Billy Papke

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Billy Papke
Billy Papke 2.jpg
Papke in 1910
Real nameWilliam Herman Papke, Sr.
Nickname(s)The Illinois Thunderbolt
Height5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Born(1886-09-17)September 17, 1886
Spring Valley, Illinois
DiedNovember 26, 1936(1936-11-26) (aged 50)
Newport Beach, California
Boxing record
Total fights63
Wins by KO32

Billy Papke (born William Papke, and known as "The Illinois Thunderbolt") (September 17, 1886 – November 26, 1936) was an American boxer who held the World Middleweight Championship from September 7 to November 26, 1908. In 1910-12, he also took the Australian and British versions of the World Middleweight Championship, though American boxing historians generally take less note of these titles.[1][2] With a solid and efficient punch, 70 percent of his better publicized career wins by decision were from knockouts, and roughly 40% of his reported fights were as well.[3][4]

Early life and career[edit]

Papke was born on September 17, 1886 in Spring Valley, Illinois. He began his boxing career in 1906, eventually winning 40 fights by decision and drawing six times. He worked as a miner during his years in Illinois and occasionally boxed with fellow miners.[5] His earliest fights in 1906 took place near Spring Valley or Peoria where he had moved by 1907, though he traveled frequently North to box in the next few years.[6]

Portrait of Papke taken in France

In an important early bout on September 14, 1907, Papke knocked out Terry Martin in the third round at the National Athletic Club in Philadelphia. The win led several reporters to view Papke as a middleweight title contender.[3]

On November 22, 1907, Papke defeated Bartley Connolly in a fourth round technical knockout. In a one sided bout, Papke floored his opponent once in the first and five times in the third. Connolly tried to clinch in the early rounds to avoid his aggressive and better skilled opponent. In his career, Connolly would defeat the great Joe Walcott, and box in Great Britain.[3][7]

In a well publicized bout On November 14, 1907, Papke defeated Tony Caponi in their first bout in a second round knockout at the Peoria Club in Peoria, Illinois. After only two minutes and ten seconds of fighting in the second, Papke put Caponi down for the count with a strong right uppercut to the jaw immediately after breaking from a clinch. Caponi tried to rise, but went back down and stayed on the mat. The two had fought two draws the previous May and June, with Papke holding a slight lead during the more recent match. Adding to the interest in the contest was Caponi's unsuccessful attempt at Hugo Kelly's World and American 158 lb. middleweight championship the previous August.[3][8]

American middleweight championship bout with Hugo Kelly, March, 1908[edit]

On March 16, 1908, Papke defeated Hugo Kelly at the Hippodrome in Milwaukee in a ten round points decision that was billed as the world and American 158 pound middleweight championship, though it was not a universally sanctioned bout. There was a significant amount of clinching, and some butting in the match mostly attributed to Papke. Papke put Kelly on the mat in the first round with a blow to the jaw, but Kelly recovered quickly and fought well defensively. There was a shower of blows in the fourth, followed by more clinching in the fifth, as the boxers recovered from fatigue. The final four rounds were close, but the referee decided in favor of Papke at the bell in the tenth.[9] Papke's management successfully used the win as a stepping stone to a world middleweight title match with Stanley Ketchel ten weeks later. On May 15, 1909, Papke would defeat Kelly more decisively in a first round knockout in Colma, California.

Rivalry with middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel[edit]

Papke's first meeting with Stanley Ketchel resulted in loss by 10-round points decision, on June 4, 1908 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[10] It was the first of Papke's four fights with the reigning Middleweight champion.[11][12]

World middleweight championship win, September, 1908[edit]

Ketchel in fighting pose

Papke won the second fight with Ketchel in an upset at Jeffrie's Arena in Vernon, near Los Angeles, on September 7, 1908 in a convincing twelfth round technical knockout, and impressively took the world middleweight title from the reigning champion. The referee was the thirty-three year old boxing legend and former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries.[3][4]

According to legend, Papke helped his chances of winning the fight by punching Ketchel in the face or throat unexpectedly when Ketchel stepped forward with his right hand extended to shake at the beginning of the bout. This legend has been dis-proven by boxing historians, as neither the combatants, nor ringside newspaper reporters, corner men, or other eyewitnesses ever attested to or made record of the incident.[13][3][4][14][15] A few newspapers including the Record Argus of Greenville, Pennsylvania, perpetuated the legend of the sucker punch at the handshake, though the myth may have had its origin in Papke's furious attack very early in the first round and the not infrequent habit of a few boxing reporters of the era to embellish their reporting. Even reporting on his death in 1936, a newspaper perpetuated the myth of Papke's first blow coming as Ketchel extended his hand to shake.[16]

