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Mythical Matchup: Harry Greb vs. Stanley Ketchel

Harry Greb (left) and Stanley Ketchel
29
Mar

AN OLD-SCHOOL FANTASY FIGHT FOR THE UNDISPUTED MIDDLEWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP

Veteran referee and historian Ron Lipton, a former amateur boxer who was inducted into the New York and New Jersey boxing halls of fame, is proud to present the fifth installment of his mythical matchup series for The Ring. The following article originally ran in the April 2022 issue of Ring Magazine, on sale at the Ring Shop.

 

Harry Greb (born Edward Henry Greb)
Fighting moniker: “The Pittsburgh Windmill”
Titles held: World middleweight title (1923-1926), American light heavyweight title
Born: June 6, 1894
Died: Oct. 22, 1926 (Age 32)
Height: 5-foot-8
Reach: 71 inches
Record: 108-8-3 (49 KOs) (as per BoxRec; other sources for Greb list over a hundred “newspaper decisions” that are not included here.)

Notes: Greb was only stopped twice during his career – vs. Kid Graves when he suffered a broken arm in Round 2 and a second-round KO to Joe Chip in his eighth pro bout. (Greb weighed 142 pounds to Chip’s 156.)

Greb turned pro at welterweight but soon fought his way up through light heavyweight, weighing in at his heaviest at 178 pounds vs. Tommy Robson and Billy Miske. Most of his fights were at middleweight.

He holds the only professional victory over legendary heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, plus wins over light heavyweight hall of famers Jack Dillon, Maxie Rosenbloom, Tommy Loughran, Battling Levinsky, and Jimmy Slattery.

Greb beat Jack Dempsey opponents Bill Brennan, Billy Miske, Tommy Gibbons and Willie Meehan, and scored wins over middleweight champions Mickey Walker, Johnny Wilson and George Chip. He often claimed that he was willing to fight “Anybody, any size, anytime, anywhere” as often as they wanted to. He was one of the few white champions of his era who would cross the “color line,” and hall of famers Tiger Flowers and Kid Norfolk are among the Black fighters he faced. (Note: Several of Greb’s aforementioned victories were newspaper decisions.)

vs.

Stanley Ketchel (born Stanislaw Kiecal)
Fighting moniker: “The Michigan Assassin”
Titles held: Two-time world middleweight (1908, 1908-1910)
Born: Sept. 14, 1886
Died: Oct. 15, 1910 (Age 24, after being shot by jealous Missouri farmhand Walter Dipley)
Height: 5-foot-9
Reach: 70 inches
Record: 49-5-3 (46 KOs) (as per BoxRec)

Notes: A ferocious puncher with limitless stamina, Ketchel was a career middleweight who weighed in at his heaviest (170¼ pounds) when he challenged Jack Johnson for the heavyweight championship.

Ketchel stopped almost everyone who shared the ring with him. Among his most notable victories are fellow middleweight champ Billy Papke, light heavyweight champ Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Mike “Twin” Sullivan, Jack “Twin” Sullivan and Joe Thomas (whom he stopped in a 32-round slugfest). Ketchel lost a close six-round decision to the great Sam Langford and managed to drop Johnson with a right hand before being knocked out. (In both mixed-race bouts, Langford and Johnson claimed they had the “handcuffs on” to carry Ketchel unless forced to knock him out.)

***

A note from the author: I am going to match Greb and Ketchel for the undisputed middleweight championship – to be held at the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden, as all of my mythical matchups have – but this one will be a little different. Unlike my previous mythical matchups, in which I imagined the fighters at their athletic peaks (usually after their career-best wins), for Greb vs. Ketchel I have matched them after the sum total of their entire careers with all the knowledge and experience they both amassed.

Both champions will be in their best shape, but they’ll bring everything they learned during their legendary careers into this fight.

Greb and Ketchel were fistic diamonds of grit and tenacity with a “take-on-all-comers” commitment to boxing that is rarely seen today. Their legacies have endured, as evidenced by the passionate support both receive from their current-day fans, whose online and social-media arguments are never ending. The outcome of this mythical matchup feature will no doubt add to those fever-pitched debates. Like Angelo Dundee once said, “I love controversy.” It only adds to the story.

But remember, this mythical matchup is designed for your enjoyment. As always, I’ll share it the way I see it unfolding with a stretch of poetic license, placing boxing figures from different eras into the story.

***

PRE-FIGHT EVENTS

Each fighter cooperated in the publicity tours demanded of them.

