St Patrick, St Joseph and St Paul’s Thunderbolt

28 May

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The restaurant was moderately busy and there was a steady flow of noise as the diners chatted and laughed. It had been busier at lunchtime, but now in the middle of the afternoon, some were just sitting down to a late lunch while others were nursing post prandial drinks and were using the joint more as a bar than an eatery.

A group of five sat at a circular table close to the bar and could barely hide their delight when they were joined by the restaurant’s proprietor. In truth, Jack Dempsey had sold a fair chunk of his interest in the premises many years before but his name was still writ large above the door of the legendary speakeasy on New York’s Times Square, and as such he still played the role of “mine host” from time to time and gave customers the chance to sit and chat with the former heavyweight champion of the world.

For fight fans, 75-year-old Dempsey was a legend – and most folk don’t often get the chance to speak to a legend let alone sit in a restaurant owned by one and have the man himself sit down with you and shoot the breeze.

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The five men concerned were all Americans, two from Florida, one from New York, one from Washington and the last from Chicago. They were all from an Irish background and had been in town for the annual St Patrick’s day parade two days before. It was the New Yorker who had suggested that as part of their week long get together they should go to Jack Dempsey’s for lunch one day, adding that if they were lucky – really lucky – they might just get a word with the great man himself.

Now, miraculously, here they were sitting with the square jawed septuagenarian who looked as if he could still step into the ring and do some damage.

One of the five men was celebrating a birthday – he was called Joseph after the feast day he was born on – and they had already made several toasts to “Joe and St Joseph” by the time Dempsey sat down.

Once he had introduced himself and made sure his customers all had fresh drinks, Dempsey eased into his usual chat with customers which, as always, very quickly centred on boxing, his career in the ring, his most famous fights and on the champions and fights of the day.

On this occasion it took barely a minute for one of the visitors to ask the former champ for his take on the big fight that had taken place just over a week before at Madison Square Garden when the undefeated Joe Frazier had successfully defended his title against the returning, but also undefeated, Muhammad Ali.

“What a left hook in the 14th!” said one of the men referring to Frazier’s punch which felled Ali like a tree “Do you think that is what won it for smoking Joe, Jack?” asked the same man somewhat timidly addressing “The Manassa Mauler” by his Christian name.

“Well” said Dempsey “I certainly think that sealed it for him. I think Joe was the aggressor throughout the fight and it was he who was coming on and going forward all the time. For me, Ali fought in bursts and was holding a lot – I think it is obvious that his three year layoff has slowed him down. He looked a touch too big and was far more static – nothing like the fighter of a few years ago, and I doubt he will get that back to be honest. But it was a great fight that’s for sure.”

“ Yet afterwards, in the press conference, Ali maintains that he was the winner and that the verdict was a white man’s decision.” Said one of the company.

Dempsey, cocked his head to one side slightly and grimaced.  He said “I disagree. I think he lost, and if he is honest with himself, he will know he lost. But let me ask you this, when he made that statement who was he speaking to and what message was he sending out? Professional boxing is about what goes on in the ring, and about what goes on out of the ring, and what I take from Ali’s comments is that he is saying that he is not for quitting the business and going away quietly as some have suggested he should. In fact, he is saying the opposite. He is saying. “I am still here, I think I won, and that I am still the greatest” – of course whether he is or isn’t is of no moment at this time as he has just lost a decision and been dumped on his ass! But he is making a noise and saying to the promoters that he is up for more fights and making them more money. Ali is a great showman and a big draw, and in my opinion, he is deliberately firing up post fight speculation about a rematch and putting immediate pressure on Joe Frazier – if you like he is diminishing the result in Joe’s favour, and I suspect that Joe himself won’t like that – not one little bit! As for his “white man” jibe – both fighters were black!” he said dismissively.

“So do you think Joe has shown that he is the better fighter?”

“I think he was the better fighter on the night over 15 rounds” replied Dempsey “That is clear. Joe fought a great fight. He was brave and relentless in coming forward, landed some huge blows and really made Ali look like a slow fighter. He had him on the ropes for a lot of the time, and either Ali couldn’t stick and move the way he used to or Joe just didn’t let him stick and move. It looked to me that Joe controlled the fight – I don’t believe that any fighter, at this or any level, would decide that it is a good tactic to just sit on the ropes the way Ali did. I don’t think that was his game plan. I don’t think he would have wanted to stand there and take heavy punches on his arms and body, let alone to the head. No, Joe controlled the fight and dictated the style of fight. That will have counted for the judges who will have expected to see Ali dance, move and send out those fast bursts and combinations we have seen before. When that didn’t happen they will have seen Joe winning.”

