Archive for Interesting Stories

Ad Wolgast and the Hard Knock Life

Ad Wolgast and the Hard Knock Life

By Aaron Lloyd

World Lightweight Champion Adolphus “Ad” Wolgast was one of the most courageous, interesting, and tragic figures in the history of boxing.   Born on February 8, 1888 in Cadillac, Michigan, Wolgast, the oldest in a family of seven, took to boxing at an early age and showed an affinity for the sport during a brief but successful amateur campaign.  In June of 1906, he attended his first professional prizefight, both as a spectator and as a participant, when he somehow managed to talk his way onto the fight card, after being short the funds for a ticket! Wolgast won a six-round decision over Kid Moore that day, thus beginning an epic 14-year career that would culminate with him as the lightweight champion of the world, and end with him as a destitute and forgotten man living out the remainder of his life in an institution.

From 1906 to 1909 Wolgast lost only one time officially (5 times counting “newspaper decisions”) in a period of 64 fights.  His aggressive, all-action style earned him the nickname “The Michigan Wildcat,” and by the end of the decade he had moved from smaller venues and lower paying fights around Michigan and Wisconsin to more lucrative engagements along the West Coast.  In 1909, Wolgast met his eventual nemesis (and then champion) Battling Nelson in a scheduled 10-round, non-title bout in Los Angeles, and after ten brutal and bloody rounds, he was declared the winner by way of a newspaper decision.  With the win, Wolgast established himself as one of the best fighters in the division and one of the biggest threats to the lightweight crown; and just seven short months later he would get another opportunity to prove himself, this time with the title on the line.

The rematch with Nelson was set for February 22, 1910 in a city just north of San Francisco called Point Richmond.  More than 18,000 fans showed up that day in anticipation of another epic battle, and with forty-five rounds allotted to determining a winner the second time around, there was no question that the fans would get their money’s worth.  Bitter rivals to the end, the two sounded off before the fight, both confident of victory.  Nelson baited his challenger by saying, “Put a horseshoe in each of his gloves, and bet him he can’t knock me out;” while Wolgast, sans-horseshoes, gleefully obliged. 

For forty rounds the two men tore at each other as advertised, landing maliciously with fists, elbows, incisors, and just about anything else they could get away with.  Nelson controlled the action through the first twenty-five rounds, getting off first and fighting at an exceedingly spirited pace, but as the fight wore on, the Michigan Wildcat began to hit his stride, eventually winning the marathon battle of attrition.  Finally, battered, bruised, bleeding from the nose and ears, and squinting through two slits for eyes, Nelson was declared unfit to continue after the referee determined he could no longer see well enough to continue (at one point he actually tried squaring up with the ring post instead of Wolgast); and after forty grueling rounds, Ad Wolgast was crowned the new lightweight champion of the world.   To this day, the Wolgast-Nelson fight is considered one of the most thrilling and fierce battles in boxing history, earning the 19th spot on Ring Magazine’s “100 Greatest Fights of all Time” list (circa 1996), and prompting ringside observer W.O. McGeehan of the New York Herald Tribune to remark, “For concentrated viciousness, it was the most savage bout I have ever seen.”                

Wolgast would successfully defend his title five times over the course of the next two years, with the most memorable bout occurring in his fourth defense, the infamous “double knockdown” brawl with Mexican Joe Rivers on July 7, 1912.  Trailing in the fight through twelve rounds, Wolgast had virtually exhausted all legal avenues towards victory, and were it not for the actions of a bottle brandishing cornerman (who chased him off the stool between rounds), he might well have conceded defeat.  As it turned out, however, Wolgast came out for the thirteenth round intent on giving old Mexican Joe a little “south of the border” action, and at the first available opportunity, he connected with a left hand below the belt just as Rivers connected with a left-right combination to Wolgast’s jaw.  The two fighters fell in unison, and the referee, unaware that a foul had been committed, began counting both men out.  Wolgast, arguably the more coherent of the two, slowly attempted to rise while Rivers continued writhing in pain on the canvas, and the referee, having finished the ten count, declared Wolgast the winner based on his more “concentrated” effort to get to his feet. Upon hearing the verdict, the crowd (particularly the pro-Rivers contingent) began to voice their displeasure over the unfair ruling, and the referee, a man by the name of Jack Welch, had to beat a hasty retreat back to the dressing rooms in order to avoid the ire of the unruly mob.  Nevertheless, Welch’s decision (a TKO for Wolgast) remained the official verdict, and the champion held onto his title under the most contentious of circumstances. 

