It was a bout that pitted the Galveston Giant against the Michigan Assassin.
Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson squared off against middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel on Oct. 16, 1909, in the San Francisco suburb of Colma, California. Both men were lethal punchers with colorful personalities.
A rare photograph of the two men preparing to square off in the ring is one of the items up for bid in RMY Auctions’ Holiday Premier Auction, which runs through Saturday.
Johnson had won the heavyweight title in 1908 by defeating Tommy Burns in Australia, becoming the first black man to hold the championship in boxing’s marquee division. The 3 p.m. fight against Ketchel was scheduled for 20 rounds and Johnson outweighed his opponent by 35 pounds. The two men were friends, and as Paul Beston writes in his recent book, The Boxing Kings, Johnson “toyed” with his opponent for most of the fight, knocking him down in the second and sixth rounds. But in the 12th round, Ketchel tagged Johnson with a right to knock the champion down.
Johnson beat the count, and before Ketchel could take advantage, the champ uncorked a right uppercut that sent the challenger down for the count. There had been rumors that the fighters were going to stretch the fight out to the full 20 rounds, but Ketchel’s surprise punch changed that. Ketchel lost several teeth from the knockout punch, and some of them were embedded in Johnson’s glove.
The image offered by RMY is a silver gelatin photograph, and the only original example of the pre-fight meeting between the two boxers. Referee Jack Welsh is pictured between the two men.
Johnson was one of boxing — and sports’ — most controversial figures of the early 1900s. He was married to a white woman in an era that still embraced Jim Crow laws and saw such as union as taboo. That Johnson flaunted his women and his wealth did not sit well with many, particularly in the South.
Johnson, author Jonathan Eig has written, “was the nightmare that woke up white supremacists in a cold sweat.”
“He was big, black and belligerent. When taunted, he taunted back. He challenged the natural order.”
Was race an issue? The lead of the Butte Daily Post, written the day of the fight, posed the question: “The Caucasian or the Ethiopian, which?”
Johnson may have had his moral and social critics, but nobody questioned his punching power and boxing ability.
Ketchel’s life came to a tragic end 13 months after the fight as he was murdered in October 1910 in Conway, Missouri by a farmhand named Walter Dipley. Ketchel was 24.
The large crowd depicted in the RMY Auctions photo is evidence of Johnson’s appeal. The photograph measures 6¼ inches by 8¼ inches. The back of the photo is stamped with the logo of the Dana photo company, which was based in San Francisco.