Greb trained in Pittsburgh to the delight of his hometown fans while Ketchel first toured his old barnstorming haunts in Montana to get his rough-and-tumble mindset back, but most of his training was in California, followed by a return to Grand Rapids for the final days of camp.

Prior to the weigh-in, Greb was privately brought into a room for his physical. His trainers took great pains to furtively obtain a copy of the eye chart beforehand so that Harry could memorize it. How they pulled it off, no one knows. But everyone in boxing wanted the fight to take place, and like Joe Frazier, Gypsy Joe Harris and so many others before them, Greb found a way to compete against the best with one good eye.

Later, Greb and Ketchel sat at a table with the New York State boxing commissioner between them and several uniformed police officers behind them. It was a final chance for the press to speak with both combatants after they had just weighed in on worldwide TV. Greb weighed in at 160 pounds even and Ketchel came in at 159¾.

The referee for the fight is Larry Hazzard Sr., chosen for his old-school strict enforcement of the rules.

Ketchel

At the pre-fight meeting, both men were sternly warned that no fouling will be tolerated and any violation of the rules will be strictly enforced, including disqualification. They listened to Hazzard in grim silence while staring at each other with unbridled malevolence – both wishing they could fight then and there unrestrained.

The photographers clamored for a face-off, so the promoter relented and brought them together. This was a bad mistake, and someone should have known better after the scathing and vitriolic exchanges between them leading up to this moment.

Greb’s rugged face was a Mount Rushmore monument to the near-300 fights he’d had against the toughest people in the world. It was not the face of a battered loser but that of a battle-scarred king of beasts.

His eyes were slits, glaring fiercely at Ketchel, yet with an unnerving, taunting facial expression and a twinkle of confidence that could only come from a man who had conquered so many great warriors.

Ketchel was another story.  It was there for all to see. This was a man who existed on the verge of hysteria and explosive violence without any warning if he felt challenged.

Greb was a fighter; Ketchel was a killer.

His dangerous mood swings were up in the trees, either ultra-violent or deathly quiet. He had loyal friends who said he always felt bad when he hurt you and once cried after shooting a friend in the foot in anger.

Now his dark side was on display. Greb’s staredown infuriated him, as if Greb was amused by it all and looked down on him as a lesser being.

The tension in the room at that moment had a life of its own. Ketchel had made comments in the press that upset Greb, who was usually amiable and good-natured but not one to be trifled with.

Greb’s beloved wife, Mildred, sat in the first row of the audience for the weigh-in. She was still seething at the attempts Ketchel made to wink at her and flirt with her to purposely anger her husband.

Both men radiated bristling energy now that they were in close proximity with each other.

The trouble had started in a previous press conference when Ketchel said Greb would be nothing if the referees had done their job and disqualified him for his flagrant fouling in every single fight he ever had.

“If he does that shit to me, he is getting it right back in spades – thumbs, elbows, heeling and low blows, the works. He can’t punch worth a damn; he just throws a lot of pillow punches, which is a joke to me.”

Greb

Greb countered: “You couldn’t carry the spit bucket for the guys I beat. All you ever did was beat a couple of guys who never deserved to be in the ring with me.

“Papke beat the living shit out of you, and you beat blown-up welterweights and guys who you knew had no chance against you. The only time you fought anybody was Langford and Johnson, and you had to beg them to carry you. Even Jack O’Brien was beating you until you finally lucked up and got him.

“When I get you in the ring, you will wish you were never born.”

The comments from both of them had fermented and seeped into the internal wells that gave them their fire.

Ketchel chest-bumped Greb and then pushed his nose right into Greb’s face. Greb took a half step back and slapped Ketchel.

A sound came from deep within Ketchel’s belly; it was a half-shrieking scream and a growl combined as he went ballistic, lunging toward Greb – not to punch him but to rip him apart with his bare hands.

Greb spun to the side and got off two lightning-fast, closed-fisted right hands; one landed on Ketchel’s cheek, the other on his shoulder.

Managers, trainers and police were instantly all over the fighters, pulling them apart.

Ketchel wildly jumped up and down as he struggled to shake loose and break free from the officers and the commission inspectors holding him back.

Ketchel turned to his cornermen, trainer Jimmy DeForest and manager Tom O’Rourke, and under his breath he snarled: “I’m going to blow the fucking whistle on the bullshit eye exam they gave him.”

DeForest and O’Rourke spoke to Ketchel in hushed, desperate whispers immediately.

“Steve, shut the fuck up right now,” a panicky DeForest hissed in Ketchel’s ear as he chewed on his cigar. “Do you want the fight canceled here on the spot and no one gets paid? Is that what you want? We’ll get him in the ring. For Christ’s sake, stop or we will all get arrested here.”