“However, would Joe Frazier have been able to dictate like that against the Ali or Clay of a few years ago? That I am not so sure. Sonny Listen was a mean son of a gun and he tried to chase the young Cassius Clay all around the ring and permanently got leather in the face for his trouble. I am not so sure that Joe would have landed the left hook as often on the Ali of a few years ago. All fighters have a place and time when they are at their peak – for me what you saw the other night was not Muhammed Ali at his peak – his peak was three years ago.”

“Do you think there will be a rematch champ?”

“Well Ali certainly wants a rematch, going by what he is saying in public, but I am not sure “Smokin Joe” and his handlers will be too quick to offer one – He is the undisputed heavyweight champ and he whipped Ali’s ass – what does he stand to gain by offering Ali another chance? Would he want to face another brutal fight with Ali where Ali has been given the chance to maybe come in 6lbs lighter and be more mobile? Besides, If I am honest, I think there will be doubts in Joe’s head – more importantly, there will be doubts in Yank Durham’s head.”

“Sorry, can you explain that?” said the visitor from Chicago “Joe won clearly, he now knows he can beat Ali and stop him fighting the way he did previously. Ali is not a big puncher, never was, so why should there be doubts in Frasier’s head? Surely, the bigger doubts must be in Ali’s head and his calls for a rematch are all show?”

“That’s not the way I see it and that’s not the way that boxing works “out of the ring” son” replied the old man. “You see with fighters like Frasier and Ali, once one fight is over your mind starts to think about the next fight, the next opponent, and what you learned from your last fight – and while Joe won the decision, both fighters have an awful lot to think about. In my opinion, Joe in particular, has a lot to think about even although he won.”

“What do you mean?” asked one of those listening.

Dempsey, took a sip of his drink and looked at the men listening and continued.

“Joe is the champ right? He has the title, he beat his biggest rival and whipped him good. The title brings with it prestige and riches, yet fame and wealth and can easily take the edge off a man. There are easier ways to make money with the title in your pocket than to stand toe to toe with someone who wants to take your head off while attempting to take that title. However, sooner or later you are going to have to go back into training and put up the title again in the ring, and if I were Joe Frasier just now the last person I would want to face in that ring is Muhammed Ali who has a point to prove.

Besides, as we sit here, Joe is still in the hospital. Despite winning, he took a real beating from Ali and there are only so many beatings a man can take before he decides not to come back for more. Plus, there is one other really big thing to consider and that is the fact that Ali got up! If you look at the knockdown in the 14th, Joe Frasier threw a haymaker that landed square on Ali’s jaw and lifted him clean off his feet. Now that gives you instant encouragement in the ring, but if the guy gets up having taken your best shot, that same few seconds can really work against you. If you look at the fight footage, Ali didn’t scramble or stumble to his feet, he got up right away, wiped himself down and went back into the fray. I am sure he was rattled, and I am sure he was dazed, but he got straight back up – and that is something we learned in this fight – Ali has a great jaw! That was never known before. Sure he got up against Cooper in England but there was a delay there. In this instance, Ali took the best hit the hardest punching heavyweight in the business can throw – a punch that has knocked many others clean out – and he got up! Trust me when I tell you that the difference between good fighters and great fighters – champions and legendary champions – is that the really great guys get up when they shouldn’t be able to. Ali got up, and when you are considering your next move in this business, you are not going to be too keen on going toe to toe with a guy that gets up when you hit him big.”

The assembled men were on the edge of their seat listening to this analysis from the former champion, and this dissection of the recent fight led one of them to ask:

“Did that ever happen to you champ? When you knocked them down they stayed down? Right?”

Dempsey was glad of the chance to switch the conversation to his own career.

“I always had a puncher’s chance” said Dempsey “But even when I beat Jess Willard to win the title in 1919, even when I knew I was winning and that he was in real trouble, I still didn’t want him to get up. I busted his jaw, his ribs, bust an eardrum but he still kept getting up. I was shouting at him “Stay down Jess: Stay down Jess” but he just kept getting up and as he was miles bigger than me I was afraid that if he got up and clocked me with a big shot then things could be very different. Fortunately, for me, he eventually – at last – stayed down.”