A California newspaper, likely using the account of a ringside reporter, inferred the fighting did not commence until after the opening bell, and that both men entered the ring in perfect condition, but that within one minute and twenty seconds, Papke had mounted an attack that determined the outcome of the bout.[17][18] Ketchel was down three times in the first round, and Papke seemed to have the upper hand throughout the fierce and furious bout.[19] The match became so one-sided in favor of Papke by the close, that the crowd yelled for referee Jeffries to stop the fight. Papke dealt the final blows in the twelfth delivering a right swing followed by a powerful hook.[20]

Loss of world middleweight championship, November, 1908[edit]

Ketchel standing over Papke in their third fight, Nov. 1908

In their third meeting, two months later on November 26, 1908, Papke lost his title to Ketchel in an eleventh round knockout in Colma, California, and received a terrific beating in the process.[3][21] Papke's own wife did not recognize him after the bout was over. Ketchel led the bout through most of the first ten rounds. Papke went down in the eleventh for a count of nine, and not long after arising was struck by a left to the chin that ended the bout.[22][23]

Papke lost the fourth and final meeting by unanimous decision before a large crowd in Colma, California, near San Francisco, on July 5, 1909. It was a particularly savage encounter and lasted 20 rounds. One source wrote that of all their fights it was "the bloodiest and most grueling". Ketchel was reported to have broken his right hand in the sixth, and Papke a bone in his left.[24][25][3]

Impressive wins over welterweight contender Willie Lewis, 1909-10[edit]

On October 8, 1909, and March 19, 1910, Papke impressively defeated American welterweight contender Willie Lewis in Pittsburgh in a six round newspaper decision, and in France's Cirque de Paris in a third round knockout. In their well attended Pittsburgh match, Lewis was down for a nine count as early as the second from a right to the jaw and continued receiving blows to the jaw in the third. Lewis came back only briefly in the fifth, and with a broken nose hung on barely til the closing bell in the sixth.[26] In their heavily attended world welterweight championship bout in Paris, Papke demonstrated superior hitting ability, speed, and defense throughout the match, and was the aggressor through all three rounds. Papke tried to have his agent arrange a match with Ketchel after the bout, but it was never to be.[27][28][29]

Mid career[edit]

After Ketchel's murder at age 24, on October 15, 1910, while training at a Cattle Ranch in Conway, Missouri, Papke became one of several middleweights contesting the world middleweight title.[3]

Four important bouts at Sydney Stadium[edit]

On February 11, 1911, Papke lost to Cyclone Johnny Thompson in Sydney, Australia in a twenty round points decision, with Thompson subsequently claiming Papke's world middleweight title. The bout was one of four well-attended bouts he fought for the Australian version of the Middleweight Championship at Sydney Stadium, which included a win against Ed Williams as well as a win by TKO and a loss by DQ to Dave Smith. In Papke's TKO victory against Smith, Smith led through six rounds, but went down three times before his seconds threw in the towel. Smith would later take the Australian Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Championships, as well as compete for the Australian Middleweight Championship.[3]

On August 22, 1911, Papke had a surprising loss to Sailor Burke, at St. Nicholas Arena in New York City in a newspaper decision of the New York Times. Papke was defending his World Middleweight title which he took at London's Palladium in a ninth round knockout from Jim Sullivan two months earlier on June 8, 1911. Burke battered Papke, but used little science in his approach. Attending the fight, and likely disappointed, was the Scottish reporter Percy Douglas, 10th Marquess of Queensberry, a member of the royal line and son of the 9th Marquess, who had endorsed the modern boxing rules published by Welshman John Graham Chambers in 1867.[3][30] The title did not pass hands as both men were over the middleweight weight limit of 160, and weighing nearer 165.[30]

After an October, 1911 loss in Boston to Bob Moha, he briefly retired,[6] but he would soon return to the ring.[6][31]

Loss to Frank Mantel, middleweight contender, February, 1912[edit]

On February 22, 1912, Papke lost to American world middleweight contender Frank Mantell in Sacramento in a twenty round points decision. It was a slow bout with much vertical wrestling while the contestants weakly attempted to score blows during the clinches. After the bout, Mantell tried to claim Papke's former British world middleweight title of June 11, 1911 taken from Jim Sullivan in London. Mantell's claim was weak, however, as Papke claimed he did not make weight for the match.[32]

