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Billy Papke-Illinois Thunderbolt


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Billy Papke is a name that has been mostly neglected by modern historians, but he holds one notable achievement: being the guy to take Stanley Ketchel's world title away and stop him even. Papke was a hard hitter and scored 31 ko's in 37 wins, also losing 11 times, but only once by ko: in the rematch with Ketchel, in 11 rounds. Needless to say, he was a tough as nails brawler who faced some of the best fighters of that time, the first two decades of the 20th century. He fought between 1906 and 1919, and held various versions of the world title.

William H. Papke was the son of German immigrants, born 17 September 1886 in Spring Valley, Illinois. He earned his hardness and toughness by working in the coal mines as a youth. He started boxing as a pro at the age of 20, or not yet even that old, 24 March 1906. He stood 5'9 (175 cm) and fought from the orthodox stance. He went 20-0-4 before fighting Hugo Kelly for what was billed as American middle title, on 30 December 1907 in Milwaukee. The fight ended as a draw after 10 rounds. On 16 March next year, he again faced Kelly, this time also for what was billed as the world title, at the Hippodrome in Milwaukee and won on points in 10 rounds. On 4 June, less than 3 months later, he faced Stanley Ketchel for the first time, in what was universally recognized as the world title bout, again at the Hippodrome in Milwaukee. He lost by decision after 10 rounds to the future legend. He then scored 2 knockout wins and a decision win, before fighting Ketchel again, on 7 September, at Jeffries Arena in Vernon, CA. 

He shocked everyone by handing Ketchel a beating and stopping him by TKO 12. Wether Ketchel was in bad shape or whatever was to blame, he simply got battered. His fans later fabricated a myth that Papke sucker punched him in the throat at the start of the fight, but how ridiculous is that? If he really lost due to that, it wouldn't have taken him TWELVE rounds, right? The bout was refereed by former heavyweight world champ James J. Jeffries. Only 2 months later, on 26 November, the two faced each other again, at Mission Street Arena in Colma, CA. This time, it was a reverse scenario, as Ketchel thoroughly thrashed and beat up Papke before the fight ended in the 11th round. It was said Papke was in such a condition that his own wife did not recognize him after the fight! Imagine getting beaten up for 11 rounds by one of the p4p hardest punchers ever. It was his ultra-toughness that made him survive the fight in the first place. 

On 19 March next year he fought future heavyweight Fireman Jim Flynn, who weighed in at 167 to Papke's 159. Papke lost by a 10-round decision, newspaper one. On 15 May, he knocked his old rival Hugo Kelly out in 1 round, after only 1 minute and 30 seconds. Kelly was down twice before the end of the fight. He again got to fight Ketchel for the world title on 5 July same year, 1909. Again at the Mission Street Arena, Colma. This time, the fight went its scheduled 20-round length and Ketchel retained his title on points. Only NINE DAYS later, Papke fought Fireman Jim Flynn again and this time earned a draw. LA Times had him a clear winner, while LA Herald called it a draw and United Press had Flynn the winner. On 11 November that year, he lost a decision to Frank Klaus. After winning 4 bouts, he went to Sydney, Australia, to fight for the "Australian world title" against Ed Williams, an inferior fighter with a record of 25-14. Papke stopped him by TKO 6 after dropping him once in the fifth and twice in the sixth. 

He would continue fighting in Sydney for a while, but lost his title to Cyclone Johnny Thompson (82-25-23 at the time) by PTS 20 on 11 February 1911. On 8 June that year, he went to London to beat Jim Sullivan by corner retirement in 9 to be recognized as the "British world champion". Despite losing to Frank Mahtell on points in a defense of the world title, he still continued to be recognized as the world champion because he failed to make the weight for that fight! On 23 October 1912, he scored his second great victory when he beat the young Georges Carpentier by a corner retirement in 18 rounds, after opening a bad cut over his right eye in the 17th. The fight was staged at Cirque de Paris. On 4 December, he also defended the title against Georges Bernard at the same venue and won by RTD 6. He finally lost the title on 5 March 1913, by disqualification in 15 against Frank Klaus, at Cirque de Paris. That would be the end of his successes and he lost his last 4 fights before retiring in 1919. 

After retirement, his life gained a tragic turn when he killed his wife Edna (46 at the time) and then turned the gun on himself, 26 November 1936. He was 50. He was inducted into the IBHOF in 2001. He also worked as a referee and even refereed 3 fights while still fighting. He was definitely a world class fighter who deserves perhaps even more recognition than he has got. Despite beating Stanley Ketchel and Georges Carpentier (and by stoppage no less), he is far less known and popular than his adversary Ketchel. Perhaps not as great as he was, but still not deserving of anonimity, definitely. 


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