The men discussed Dempsey’s legendary win in Oklahoma on July 4th 1919 for a bit longer, with all of them knowing that Dempsey beat Willard by delivering one of the most brutal beatings in boxing history – so brutal that long before the fight ended Willard’s wife had to be escorted from the stadium as she could no longer watch as her husband was systematically and brutally beaten by Dempsey.

The conversation moved on to Dempsey’s fight with Gene Tunney and the famous long count where Tunney was given far longer than ten seconds to get up from a crushing Dempsey blow. Had the count been delivered in regular time, then Tunney would have been counted out and Dempsey would have regained his title which he had lost to Tunney in a points decision over ten rounds almost a year before. As it turned out, Tunney recovered and eventually won the second fight by once again taking a points decision.

“That’s an example in point about what I was saying earlier” said Dempsey “I hit Gene Tunney with everything I had in the first fight and he didn’t go down. In the second fight, I was behind and I hit him with a huge left hook and I knew immediately he was going down. However, he got up – long count or no long count – Gene Tunney got up and when you are not used to the opponent getting up, the sight of him getting up eventually plays on your mind. In the moment, you try and go in for the kill, but when you later sit on your stool at the end of the round and look over and see the other guy is still in the fight you begin to think about how your best hit is not necessarily going to finish this guy. Frasier hit Ali late in the fight last week. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he had knocked him down in say round six or seven. If Ali gets up and continues, then Joe might start to ask himself questions in his own head. Conversely, Ali now knows he can get up. He has taken Joe’s best shot and got up. That changes a fight.”

“Do you think boxing was tougher back in your day champ?” asked one of the group.

“I would have to say yes” replied the smiling ex-champ “Much tougher!”

“For example, when Jess Willard won the title from Jack Johnson, he did so by knocking Johnson out in the 26th round! Can you imagine that? The 26th round. These days you are not allowed to go beyond 15 rounds. What’s worse, when big Jess won some of the papers suggested that Johnson had taken a dive! Big Jess later said “well he could have taken a dive a hell of a lot earlier than the 26th round!”

From there the men started to ask questions about his career: His toughest fight: Who was the hardest puncher? Could he have beaten Frasier, Ali, Liston, Louis?

Dempsey took his time and regaled them with tales from both inside and outside the ring. He was charming, funny and enthralling when telling his stories.

Then one of the men asked who he thought was the bravest man he had ever faced?

Before Dempsey could provide an answer to the question, a voice from behind him suddenly interjected and entered the conversation:

“Before you answer that champ, I’ll bet I can guess who you will say was your bravest opponent?”

All six men turned to find the source of the voice who had somewhat rudely interrupted what had been, until then, a private conversation.

“I don’t mean to interrupt or be rude” said the voice “but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the champ’s discussion with you guys, and that is such a good question I just thought it would be fun to guess the answer in advance.”

The source of the voice was a smiling suited man in his late 30’s or early 40’s wearing thick framed spectacles. He was sitting on a stool at the bar just behind Dempsey’s right shoulder and until that moment he had not been noticed by the five visitors or their host. The voice was accented and clearly not American, and it was perhaps this factor which prevented any of the others objecting to his uninvited entry to their conversation.

“Where are you from, Son?” asked Dempsey taking the lead in engaging the newcomer to the conversation.

“I am from Glasgow …. Scotland.” Replied the smiling face.

“Kenny Buchanan!” said Dempsey in a flash.

“Yes but he is from Edinburgh” said the Scotsman – “I’m from Glasgow.”

“Well, wherever you are from son, welcome to Jack Dempsey’s” retorted the owner “But I will tell you this, If a young man from thousands of miles away can predict who I would judge as the toughest guy I faced in the ring – what 50 years ago – then I am impressed! In fact, tell you what I will write someone’s name down, you guys can guess who I have nominated, and if anyone of you guesses right there is a round of drinks on the house.”

This brought a babble of good humoured discussion and a waiter was dispatched to find a pen and some paper for the ex-champ.

While the waiter was gone the young Scotsman once again raised his voice:

“Excuse me, Mr Dempsey? I think the original question was who was the bravest opponent you faced, not the toughest, though I accept that there might be very little difference between the two.”

At this Dempsey stopped and looked at the young man and paused for just a second before being interrupted by the waiter returning with pen and paper.

