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Fighting for His Family: The Billy Miske Story

Fighting for His Family: The Billy Miske Story

Billy Miske, a middleweight from St. Paul, Minnesota, has come to town. He has issued a challenge to any of the boys of his weight.” (Milwaukee Free-Press, September 14, 1913)

One of the greatest and bravest men in history was only six feet tall and weighed around 160 pounds. He pale white, bony knees, and fists that flew faster than his nickname implied: 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 into decades plagued by tightwads and hungry mouths. He got married, had kids, and was broke. Dead broke.

But Miske used his God-given abilities to make ends meet: he screamed with his fists and pummeled 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 a purpose, whether they landed or not. In preparation for each fight, Miske literally punched himself in the jaw 10 times a day.

Miske fought head-to-head with some of the best boxers of the day: Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, and Battling Lavinsky, among others. In his illustrious career, Miske racked up around 45 wins, 34 of which were by knockout. The 1900s are known as the “No Contest” era, meaning that in some states a bout not decided by knockout was considered a no contest and therefore did not fit into the boxer’s overall record. Miske could easily have close to 100 wins in his career if it weren’t for the length of time he fought.

But the knockouts didn’t matter to Miske. His family did. He’d do whatever it took to keep them going, and if he’d grind 15 rounds of dizzying punches he’d pull it off, he was all for it. But his time in the ring appeared in 1919.

At the ripe age of 24, Miske told his trainer Jack Reddy that he felt more tired than usual. Naturally, he chalked it up to boxing. However, after a few visits to the doctor, Miske learned the dire news: he was battling Bright’s disease, a serious kidney disease for which he had no cure. Doctors gave Miske about 5 years before he died. But even worse than that, Miske was told he couldn’t fight anymore.

Telling a man like Miske that he can’t fight anymore is like telling a tiger to let the herd of antelope pass without pounced on one. Miske focused on his mission in his later years to do one thing: provide financial stability for his family. What if that meant boxing through tremendous pain and fatigue? So be it.

Miske chose not to tell any of her family members about her condition. There was no need for Marie and her children to worry, and the last thing he wanted was for someone to tell him that she shouldn’t fight. Miske tried other ways to earn 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 fight alone to cover the dealer’s losses.

Miske’s options were limited. What made him earn money, the only thing in this world he was really good at, the doctors told him would be detrimental to his health and shorten his life, even limited. But Miske believed that if he could fight enough matches, even if he didn’t win, he could get money to keep putting food on the table. Billy Miske kept fighting as if nothing had happened. He continued regular training routines with trainer Jack Reddy. He fought (and won) numerous matches in the years following his fatal diagnosis.

In today’s era where it’s rare that we see a boxer fight more than one or two bouts, Miske was 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 interior began to close in, so did Billy. Parties were few and far between. Miske felt too bad to fight. He ate nothing but boiled fish, and he could barely move from the pain, much less dance throwing punches in a boxing ring.

In 1923, Miske could feel the end. The light at the end of the tunnel of his life was getting closer. He knew, however, that he could not leave this land until he was sure that his family was safe. As the chill of autumn fully descended on the Midwest, Billy called his trainer, his good friend Jack Reddy, and told her that death was hitting harder than ever. He needed to fight.

Reddy immediately shot down the idea. There was no way he was going to allow Billy, a 29-year-old man but with a broken body and frail as an old man, to walk into a ring and get beaten up. Reddy was preparing to give Miske money to help with the bills and vacation expenses Billy would be facing in the coming months. This is what Billy Miske told him: “I’ve never had a handout and I’m not going to start now. Jack, I’m broke and I just want to give Marie and the kids a decent Christmas before I go. You’ve got to get me a payday, for old times sake.”

Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing nothing would change the St. Paul Thunderbolt’s mind. He lined up a fight with “KO” Bill Brennan, a man equal to Miske even at the top of his career. Miske had no chance. He wasn’t even in good health to train for the fight. How could he even get in the ring with Brennan?

That was what happened with Miske. You couldn’t judge him just by his appearance. He might have looked more like a minimum-wage factory soldier than a world-class professional boxer, but Miske had the heart of a lion. That lionheart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the fourth round, earning him a generous $2,400.

Christmas 1923 would be special in the Miske house. Billy knew he was probably the latter, but he had long since made his peace with that. Watching his children open presents at Christmas that he couldn’t have received earlier was worth it. And watching his sweet wife Marie tickle the baby grand piano he bought her brought more than sweet music to her 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 fatal condition to Marie. 5 days later, at age 29, Billy Miske’s kidneys did what Miske never did: they stopped fighting. Miske died on January 1, 1924.

Miske’s story traveled fast through the community, state and world of boxing. Tommy Gibbons, a giant in the boxing world at the time and a man who had beaten Miske multiple times, had this to say about Billy:

“Billy Miske was one of the bravest guys to ever put on his gloves. He was always a gentleman in the ring; he always fought within the rules and never took advantage of a defenseless opponent or resorted to rough tactics.”

In fact, Billy Miske is a hero. A man who fought passionately and loved passionately. Billy Miske left a legacy that all men can live in. The moments of family happiness far outweigh the deadly worries we can have about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, one in which he proved, no matter the odds, that family is always worth fighting for.

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