Win over Marcel Moreau in Paris, June, 1912[edit]

On June 29, 1912, Papke, defending his June, 1911 world middleweight title, defeated Marcel Moreau at France's Cirque de Paris in a sixteenth round technical knockout. Papke was down in the first, wile Moreau was knocked down twice in the fifteenth by left and right hooks before failing to show for the final round.[33][34]

Papke lost to middle and welterweight contender Leo Houck in the third week of September 1912 at the Olympia Athletic Club in Philadelphia in a six round newspaper decision. The first two rounds were slow, with Papke staging a comeback in the third which was marred by his tossing Houck around in the clinches and refusing to break at the referee's request. His clinching may have signaled his fatigue from the repeated blows of his opponent. In the final three rounds, Houck dominated, throwing several swift blows with no return in the fourth, and sending Papke through the ropes in the sixth.[35]

Win over European middleweight champion Georges Carpentier, October 1912[edit]

Papke traveled to Paris where he beat future champion Georges Carpentier in an eighteenth round technical knockout on October 23, 1912. It became a non-championship fight when Papke exceeded the middle-weight limit at the pre-fight weigh-in. Papke's infighting or close range techniques baffled the skilled Carpentier. At the end of the eighth, Carpentier's right eye was closed, and he fought more cautiously. Though staging a comeback in the fifteenth and sixteenth, Carpentier was floored in the opening of the seventeenth round, when Papke struck him with a left hook, likely taking advantage of the reduced vision on his opponent's right side. Carpentier attempted to fight on but gave up after consulting with his corner men, and did not return for the eighteenth round.[36][37]

Final loss of the world middleweight championship to Frank Klaus, March 1913[edit]

Frank Klaus circa 1910-15

Papke was beaten by an American, Pennsylvania middleweight Frank Klaus on March 5, 1913 at France's Cirque de Paris. The referee warned Papke and called fouls and breaks repeatedly in the late rounds for wrestling, head-butting, and low blows. In frustration, the referee called his last foul in the fifteenth round for a low blow which Papke had been called on in the previous two rounds, disqualifying Papke and ending both the match and Papke's title hopes.[38][3][39][40]

After his October 14, 1913, loss to Marty Rowan in St. Louis, Papke took a three year hiatus from the ring, before returning in 1916, and facing his last few opponents.

He continued fighting until 1919, losing a four rounder to the prolific boxer and contender Soldier Bartfield in San Francisco in April 1919.[6]

Boxing retirement, death and legacy[edit]

On November 22, 1932, Papke came out of his 1920 boxing retirement to stage a three round exhibition with heavyweight "Fireman" Jim Flynn, the only boxer who ever knocked out Jack Dempsey.[41] He had lost to Flynn earlier in a newspaper decision in March 1909 in Pasadena.

Appearances in boxing movies[edit]

In his retirement near Los Angeles, he benefited from his real estate investments.[6] He appeared in at least three boxing-themed movies; The Prince of Broadway (1926) which featured boxers Leach Cross, Frankie Genaro, and Ad Wolgast, Madison Square Garden (1932), where he appeared as himself as did other boxers and sports writers, and The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), which starred heavyweight champion Max Baer (boxer).[42]


Near the time of his death, he was working as a "host" at Jim Flynn's Cafe in Los Angeles, a beer hall named after the heavyweight boxer. He had recently refereed a boxing match.[5][43]

Papke died on November 27, 1936 by suicide, after first killing his wife. The violent incident may have been a result of undiagnosed brain dementia suffered from years of trauma in the ring.[41] It occurred at his wife Edna's residence on Balboa Island, part of Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles in Southern California. Papke was disappointed about his wife's recent divorce and was hoping for a reconciliation.[44] Both he and his wife were buried at Mt. View Cemetery in Altadena, California, slightly North of Pasadena and Los Angeles.[45] He left three sons with whom he lived, Robert, Clifford, and William A. Papke Jr.[46][47]

He is a primary character in the novel, The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, (2005), by James Carlos Blake.