With the blood turning his face purple with rage, Ketchel did not say another word and was led away by his team as order was finally restored.

The hardcore boxing writers who had seen it all were shaken from the spectacle of potential mayhem they’d just witnessed. It was beyond exciting. It was chilling, dangerous and ugly.

Both fighters were fined by the commission for unsportsmanlike conduct and left the room.

What the boxing writers collectively agreed upon was that Greb remained cool as ice during the encounter and calmly left with his wife and co-managers, George Engel and James “Red” Mason.

 

FIGHT NIGHT

Madison Square Garden is sold out and packed wall-to-wall with celebrities, champions and rabid fight fans in nerve-wracking anticipation of a violent grudge fight between the two immortal champions.

With the prelims out of the way, the lights dim and then burst forth with a laser light show that ends with the spotlight focused on one aisle, where Stanley Ketchel emerges, bounding down the path to the ring wearing a black sweater. He’s led by a tall man whose head is down and obscured. DeForest, O’Rourke and cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran bring up the slack.

The tall man holds the ropes open for Ketchel. And beyond all belief, it is Jack Johnson.

Ketchel waves to the screaming throngs and shadowboxes furiously. The crowd goes crazy seeing Johnson in the corner of the man he fought. They were friends before and it’s good to see them as friends now.

Ketchel and heavyweight champion of the world Jack Johnson before their fight in October 1909. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

Now here comes Greb and his cornermen. Leading the way is Mason, Engel and cutman Al Gavin. Last in line is Greb himself, and now we can see he has his boxing gloves on the shoulders of Jack Dempsey as they jog toward the ring.

The entire Garden is in an uproar as the legends are gloriously showcased in the ring: Greb, Ketchel, Johnson and Dempsey.

The spotlight goes to ring announcer David Diamante, who screams it out to the crowd with style as other iconic champions line up outside of the ring to be introduced. He calls Johnson to the middle of the ring; Dempsey is next and the crowd is going crazy; now it is Gene Tunney entering the ring; Sam Langford is next, followed by Joe Gans and Mickey Walker.

The champion introductions are over.

“Ladies and gentlemen, and fight fans around the world, are you ready? THE FIGHT STARTS NOW!

“Twelve rounds of boxing scheduled for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.

“The three judges scoring this fight are John McKaie and Harold Lederman from New York and Steve Weisfeld from New Jersey. The man in charge is championship veteran Larry Hazzard Sr.

“Introducing first, fighting out of the red corner, wearing the purple trunks with the red, white and blue belt with white stars, he scaled 159¾ pounds. His professional record is an outstanding one: 49 victories, five losses and three draws with 46 wins coming by way of knockout. The reigning WBC, WBA, WBO middleweight champion of the world, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, heralded as one of the hardest-punching middleweight champions in boxing history, The Michigan Assassin, STANLEY KETCHEL! … KETCHEL!”

Thunderous applause rocks the Garden.

“And his opponent, fighting out of the blue corner, wearing the all-blue trunks with a blue sash, he scaled 160 pounds, bang on. His professional record, an astounding one: 261 wins, over the elite of the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, 17 losses, 20 draws,  with 49 wins coming by knockout, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, considered one of the greatest fighters and middleweight champions of all time, the Ring Magazine and IBF middleweight champion of the world, The Pittsburgh Windmill, HARRY GREB! … GREB!”

A powerful crescendo of overwhelming applause and cheering for Greb ensues.

Hazzard calls them to the center of the ring: “Chief seconds and fighters only.

“You have been given the rules of the New York State Athletic Commission. You have both been told that absolutely no intentional fouls will be tolerated, at the risk of disqualification. Protect yourselves at all times and obey my commands at all times. Touch gloves and good luck to you both.”

As they go back to their corners, Al Bernstein, part of the Showtime broadcast booth, says: “Leading up to this fight, I keep hearing two things. One is that Ketchel is such a hard puncher that he will KO Greb. The other thing is that Greb will not be affected by anything Ketchel does and will be too fast, strong and elusive for the puncher, having beaten so many light heavyweights and heavyweights that Dempsey fought. There’s the bell.”

 

FIRST ROUND

Ketchel runs across the ring throwing bombs from waist level – long, looping punches – in an attempt to force Greb to the ropes. He is met with a fusillade of punches from all angles from Greb; all land to his head. The crowd is already on its collective feet, screaming.

