Photos by Sumio Yamada
Book review: Poignant portrait of a man of courage
Fight fans with an interest in boxing history will be familiar with the story of Billy Miske, the old-time heavyweight contender from Minnesota who boxed while suffering from the kidney ailment Bright’s Disease and had his last fight when in real terms a dying man.
Miske took that final contest so that he could give his family a Christmas to remember and to share in their happiness as best he could while knowing that his time in this existence was fast running out.
This has always been one of the more poignant stories of the ring, and author Clay Moyle has gone into detail on Miske’s life and career leading up to the fighter’s passing at the early age of 29 in the biography Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt (Win By KO Publications, $29.95).
As with his earlier biography of the great old heavyweight Sam Langford, author Moyle has done a painstaking job of researching his subject. Anything anyone could possibly want to know about Miske — even the correct pronunciation of his last name — can be found in the pages of this book.
Miske’s career lasted from 1913 till November 1923. He is probably best known for his heavyweight title challenge against Jack Dempsey, who knocked him out in the third round at Benton Harbor, MI in 1920. The previous year, Miske had been to see a doctor after feeling unwell for some time, suffering from pains in the back and hip. Three specialists were consulted and the findings were grim: The 25-year-old Miske had the symptoms of the early stages of Bright’s Disease and likely had just five years to live.
Miske rigidly adhered to the dietary recommendations of the time, which for a while seemed to “work wonders”, the book tells us, and fought on. The sporting press of the time knew that Miske had been unwell, but it seems that none were aware of the full extent of his illness.
Troubles for Miske did not come singly. An investment in a car dealership cost Miske almost all his savings when the business collapsed in the post-First-World-War recession. Miske, with a wife and two young boys to support, was desperate for money, and author Moyle relates how Miske’s manager, Jack Reddy, pleaded with Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, for a title fight.
Miske had fought well against Dempsey in two bouts before Dempsey became champion, but the title fight was a mismatch. It now seems incredible that a so-called physical culture expert who examined Miske before the bout declared him to be “a fine physical specimen of a young athlete in the prime of his career”. It seems that Dempsey knew better. “I knew full well that Miske would give me no real fight,” Dempsey commented in a 1952 magazine article, “but I’d been hearing stories from other fighters that he was broke and needed the money badly.”
While Miske’s title fight against Dempsey went badly, he fought with success against the top boxers of his day. It was the era of the “newspaper decision”, when regulations did not permit a winner to be declared when a contest went the distance — the majority view of the newspaper reporters covering the fight was accepted as “official” for gambling purposes.
Miske fought as a light-heavyweight before growing into a heavyweight and he didn’t duck anyone. Contemporary accounts of his fights suggested that Miske was a fast, aggressive boxer-puncher. Including newspaper decisions, Miske defeated heavyweight contenders of his era such as Jack Renault, Gunboat Smith, Bill Brennan and the towering Fred Fulton. He also beat light-heavyweight champions Battling Levinsky and Jack Dillon and won, lost and drew in a series of fights with his St. Paul local rival Tommy Gibbons, who is best known for his fight with Jack Dempsey that proved to be a disastrous venture for its financers in Shelby, MT (that unhappy affair is covered in the book, too).
With its meticulous attention to detail, Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt provides a fascinating glimpse into boxing’s past as well as paying tribute to a fighter who showed remarkable courage in defying a then-incurable illness to continue his career, with his final fight — a knockout victory over his old rival, Bill Brennan — taking place less than three months before Miske died.