Primary boxing achievements and honors[edit]

Preceded by
Stanley Ketchel
World Middleweight Champion
September 7, 1908 – November 26, 1908
Succeeded by
Stanley Ketchel

Papke was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2001.[6] Sportswriter Nat Fleischer, original owner of "Ring" Magazine, ranked Papke as the seventh best middleweight of all time. Announcer Charley Rose ranked him as the tenth greatest middleweight in boxing history. He was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1972.[41]

Notable bouts[edit]

Result Opponent Type Rd., Time Date Location Notes[48]
Loss United States Frank Klaus DQ 15 (20) 1913-03-05 France Cirque de Paris, Paris Loss of World Middleweight Title
Win France Georges Bernard RTD 6 (20) 1912-12-04 France Cirque de Paris, Paris In the sixth round Bernard could not return to the ring
Win France Georges Carpentier TKO 18 (20) 1912-10-23 France Cirque de Paris, Paris Non-title bout, Papke over weight limit
Loss United States Leo Houck NWS 6 1912-09-27 United States Olympia A.C., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Newspaper Decision
Win France Marcel Moreau TKO 16(20) 1912-06-29 France Cirque de Paris, Paris Retained British and Australian World Middleweight Title.
Loss United States Frank Mantell TKO 16(20) 1912-02-22 United States Sacramento, California Mantell tried to claim title, but Papke said he had not made weight
Loss United States Sailor Burke NWS 10 1911-08-22 United States New York, New York Unexpected loss, non-title fight because boxers did not make weight
Win United Kingdom Jim Sullivan (boxer) KO 9 (20) 1911-06-08 United Kingdom Palladium, London Won British World Middleweight Title.
Loss Australia Cyclone Johnny Thompson KO 20 (20) 1911-06-08 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Loss on points decision, Thompson claimed World Middleweight Title
Loss Australia Dave Smith DQ 10 (20) 1910-12-26 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Non-title bout, both men failed to make middleweight range
Win Australia Ed Williams TKO 6 (20) 1910-10-26 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Won Australian World Middleweight Title.
Win United States Willie Lewis KO 3 (15) 1910-03-19 France Cirque de Paris, Paris Retained World Middleweight Title
Loss United States Frank Klaus NWS 6 1909-11-11 United States Duquesne Gardens, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Newspaper Decision
Loss United States Stanley Ketchel UD 20 1909-07-05 United States Mission Street Arena, Colma, California For World Middleweight Title
Loss United States Stanley Ketchel KO 11 (20) 1908-11-26 United States Mission Street Arena, Colma, California Lost World Middleweight Title
Win United States Stanley Ketchel TKO 12 (25) 1908-09-07 United States Jeffries' Arena, Vernon, California Won World Middleweight Title
Loss United States Stanley Ketchel PTS 10 1908-06-04 United States Hippodrome, Milwaukee, Wisconsin For World Middleweight Title
Win United States Tony Caponi KO 2 (10) 1907-11-14 United States Peoria Athletic Club, Peoria, Illinois Knockout after 2:10, in second round

