Billy Miske is one of the best-kept secrets in boxing
history. He was not a champion, being carefully avoided as an opponent for a
title. He was not from the bright
lights of New York City. He was
from the Midwest and received little ink from the big Eastern newspapers as
compared to other fighters of his ability
Miske was a clever, superb boxer who was fast and slippery.
He was cool and dauntless
in his approach and quick to take advantage of openings
with sizzling barrages of punches. He was not a bludgeoning puncher but a
blistering two-handed hitter who carried a stiff punch, especially with his
left. On defense, Billy was game under attack, blocked punches wonderfully,
and clinched and smothered his opponent at opportune times.
to Stillman (1920 p 62), “Miske’s methods of offense and defense were of
the first class. He could deliver a powerful blow with either hand and was a
most worthy opponent of the best men of the ring.”
continued, noting, “One of his pet blows was half turning around of his body
when addressing the opponent and sweeping his left hand in a sort of backhand
stroke across the eyes of the opponent, following the blow quickly with his
right hand, delivering a very powerful punch.”
and Kollmar (1999) called him “one of the best heavyweight prize fighters of
his day” and wrote that he was “blond and blue-eyed, muscular and
graceful. He looked like a champion.”
only did Miske look like a champion – he fought like one. He began his
career as a middleweight and right away was thrown in with – and held his
own against - the very toughest fighters in three weight divisions –
middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight.
As he gained experience and muscle mass (ultimately maturing into a
full-fledged cruiserweight), he became close to unbeatable.
Among those he defeated during his career were Jack Lester,
"Fighting" Dick Gilbert, Jumbo Wells, Jim Barry, Joe Bonds,
"Wild" Bert Kenny, Tom Cowler, Ed "Gunboat" Smith,
"Sailor" Ed Petroskey, "Wild" Bill Hart,
"Fireman" Jim Flynn, Gus Christie, "K.O." Bill Brennan,
Francis "Farmer" Lodge, Lee Anderson, Jack Renault,
"Captain" Bob Roper, Al Roberts, Billy Shade, Martin Burke, Homer
Smith, Willie Meehan, Carl Morris, Fred Fulton, Tommy Gibbons, and Harry
Though one must always be extremely careful in attempting to
assign "wins" and "losses" in no decision fights, a number
of sources credit Miske with "newspaper" decisions over Jack Dillon,
Battling Levinsky, Harry Greb and Kid Norfolk as well.
the course of his career, he “ducked” no one and fought the following
world-class fighters - Jack Dillon 5 times, Battling Levinsky 5, Tommy Gibbons
5, “K.O.” Bill Brennan 4, Jack Dempsey 3, Harry Greb 3, “Captain” Bob
Roper 3, Fred Fulton 2, Ed “Gunboat” Smith 2, Kid Norfolk 2, and Mike
O’Dowd 2. Miske was unsuccessful in luring Harry Wills into the ring.
a career of over 100 bouts, fighting against outstanding competition, he was
stopped only once – by Jack Dempsey, the great champion. In fact, Billy was
never knocked down until this bout (Dempsey 1977 p 135) and would never be
knocked down again. Miske compiled a superb career record of 43-2-1 (34 KOs)
with 56 no decisions. Though,
again, it is dangerous to speculate as to the "true winners" of no
decision fights, it would not be going very far a field to suggest that Miske
showed himself to be the better man in the vast majority of the no decision
bouts in which he participated.
Early in his career, he clearly deserved title shots against
Jack Dillon, Battling Levinsky, and Georges Carpentier, but never received
one. Miske was so highly regarded as a light-heavyweight in those days that
Kid Norfolk claimed the World Light-Heavyweight Championship after narrowly
defeating him in 1917 (this was Billy’s only official loss other than the
one to Dempsey). When he finally was
offered a title shot, it was for the heavyweight title - against one of the
greatest champions of all-time (Jack Dempsey) - and came at a time when he was
suffering the effects of a terminal kidney ailment called Bright's Disease.
is perhaps best known for his rivalry with Dempsey. They fought twice in 1918,
the year before the Mauler won the title. In these bouts, Dempsey was the
harder hitter but Billy displayed the better boxing skills and got in some
stinging blows as well. Jack had
such difficulty landing his legendary left hook due to Miske’s clever
blocking methods and extraordinary reflexes that he resorted to using his
right hand most of the time.
first bout (May 3, 1918) was a “nip-and-tuck” affair. Billy had Jack
completely baffled with his boxing tactics for several rounds (see Blair 1988;
St. Paul (Mn) Pioneer Press, May 4
1918). Jack’s aggressiveness and power finally gave him the
edge over the long haul.
to Dempsey, “Miske kept landing more blows than I did, and he seemed to be
really piling up points.” When instructed by his manager to go out and smack
Miske down, Jack thought “Easier said than done” (Dempsey 1977 p 83).
another account, Dempsey recorded that he was as bewildered as Carl Morris and
others had been when they fought Billy. “Miske had landed more telling blows
than I had. He suddenly came at me with a volley that nearly put me out. I was
floundering and groggy; it was all I could do to keep from going down. I
clinched whenever I could. When the bell finally ended the round, I was all
in” (see Dempsey 1940 p 146).
a survey of eight newspaper writers at ringside, all expressed the view that
the fight was very close. Four thought Dempsey won, one picked Miske, and
three called the fight a draw (see the St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 4 1918).
As to their second bout on November 28, 1918 - which prompted Dempsey's
manager Jack Kearns to call Miske's style "puzzling" (Kearns and
Fraley 1966 p 95) - most sources credit Dempsey with earning a clear newspaper
decision. All sources remark on
Billy’s gameness and courage, however.
