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Ondřej Jarůšek
September 1, 2022, 11:00am
Reading time: 5:51

Billy Miske: The Story Of A Dying Boxer Who Sacrificed Himself For His Family

Boxer Billy Miske competed across several weights including heavyweight. He received a devastating diagnosis at a young age, but even though he was dying, he decided to fight on to help his family.

Ondřej Jarůšek
September 1, 2022, 11:00am
Reading time: 5:51
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Billy Miske: The Story Of A Dying Boxer Who Sacrificed Himself For His Family
Zdroj: Getty Images/Bettmann
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Billy Miske is a name that is not heard very often in today's world of combat sports. It's quite possible that many have never even heard of him. He was forgotten. Or at least doesn't get the attention and recognition he deserves. But his story continues to amaze even after almost 100 years. He died at only 29 years old, but during his lifetime he was the true embodiment of the word "fighter". That was the case until his very last day.

A devastating diagnosis and a family without money

Billy Miske, or "The Saint Paul Thunderbolt", as the boxer was nicknamed, was born on April 12, 1894 in the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. He started professional boxing at the age of 19 and competed in the ring with the truest greats of his time. In addition to his boxing career, he also tried to start his own car sales business at a young age. But this did not go as well as he wished, and he fell into debt. And it was the financial crisis that later played a big role in what was probably the most difficult decision in his life.


Source: Wikimedia/Bibliothèque nationale de France/free use


In the spring of 1918, the then 24-year-old Miske was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, at that time still called Bright's disease. It is a serious kidney disease, which in some cases, leads to the patient having to undergo a transplant of the organ. In the worst cases, the disease ends in death. According to the doctor, Miske had a maximum of five years left to live, and due to the seriousness of the disease, he advised him to stop boxing immediately. But Billy Miske decided otherwise.

At that time, Billy Miske already fought against boxers who later went down in history as the best of their time - Jack Dillon, Harry Greb and others. But instead of heeding the doctor's warning, Miske decided to keep his illness a secret and continue his boxing career. He knew that he would not live very long, but he wanted to financially support his family as much as possible. The desire to help those closest to him won over his own health, so he decided to fight on, no matter what the cost.

More than 100 matches and tough battles in the "no decision" era


According to historical data, Billy Miske participated in more than 100 fights in his career and delivered 35 knockouts. However, the data on the number of matches, wins and losses might be different. For many years, Miske fought in the so-called "no decision" era, which describes the period at the beginning of the 20th century, when the point system, as we know it in contemporary boxing, was not yet applied, and the boxer could only become the winner of the match if he knocked out the opponent .


If both were on their feet at the end of the match, the match did not have an official winner nor was it declared a draw, but rather a "no decision". As author Mike Silver writes in the book Stars in the Ring, this meant, for example, that even if the champion at the time lost every round, he would keep the belt if he could stand on his feet until the end of the fight.

At the beginning of the last century, boxing attracted a lot of attention from gamblers who bet money on their favorites. The bettors then followed the majority opinion of the journalists, who the next day in the newspaper announced the winner of the boxer who, in their opinion, was better. That is why this period of boxing is also called "newspaper decision". Individual regions in the United States later began adopting new boxing rules that ended this era.

It is also important to mention that if the match ended in a "no decision" or "newspaper decision" result, the match was not counted in the boxers' official professional statistics. Therefore, Billy Miske's official statistics show "only" 52 professional matches (48 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses) according to the IBHOF, and another 54 matches ended as "ND".

He was dying, but he fought boxing legends

In the same year that Billy Miske heard the devastating diagnosis, he faced Jack Dempsey - the feared boxer who reigned as the heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1924. He rose to the top of the boxing world mainly thanks to his phenomenal strength and aggressive fighting style. To this day, Dempsey is considered one of the greatest legends of the sport.


Miske was famous for the fact that his opponents often ended up on stretchers, and although he was simply not enough for Dempsey, he was a worthy opponent. "The first two rounds were tight on the action, but Miske hit Dempsey with a jaw lift in the third round to gain the advantage in that round," the newspaper reported at the time. According to the journalists, however, Dempsey clearly dominated the fight, who was therefore declared the winner in the newspaper (officially, the winner was not announced after the match, as both boxers lasted until the end).

Miske and Depsey met again in the ring in 1920, when Jack Dempsey reigned as the heavyweight champion. In the rematch, the hard-hitting Dempsey managed to knock out Miske in the third round. Out of all 104 boxing matches, this is the only time Billy Miske lost by KO.


Source: Wikimedia/Library of Congress/free use


Since the time Billy Miske learned he was dying, he has appeared in dozens of other games. He was able to handle around ten to fifteen matches in one year. He was in pain, which worsened over time, which is why he walked away from the ring after a fight in January 1923, which he won by technical knockout. But not for good.

He wanted to give his family a nice last Christmas

Time was running out fast for Billy Miske and he knew it. He lost weight, the pain worsened, and he had no energy. It was winter and Christmas was approaching. Miske only had a few months left to live. He wanted to give his wife and three small children a nice Christmas once more, which is why he made the decision to enter the boxing ring for the last time despite his deteriorating health. He approached his longtime manager Jack Reddy to arrange the match.

"I hate to say it, but if you go into the ring in this condition, you could die there," the manager told him. "So what? It's still better than waiting for death in a rocking chair," answered the boxer.

"Do something for them - go to the gym, start training and get in shape at least a little bit, then we'll have fun again," Jack Reddy continued to urge the dogged boxer. But that was the problem. Because of his bad condition, Billy Miske could no longer train at all. He spent most of his time in bed or in a chair. Nevertheless, he insisted that one more match was within his power. The manager finally heard his wish.

Billy Miske entered the last match of his life on November 7, 1923. At that time, he had not been in the ring for more than three quarters of a year. His opponent was the renowned Bill Brennan, ranked among the best boxers of his time. Miske and Brennan have fought each other three times in the past, this was their fourth match against each other. Never before had their match ended before the time limit, but this time it was different. A dying Billy Miske knocked out Bill Brennan in the fourth round.

Source: Getty Images/Bettmann

He died a week after Christmas

He risked his life and left the ring with a smile. For winning, Billy Miske received a check for $2,400 (the equivalent of approximately $41,500 today) and gave his family the best Christmas they've ever had together. Towers of gifts stood by the decorated tree, children beamed with happiness. The next day, the boxer called the manager to take him to the hospital. He died on New Year's Day, January 1, 1924. He was only 29 years old.


"I was 6 years old, but I remember that Christmas. I remember my mother sitting at the piano. And I remember my dad too. I think we all knew that he took that last fight for us," the boxer's son Billy Miske Jr. recalled years later about his father and his sacrifice for the family.


In 2010, Billy Miske was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The ceremony was attended by proud members of the boxer's family, including two grandchildren. Billy Miske may never have become a champion in his short life, but his story and determination to fight until his last breath makes him one of the biggest names in the sport.

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Thumbnail: Getty Images/Bettmann
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