Billy Papke

By David Martinez / Boxing Historian /

One of the most underrated middleweights, and one that had a quadrilogy of memorable bouts with Stanley Ketchel, was William Herman Papke.

Born in Spring Valley, Illinois on September 17, 1886, he was the son of German immigrants, and was nicknamed  the “Kewanee Thunderbolt” and the “Illinois Thunderbolt”.

He was as tough as nails and a true competitor in the ring, winning the world middleweight championship during his career.

The four-bout series with Ketchel was one of the most grueling collection of fights in middleweight history.

They first met in June 1908, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for Ketchel’s middleweight title which Ketchel won by a ten round decision; but this bout, which started their heated rivalry, was not without controversy. At the beginning of the fight, Ketchel knocked Papke down instead of customarily touching gloves. This was Papke’s first loss in 27 fights.

Three months later, and after three tune-up fights in between, Papke came ready and confident for their world middleweight title rematch on September 7, 1908, in Vernon, California.

As the opening bell rang, Ketchel offered his glove as a kind gesture, only to be stunned immediately by a right hand. They would then engage in a brutal fight, scheduled for twenty-five rounds. By the ninth round Ketchel’s eyes were both virtually shut, as the crowd stood and cheered witnessing a terrific action-packed fight. Papke dropped Ketchel twice in round twelve and the referee, retired undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, halted the bout.

His championship reign only lasted two months. On November 26, 1908 in Colma, California, Ketchel regained the title with a one-sided 11th round knockout win. After the bout Papke’s wife did not even recognize her husband after the savage beating he took.

The two would meet a fourth time, on July 5, 1909, again in Colma. In another grueling fight, Ketchel won a close, hard fought twenty round decision.

After Ketchel’s unexpected murder on October 15, 1910, the title became vacant and Papke was one of  many middleweights claiming the right to be middleweight champion. But in 1911, Papke lost to Johnny “Cyclone” Thompson in a twenty round decision in Sydney Australia, abruptly ending any claim to a title.

In October 1912 he traveled to Paris and stopped Frenchman Georges Carpentier in 18 rounds; but just a few months later, in March 1913, Papke lost to American Frank Klaus, ending any title hopes.

After the Klaus fight and in a span of six years, 1913 to 1919, Papke would have only four bouts, losing them all. He would officially retire in May 1919.

Papke’s ring record has been listed differently by some, but by my account, it is 40 wins (32 by KO), 17 losses, and 6 draws. He was only knocked out once in his professional career, in the third Ketchel fight.

Nat Fleischer, Ring magazine founder and publisher, rated Papke #7 of the greatest middleweights of all time. On my list of the greatest middleweights, I rank him at #15, right behind some great ones – Harry Greb, Carlos Monzon, Mickey Walker, Stanley Ketchel, Tommy Ryan, Marcel Cerdan, Tiger Flowers, Charley Burley, Marvin Hagler, Kid McCoy, Les Darcy, Freddie Steele, Mike Gibbons, and Jake LaMotta.

Papke was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1972, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001.

On November 26, 1936, at the age of 50, his life came to a tragic end with the unthinkable happening. In Newport (now Newport Beach), California, Papke shot his estranged wife, then committed suicide by turning the gun on himself.

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