On November 28, 1912, Wolgast’s reign as champion would finally come to an end, when, in an ironic twist of fate, he was disqualified against San Francisco native Willie Ritchie for another flagrant infraction (one that was correctly labeled as such this time).  With the loss, only his second “official” loss in more than 84 contests (Wolgast did lose seven newspaper decisions during that span) the Michigan Wildcat, still just 24-years of age, set out to regain his lightweight championship by whatever means necessary.  Unfortunately, the years of punishment were beginning to take their toll on Wolgast, and despite finding sporadic success in the ensuing years (he did beat Battling Nelson by way of a newspaper decision in 1913), the former champion would never again challenge for the world title, and he finished the last 8 years of his career with a record of 19-25-10.  On September 6, 1920, at the age of 32, Wolgast finally retired with an overall record of 59-13-17 (40 KO’s) and a record of 21-21-7 in newspaper decisions.  For the brave champion, his ring career had come to an end, but little did he know, his most difficult battles were just getting started. 

Over the course of his 14-year ring career, Adolphus Wolgast fought 429 rounds in 140 fights and suffered countless injuries, including broken arms, ribs, and damage to his eyes, ears and nose (Wolgast had the latter injected with paraffin wax to remedy its somewhat gnarled appearance).  Unfortunately, the most extensive injury suffered by Wolgast was the trauma to his brain, and by 1918 (still 2 years before his last official bout) he suffered a nervous breakdown, was declared incapable of tending to his affairs, and was institutionalized in a sanitarium.  In 1918, Wolgast escaped from the hospital where he was being held and lived for a time in the mountains of North Carolina, where he was eventually “discovered” and given over to the care of Jack Doyle, a boxing promoter from Vernon, California.  Doyle offered to let Wolgast live and train with him, with the stipulation that Wolgast would never again be allowed to enter a prizefighting ring, and as a result, Wolgast spent the next seven years (from 1920 to 1927) diligently training every day, skipping rope, running, and shadow boxing for a fight that never came.  Wolgast trained from sun up to sun down, and would retire exhausted each evening with the belief that his title shot was always a day away.  For close to seven years, this ritual went on, with Doyle offering encouragement and keeping Wolgast preoccupied and singularly focused, in a sad re-embodiment of his former self.

In 1927, Wolgast’s condition deteriorated to the point that he was once again institutionalized, and it was here, at the Stockton State Hospital in California, where he would spend the remainder of his life.  At the age of 61, Wolgast, never one to back down from a fight, suffered a severe beating at the hands of two hospital orderlies, who in an attempt to “test the toughness” of the former ring great, left him with him with broken ribs and permanently disabled.  Just a few short years later in 1955, Wolgast, at the age of 67, died of heart failure, thus completing the tale of one of boxing’s most tragic and fearless individuals.

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Bat Nelson and the Toledo Whammy

Bat Nelson and the Toledo Whammy

By Aaron Lloyd

Former World Lightweight Champion “Battling Nelson,” known for his wild ring wars and even wilder antics outside the ring, attracted some rather “unwanted” press coverage of his own while reporting on the heavyweight title bout between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio on July 4th, 1919.  Nelson, whose own fighting career had ended in 1917, was covering the fight for the Chicago Daily News, and being as tightfisted as he was, decided to set up camp outside of Dempsey’s training headquarters rather than yield to the disbursement of “travel expenses” as most sportswriters did.  So, living out of a big blue tent, aptly labeled “Bat Nelson,” the Durable Dane proceeded to fulfill his journalistic duties, all the while disregarding societal norms regarding personal hygiene and appeals to cleanliness.

To make matters worse, beginning in late June of that year, the Toledo area was struck by an almost unprecedented two-week heat wave that had residents and vendors scrambling to find creative ways of dealing with the triple digit heat.  Food rotted, ice cream melted, and even the pine seats of the custom-built stadium oozed sap, forcing spectators to bring (or purchase at $.50 apiece) cushions in order to avoid getting the annoying sap on their clothing.  Perhaps no one was more indirectly affected by the heat, however, then the poor lemonade vendor, who, after word of a “Bat Nelson-related contamination,” suffered the most dramatic sales decline of all.    

