By John Shroyer
In the early 20th century, boxing was a major spectator sport in America, even though it was illegal in 21 states—and in San Francisco County. Local matches took place in Colma, just over the San Mateo County line.
Many of the best-known fighters of the day squared off at Coffroth’s Mission Street Arena. Among them were Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion; James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, another heavyweight champ; and Robert Fitzsimmons, who held world titles in three weight divisions and knocked out Corbett in Carson City, Nevada, to claim the heavyweight crown in 1897.
On October 16, 1909, a celebrated bout between Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant,” and Stanley Ketchel, the “Michigan Assassin,” drew 10,000 spectators to Coffroth’s. Johnson, the heavyweight champion, stood 6 feet tall and weighed in at 209 pounds. He towered over Ketchel, who was 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds. Sportswriters portrayed the fight as a true David-and-Goliath battle.
Johnson won—barely. In the 12th round, Ketchel floored him with a tremendous righthanded blast. Down for an estimated eight or nine seconds, Johnson finally rose, and Ketchel raced in for the knockout. Johnson swung a vicious right cross that sent Ketchel to the mat, and one of the most incredible fights in history was over. (A film of the match is available on YouTube; enter “Jack Johnson vs. Stanley Ketchel.”)
A footnote: One day less than a year later, on October 15, 1910, Ketchel was dead—killed by a man who apparently thought Ketchel had made a lewd remark to the man’s girlfriend.