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Fighting for His Family: The Billy Miske Story
Billy Miske, a middleweight of St. Paul, Minn., has arrived in the city. He has issued a challenge to any of the boys of his weight.” (Milwaukee Free-Press, September 14, 1913)
One of the biggest, bravest men in history stood just six feet tall and weighed around 160 pounds. Pasty white, knobby knees, and fists that flew faster than even his nickname insinuated: the St. Paul Thunderbolt.
Billy Miske was a boxer, a man greased with grit and determination. Born in 1894, his glory years were destined to fall in decades rife with penny-pinching and hungry mouths. He married, had kids, and was broke. Dead broke.
But Miske used the skills God gave him to make ends meet: he bawled his fists and thrashed opponent after opponent in the ring. His style was orthodox; not sexy, not flashy, but quick and decisive. Each jab, each hook, each uppercut was thrown with purpose, whether they landed or not. In preparation for each fight, Miske would literally punch himself in his own jaw 10 times a day.
Miske fought toe-to-toe with some of the greatest boxers of the era: Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, and Battling Lavinsky among others. In his illustrious career, Miske accumulated somewhere around 45 wins, 34 of which were by knockout. The early 1900’s are known as the “No Decision” era, meaning that in some states a match not decided by a knockout was considered a no-decision, and thus didn’t fit into the boxer’s overall record. Miske could easily have close to 100 career wins were it not for the time period in which he fought.
But the knockouts didn’t matter to Miske. His family did. He would do whatever he needed to provide for them, and if grinding through 15 round of dizzying punches would do that, he was all for it. But his time in the ring appeared over in 1919.
At the ripe age of 24, Miske told his trainer Jack Reddy he was feeling more tired than usual. Naturaly he attributed it to boxing. After a few doctors visits, however, Miske learned the grave news: he was battling Bright’s disease, a serious condition of the kidneys for which there was no cure. Doctors gave Miske about 5 years before he would die. But even worse than that, Miske was told he could no longer fight.
Telling a man like Miske that he’s no longer able to fight is like telling a tiger to let the herd of antelopes walk by without pouncing on one. Miske mad it his mission in his final years to do one thing: provide financial stability for his family. If that meant boxing through tremendous pain and fatigue? So be it.
Miske opted not to tell any family members of his condition. No need having Marie and his kids worry, and the last thing he wanted was someone telling him he shouldn’t fight. Miske tried other ways to make money. He used his life savings to start up an automobile sales shop. Unfortunately for Billy, as good as he was at boxing, he was equally bad at managing a business. He had to fight just to cover losses from the dealership.
Miske’s options were limited. The thing that made him money, the one thing in this world he was truly great at, he was told by physicians it would be detrimental to his health and shorten his even limited life span. But Miske believed if he could fight enough matches, even if he didn’t win, he could get money to continue putting food on the table. Billy Miske continued fighting as if nothing had ever happened. He went on about regular training routines with trainer Jack Reddy. He fought (and won) numerous matches in the years following his fatal diagnosis.
In an era today where it’s rare for us to see a boxer fight more than one or two matches, Miske was taking part in dozens of fights. In 1922 alone he stepped into the ring 15 times. If his kidney’s were failing, the outside world certainly didn’t know it. But as the insides started to shut down, so did Billy. Matches were few and far between. Miske felt too bad to fight. He was eating nothing but boiled fish, and could barely move around for the pain, much less dance around throwing jabs in a boxing ring.
In 1923, Miske could feel the end. The light at the end of his life’s tunnel was inching ever closer. He knew, however, he couldn’t leave this earth until he was certain his family was secure. As the crispness of fall fully descended on the mid west, Billy called his trainer, his good friend Jack Reddy, and told him death was knocking harder than ever before. He needed to fight.
Reddy immediately rejected the notion. No way was he going to allow Billy, a man 29 years young but with a body broken down and fragile like an elderly man step into a ring and get pummeled. Reddy was preparing to give Miske money to help out with bills and holiday expenses that Billy was facing in the coming months. This is what Billy Miske told him: “I’ve never taken a handout, and I won’t start now. Jack, I’m flat broke and I just want to give Marie and the kids a decent Christmas before I check out. You gotta get me a pay day, for old time’s sake.”
Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing that nothing was change the mind of the St. Paul Thunderbolt. He lined up a fight with “KO” Bill Brennan, a man equal to Miske even in the peak of his career. Miske didn’t stand a chance. He wasn’t even in good enough condition health wise to train for the fight. How could he even step into the ring with Brennan?
That was the thing about Miske. You couldn’t just judge him on his appearance. He maybe looked more like minimum wage factory grunt than a world-class prize fighter, but Miske had the heart of a lion. That lion-heart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the 4th round, earning him a handsome paycheck of $2,400.
The Christmas of 1923 would be special in the Miske household. Billy knew it was probably his last, but he had long made peace with that. Watching his kids open presents on Christmas that he couldn’t have gotten before was worth it. And watching his sweet wife Marie tickle the ivories on the baby grand piano he bought for her brought more than sweet music to his heart.
On December 26, the day after Christmas, Miske called his good friend Jack Reddy and told him he was dying. Jack came and picked him up to go to the hospital where it was he would finally reveal his fatal condition to Marie. 5 days later, at age 29, Billy Miske’s kidneys did the thing Miske never did: they gave up fighting. Miske died January 1, 1924.
The story of Miske traveled fast through the community, state, and boxing world. Tommy Gibbons, a giant in the world of boxing at the time and a man who had fought Miske several times had this to say about Billy:
“Billy Miske was one of the gamest fellows who ever put on the gloves. He always was a gentleman in the ring; always fought within the rules and never took advantage of a helpless opponent or resorted to rough tactics.”
Indeed, Billy Miske is a hero. A man who fought with passion and loved with passion. Billy Miske left a legacy that every man can strive after. The moments of happiness with family far outweigh the mortal concerns we may have about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, one that showed no matter the odds, family is always worth fighting for.
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