Some years ago, the sportswriter Rick Reilly wrote:
You can take all your Tiny Tims and your Grinches and your Miracles on Whatever Street and stuff them in your stocking. The best Christmas story is about a boxer.
It starts the day in 1918 when a doctor tells a slender heavyweight named Billy Miske that his bum kidneys give him five years to live, if he’s lucky. Turns out he’s dying of Bright’s disease. This comes as rotten news to Billy, who’s only 24 years old and not half bad in the ring.
But that’s the end of the story. Let’s go back to the beginning.
In the early years of the 20th century, St. Paul, Minnesota was a boxing hotbed. The best remembered St. Paul boxers of the era are the Gibbons brothers, Tommy and Mike. (The Gibbons family is still around; the great-grandson of one of the brothers, I’m not sure which, is a friend of one of my daughters.) But Billy Miske was in the same league. For some years, he was a top contender in the light-heavyweight and heavyweight ranks. In his prime, he weighed in between 180 and 190. Miske could box, hit like a piledriver and take a punch. He was known as a gentleman and a sportsman, and was universally liked within the world of boxing. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010.
Until recently, I was unaware of Billy Miske. My son is a boxing fan and is friends with some of the top fighters in this part of the world. For Christmas, he gave me a copy of the newly-published Billy Miske, the St. Paul Thunderbolt, by Clay Moyle, inscribed to me by the author. Moyle’s book not only chronicles Miske’s short life, but is a fascinating history of boxing from around 1914 to 1923.
Boxing in Minnesota was illegal, actually, when Miske started fighting. His career coincided with boxing’s rise to become one of America’s most popular sports. In those days, boxers must have been almost unimaginably tough. They would often fight with just a few days between bouts; in 1918, Miske fought 17 times. He rose steadily through the light-heavyweight and heavyweight ranks, and in 1920 he fought Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship of the world in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
By the time he fought for the title, Miske was already under a death sentence. Doctors had told him in 1918 that he had Bright’s Disease, an incurable kidney ailment, and had no more than five years to live. Billy never told anyone other than his manager, not even his wife, how dire his situation was. But, knowing that his health was in decline, in 1919 he invested most of his ring earnings in an Elgin automobile dealership. Unfortunately, Billy must have been a poor businessman, because the dealership lost money and absorbed more and more of his winnings.
So Miske kept fighting. After losing to Dempsey in 1920, he went on a winning streak: in 1921 and 1922 he was 19-1-1, with his only loss to Tommy Gibbons. But by the end of 1922, his health had deteriorated badly. The five years his doctors had given him in 1918 were almost up. He fought one bout in January 1923–which he won on a first round TKO–and then was too sick to train. For most of the rest of 1923, he rested, hunted and fished. And watched what was left of his savings go up in smoke.
By the fall, Billy knew he would see only one more Christmas. He wanted to enjoy his last Christmas with his wife, Marie, and their three young children. He also wanted to leave Marie something other than debts. There was only one way out: Miske needed one last fight. Many years ago, a sportswriter friend of Miske’s recorded Billy’s conversation with his manager, Jack Reddy:
“Jack,” said Billy, “get me a fight.”
“You must be kidding, you’re in no condition to fight,” Jack replied.
“Get me a fight anyway!”
Jack shook his head. “I won’t do it.”
“Look, Jack,” pleaded Billy, “I’m flat broke. I know I haven’t long to go, and I want to give Marie and the kids one more happy Christmas before I check out. I won’t be around for another. Please get me one more payday. I want to make Christmas this year something Marie and the children will always remember me for.”
“Look,” said Jack, “you know as well as I do that if you were to fight in your present condition you might be killed.”
“Sure, but I’m a fighter and I’d rather die in the ring than while sitting home in a rocking chair.”
Jack pulled out his wallet. “Let me help you. How much do you need?”
“No way,” Bill put his hand up like a wall. “I’ve never taken a handout and I’m not gonna start now.”
“Here’s what I’ll do,” Jack said. “You go to the gym and start working out. If you get into any reasonable kind of shape, we’ll talk about getting you a match.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Billy replied. “It’s impossible for me to train, but I’ve got to have one more fight for my family’s sake. Please do it for me. Please.”
Jack sighed. “I’ll live to regret this.” He stuffed his wallet back into his pocket. “Let me see what I can do.”
Reddy made a bout in Omaha, Nebraska, with a brawling heavyweight contender named Bill Brennan, whom Miske had fought before. So, on November 7, 1923, a dying Billy Miske–in 55 days, he would be dead–climbed through the ropes one last time, in hopes of staying on his feet long enough to bring home a $2,400 purse.
He did. And, through sheer willpower, Billy lasted until Christmas, the most festive ever in the Miske household. Billy bought a piano for Marie, who was an accomplished singer, and piles of gifts for his three children. The next day, Billy called Jack Reddy and asked Jack to take him to the hospital. En route, Billy told Marie for the first time that his prognosis was hopeless. Billy Miske, 29 years old, died on New Year’s Day, 1924.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. Let’s give the floor back to Rick Reilly:
That’s it, really. Except that if you ever pass through Omaha and run into an old-timer, ask him about the prizefight that day, the one that gave Billy Miske the finish he wanted, the one he won in four rounds, over Bill Brennan, by a knockout.