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Before the fighters entered the arena, a large black pigeon flew across the crowd and perched itself on the southerly fence facing the ring. Some suggested the bird was a bad omen for Thomas.
The bout was scheduled for forty-five rounds, but Ketchel had a thunderous look in his eye and appeared to be gambling everything on a fast finish. Thomas, a teak-tough man in his own right, relished the chance of an old-fashioned war. The two fighters tore into each other with wild abandon, hooking and slashing to head and body.
Experienced writers at ringside, not given to being easily impressed, began to exchange disbelieving looks as the action speeded up with the passing rounds. Logic dictated that the combatants should have punched themselves out early, but they were still hitting each other with hard and fast blows in the sixteenth. This was when Thomas failed to see a big uppercut coming from Stan, the shattering effect of which brought a mass cry of “Oh!” from the crowd as it crashed against Joe’s chin. The mighty blow lifted Thomas off his feet and brought him down on his knees. Showing extraordinary heart, he clambered to his feet at the count of nine but was soon down again from a brutal shot to the ribs. The crowd cheered Joe as he defied the odds to get to his feet again, the bell coming to his rescue.
Ketchel was finally slowing, and perhaps even his relentlessly positive mind was being infiltrated by small seeds of doubt. Stan seemed to lose his way for a while as Thomas began to score with jolting right hooks. But Ketchel’s indomitable spirit was the foundation on which all his other great fighting qualities rested. The Assassin never quit and never backed off. In the most daunting of circumstances, he would always find another rally, another wind, another breath of fire. He drove Thomas into the ropes with a terrific attack but still couldn’t finish his opponent.
The odds shifted back in favour of Thomas in the twenty-seventh round as he suddenly found a picture perfect right hook to send Ketchel crashing to the canvas.
If ever a man was in his natural element, it was Ketchel in the hell fire of such a brutal marathon. He demonstrated his recuperative powers by calmly watching the timekeeper and nodding in time to the count before rising up and pitching himself back into the fray. But now the Assassin was in dire straits, very tired and nearly blinded by the cuts to his eyes. Joe was suffering from a damaged eye and his battered and flattened nose was barely recognisable.
Finally, in the thirty-second round, Ketchel broke Thomas as he had broken so many others. Nobody really knew how Stan managed to muster his last great charge, but he seemed renewed as he bombarded Joe with an array of jabs and hooks. As Thomas staggered wearily, he ran into a powerful left-right combination that sent him first to his knees and then onto his stomach. Once again, he attempted to rise, and he was almost upright when his body suddenly gave a jolt and sent him back down for the count.
Ketchel, whose body was still filling out at the age of twenty-one, claimed the welterweight championship of the world after this epic win, and Stan’s thoughts on his immediate future were interesting.
“I have proved to the sporting public that I am the best welterweight in the world today. I will not fight any of the middleweights at the present time. I am a welter and I claim the title in that class. When I entered the ring today I did not weigh over 145lbs. I have been fighting all classes of men from the lightweights to the middleweights, but now I am going to draw the line and stick in the welterweight division.
“Outside of this fight today, the hardest battle I ever had in my life was when I fought Maurice Thompson at lightweight. When Thomas hit me today in the twenty-seventh round, I thought that was the end for me. But luckily, like in other fights I have gone through, I quickly recuperated and had my man going from that time on.
“To show how confident I was of winning, I bet something like six hundred dollars on myself at the prevailing odds of 10 to 6. I am only twenty-one years old and that’s young enough to leave me a few years to fight in.”
One of the greatest ringmen of Ketchel’s era was the gifted Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, who clashed with Stan at the National Athletic Club in Philadelphia on June 26 1909. It was a memorable encounter between a killer of the ring and a disciple of the school of science. O’Brien was a boxer through and through, but he was also a remarkably tough and resilient man in the heat of battle.
For seven thrilling rounds, Philadelphia Jack mixed skill with hardiness as he threaded his precise punches through the violent Ketchell storm that raged around him. Stan confounded observers once again with his near inhuman stamina as he just kept ripping away at whatever part of O’Brien’s body he could hit. Many more of the Assassin’s blows were missing, however, and it was the hometown boxing master who was forging ahead. Ketchel’s face was smeared with blood as Philadelphia Jack’s unerringly accurate jabs repeatedly found the mark.
But the tireless Ketchel kept coming on and finally dropped O’Brien near the ropes in the ninth round with a crunching blow to the pit of the stomach.
A big body attack by Ketchel in the tenth culminated in a final shot that sent O’Brien down with eight seconds left on the clock. Philadelphia Jack’s head came to rest in the resin box that his handlers had forgotten to clear from the ring at the end of the previous round, knocking him unconscious. Referee Tim Hurst’s count had reached four when the bell sounded.
Confusion and arguments about who had won the fight continued through the night and into the morning. This was the unsatisfactory era of the no- decision, and most of the newspapers awarded the verdict to O’Brien by the narrowest margin. This created uproar among those who had bet their money on Ketchel. Today, most record books accord the win to Stan.
Hype Igoe, recalling the end of the battle years later, wrote: “Then came the question of who won the fight. The clock said that O’Brien had been saved, yet we writers argued the point over beer and chips for three or four hours afterwards.
“Tad Dorgan and this writer finally convinced our sports editor Bill Hicks that he couldn’t possibly give the fight to a man like a mummy on the flat of his back.”
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