It all started on July 3 (the night before the fight), when Nelson, determined to beat the heat, snuck out of his tent and decided to go for a dip in nearby Maumee Bay, just as he had done the previous night.  Nelson went searching for the same swimming trunks he had “borrowed” from Dempsey’s manager Jack “Doc” Kearns the night before, but unbeknownst to him, the trunks had been burned after Kearns got wind of their previous unauthorized appropriation.  Undeterred, Nelson decided to venture out into the night wearing just his underwear and the strong scent of alcohol on his breath.  On his way to the Bay, Nelson came across six liquid filled zinc tubs that, oddly enough, were meant to hold a syrupy lemonade concoction and not the stinking, unclean body of someone looking for a little relief from the heat.  Nevertheless, Nelson climbed the ladder into the vats and plunged headfirst into the syrupy mixture anyway, quickly realizing that the contents in the container were more lethal than refreshing.  Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Nelson began flailing and screaming for help, and were it not for the quick response of a few close good Samaritans, might well have drowned in a sweet and citrusy grave. 

Unfortunately, this story, while ending happily for Nelson (he lived until 1954), was a financial disaster for the individual who had paid $1,000 for the rights to sell lemonade during the fight.  In fact, when word got out that Nelson had taken a “bath” in the vats (arguably the only one he ever had), even those with the most unquenchable thirsts were not willing to accept the one in six odds that Nelson had not been dredged from the vat that their particular glass of lemonade originated.  As a result, sales tanked, and despite the 114 degree temperatures at ringside, the lemonade vendor sat patronless; just another victim of the “Toledo whammy.”

 

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Seeds of Deception: West vs. Bonner (1899)

Seeds of Deception: West vs. Bonner (1899)

By Aaron Lloyd

If singer/songwriter Roger Waters (frontman of the legendary progressive rock band Pink Floyd) and Saint Paul (best known for his work in the Bible) were correct in their assessment of “Money” being the “root of all evil,” then the sport of boxing, based on its financial ties, is a culpable extension of that evil.  Bad decisions, corrupt rankings, and greedy promoters, have all conspired to perpetuate the notion that boxing is a dishonest source of entertainment, and now more than ever, it seems the sweet science is explicitly soured by its connection to the almighty dollar.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, for those who choose to think the worst is not upon us), duplicitous behavior in boxing is not a new trend; and I offer as proof, the case of Tommy West vs. Jack Bonner, two middleweights forever entwined in a scandal that dates back to the turn of two centuries. 

Born in Cardiff Wales in 1873, Tommy West was a competent welterweight and middleweight contender who fought all across the United States between 1892 and 1906, and compiled a 27-11-8 record against the very best the era had to offer, including future hall of famers Mysterious Billy Smith, Joe Walcott, Philadelphia Jack O’ Brien, Joe Choynski, and Charles “Kid” McCoy.  Unfortunately, for every fight that West was involved in where he actually demonstrated legitimate pugilistic qualities, there is an equal amount of fights on his ledger that ended under dubious circumstances; and his second fight with Jack Bonner stands as one of the most conspicuous.

When Tommy West and Jack Bonner met for the second time in New York City on February 28, 1899, West entered the bout with a record of 17-6-8, and having decidedly beaten Bonner by way of a newspaper decision less than a year before, was the “logical choice” to win the rematch. He had just narrowly missed defeating Joe Walcott a year earlier, he was coming off of a draw with venerable title challenger “Mysterious” Billy Smith, and he appeared to be in control through seven rounds in the return match.  In the eighth round, however, things took a very bizarre turn when West, recoiling from a clinch, claimed that he had been blinded by a foreign substance on Bonner’s gloves.  The referee, a fellow by the name of Charley White, verified the existence of the offending odor, and immediately sent Bonner to his corner in order to begin the process of determining the source of the contaminant.  After several minutes, White concluded (through verification from Bonner’s corner) that the substance in question was the “oil of mustard,” which had been applied to Bonner’s legs to help alleviate soreness and improve blood circulation in their fighter.  Unfortunately, the “raw” form, given to Bonner by mistake, was known to cause undue irritation to the skin, the eyes and nasal passages, and it left both fighters completely incapacitated and unable to continue the bout.  White, left with little choice in the matter, disqualified Bonner, and the bout went into the record books as an 8th round disqualification victory for Tommy West.  Newspaper headlines read, “POISONED GLOVES USED, DEADLY OIL OF MUSTARD WAS SMEARED ON BONNER’S FIGHTING MITS, NEARLY BLINDING HIS OPPONENT,” and for some time after the fight Bonner was the subject of scorn and ridicule for his role in the fight’s outcome.  However, it wasn’t until later, after a closer examination of the betting history, that people began to also question the extent of West’s involvement in the charade.   

