'Twas The Fight Before Christmas: The saga of Billy Miske
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "'Twas the Fight Before Christmas," by Rick Reilly. It ran as the backpage Life of Reilly column in the Dec. 27, 1999-Jan. 3, 2000 double issue.
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 talk."
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.