Indeed, George Barton, sportswriter in Minneapolis for 53
years and a former boxer who defeated Terry McGovern in 1904, called Billy,
“the most courageous fighter I have known in more than half a century of
association with professional boxing” (Barton 1957). Barton asserted that
Miske was “a boxer with a great fighting heart” and concluded by saying,
“Maybe someone can name a gamer boxer than Billy Miske. I can’t” (also
see Heinz, 1961 pp 27-29).
The third and final Dempsey-Miske match took place in 1920
and was for Dempsey's World Heavyweight Championship. At that time, Miske was suffering from Bright's Disease –
and thus operating at a level at least somewhat below his former brilliance.
He nevertheless gave the champion all he wanted for the first two rounds.
Billy, knowing his physical condition, decided he could not endure a long,
tough fight of many rounds and so gambled on “lighting up the fireworks.”
In fact, Jack Kearns (1966 p 127) described the fight
(the first Heavyweight Championship bout broadcast over the radio,
incidentally) as follows, “I had a
feeling we might have been conned about Miske having been so sick … Billy
started throwing punches that were loaded with pure dynamite. At the end of
the second round, we were definitely behind on points.”
Jack caught Billy with a crunching body blow in round one.
Many believe it was the memory of this punch that kept Billy from following-up
and giving himself a chance, when, in round three, he rocked the Champion with
a snappy left hand shot and drove him backwards. The blow also made Dempsey
aware he could not afford to take any chances with Billy (see Fleischer 1936 p
As most people know, Dempsey caught up to Miske in the 3rd
and ended the proceedings with typical Dempsey brutality, inflicting upon
Miske the only knockout loss of his career.
Regrettably, Miske collapsing under Dempsey's onslaught is the image
most fans bring to mind when they hear Miske's name. This is a terrible
injustice given the level of excellence he established and sustained when
performing at his peak.
Miske's ability appears even more exceptional when one
considers that he compiled a record of 17-0 (12 KOs) and 5 no decisions after
his last fight with Dempsey. Incredibly,
his final fight, a 4th-round knockout over the deadly hitter, “K.O.” Bill
Brennan, occurred less than two months prior to his death on January 1, 1924.
Many boxing historians point out that great black fighters
like Peter Jackson, Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey, Harry Wills,
George Godfrey, Kid Norfolk, Larry Gains, Leroy Haynes, and Elmer
"Violent" Ray never got a chance at an official World Championship.
They never mention “white” Billy Miske. That’s because he did
fight for the crown against Dempsey – but, as we have seen, it was not when
Billy was at his peak and it was against a very, very formidable Champion.
As mentioned above, Miske started as a middleweight and
boxed successfully as a light-heavyweight and heavyweight in a period of truly
outstanding fighters. If he had received a shot at the Light-Heavyweight
Championship, he very likely would have been a World Champion.
If he had fought at a time when there was a Cruiserweight division, he
may have won that title as well. Either
way, he surely would be hailed today as having been a great fighter.
He should be, because he was.
Stillman (1920 p 62) summed him up as follows, “Billy
Miske was a wonderful fighter. Unfortunately, he was too light for the giants
that took up the boxing game during his time. He was a man in the 180’s and
could not compete with the top-notchers who weighed considerably more than
he.” (The writers of this article disagree with this assessment since Miske
was very competitive even at his weight).
Jack Kearns, manager of Dempsey, called Miske “one of the
greatest boxers of his weight in the history of the ring” (see New York
Times, January 2 1924).
George Blair, boxing historian, ranked Miske as the #2
All-Time Heavyweight (behind only Tommy Gibbons) among those who hailed from
Minnesota (see Blair 1986). Said Blair, “My opinion of Billy Miske is he is
one of boxing’s all-time best. To run up a record like his against the best
should qualify him to be in the Hall of Fame.” He added, “To me, there is
no doubt that in today’s era of prelim fighters being ‘champions’, Billy
Miske would easily be a champion …”
In the opinion of both writers of this article, at his peak,
he was one of history’s top heavyweights and light-heavyweights. If one
considers the modern Cruiserweight division, he possibly belongs in the
All-Time Top Ten.
In summary, Billy Miske was a master boxer and all-around
great fighter who should get more credit from boxing historians than he does
– a lot more.
Barton, G. 1957. “Billy
Miske’s Last Christmas” (contained in My Lifetime in Sports).
Olympic Press. (This article is also contained in The Fireside Book of
Boxing. 1961. by W.C. Heinz, published by Simon and Schuster of New York)
Blair, G. 1986. The Minnesota
Boxing Record Book, Volume 3
Blair, G. 1988. The Minnesota
Boxing Record Book, Volume 5
Blair, G. 1990. The St. Paul
Thunderbolt. Published by G. Blair
Dempsey, J. 1940. Round By
Round. New York: Whittlesey House
Dempsey, J. 1977. Dempsey.
New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Fleischer, N. 1949. Jack
Dempsey: The Idol of Fistiana. New York: The Ring, Inc.
Heinz, W.C. 1961. The Fireside
Book of Boxing. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Kearns, J. and Fraley, O. 1966. The
Million Dollar Gate. New York: The McMillan Company
D. and Kollmar, R. 1999. Billy’s Miske’s Last Fight.
http:// www. itschristmas. com/Story/cs2.htm ;
New York (NY) Times. January 2 1924 p 20. Miske Rated One
of Best Men At His Weight by Dempsey.
Reilly, R. December 27 1999 -
January 3 2000. ‘Twas the Night before Christmas (in Sports
Illustrated, Volume 91, No. 25). New York: Time Inc.
St. Paul (Mn) Pioneer Press. May 4
1918. Miske and Dempsey Box 10 Round Draw in Auditorium.
Stillman, M. 1920. Great
Fighters and Boxers. New York: Marshall Stillman Association
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