As mentioned, West was no stranger to controversy (just three months earlier he was involved in a six round no-contest with Tommy Ryan that ended when a “lack of effort” by the two fighters sent the crowd into a frenzy), and the fact that Bonner was a 2 to 1 favorite over West only fueled speculation that the fight was not on the level.  By most conservative accounts, the fight should have gone off at no more than 6 to 5, yet at 2 to 1, it stands to reason that those with the “foresight” to make a sizable wager on West (a 2-1 underdog) would have made a substantial return on their investment (as many did-including West himself).

Unfortunately, after more than a century, no one can say for sure whether Tommy West actually had a hand in planning the “Great Mustard-Oil Caper,” or if he was even a willing participant in the theatrics (it is possible that West’s sordid reputation has clouded the lens on which we view the past, and created an assumption of guilt without the burden of proof).  Of course, in the words of 19th century author Henry James, “It’s never permitted to be surprised at the aberrations of born fools;” and in the case of Tommy West, I would say a healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate.

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The Photo Finish: Hill vs. Washington (1993)

The Photo Finish: Hill vs. Washington (1993)

By Aaron Lloyd

The life of a ringside cameraman, while glamorous on the surface, can quickly turn into a “Gallagher-style” nightmare when the sweat (or gravy in the case of Eric “Butterbean” Esch) starts flying, and the Vaseline globules start to cloud the lens.  Often the most envied individuals in the arena based on their proximity to the action, cameraman dance precipitously on the apron trying to get the perfect shot, endangering themselves, and on the rarest of occasions, even the subjects they are supposed to be filming.  Such was the case on February 20, 1993 during the Virgil Hill-Adolpho Washington WBA light heavyweight title bout, when a ringside cameraman, doing his best to capture the drama, inadvertently became an unwitting participant in it.   

Fighting in front of his hometown crowd in Fargo, North Dakota, WBA light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill was cruising through the second defense of his title, and seemed destined to arrive at a lopsided decision victory as the fight drew to a close.  His opponent, Adolpho Washington, was bleeding slightly from a cut over his right eye, he had swelling developing over his left eye, and he was trailing by double digits on the scorecards when the bell sounded to end the eleventh frame.  Returning to his corner for his final reprieve, Washington was about to sit down on his stool when the cameraman, hoping to get a closer look at the carnage that was transpiring on Washington’s face, accidentally butted him, delivering the most unusual of knockout blows.  “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said referee Steve Smoger.  As he (Washington) turned to sit, the tip of the camera sliced him.  I was shocked.  The first thing I thought is ‘what do I do now?’”  Smoger instantly called the ring physician in to assess the situation, and after viewing the sizable gash made from the camera’s impact, the fight was sent to the scorecards by way of a technical decision.  As predicted, Hill won in anti-climactic fashion on all three judges’ scorecards, but the abbreviated ending was definitely one for the books.  The rest is boxing history…         

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Hard to Believe: Kearns and the Shocking Con

Hard to Believe: Kearns and the Shocking Con

By Aaron Lloyd

Throughout the vaunted history of prizefighting, there have been so many countless instances of underhandedness, that the sport of boxing alone could have fielded a women’s professional softball league with its duplicity.  However, one particular occurrence stands above others in its brilliance and treachery that it almost demands commendation based entirely on its artistic and theatrical merits. 

The year was 1920, and Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion, was being shopped around by his manager Jack “Doc” Kearns in an attempt to maximize his “profit to risk” liability.  After shooting down a list of potential “suitors,” a meeting was eventually arranged between Kearns and a man by the name of Francois Deschamps, who managed the business affairs of French light heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier.  Kearns immediately recognized the marketability of a fight with such international implications, especially against a fighter as revered as Carpentier, whose matinee idol looks and war-hero status made him a hot commodity at the ticket office.  Kearns initially imagined the fight taking place in either London or Paris (promoted by himself of course) with a host of eager European speculators all clamoring to foot the bill.  Unfortunately, as the scale of the event grew, so did the price tag, and Kearns became grounded in the realization that the promotional details were out of his area of expertise, and he therefore, reluctantly embraced the idea of having his long time nemesis Tex Rickard help with the fights’ orchestration.

