Billy Miske, a middleweight from St. Paul, Minnesota, has come to town. He has issued a challenge to any of the boys of the weight of him.” (Milwaukee Free-Press, September 14, 1913)
One of the largest and bravest men in history stood just six feet tall and weighed around 160 pounds. He was 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 in decades plagued by cheapskates and hungry mouths. He married, had children and was broke. Dead broke.
But Miske used his God-given skills 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 uppercut, 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 toe-to-toe with some of the best boxers of the day: Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, and Battling Lavinsky, among others. In his illustrious career, Miske amassed some 45 wins, 34 of which were by knockout. The early 1900s are known as the “No Decision” era, meaning that in some states a fight not decided by knockout was considered a no decision and therefore did not fit into the boxer’s overall record. Miske could easily have close to 100 career wins from him 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, and if he’d grind 15 rounds of dizzying punches and he’d make it, he was all for it. But his time in the ring appeared in 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. However, after a few visits to the doctor, Miske learned the serious news: he was battling Bright’s disease, a serious kidney condition 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 lunging at one. Miske focused on his mission in his later years to do one thing: provide financial stability for his family. If that meant boxing through tremendous pain and fatigue? So be it.
Miske chose not to tell any of his family about his 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 make 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 a current era where it’s rare that we see a boxer fight more than one or two fights, Miske was involved in dozens of fights. In 1922 alone he stepped into 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. Matches 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 earth until he was sure that his family was safe. As the chill of fall descended fully on the Midwest, Billy called his trainer, his good friend Jack Reddy, and told her that death hit harder than ever. He needed to fight.
Reddy immediately rejected the idea. There was no way he was going to allow Billy, a 29-year-old man but with a broken and frail body like an old man, to walk into a ring and get beaten up. Reddy was preparing to give Miske money to help with bills and vacation expenses that Billy would face in the coming months. Here’s what Billy Miske told him: “I’ve never had a handout and I’m not going to start now. Jack, I’m completely 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 the old times”.
Reddy reluctantly agreed, knowing that 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 height of his career. Miske didn’t have a chance. He wasn’t even in good enough health to train for the fight. How could he even get in the ring with Brennan?
That was the thing with Miske. You couldn’t judge him by his appearance alone. 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 lion heart knocked out “KO” Bill Brennan in the fourth round, earning him a generous salary of $2,400.
Christmas 1923 would be a special one at the Miske house. Billy knew he was probably the last one, but he had long ago made his peace with that. Watching his children open presents at Christmas that he couldn’t have gotten before 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. Five 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, the state and the boxing world. Tommy Gibbons, a giant in the boxing world at the time and a man who had beaten Miske several times, had this to say about Billy:
“Billy Miske was one of the bravest 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 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 fight for. The moments of happiness in the family far outweigh the deadly concerns we may have about ourselves. Billy Miske lived a selfless life, one that he proved, no matter the odds, that family is always worth fighting for.