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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 challenged any boy of his weight.” (Milwaukee Free-Press, September 14, 1913)

One of the biggest, bravest men in history, he was only six feet tall and weighed about 160 pounds. Paste white, gnarled knees and fists that flew faster than even his nickname would suggest: the St. Paul Thunderbolt.

Billy Miske was a boxer, a man of grit and determination. Born in 1894, his glorious years were destined to fall into the decades full of penny pinchers and hungry mouths. He got married, had kids, and broke down. Dead broke.

But Miske used his God-given abilities to make a living: he punched and punched opponents in the ring. His style was orthodox; not sexy, not flashy, but fast and decisive. Every jab, every hook, every uppercut was thrown with intent, whether they landed or not. Preparing for each fight, Miske literally punched himself in the jaw 10 times a day.

Miske fought toe-to-toe with the greatest boxers of the era: Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb and Batling Lavinsky. During his illustrious career, Miske had somewhere around 45 victories, 34 of them by knockout. The early 1900s is known as the “No Decision” era, meaning that in some states, fights that were not decided by knockout were considered no-decisions and thus did not count toward a boxer’s overall record. Miske could easily reach 100 career wins if not for the period in which he struggled.

But the rash didn’t matter to Miske. Your family does. He’ll do anything to take care of them, and if he does 15 stun shots, he’s all for it. But his time in the ring ended in 1919.

At age 24, Miske told his coach, Jack Reddy, that he was feeling more tired than usual. Of course, he attributed it to boxing. However, after a few visits to the doctor, Miske learned the serious news: he was suffering from Bright’s disease, a serious kidney disease for which there was no cure. The doctors gave Miske about 5 years before he died. But even worse, Miske was told he couldn’t fight any longer.

Telling a man like Miske that he can no longer fight is like telling a tiger to let go of the herd of antelopes without pouncing. In his last years, Miske made it his mission to do one thing: provide financial stability for his family. If it meant boxing through immense pain and fatigue? So be it.

Miske decided not to tell any family members about his condition. There was no need for Marie and her children to worry, and the last thing she wanted was someone telling her not to fight. Miske tried other methods of earning 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 the losses from the trade.

Miske’s options were limited. What made him money, the only thing he was truly great at in this world, he was told by doctors would be bad for his health and shorten even his limited lifespan. But Miske figured if he could play enough matches, even if he didn’t win, he could get paid to keep putting food on the table. Billy Miske continued to fight as if nothing had happened. He had regular training sessions with coach Jack Reddy. He fought (and won) many matches in the years following his fatal diagnosis.

In that era, when we rarely see boxers fight more than one or two matches, 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 internals began to shut down, so did Billy. The game was short. Miske felt too ill to fight. He ate nothing but boiled fish and could barely move because of the pain, much less dance and throw punches in boxing.

In 1923, Miske felt the end. The light at the end of the tunnel of life was getting closer. However, he knew that he could not leave this land until he was sure that his family was safe. When the crispness of fall had fully descended on the Midwest, Billy called his trainer, good friend Jack Reddy, and told him that death was knocking harder than ever. He had to fight.

Reddy immediately rejected the idea. There was no way he was going to let Billy, a 29-year-old but broken-down and old-man-like frail man, step into the ring and shock him. Reddy prepared to give Miske money to help pay the bills and holiday expenses Billy would face in the coming months. Billy Miske told him, “I’ve never taken out 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 sign out. You’ve got to find me a paycheck for old time’s sake.” day.”

Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing nothing would change the St. Paul Thunderbolt’s mind. He fought “KO” Bill Brennan, who, even at the peak of his career, is on par with Miske. Nothing stood a chance. He wasn’t even in good enough health to prepare for battle. How did he get in the ring with Brennan?

This was the case with Miske. He could not be judged only by his appearance. Perhaps he looked more like a minimum-wage factory grunt than a world-class prizefighter, but Miske had the heart of a lion. This lion heart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the 4th round for a nice $2,400 payday.

Christmas in 1923 would be special in the Miske household. Billy knew it was probably the last, but he had long since come to terms with it. It was worth it to watch your children unwrap presents at Christmas that they could not have received before. And he watched his sweet wife Marie tickle the ivories on the piano he bought for her, which brought sweeter 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 her up to go to the hospital, where she finally reveals her dying condition to Marie. 5 days later, at the age of 29, Billy Miske’s kidneys did what Miske never did: they gave up the fight. Miske died on January 1, 1924.

Miske’s story quickly traveled the community, the state and the boxing world. Tommy Gibbons, a giant of the boxing world at the time and a man who fought Miske several times, said of Billy:

“Billy Miske was one of the most playful guys to ever put on the gloves. He was always a gentleman in the ring; he 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 all men can aspire to. Moments of happiness spent with family far outweigh mortal concerns about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, which proved that family is always worth fighting for.

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