Now, Rickard was no stranger to the intricacies of developing an effective promotional strategy for a prizefight of this magnitude, and his “Midas-like” touch on the Joe Gans-Battling Nelson lightweight championship fight fourteen years earlier, was a testament to his ability to draw a crowd.  However, when approached by Kearns, his initial enthusiasm for the project was tepid at best, and while the fight more or less sold itself, Rickard seemed less than enthusiastic about taking on the proposition.  Sensing Rickard’s spiritless tone, Kearns casually made mention of the fact that two Cuban financiers had approached him with the intention of hosting a fight in Cuba, and were willing to pay the champion $100,000 for a walkover against a little known bullfighter named John Sanchez.  Rickard’s interest was piqued, but he still respectfully declined any and all involvement at that time.   

Several days passed before Rickard had another “chance” meeting with Kearns, this time at the Hotel Claridge, a lunch spot with which Rickard was known to have been a frequented patron.  As Rickard was customarily perusing his menu, he noticed a group consisting of Kearns, sportswriters Damon Runyon and John Lardner, and two unidentified well dressed Latin businessmen, being seated at an adjacent table.  After his curiosity finally got the better of him, Rickard called the head waiter over to his table and asked him if he knew the identity of the two important looking individuals wearing silk hats, the finest suits, and smoking expensive cigars, seated with Kearns.  The waiter informed Rickard that from what he gathered they were a couple of sugar and tobacco millionaires from Cuba who were in town to discuss the particulars of “some major boxing event.”  Once Rickard could contain himself no further, he made his way over to the table to see what information he could gather firsthand, and was met by a most gracious and accommodating Kearns.      

“Tex, allow me to introduce Senor Juan Rodriguez,  and Senor Manuel DeCosta.  They are here to discuss the fight in Havana.”

Puzzled, Rickard responded, “You meanthe fight with the bullfighter? Sanchez”

“No, that’s all changed.  These gentlemen have a certified check worth $500,000 to guarantee  Dempsey-Carpentier.”

“Si , si,” replied Rodriguez.  The fight will draw a million dollars in Havana.”

After taking a moment to process this interesting new development, Rickard excused himself, gathered his things, and on his way out, he leaned in to Kearns and whispered, “See me tomorrow.  I’ll match their offer.”

The rest as they say, is boxing history.  Two days later, the “Battle of the Century” was signed, with Rickard taking on promotional duties for boxing’s first million dollar gate.  On July 2, 1921, over 80,000 spectators paid more than $1.7 million to see Jack Dempsey knockout Georges Carpentier in the fourth round to retain his National Boxing Association sanctioned title. 

As for the two Cuban financiers who had originally agreed to bankroll the event in Havana, well, after returning the rented duds, and collecting their just compensation, they went back to their unassuming day jobs as bus boys at the restaurant across the street.

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Hard to Believe: The Fix That Nearly Wasn’t

The Fix That Nearly Wasn’t

There is no denying the role that organized crime has played throughout the history of boxing.  For anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the sport’s checkered past, names like “Blinky” Palermo and Frankie Carbo, are synonymous with a time when many fighters danced like marionettes, on strings controlled by underworld manipulators.  In fact, the scope, and reach of organized crime’s influence on boxing was so far reaching that that it virtually affected everyone, from the lowliest of trial horses, to greats such as Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Sonny Liston.  Some stood their ground and distanced themselves from such unscrupulous associations, while others, fearing for their safety, or lured into the grift by monetary considerations, fell victim to the corruption.

One such fumbling pugilist was 1930s heavyweight “Two Ton” Tony Galento, whose mediocre rise to the championship against Joe Louis in 1939 was made possible by the mob, courtesy of their “pretender to contender” fail safe career planning program.  Of course, our story takes place well before that, and it involves an “agreement” of sorts, between Galento, and an accommodating young fighter named Otis Thomas.

