxing’ instigated an obsession for me, and introduced me to the old style newspaper reportage of the early legends. He first championed Johnson and considered Ketchel to be the greatest power puncher and middleweight of all time. He later downplayed some of Ali’s achievements, but while some considered that a little salty, his opinion was often impeccable. He was prolific as editor and writer, releasing several beautifully packaged boxing guides and fighter biographies. Looking for early editions of his books, I also spotted a Tommy Burns/Jack Johnson tin toy that I wish I owned.