'Twas the fight before Christmas
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.
Last updated 12/21/2021 at 1:11pm
Written by Rick Reilly
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. He's good enough to fight guys
like future light heavyweight champ Harry Greb twice to 10-round
draws, which is sort of like tying with a twister. Still, the
doc says if Billy's smart, he'll find a comfortable couch and
retire right now.
Problem is, almost nobody but Billy knows he's up to his ears in
debt, being $100,000 in the hole because the car distributorship
he operates in St. Paul doesn't distribute near enough cars.
Billy's weakness as a salesman is that he's too trusting. He
keeps counting on his friends to pay up, and mostly they don't.
So Billy keeps the kidney news to himself and decides to
continue fighting and paying what he owes. In fact, Billy fights
30 more times after the doc's death sentence, including bust-ups
with guys like Tommy Gibbons, who was knocked out only one time
in his career, and three dances with Jack Dempsey, once for the
title in 1920.
Dempsey hits people only slightly harder than a bus, and in that
title bout he belts Billy once so flush in the heart that Billy
goes down for a nine count. In those nine seconds a purple welt
the size of a baseball pops up on Billy's chest, scaring Dempsey
half to death. But then Billy himself pops up, wanting more.
Dempsey knocks him clean out less than a minute later, this time
with an anvil to the jaw, as Dempsey is trying to get the fight
over before one of them faints, maybe Dempsey. "I was afraid I'd
killed him," Dempsey says afterward, but Billy's kidneys are
doing a good job of that all by themselves.
By the fall of 1923, Billy is dying fast. He looks like a
broomstick on a diet. He's too weak to work out, much less
prizefight. The only thing thinner than Billy's arms is his
wallet. He hasn't had a bout since January, which is trouble,
because Christmas is coming up hard.
Well, Billy isn't about to face his wife, Marie, and their three
young kids, Billy Jr., Douglas and Donna, tapped out for his
last Christmas, so he goes to his longtime manager, Jack Reddy,
and asks him for one last fight. Reddy says no chance. "I don't
like to say this," Reddy tells him, "but if you went in the ring
now, in your condition, you might get killed."
"What's the difference?" Billy answers. "It's better than
waiting for it in a rocking chair."
Reddy chews on that for a while and comes 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
Billy says no can do. He says there's no way he can work out. He
says he's got one last fight in him, and maybe not even that. A
softie, Reddy arranges a Nov. 7 bout in Omaha against a brawler
named Bill Brennan, who went 12 rounds with Dempsey and is still
meaner than 10 miles in brand-new shoes.
True to his word, Billy doesn't get any nearer the gym than his
aspirin bottle. He stays in hiding, slurping bowls of chicken
soup and boiled fish, and rarely making it out of bed. But he
turns up in Omaha on the appointed night, survives four rounds
with Brennan and cashes a check for $2,400.
That check buys the best Christmas the Miskes ever have. The
kids come flying downstairs in the morning to a Christmas tree,
a toy train, a baby-grand piano and presents stacked higher than
they can reach. They eat like Rockefellers and sing like angels
and laugh all day. Do you know, the only smile bigger in
Minneapolis that day than the ones on the faces of those three
Miske kids is on Billy's mug.
The next morning Billy calls Reddy and whispers, "Come and get
me, Jack. I'm dying." Reddy rushes Billy to St. Mary's Hospital,
but the doctors can't do a thing. On New Year's Day 1924, Billy,
29, dies of kidney failure.
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.
Rick Reilly- Rick Reilly is a member of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame and is an 11 time National Sportswriter of the Year and the author of 11 books. He wrote for Sports Illustrated from 1985 to 2007, and for the last 10 of those years he authored the popular "Life of Reilly" column on the magazine's backpage, the first signed weekly opinion column in the magazine's history.