Greb is darting in and out, smothering Ketchel with a whirlwind of punches while getting out of the way so fast that Ketchel is unable to counter him. Ketchel has yet to land a significant punch one minute into the fight.

But the middleweights elect to engage in close midway through the round. They go toe-to-toe in the center of the ring, no clinches. Ketchel digs body shots to Greb’s arms, but none get through to his body; all are blocked as Greb weaves under the wild roundhouse shots.

Greb is like lightning, cuffing Ketchel around his gloves to the side of his head, manhandling him to keep him off-balance. Ketchel’s face is reddened from the amount of punches he’s already absorbed, but also from some of the grappling he is enduring with the underrated defensive wizard on the inside.

Hazzard warns Greb for roughhousing just before the bell.

Score: 10-8 for Greb. Complete domination and all-around game was demonstrated by The Pittsburgh Windmill: clean punching, effective aggressiveness, defense and ring generalship.

 

ROUND 2

Ketchel comes out just as fast but more precise in his attack. Greb does not let up and keeps lathering Ketchel’s head with blinding speed. Ketchel retaliates with great hand speed too, but his balance is awkward and he tries to clinch too much. Greb pounds him in the clinches. Although Ketchel is listed at 5-foot-9 and Greb at 5-foot-8, Greb looks bigger, broader, taller and stronger in the ring.

Ketchel has his head down now, crouching low as he presses, and for the first time he gets to Greb’s body with some hard shots. Greb shakes them off and retaliates with such an insane volume of punches that the crowd explodes in response. Ketchel catches a head-whipping but takes it all and keeps pounding away at Greb’s body. However, the body attack has no visible effect on Greb, who rides the shots out by twisting, turning, going in and out at angles while making Ketchel pay with counters for every shot he throws. The bell rings.

Score: 10-9 for Greb.

Between rounds, Ketchel’s corner reminds him of how he overwhelmed Philadelphia Jack O’Brien late in their 10-round no-decision fight.

The Showtime crew has scored each round for Greb. “Ketchel will not win one round if he doesn’t land something big,” Bernstein says.

In Greb’s corner, James “Red” Mason tells his fighter, “Keep it up, Harry. Do the job on him. He can’t hurt you.” To which Greb replies: “Yeah? I know something you don’t: how hard this guy can punch. He jarred my guts with that last right to the body. I almost threw up.”

 

ROUND 3

Ketchel comes out of his corner slower than he did for rounds 1 and 2. His face is swollen and red from the constant pounding from Greb, who continues to dart in and out while punching at angles. He nails Ketchel with his first hard body shot, a tremendous right hand behind Stan’s left elbow directly to the sweet spot. Ketchel groans out loud; his knees sag. Greb smells blood and rushes in to finish him, but Ketchel sees his opening and explodes a right hand off of his jaw. Greb goes down hard. Hazzard gets Ketchel to a white neutral corner and picks up the count from the A.R.

“THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT,” Hazzard administers the mandatory eight count to a standing Greb, who got up at the count of “two.” He wipes Greb’s gloves. “YOU OK, HARRY?”

“Yeah. Hell, yeah,” smiles Greb. Ketchel rushes in and is met with the worst series of punches he has taken so far, rocking him back on his heels. The crowd goes insane as the bell rings.

Score: 10-8 Ketchel.

The Ketchel fans with their Michigan Assassin T-shirts are going wild. They chant Ketchel’s name, rallying him to come out and finish the job. Jimmy DeForest, who loves Ketchel like a son, says to him: “You hurt him, champ! Keep hurting him.” Ketchel responds: “His head is like hitting a rock.”

 

ROUND 4

Ketchel comes out reborn, and this time he heeds the advice of his good friend at ringside, Ozark millionaire R.P. Dickerson, who, along with his manager Wilson Mizner, yells: “Steve, keep your hands up!”

Greb, humiliated at being suckered in like Jack Johnson was, exits his corner reinvented. He is more careful now as he avoids Ketchel’s rushes. Every time Ketchel gets close enough to go to the body, Greb punches in flurries and is gone, moving in and out.

Out of frustration, Ketchel hits Greb with a hard low blow then grabs him around the neck and starts pounding him furiously. Greb heels Ketchel’s face with an open glove and cracks him expertly with a follow-through elbow after landing a left hook. Hazzard sees it all and calls time.

“Cut this shit out right now, both of you. Keep it clean or I’ll take points,” Hazzard orders.

“TIME IN!”

They clinch and start pounding away at each other in close. Greb breaks free rather than risk fouling Ketchel, and as the bell rings, both men keep throwing punches until it is sounded five more times. Hazzard breaks them up as the crowd goes wild.