“OK” said Dempsey “The question is who was my bravest opponent?” and with that he scribbled something on a piece of paper.

Fight fans who frequented Dempsey’s restaurant fell into one of four categories.

First, there were those who knew nothing about boxing at all – they just knew that Dempsey had been a fighter and was famous.

Next came those who knew that Dempsey had been world champ and that current boxers went in there – they could maybe even name one or two.

The third group, among which most of the table of five belonged, knew exactly who Dempsey was and had a fair knowledge of past and current champs.

The last group, were those who were really into boxing and who could hold conversations and debates about all sorts of boxers of different eras, their histories, merits and failings.

Dempsey quickly went round the Americans. They had various guesses including Tunney and Willard, with the guy from Chicago confidently predicting that French world war one hero George Carpentier must have ranked as Dempsey’s bravest opponent.

Dempsey, talked about Carpentier briefly, saying he was a tough and brave man, but he was not the name Dempsey had written down.

Finally, all eyes fell on the Scotsman who had not provided a name as yet in this guessing game.

Eventually, Dempsey looked at him square in the eye, reminded him of his confidence and said “OK the round of drinks rests on you young fella!”

The Glaswegian on the bar stool matched Dempsey’s solid gaze and said confidently:  “I believe the name you will have written down on that piece of paper will be that of Billy Miske”.

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“Who?” said one of the guys from Florida “Never heard of him. Was he a champ or something in the old days?”

Jack Dempsey, however, simply stared back at the man at the bar and quietly asked “How did you hear of Billy Miske? He’s been dead for decades?”

“I just know about him” said the Glaswegian “And I just know that is the name on the paper.”

At this, Dempsey turned to the rest and asked “Any of you guys ever heard of Billy Miske?” – no one had.

Jack Dempsey open the piece of paper in his hand and sure enough clearly written upon it was the name “Billy Miske”.

A big cheer went up from the five Americans and Dempsey summonsed the waiter and ordered 7 drinks. However had anyone been watching closely they would have noticed a tinge of sadness in both Dempsey’s face and voice.

“So who was Billy Miske then?” asked one of the company.

“ Yeah tell us about him.” Said another.

Dempsey took a long draw from his glass, shook his head slightly and turned briefly to the Scotsman:

“I don’t often talk about this!”

The bespectacled man looked back and simply said “Well you should. It is a story worth telling – for all sorts of reasons.”

The former world heavyweight champion stole another quick look at the young Scotsman before turning back towards the five Americans and in a somewhat subdued voice started to tell the story of Billy Miske

“Billy is one of the best kept secrets in boxing history. He was my friend and I came to love him like a brother and he was one hell of a fighter. He was born in St Paul’s Minnesota and he started out as a middleweight. He was about a year older than me and came from a family with a German background. In those days, boxing was technically illegal in Minnesota but all the same St Paul’s produced a whole series of tough boxers including Tommy and Mike Gibbons and, of course, Billy. He was given a nickname – The St Paul’s Thunderbolt.

Billy fought at any weight between Middleweight and Heavyweight. He stood six foot tall, was strong as a buffalo and carried a real good wallop in both hands especially his left. He fought anyone who would agree to fight him and most of the time he would win. When he didn’t win, then the other guy must have been good – because you had to be good to beat Billy.

Billy was a far better boxer than me and better than most everyone else. He had great movement around the ring. Long before Ali floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee it was said that Billy Miske was “Slick as a whistle and as swift as a breeze.” As I say he ducked no one – but it is fair to say that there were a few guys who had titles and belts who ducked Billy when those titles were on the line.

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In those days you had official fights and unofficial fights. There were fights in the mid-west where you just walked into a town, agreed to fight and walked away again. These were unofficial ones. Then there were official fights which were staged by a promoter in advance but even they could sometimes be scored by the newspaper men who came to watch and if you didn’t knock the guy out but won on points then it was called a newspaper decision. It was only later that we had official judges.

Anyway, Billy fought over a hundred times in real tough organised and unorganised fights and he won on 72 occasions had about 15 draws or so and around maybe ten defeats all told. In officially organised prize fights he only ever lost twice or three times at most.

About half of the 72 wins were won by knockout – and his defeats were mostly to real good guys like Battling Levinsky, Tommy Gibbons, and Kid Norfolk and these guys – and then Billy would fight them again and win. They would all fight each other and sometimes they would win and sometimes Billy would win. Interestingly when the likes of Levinsky, Carpentier, Kid Norfolk and others all held titles – the one guy they would never give a title shot to was Billy. He was ok to fight in semi organised fights but when it came to have something on the line all these guys made sure he was the professional undercard. They would never risk the titles against Billy.”