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Lineal Middleweight Champions". The Cyber Boxing Zone Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ Mark Paloolian (2007). Brutality. Firstchoicebooks. pp. 92–95. ISBN 978-1-897518-37-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Billy Papke". BoxRec. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "Billy Papke". BoxRec. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  5. ^ a b "Fifty Year Old Boxer Kills Former Wife", Times-Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, pg. 16, 27 November 1936
  6. ^ a b c d e f Roberts, James B.; Skutt, Alexander (2006). The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book. McBooks Press. pp. 202–203. ISBN 978-1-59013-121-3.
  7. ^ Connolly was down frequently in "Papke Knocks Out Two Boxers in the Same Ring", The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Indiana, pg. 8, 23 November 1907
  8. ^ "Papke Wins in Less Than Two Rounds", The Decatur Herald, pg. 3, 15 November 1907
  9. ^ The match was close in "Hugo Kelly Loses Decision to Papke", The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, Indiana, pg. 7, 17 March 1908
  10. ^ Paloolian (2006) p.98
  11. ^ Roberts; Skutt (2007) p.153
  12. ^ Paloolian (2006) p.109
  13. ^ Papke did not suckerpunch Ketchell before their second fight in "Billy Papke". BoxRec. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
  14. ^ Kirsch, George B.; Harris, Othello; Nolte, Claire Elaine (2000). Encyclopedia of ethnicity and sports in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-313-29911-7.
  15. ^ Nicholson, Kelly Richard (2010). Hitters, Dancers and Ring Magicians: Seven Boxers of the Golden Age. McFarland. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-7864-4990-3.
  16. ^ A newspaper that perpetuated the first blow at handshake myth at Papke's death was, "Former Fighter Kills Wife, Self", The Bakersfield Californian, Bakersfield, California, pg. 19, 27 November 1936
  17. ^ The first minute twenty determined the outcome of the fight in "Billy Papke is Now Champion", The Bakersfield Californian, pg. 3, 8 September 1908
  18. ^ Ketchell supposedly walked to the ring center extending his hand for the shake in "Ketchel Loses to Billy Papke", The Record-Argus, Greenville, Pennsylvania, pg. 1, 8 September 1908
  19. ^ Papke Won From Stanley Ketchel", The Buffalo Enquirer, Buffalo, New York, pg. 8, 8 September 1908
  20. ^ "Papke Wins Fight", The Scranton Republican, Scranton, Pennsylvania, pg. 1, 8 September 1908
  21. ^ Paloolian (2006) pp.115-117
  22. ^ "Crashing a Thunderbolt", The Arizona Republic, Phoenix, Arizona, pg. 7, 27 November 1908
  23. ^ "Ketchell is Middleweight Champion, Turns the Tables on Papke", Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Carolina, pg. 3, 27 November 1908
  24. ^ Nicholson (2010) p.166
  25. ^ "Ketchell Keeps Title By Points Over Papke", The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, pg. 25, 6 July 1909
  26. ^ Papke dominated in Pittsburgh in "Papke's Hard Hits Beat Willie Lewis", Pittston Gazette, Pittston, Pennsylvania, pg. 3, 9 October 1909
  27. ^ Papke showed superior speed in "Billy Papke Puts Willie Lewis Out in Three Rounds", The Inter-Ocean, Chicago, Illinois, pg. 25, 20 March 1919
  28. ^ Papke wanted to meet Ketchel after win in "Papke Puts Willie Lewis to Slumber", San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, pg. 39, 20 March 1910
  29. ^ Papke was the aggressor with Lewis in "Papke Knocks Out Lewis in Third", Quad-City Times, pg. 4, 20 March 1910
  30. ^ a b "Papke Battered by Sailor Burke", San Francisco Call, pg. 10, San Francisco, California, 23 August 1911
  31. ^ Johnston, Alexander. Ten--and Out!: The Complete Story of the Prize Ring in America. I. Washburn, 1943; p. 291.
  32. ^ "Billy Papke Beaten By Big Frank Mantell", The Bridgeport Times, Bridgeport, Connecticut, pg. 2, 23 February 1912
  33. ^ "Billy Papke Wins an Easy Victory", The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, pg. 17, 30 June 1912
  34. ^ Left and right hooks in fifteenth in "Billy Papke Wins From Marcel Moreau", Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque, New Mexico, pg. 3, 30 June 1912
  35. ^ "Leo Houck Has a Real Victory", Harrisburgh Telegraph, Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania, pg. 10, 28 September 1912
  36. ^ "Papke Wins in Seventeenth" (PDF). The New York Times. 1912-10-24. Retrieved 2010-12-21.
  37. ^ "Carpentier Defeated By Billy Papke", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pg. 10, 24 October 1912
  38. ^ "Billy Papke disqualified" (PDF). The New York Times. 1913-03-06. Retrieved 2010-12-21.
  39. ^ "Klaus Wins on Foul in Fifteenth Round", The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, pg. 10, 6 March 1913
  40. ^ Wrestling and Head butting in "Klaus Wins on a Foul", New Castle News, New Castle, Pennsylvania, pg. 10, 6 March 1913
  41. ^ a b c "Billy Papke, Cyber Boxing Zone". Retrieved 20 May 2009.
  42. ^ "Billy Papke-IMDB". Retrieved 2 December 2017.
  43. ^ Worked at Jim Flynn's in "Billy Papke, Ring Hero of 1909, Kills Ex-Wife and Self", The Fresno Bee, Fresno, California, pg. 1, 27 November 1936
  44. ^ "Billy Papke, Kills Ex-Wife, Slays Self", Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California, pg. 1, 27 November 1936
  45. ^ "Billy Papke, Wife, Will Be Buried Monday Side By Side", The Des Moines Register, pg. 9, 28 November 1936
  46. ^ "Retired Pugilist Shoots to Death Ex-Wife and Self", St. Louis Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, pg. 10, 27 November 1936
  47. ^ Papke was buried at Mt. View Cemetery"Billy Papke, Find A Grave". Retrieved 20 May 2009.
  48. ^ Billy Papke's Professional Boxing Record. Retrieved on 2014-05-18.

External links[edit]