Score: 10-9 Greb. It’s an evenly contested round, but a slight edge goes to Greb for effective aggressiveness and defense.

 

ROUNDS 5-11

Greb steps up the pace and is landing more punches in each round. Ketchel continues to bore forward, trying to clinch and work inside, but Greb, who maintains an uncanny volume of punches round after round, will not allow it. Greb’s defense is superb, preventing any damaging punches from Ketchel, who refuses to give up. Neither man tires despite the torrid pace of the fight.

Scoring: Greb wins each round, 10-9, as the action falls into a repetitive pattern.

Ketchel’s face is now a mask of red and purple bruises as he takes his seat in the corner between rounds. Greb is unmarked as he takes his seat. Neither man is breathing hard.

Greb’s corner tells him to keep doing what he has done and blast Ketchel with combinations every time he comes in. They remind him to crouch as he spins out and to watch for the overhand right. Greb nods affirmatively.

DeForest grabs Ketchel’s face in his own hands: “I love you like a son. I know you can do it. Knock this bastard out now, just like Joe Chip did long ago! Give him a beating like Tommy Gibbons did in Forbes Field. He can be had, just fucking do it like he insulted your mother!” Ketchel smiles at him through his bloodstained mouthpiece.

 

ROUND 12

Ketchel comes out with all he has left. Memories of everything he ever went through in Montana – fighting his way up the ladder against all comers, every street fight, every barroom brawl, come-from-behind fights against Papke and O’Brien, his 32nd-round KO of Joe Thomas – flash through his mind in a millisecond.

He throws punches like a maniac – hard, fast punches. Greb retaliates with his usual array of windmill punches, but this time he does not get out of the way fast enough. Ketchel is all over his body, digging in debilitating shots. As Greb pulls back, Ketchel nails him with a dynamite overhand right, a much harder punch than he hit Johnson or O’Brien with, and this time it lands cleanly to the temple with devastating effect, knocking a spray of water from Greb’s head. The explosive sound of the punch is heard throughout the Garden.

Greb stumbles in a delayed reaction and his legs give out as he crumbles to the canvas.

Ketchel runs to the neutral corner as Hazzard reaches “eight” over Greb, whose head clears as his powerful legs get him up to do battle. Ketchel rushes in to finish the job, and The Pittsburgh Windmill and The Michigan Assassin are blazing back at each other at the bell.

Score: 10-8 Ketchel.

 

The Garden crowd is on its feet, stomping, clapping, screaming and cheering.

The fighters return to their respective corners to await the decision.

Diamante bellows: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the scoring of the three judges! All three judges have the same score: 116-109. Your winner by unanimous decision AND THE NEW UNDISPUTED MIDDLEWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, HARRY GREB! …GREB!

There are mixed cheers and some boos. The Showtime crew feels it is a just decision but might have been a little bit closer.

Ketchel and Greb hug each other in the middle of the ring as Hazzard holds up Greb’s hand for photos.

Greb

Brian Custer asks each man what is next for them. Greb replies: “I’ll be honest with you: I hate hospitals, but I have some damages that need attention. After my operation, I will be back in the ring in force.”

Brian continues: “Harry, they are going to write books about you. The fans adore you.”

Greb: “I appreciate the fans, and if someone wants to write a book then they have to talk to me personally, not guess at what I am like. But what you see is what you get and, honestly, what I really care about is what the fighters think of me, because we share something no one else can.”

Custer calls Ketchel over.

“Stanley, how do you feel about the fight?”

Ketchel replies: “If they made it for 20 rounds or longer, I would have gotten him out of there, but tonight he won fair and square. He is the fastest fighter I ever fought, almost impossible to hit him the way you want to.

“He gave me some licking in there tonight, but I wasn’t hurt and just started to get going. I never quit. You have to kill me.”

Custer: “Where are you going now, Stanley? Can I call you Steve, as your friends do?”

Ketchel smiles and puts his arm around Custer, “Sure, Brian. I’m not always The Michigan Assassin. Some people actually think I am a good friend. And speaking of friends, see that guy sitting ringside, his name is R.P. Dickerson and he has a beautiful ranch in Conway, Missouri. I am going there to rest up after this fight and get away from it all. Great talking with you and thanks to all my fans for supporting me.”

***

MORE MYTHICAL MATCHUPS:

George Foreman vs. Sonny Liston

Jack Dempsey vs. Rocky Marciano

Dick Tiger vs. Canelo Alvarez

 

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