One of the five American guys interrupted Dempsey:

“You obviously fought him champ? Did he beat you?”

Dempsey sort of sighed and simply said “No. Billy never beat me in any kind of contest but jeez did he give me a hard time? He did beat guys who had beaten me, like “Fat boy” Willie Meehan – Jeez I fought Meehan 5 times and only beat him once on a decision. Billy knocked him out!”

“So, what happened when you met him champ? Why do you rate Billy as braver than say Willard or Firpo or Carpentier?”

“Well, I fought Billy more often than I fought any of those guys. I first stepped into the ring with him in May 1918 when we fought in the auditorium in St Paul’s Minnesota. I had been fighting all over the place – California, San Francisco, New York and had won about fifteen fights in a row. The last guy to beat me was the same Fatboy Willie Meehan I mentioned a moment ago and he gained a couple of points decisions against me over four rounds. Over a longer distance I fancied my chances against anyone because eventually I would give them a wallop and down they went.

I had heard of Billy and so was happy enough to go to Minnesota for a pay day fight with him. He turned out to be a really nice down to earth guy whom I instantly liked. He was a man’s man – an honourable man just plying his trade in the ring and making a good job of it. When we got into the ring, boy did I learn quickly that I was in trouble. Billy was really quick. He was really a light heavy and he had tremendous hand speed and defence. I could never work out his style and he very quickly got lots of leather in my face. I couldn’t catch him and at the end of one round I was taking a real beating and when I sat on the stool I was very nearly done.

Doc Kearns, my manager, said to me “Go out and smack him!” and I remember thinking that is easier said than done!

In the end, I was heavier and had the bigger hit so I slowed him down but I never really got his measure the way I did with other guys. Of the newspaper guys I knew there, four said I had won, three said it was a draw and one went for Billy – but all of them said it was real close. At the end, we shook hands, had a beer and enjoyed one another’s company. Billy was a great guy – I just didn’t know how great at that point.

What I also didn’t know then, but know now, was that when we stepped into that ring in May 1918 Billy was a dying man!”

“What?” exclaimed one of the listeners.

“You heard” said Dempsey “He was a dying man! Earlier in the year he had been diagnosed with what was called Bright’s disease – a disease which effects the kidneys and from which there is no recovery – or at least there was no recovery back then. However, I didn’t know any of that and so simply stepped into the ring with a view to beating Billy as quickly as a I could and moving on to the next fight down the road.

But that was not to be. We fought a full ten rounds and try as hard as I could I couldn’t beat Billy. The “official” newspaper verdict scored it a draw – but I am not so sure. That verdict might have favoured Billy as the home fighter. Some say he beat me; others think I may have won – I thought I did enough to win – but all these years later all I can definitely say was that Billy was the toughest fight I had had in a long long time.

I got to know him a bit after that and as I said I liked the guy. Really liked him.

I fought him again 6 months later. In the interim period I had about a dozen or so fights winning them all more or less by knockout in the first or second round – except for another four round loss to the Fatboy whom I just could not beat.

Anyway, in November 1918 I agreed to a series of three fights in Philadelphia. Up first was Battling Levinsky who was from Philadelphia and who was the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world and who preferred to fight me than take the risk with Billy. As he was a light heavy and I was heavyweight his title was not on the line – either way I knocked him out with a right hook in the third round. A good result for me – it got me noticed.

About ten days later I fought a guy called “Porky” Dan Flynn who didn’t present too much of a problem as he went down to a left hook in the first round and never got up again.

Ten days later – at the end of the month – I stepped into the ring with Billy Miske for the second time. The fight was to be over six rounds and I was determined to put up a better show than I had in the previous fight with Billy. I won alright, but it was a decision – not a knockout. I hit Billy with everything and he just kept coming straight back with his own big hits – and he could hit hard.

I still couldn’t figure out his style, still couldn’t get in behind him and score any really big hits. No matter how hard I tried Billy still came marching forward. At the end one boxing commentator stated that there was no braver or more game fighter on the planet than Billy Miske – and he didn’t know how ill Billy was at the time he said it.

