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Fighting for His Family: The Billy Miske Story
Billy Miske, a middleweight from St. Paul, Minn., is in town. He has challenged any boy of his weight.” (Milwaukee Free-Press, September 14, 1913)
One of the largest, bravest men in history was only six feet tall and weighed about 160 pounds. Blondes, knees and fists that fly faster than his nickname: St. Paul’s Thunderbolt.
Billy Miske was a boxer, imbued with courage and determination. Born in 1894, his glory years were followed by decades of penny pinchers and hungry mouths. He got married, had kids and was broke. Dead broke.
But Miske used his God-given skills to perfection: he punched and beat opponent after opponent in the ring. His style was orthodox; Not sexy, not flashy, but quick and decisive. Every punch, every hook, every uppercut was thrown with purpose, whether it landed or not. In preparation for each fight, Miske would literally punch himself in the jaw 10 times a day.
Miske fought to a tie-to-two against some of the greatest boxers of the era: Jack Dempsey, Harry Grabe and Battling Lavinsky. During his illustrious career, Miske scored nearly 45 victories, 34 of which were by knockout. The early 1900s was known as the “no decision” era, meaning that in some states a fight not decided by a knockout was considered a no decision and thus did not count against a boxer’s overall record. Miske could easily have nearly 100 wins in his career over the span of time he fought.
But the knockout did not matter to Miske. His family did. He’d do whatever it took for them and throw 15 rounds of flashy punches, that’s what he was for. But his time in the ring ended in 1919.
At the age of 24, Miske told his trainer Jack Reddy that he was feeling more tired than usual. He obviously attributed it to boxing. However, after a few doctor’s visits, Miske learned 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 death. But even worse, Miske was told that he would no longer be able to fight.
Telling a man like Miske that he is no longer capable of fighting is like telling a tiger to walk without scaring the herd of deer constellation. Miske made it his goal to do one thing in his final years: provide financial stability for his family. What if it meant boxing through excruciating pain and exhaustion? That’s how it will be.
Miske decided not to tell his family about his condition. Mary and his children didn’t have to worry, and the last thing he needed was someone telling him not to fight. Miske tried other ways to make money. He used his life savings to start an automobile dealership. Unfortunately for Billy, he was as good at boxing as he was at managing a business. He had to struggle to cover the loss of the dealership.
Miske’s options were limited. The thing that brought him money, the one thing in this world in which he was truly great, he was told by doctors that it was harmful to his health and would also shorten his limited life. But Miske believed he could fight enough matches that, even if he didn’t win, he could earn money to put food on the table. Billy Miske continued to fight as if nothing had happened. He used to train regularly with trainer Jack Reddy. He fought (and won) many matches in the years following his fatal diagnosis.
In today’s era where it is rare for a boxer to see more than one or two fights, Miske was involved in dozens of fights. In 1922 he entered the ring 15 times. If his kidneys were failing, the outside world would certainly not know it. But as the inside began to shut down, so did Billy. Matches were few and far between. Miske felt too bad to fight. He ate nothing but boiled fish, and could barely move because of the pain, much less dance around throwing jabs in the boxing ring.
In 1923, Miske’s end could be felt. The light at the end of the tunnel of his life was approaching. He knew, however, that he couldn’t leave this earth until he was sure his family was safe. As the crispness of fall in the Midwest fully descends, Billy calls his trainer, his good friend Jack Reddy, and tells him that death is knocking harder than ever. He needed to fight.
Reddy immediately dismissed the notion. There was no way he was going to let Billy, a young 29-year-old, but broken and frail like an old man, enter the ring. Reddy was preparing to pay Miske to help with the bills and vacation expenses Billy was facing in the coming months. Billy Miske told him: “I’ve never taken a handout and I’m not going to start now. Jack, I’m totally broke and I just want to give Mary and the kids a decent Christmas before I check out. You better get me a payday for old time’s sake.” “
Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing nothing would change St. Paul Thunderbolt’s mind. He fought “KO” Bill Brennan, who was Miske’s equal even at the peak of his career. Miske didn’t stand a chance. He was not healthy enough to train for combat. How can he get in the ring with Brennan?
Miske’s story was. You can’t just judge him by his looks. He may have looked more like a minimum-wage factory grunt than a world-class prizefighter, but Miske had the heart of a lion. That lion-heart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the fourth round, earning him a handsome $2,400 payday.
Christmas 1923 would be a special one in the Miske household. Billy knew it was probably the last, but he had made peace with it. Watching his children open presents at Christmas that he would not have been able to get before. And seeing his sweet wife Mary tickling the ivories on the baby grand piano he had bought for her brought more joy to his heart than sweet music.
On December 26, the day after Christmas, Miske called his good friend Jack Reddy and told him that he was dying. Jack arrives and picks him up to go to the hospital where he will finally tell Mary of his fatal condition. 5 days later, at the age of 29, Billy Miske’s kidneys did what Miske never did: they stopped fighting. Miske died on 1 January 1924.
Miske’s story travels swiftly through the community, the state and the world of boxing. Tommy Gibbons, a legend in the boxing world at the time and a frequent spar with Miske, had this to say about Billy:
“Billy Miske was one of the sportiest athletes who ever wore 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 rough tactics.”
Indeed, Billy Miske is a hero. A man who fights passionately and loves passionately. Billy Miske left a legacy that every man can strive for. Happy moments with family outweigh any worries we have about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, showing that no matter what the odds, family is always worth fighting for.
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