Fight to the death: how a boxer died for his family

Boxer Billy Miske is $100K in debt. The St. Paul, Minnesota, car dealership he operates isn’t making money. Hard to believe a dealership could be that far in the hole in 1918, but that was the situation Billy was facing.

Billy’s body is giving him worse, though. The doctor tells the 24-year-old he’ll only make it another five years, on account of Bright’s disease and his failing kidneys.

Billy Miske is a more than serviceable boxer: And thanks to the massive debt load, he has no choice but to keep fighting, knocking off big names like Harry Greb and Tommy Gibbons. He went toe-to-toe with Jack Dempsey three times, battling him once for the title. Dempsey vanquished Billy with a massive blow to the jaw, saying “I was afraid I’d killed him” after.

The irony! It’s 1923, Miske is near the end of his term on this planet. Pockets empty and thinner than a beanpole, Miske hasn’t been able to work at the dealership, let alone fight.

(Photo source/Wikimedia)
(Photo source/Wikimedia)

With Christmas on the way, the fighter fears he isn’t going to be able to buy anything for his family for Christmas.

He begs his manager Jack Reddy for a final fight so he can make his last Christmas with his family a special one. Reddy isn’t ready to comply:

“I don’t like to say this, but if you went in the ring now, in your condition, you might get killed.” “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.”

He can’t. Billy tells his manager he can’t do a minute in the gym. He might be able to make it through a fight, but there’s no way he has the juice left to train. Out of sheer pity, Reddy lines up a fight in Omaha with a fellow named Bill Brennan for November 7.

To prepare for the fight, Billy doesn’t do a damn thing. He can’t. The guy never makes it out of bed and is subsisting on a diet of chicken soup. Somehow, he’s able to make it to Omaha for the fight and goes for fours. He’s paid $2,400 for his pugilistic services.

The Miske kids get the best Christmas ever. Presents galore. Plates overflowing with food.

Billy calls his manager the next morning: “Come and get me, Jack. I’m dying.”

A few days later, Billy’s kidneys finally go. He’s dead at 29.


Thanks to Rick Reilly for bringing this grand tale back into the light where it belongs. 

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