I still didn’t know he was ill – didn’t know he was dying – and gave it my best but still couldn’t put him away, He was a tough son of a gun.

He never said anything about being ill and unwell – he kept that to himself though eventually it became known in boxing circles that all was not ok with him.

In the next seven months I had about eight or nine more fights winning them all by knock out before beating Willard for the title in July 1919.

After that, I was heavyweight champion of the world. I was rich – a celebrity – and with the title in my pocket I set about making a few bucks out of the ring and I was in no rush to go back into the ring and risk losing the belt and all that came with it.

When I did choose to defend the title, It was in September 1920 in Bran Harbour Michigan and standing in the opposite corner was Billy Miske.

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It was the first fight ever that was broadcast live on the radio and it represented a big payday for me and I knew for a fact that I would win because by this time Billy was clearly unwell. He had begged me for the fight. When you are the champ everyone wants a chance to get you into the ring, knock your head off and take away the title. You receive offer after offer – but that is not how it was with Billy.

By 1919 there was no hiding the fact that Billy was unwell. What he hadn’t told anyone was that before he fought me for the first time in 1918 he had been told he would have only five years to live at most. He was 24 years old at the time and the five years could never be guaranteed. He was told that he would only get the five years if he retired from boxing, eased up and gave his kidneys the best chance they had.

But Billy boxed for a living and in total he would fight about forty times after being diagnosed.

He kept all of this a secret from everyone except his manager who was a guy called Jack Reddy who, to be fair, begged him to stop fighting.

But Billy wouldn’t listen and swore Reddy to secrecy.

Anyway, by mid 1920 Billy was broke. He had taken whatever money he had and invested it in a car dealership which didn’t work. He owed between $50, 000 and $100,000 and so he came to me with Reddy and begged me for a title fight.

He looked unwell. He was all skin and bone: his shorts and his dressing gown were almost hanging off him. He admitted he had an illness but wanted the fight. I didn’t want to fight him. I told him to go bankrupt but he said that if we fought he would get a pay day, he could pay off some creditors and then he would rest up. Eventually I agreed and Doc Kearns, my manager set up the fight in Michigan with Billy getting a minimum of $25,000.

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When it came to the fight I was determined to get it over with quickly. I wanted to knock him out – partly because I had always struggled with Billy and because I knew he was desperate. All his financial troubles would absolutely disappear if he beat me, and if he hit me with a big haymaker then he was in with a chance. But I also wanted to end the fight quickly for Billy. He was clearly unwell but he never said how unwell so I just wanted it over and done with.

In the first round I hit him with a body shot and a huge purple patch appeared on his skin. It was like nothing I had ever seen and I wondered then what the hell was going on. But he still kept coming in – strong as an ox and both me and Doc wondered if we had been conned by Billy and his manager and their story about Billy being ill.  He sure didn’t fight like a guy who was ill and I had the bruises to prove it.

But he had that big mark where I had hit him on the body which was really weird, and deep down I knew he was telling the truth – I knew he was ill.

In the second round I hit him on the chin and for the first time ever Billy went down. However, after a count of eight or nine – he got up.

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I said earlier that when you are used to knocking folk out, the sight of a fighter getting up when they are not supposed to can have an effect on you. Well I watched Billy get up and I thought “Oh no – he’s getting up. He has to go down and stay down. Billy please stay down.”

But no – Billy got up and came in again still swinging with some dangerous shots especially with that left hook of his..

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In the third round, I was determined this would go no further. I swung a vicious left hook at Billy and it hit him on the button. He straightened up, clearly dazed and dropped his hands, and with him standing there motionless I hit him as hard as I ever hit any man with my right hand and knocked him out. It was to be the only time that anyone would ever knock out Billy Miske –  I am only the only fighter who would ever drop him to the canvass for any kind of count.

I was scared he was going to die. As soon as the count was over I carried him back to his corner and got him on the seat. No celebrations, no raising my arms, no playing to the crowd – I just wanted Billy to be ok.

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After he had recovered and got his cheque etc I begged him to go home and get better – not knowing he could never get better.

After fighting Billy, I would only ever fight eight more times.

The first was against a guy called KO Bill Brennan who I knocked out with body punches in the Garden in December 1920. Bill was a dangerous fighter and you either knocked him out or got knocked out yourself. There were no in betweens.

After that it was maybe one fight a year against really good people like Carpentier and Firpo until I lost to Gene (Tunney) in 1926.

