Billy Miske embodies the term ‘fighter’ and his story is one most inspiring, it begins with illusions of grandeur with a lot accomplished in between but ultimately expires prematurely in heartbreaking circumstances.
Miske competed in a time of the ‘no decision’ era which meant that if both men were standing at the sound of the final bell, neither’s hand was raised in victory, bringing a cloudiness to fight records of the time, not that it was a big deal for Miske who often kept the stretchers busy following one of his fights, such was his knockout ratio throughout his career.
A light heavyweight/heavyweight with hammers for hands, Miske also knew how to box, from his record you would be entitled into thinking he was just a puncher but he was so much more as he proved against some of history’s best.
Starting out his career with mixed fortunes, Miske’s failing car dealership was starting to rack up debts which made the need to face bigger named fighters at a premium.
Miske already held wins over the likes of Tommy Gibbons, Jack McCarron, Eddie Nearing, Jack Dillon, Battling Levinsky not to mention a draw with Harry Greb which meant that he had most certainly made a name for himself coming into 1918.
In May of that year, Miske fought to a draw with one of boxings greatest in Jack Dempsey but it was also a year that started the stopwatch on his life, doctors delivering the devastating news more deadly than anything he had encountered to this point, the news that Miske had five years to live, if lucky.
Billy was diagnosed with Bright Disease at the age of just 24 that in today’s terms would be classified as Kidney disease. The Doctor told him if you’re smart, you’ll find a comfortable couch and retire right now.
It would have been conceivable for any man/woman to take that advice but due to the trusting nature of Miske, he didn’t have that luxury, his dealership was in the red with the only option open to him of facing as many fighters as possible whilst he still could, for as much money that he could stuff in his pockets.
He took the news on his broad shoulder all whilst his family of three were unbeknown of any of this taking place. He fought over 30 fights since his diagnosis facing Dempsey again in the same year he was given the earth-shattering news, he didn’t fare quite as well as the first time, ending the fight on his back after shipping one of Dempsey haymakers but thereafter he won a lot more than he lost. Fighting an incredible fifteen times in 1922.
Billy had deteriorated to a frail 28-year-old, he was weak and thin by the fall of 1923, he hadn’t fought since January but wanted a substantial fight to provide a Christmas fitting of his last before pulling the rug from under his family’s feet.
He went to longtime Manager Jack Reddy asking him for one last fight. Reddy with a shake of the head said no way. “I don’t like to say this, but if you went in the ring now, in your condition, you might get killed.”
“What’s the difference?” Billy shot back with. “It’s better than waiting for it in a rocking chair.”
Reddy sympathised with Miske’s predicament, he knew he was in financial trouble so came up with a proposition “Do one thing for me. Go to the gym, start working out, and let’s see if you can get into some kind of condition. Then we’ll talk.”
A fragile looking Miske was unable to agree, telling Reddy there is no way I can work out, “I’ve got one last fight in me”
After giving it much thought, Reddy grudgingly agreed to a man’s dying wish, setting up a fight with a brawler named Bill Brennan.
Miske stayed away from the gym as he told Reddy he would, instead taking as time with his family as he could, suggesting that this fight was a suicide mission especially after seeing how Miske cut a figure of a man waiting for the visit from the grim reaper mixed with the fact that Brennan had already gone the distance with notable puncher, Jack Dempsey.
True to his word, Miske turned up on November 7th in Omaha surviving four rounds before amazingly scoring a knockout win that cashed a cheque of $2,400.
That Christmas was one which was cherished, a warm glow came over the Miske’s as they sung, eat well and had the giving of a rich family, It was the happily ever after that Billy had prayed for, one last smile as big as Minnesota shone brightly on his face before the acknowledgement that his time had come.
The next morning Billy called Reddy saying, “Come and get me, Jack. I’m dying.” Reddy rushed Billy to St. Mary’s Hospital, but there was nothing to be done and on New Year’s Day 1924, Billy died aged 29 of kidney failure.
This particular story is one of mental fortitude, telling of a man who wanted to provide for his family so much that he did the unthinkable by facing some of the best fighters of his era, Billy Maske’s story is one not of a man striving for world titles and backstory headlines but one centring around a man who simply just wanted to provide for his family and to allow them to have a better life after he’s gone.
To most in Minnesota he is a legend of the squared circle, a sentiment which is shared by myself, sleep well Mr Miske, you’ve more than earned the right.