5. Stanley Ketchel – World champion (May 9, 1908-September 7, 1908, November 26, 1908-October 15, 1910)
“The Michigan Assassin” was aptly named, for while he wasn’t the most beautiful to watch in terms of technique his fists produced pyrotechnics like few others in history. He scored 48 knockouts in 51 victories and his 12-1 record in middleweight title fights included eight knockouts.
That ledger might have been perfect had Billy Papke not smashed Ketchel in the throat as the referee completed his pre-fight instructions. Ketchel never recovered from the obvious foul and was stopped in 12 in September 1908. No matter; Ketchel had already beaten Papke in 10 rounds three months earlier and two months after Papke’s controversial win Ketchel extracted his pound of flesh – and much more – by meting out a merciless beating and stopping Papke in 11. Just to make sure he got the message, Ketchel pounded Papke over 20 rounds in their fourth and final meeting in July 1909.
Ketchel is one of a handful to make 10 defenses (or more), and his quality of opposition helps his ranking. Besides the four wars with Papke, Ketchel knocked out Jack “Twin” Sullivan in 20 to win the belt two-and-a-half months after stopping his twin brother Mike in one. As champion, Ketchel polished off, among others, Hugo Kelly in three, the respected Joe Thomas in two, future champion Frank Klaus via no-decision, Willie Lewis in two and Jim Smith in five.
Ketchel also defended twice against former light heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Their first fight saw Ketchel overcome an early lacing to score a combined four knockdowns in rounds nine and 10. O’Brien was unconscious as the final bell sounded but because he was saved by the bell the result was a no-decision. Their rematch 26 days later saw Ketchel dismiss O’Brien in three rounds.
Ketchel was just one month past his 24th birthday – and still champion – when he was shot and killed by Walter A. Dipley on October 15, 1910 in Conway, Missouri. Had he lived, he might have gone on to create an unapproachable legacy or he might have imploded in some other fashion. Still, his reign merits his lofty ranking.