Billy, on the other hand, continued to fight and between 1921 and 1923 he climbed into the ring on no less than 22 occasions. He couldn’t train, was clearly getting sicker and sicker but simply needed the money and so he fought. Amazingly, after losing to me he went on a run of fights where he won 17 straight contests with 12 by way of a knock out. His other 5 fights were effectively no decisions. In short, after fighting me for the title he never lost another fight again.

In October 1922 he fought here in the Garden against Tough Tommy Gibbons who was also from St Paul’s. To understand how tough Tommy was, I would fight him a year later and won on a fifteen round decision. Tommy was real hard.

Anyway, Billy came to the Garden looking like shit. Really unwell. He couldn’t train and was getting thinner and thinner. But somehow he battled through ten rounds with Tough Tommy and won. However, everyone was telling him to hang up the gloves. We never knew he was dying but he was clearly unwell. His five years were almost up though he kept that to himself.

In January 1923 after knocking out a guy called Harry Foley in the first round, Billy finally decided to retire for good.

Or at least that was what we thought. What I didn’t know at the time was that Billy was still flat broke and obviously that he was dying.

The story goes that by the time we get to Thanksgiving in November 1923 Billy knew he was about to see his last Christmas. He was now seriously unwell but not even his wife knew he was dying.

He apparently called up Jack Reddy and asked him to get him a fight- any fight – so that he could have money for his family at Christmas.

Reddy refused apparently and told him straight that he was in no condition to fight anyone but Billy persisted and laid it on heavy that he needed to fight to support his family. Billy also stipulated that the fight had to be against someone good to make the fight attractive and so bring in the money.

Against his better judgement, Reddy arranged a fight with KO Bill Brennan who had given me real trouble just a few years before.

Jack Reddy got a lot of criticism for arranging the fight for Billy – people thought he was just on the make and the guy had to put up with some abuse but at Billy’s request he never let on just how desperate things were.

Billy fought Brennan in Omaha on December 7th  and the deal was that if he could survive till round 4 then he would walk away with a cheque for $2500.

Jack Reddy told the press that Billy was training at home in secret when in fact he could barely get out of bed.

He arrived in Omaha two days before the fight and somehow fooled the match doctor that he was fit to fight. He then stepped into the ring with Bill Brennan and was determined to last the four rounds that guaranteed the cheque. However, he didn’t want to fight beyond four rounds, and unbelievably in that fourth round he swung his big wallop and knocked big Bill out!

I never knew too much about what was going on – I had beaten Louis Firpo in September 1923 and was just enjoying being champ – all I knew was that Billy was somehow still fighting.

Apparently, after beating Brennan, Billy went home with his winnings and put on the best Christmas ever for his family. He bought a piano for his wife Marie, who loved to sing, and on Christmas morning there were toys galore for his three kids and there was still some money left over.

On boxing day, he called Jack Reddy and told him it was time to go and asked Jack to come and take him to the hospital. It was only in the back of the car on the journey to the hospital that he told Marie that he was dying and that he had kept this hidden for over 5 years.

On New Year’s Day, 1924, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Billy Miske died. He was just 29 years old.

And that, gentlemen, is why Billy Miske was the bravest man I ever fought. When I eventually found out the truth and learned the whole story – heavyweight champ or not — I cried like a baby.

I didn’t fight again for two and a half years until 1926 when I lost the title to Gene and I only ever won one more fight after Billy’s death when I beat Jack Sharkey in June 1927. After that there was the second fight with Gene and that was it for me. I was out.”

Dempsey drained his glass, sighed and looked at the men around him who sat in silence.

“Jesus” said one “That is an awfully sad story”

BillyMiske-FP

The former heavyweight champion replied almost immediately “No son, that is a great story, about a great man, a decent man, and the Scottish fella over there is correct, It is a story that should be told more often and should be more widely known. Billy was a great guy, he lived his short life the way he wanted to and the way he saw fit playing by his rules and his sense of decency. Few men can live a better life than that.”

“Now, if you excuse me” said the ex champion of the world “ I am going to move on and leave you guys to the rest of your day. Always remember the story of Billy Miske and remember that when a boxer gets off the floor when he shouldn’t be able to, the guy who knocked him down might just have some questions going around in his head. “How is he able to do that? Why is he getting up?”

