Through three years and change as a professional, Ketchel amassed a record of (35-2-3, 35 KO) and 1 no decision. But in boxing, the Wild West was aptly named, as regulations in the state of California were hazy at best, and many a fighter migrated toward the Pacific to grab a handful, including Ketchel.
Before the first half of 1908 was up, Ketchel had defended his claim to the middleweight title against twin brothers Mike and Jack Sullivan, both by knockout. That’s where Billy Papke entered the equation.
It was reported by the Chicago Tribune that Ketchel and Papke would tangle, and fight odds that started out favoring Ketchel soon swayed toward Papke and evened out. Through ten rounds, Ketchel smothered and stifled Papke, out-working him and imploring referee Jack McGuigan to break clinches quickly. Perhaps Papke never found the rails again after getting decked by a right hand that cracked his tooth in round 1, but Ketchel’s win was convincing. Both men displayed respect toward the other afterward — the kind of respect that often comes from seriously rivalries.
Ketchel initially intended on refusing an immediate rematch, and Papke was expected to fight Kelly for a third time. While attending Battling Nelson vs. Joe Gans III in Colma, Calif., Papke’s manager E.T. Jones said, “There is no chance for an immediate fight with Ketchel, even if we should give him the match. His manager, Joe O’Connor, told me on the train that Ketchel would not be in shape to fight before Christmas holidays at the earliest. He took a good deal of a beating from Papke, and it will take him some time to get right.”
Another former fighter, light heavyweight Joe Millet, set up a training headquarters in Colma, which had come to be specifically known as a small boxing haven near South San Francisco. Ketchel set up camp at “Millet’s Corner,” which had was one month later used by Sam Langford when he toppled “Fireman” Jim Flynn, funnily enough.
1904 Olympic gold medalist Charlie Mayer was a regular sparring partner for Ketchel in camp, while Papke sparred often with heavyweight Al Kaufman. Both men participated in wrestling exhibitions during workout sessions in the days leading up to the fight, though Ketchel was reported to have added it to his regimen, bringing in old foe McClure to help him in that area.
Approximately two weeks before the bout, Papke’s weight was reportedly around 154 lbs., and Papke flirted with press at his open workouts, even taking an overnight trip to a Sonoma vinyard. Meanwhile, there were reports of concern in Ketchel’s camp over his inability to drop weight.
In the weeks leading up to the bout, there was a conflict between Coffroth and Gleason as to who had the right to stage the bout. Whether by default, popularity or simply being able to offer a better draw, Coffroth dug in his heels and articles were drawn up for a rubbermatch at Coffroth’s joint on Thanksgiving the 26, one day later than originally planned. An attempt by Gleason to file an injunction two days before the fight was refused by a Judge Sewell, settling matters.
Former heavyweight champion Jim Corbett was asked to predict the outcome. He said, “In the first fight, Ketchel knocked Papke down in the very first round, and then it went the full ten rounds, and it might have gone further. Then at Los Angeles it was Papke who sneaked the first punch across, and still the fight went the distance. I tell you that this fight is bound to go more than fifteen rounds.”
Corbett was actually mistaken about the result in the rematch. As for his prediction, earlier in his interview, Corbett suggested that the first man land his power would be the victor, and he should have gone with that answer.
In the 9th round, Papke went to the canvas after absorbing another body punch, but a knockdown was not officially counted. Round 10 saw Papke attempting to set a trap, lightly tapping Ketchel to the body as the challenger tired, then attempting bigger punches upstairs. But the tactic wasn’t sustained, and Ketchel’s late round rally only served to soften Papke up for a likely finish.
In the end, Coffroth wound up actually paying about $2,000 to promote and host the bout, as the gate turned in only slightly over $18,000, while Papke and Ketchel’s guarantees totaled $20,000.
In 1909, Ketchel was infamously flattened by Johnson, then heavyweight champion, after breaking what Johnson would later say was a pre-fight contract to let the fight go until the 20th before Johnson won by stoppage. As the story goes, Ketchel, confident that he could win with his power, knocked a surprised Johnson down in the 12th round. Johnson arose and dispatched Ketchel with a single punch that was said to have left Ketchel’s teeth embedded in Johnson’s glove.