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Fighting for His Family: The Billy Miske Story
Billy Miske, a middleweight from St. Paul, Minn., has arrived in town. 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 was only six feet tall and weighed about 160 pounds. Lovely white, gnarled knees and fists that flew faster than even his nickname insinuated: St. Paul Thunderbolt.
Billy Miske was a boxer, a man greased with grit and determination. Born in 1894, his prime was destined to fall in decades filled with pennies and hungry mouths. He married, had children and was broke. Dead bread.
But Miske used the abilities God gave him to make ends meet: he roared with his fists and thrashed opponent after opponent in the ring. His style was orthodox; not sexy, not flashy, but quick and decisive. Every jab, every hook, every uppercut was thrown with purpose, whether they landed or not. In preparation for each match, Miske hit himself in his own jaw 10 times a day.
Miske fought toe-to-toe with some of the greatest boxers of the time: 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 20th century is known as the “No Decision” era, meaning that in some states a fight that was not decided by knockout was considered a no-decision and thus did not count towards the boxer’s overall record . Miske could easily have close to 100 career wins if it weren’t for the period in which he struggled.
But the knockouts meant nothing to Miske. His family did. He would do whatever it took to provide for them, and if that meant grinding through 15 rounds of dizzying punches, he was all for it. But his time in the ring was over by 1919.
At the ripe old age of 24, Miske told his trainer Jack Reddy that he felt more tired than usual. Naturally, he attributed it to boxing. After a few doctor’s visits, however, Miske got the serious news: He was battling Bright’s disease, a serious kidney condition for which there was no cure. Doctors gave Miske about 5 years before he would die. But even worse than that, Miske was told that he could no longer fight.
Telling a man like Miske that he is no longer able to fight is like telling a tiger to let a herd of antelope pass by without striking one. Miske made it his mission in his last years to do one thing: to provide financial stability for his family. If it meant boxing through immense pain and fatigue? So be it.
Miske chose not to tell any family members about his condition. There’s no need to have Marie and his children to worry, and the last thing he wanted was for someone to tell him not to fight. Miske tried other ways of making money. He used his life savings to start a car dealership. Unfortunately for Billy, as good as he was at boxing, he was just as bad at running a business. He had to struggle just to cover losses from the dealer.
Miske’s options were limited. The thing that made him money, the one thing in this world he was really good at, was told by doctors that it would be harmful to his health and shorten his even limited lifespan. But Miske believed that 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 to fight as if nothing had ever happened. He continued regular training routines with trainer Jack Reddy. He fought (and won) numerous battles in the years following his fatal diagnosis.
In a time today when it is rare to see a boxer fight more than one or two fights, Miske participated in dozens of fights. In 1922 alone, he entered the ring 15 times. If his kidneys were failing, the outside world certainly didn’t know. But as the innards began to shut down, so did Billy. The fights were few and far between. Miske was too ill to fight. He ate nothing but boiled fish and could barely move because of the pain, much less dance around and throw punches in a boxing ring.
In 1923, Miske could feel the end. The light at the end of his life’s tunnel kept getting closer. However, he knew he couldn’t leave this earth until he was sure his family was safe. As the crispness of autumn descended upon the Midwest, Billy called his trainer, his good friend Jack Reddy, and told him that death was knocking harder than ever. He needed to fight.
Reddy immediately dismissed the idea. There was no way he was going to allow Billy, a man of 29, but with a body broken down and frail like an old man, to step into a ring and be beaten. Reddy prepared to give Miske money to help with bills and vacation expenses Billy faced in the coming months. This is what Billy Miske told him: “I’ve never taken a handout and I don’t want to start now. Jack, I’m flat out and I just want to give Marie and the kids a decent Christmas before I check out. You have to get me a payday, for old time’s sake.”
Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing that nothing would change St. Paul Thunderbolt’s opinion. He lined up a match with “KO” Bill Brennan, a man similar to Miske himself at the peak of his career. Miske didn’t stand a chance. He wasn’t even in good enough health to train for the match. How could he even step into the ring with Brennan?
That was the case with Miske. You couldn’t just judge him by his looks. He may have looked more like a minimum-wage factory grunt than a world-class prize fighter, but Miske had the heart of a lion. The lion heart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the 4th round, earning him a nice $2,400 paycheck.
Christmas 1923 would be special in the Miske household. Billy knew it was probably his last, but he had long since made peace with that. Watching his children open gifts for Christmas that he couldn’t have before was worth it. And watching his sweet wife Marie tickle the ivories of the little 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 that he was dying. Jack came and picked him up to go to the hospital, where he would finally reveal his dying condition to Marie. 5 days later, at the age of 29, Billy Miske’s kidneys did what Miske never did: they gave up fighting. Miske died on 1 January 1924.
The story of Miske traveled quickly through society, the state and the 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 most skilled guys to ever put on the gloves. He was always a gentleman in the ring; always fought within the rules and never took advantage of a helpless opponent or resorted to harsh tactics.”
In fact, Billy Miske is a hero. A man who fought with passion and loved with passion. Billy Miske left a legacy that every man can aspire to. The moments of happiness with family far outweigh the mortal worries we may have about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, a life that showed, no matter the odds, that family is always worth fighting for.
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