As I said, Joe Frazier has something to think about when lying in his hospital bed because Ali is out there doing the rounds, knowing that he was beaten in the fight, but he has clearly not been beaten to the extent that he is going away quietly. Ali got up and you have to ask yourself how and why? He might just be the stronger of the two inside. When a guy is strong inside, there are forces at work that some of us will never understand. I learnt that from Billy Miske. Have a good day fellas! Nice talking to you.”

Dempsey got up from the table and walked towards the bar and as he passed the Scotsman sitting at the bar he said “Thankyou young man.”

“What for?” came the reply

“For making me think about Billy and telling his story – it is a long time since I have talked about him and he deserves better than that. I remember the times and dates like yesterday but until today it was a story I didn’t want to think about. Yet boxing fans need to know about Billy Miske. Everyone facing illness should know about Billy and there are only a few of us left who knew him – and we should remember him.

So thank you. Enjoy New York. Here’s to Kenny Buchanan – even if he is from Edinburgh …… oh……  and you are welcome in Jack Dempsey’s any time.”

———————————————————————————–

On the 25th of March 1999, I walked into the Press Bar in Glasgow’s Albion Street to collect my father.

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The offices of the Glasgow Herald and the Evening Times were just down the street and the smoked filled bar and lounge was a regular haunt for journalists and others who worked in the newspaper industry.

Years before, it had been a regular haunt of this Strathclyde University student and a few others who had a habit of abandoning the trendier pubs in Glasgow city centre from time to time in favour of the more traditional boozers near the University such as The Dunrobin on George Street and The Press in Albion Street.

Many a good story was told by old journo’s and others in the Press and The Dunrobin.

On this occasion I was only in the pub to collect my old man who had been out at a book launch which had taken place earlier in the day in the Central Hotel if I recall correctly. The book concerned was called Jungle Tales – stories from the famous enclosure at the north side of Celtic Park.

The book’s author, John Quinn of the Evening Times – a lifelong friend of my fathers – was holding court in The Press and present were various other well kent faces. Ian Archer, Jack Webster, Jack McLean “The Urban Voltaire” and others were all in and about the place chatting and telling stories.

When I walked into the bar, car keys in hand, with every intention of simply collecting the father and driving him home, I had no intention of sitting down and joining in the chat. However, the will is weak and temptation is strong and so it didn’t take long before I was persuaded to draw up a chair, grab a pint and join the company.

Celtic’s Tommy Burns had written the introduction to John’s book and had said a few words at the book launch and so of course we talked about Celtic, football and various related things.

Stories were being told of great sporting exploits and other tales and I listened on eagerly as a series of people reminisced about tales past.

John’s other great love was boxing and there a few tales of boxers and fights of days gone by.

Then, one of the company, a by now silver haired guy with thickish spectacles simply asked a question:

“Have you ever heard the tale of Billy Miske – The St Paul’s Thunderbolt?”

Needless to say, I never had – and the man concerned started to explain that one day not long after the Ali Frazier fight he found himself sitting in the bar of Jack Dempsey’s speakeasy in New York ………………

—————————————————————————————-

Postscript:

In June 2010, some 87 years after his death, The International Boxing Hall of fame inducted Billy Miske into its pantheon of legendary fighters.

Seven family members made the drive to upstate New York for the ceremony, including Billy’s great grandsons, Joe and Luke, aged 11 and 12.

“It was a terrific weekend for all of us and especially the boys,” grandson Bill said. “Joe and Luke had a great time finding out so much about their great-great grandfather.”

Billy Miske’s legend now sits in the hall of fame alongside that of Jack Dempsey.

Boxrec.com – the boxing records and statistics website lists Billy Miske as the 17th best Light Heavyweight of all time. Of those ranked above him, Miske defeated two of them in the ring. Gene Tunney who defeated Dempsey is ranked 9th.

When it came to bravery, Jack Dempsey rated Billy Miske above all others in any division and from any era.

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5 Responses to “St Patrick, St Joseph and St Paul’s Thunderbolt”

  1. Spectrum May 28, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

    Thanks Brogan I fair enjoyed that hit the mark again

  2. John Giblin May 29, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    That is a fantastic, heart warming and heart breaking story. Thanks for telling the story of Billy Miske. I thoroughly enjoyed that!

  3. Ronnie May 29, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

    Fascinating and enlightening as usual. Fair helped to keep me amused waiting for dinner.

  4. stayuplategetupearly November 15, 2016 at 10:31 am #

    Outstanding, beautifully written and told.

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