4. Stanley Ketchel vs. Billy Papke – June 4, 1908 to July 5, 1909
This four-fight middleweight championship series paired two of the meanest, most volatile characters the sport has ever known. Ketchel, nicknamed “The Michigan Assassin,” was short on technique but long on power as he scored 48 knockouts in 51 career wins while the similarly ill-tempered Papke, “The Illinois Thunderbolt,” scored 32 knockouts in his 37 victories.
Their first title encounter at the Hippodrome in Milwaukee was relatively tame as Ketchel retained the belt via 10-round decision and inflicted the first loss on Papke’s 22-0-4 record. Their rematch held three months later in Vernon, California was anything but tame, for during the final pre-fight instructions – as Ketchel extended his hand to shake Papke’s – the challenger cut loose with a flush right hand to Ketchel’s unprotected chin. Ketchel never recovered from the cheap shot and Papke went on to stop Ketchel in the 12th. It was this fight that supposedly brought about the phrase “shake hands and come out fighting” – or some variation of it – that is still being used today.
Ketchel was a dangerous man under normal circumstances, so one could only imagine the fury he harbored against Papke for the 80 days that preceded their third match in Colma, California. Ketchel became the first man ever to regain the middleweight title by stopping Papke in round 11, but for Ketchel the way he regained it brought the most satisfaction. From first moment to last, Ketchel exacted his vengeance in brutal fashion, inflicting a beating so severe that Papke’s own wife was unable to recognize him.
It was fitting that their final meeting in Colma was fought during a thunderstorm. Mother Nature’s backdrop mirrored the savage action and when it was all over Ketchel overcame a broken right hand and a dislocated left thumb to win 20-round decision and take the series 3-1.