Leading up to the fight it seemed that virtually everyone associated with the bout was in on the fix.  All participating parties were given their assignments, and each person knew the role that was expected of them in this “stage-managed” excuse for a heavyweight fight.  Everyone that is, except for the referee, who by some glaring oversight, was not informed ahead of time of the bout’s already predetermined outcome.  As a result, the best laid plans of mice and men nearly went awry.

From the opening bell to the fifth round everything appeared to be above suspicion and going according to plan.  In fact, Thomas was boxing well, and was giving such a good showing that he actually managed a slight lead on the scorecards going into the sixth frame.  In the sixth round, however, the unthinkable happened, and Galento inadvertently let one of his punches stray south, sending Thomas to the canvas, reeling in earnest from the obvious foul.  The referee, unaware of the betting ramifications of letting the wrong fighter win, immediately began to wave the fight off, and award the fight to Thomas by virtue of a disqualification.  Obviously, this verdict was met with a firestorm of protest, the loudest of which coming from Thomas himself and his corner.  Thomas’ manager, a fellow by the name of Bill Duffy, pleaded with the referee to allow the bout to continue, stating that Thomas was too proud to accept victory under such sullied conditions.   After a period of time, Thomas and his co-conspirators succeeded in convincing the referee to allow the fight to continue, and several rounds later Thomas was appropriately knocked out the way it had originally been scripted.

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Hard to Believe: Chambers vs. Edwards, 1872

On September 4, 1872, lightweights Arthur Chambers and Billy Edwards met at Squirrel Island Canada in order to settle the matter of one vacant lightweight championship.  Edwards entered the contest with a record of 2-0-1 with two wins coming by way of knockout, while Chambers the vastly more experienced of the two, sported a record of 5-0-1 with 3 wins inside the distance.  All indications pointed to an evenly contested bout fought under the auspices of the London Prize Ring Rules; however, as the day wore on and the heat began to take its toll, things began to take a turn towards the truly bizarre.       

Over the first half of the fight, things seemed to be progressing in a relatively normal fashion, as Edwards put rounds away and appeared to be pulling ahead by a comfortable margin.  In fact, after twenty-five rounds of action, the consensus at ringside was that Chambers was not long for the fight, and it was believed that Edwards was just mere moments away from stopping Chambers and claiming the vacant title.  Unfortunately, something happened at the start of the twenty-sixth round that had boxing fans scratching their heads for many years to come.

As the bell sounded to start round number twenty-six, Chambers staggered slowly from his corner to ring center and immediately engaged Edwards in a clinch that reeked of desperation.  Before referee Bill Tracy could intervene and separate the two, Chambers let out a loud scream and recoiled in pain, with one glove clutching the back of his neck.  Tracy rushed over to examine Chambers and quickly confirmed the existence of several distinct bite marks on the back of the man’s neck.    Confronted with such an obvious foul, Tracy had no choice but to disqualify Edwards and declare Chambers the winner by virtue of disqualification.  The bout went into the record books as a win for Chambers and very little afterthought was given to the fight until after Chambers’ retirement in 1879, when a host of speculations and allegations began to surface regarding the circumstantial nature of the encounter.

According to some sources, the heat and fatigue, combined with the humiliation of losing the fight, prompted Chambers to make a very odd request to his chief second, Tom Allen, upon returning to the corner at the end of the twenty-fifth round.  It is widely believed that Chambers, fearing defeat, had asked his corner man to do the unthinkable, in order to assist him in winning the fight by a foul, meaning that it was Allen, and not Edwards, who was responsible for the mysterious teeth marks that prompted the disqualification.  To this day, the fight still shows as a disqualification victory for Chambers, despite a large contingent of people who believe that foul play was the deciding factor in the outcome.

The rest is boxing history…..       

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Billy Miske and the Winter of His Discontent

Every once in a while a story gets circulated that speaks directly to the resiliency of the human condition to such an extent, that its retelling becomes an obligation.  One such case is our feature in this week’s Boxing History segment, which details the inspiring and remarkable true story of heavyweight Billy Miske, and his desire to fulfill one last Christmas wish for his wife and children in the fall of 1923.

For many within the boxing community, the story of Billy Miske has become almost a matter of general knowledge.  For those that may be unfamiliar with the story of the St. Paul Thunderbolt, however, I thought it necessary to tell the story one more time, if only to underscore the honor and sacrifice that is often missing in the news that we are accustomed to receiving today.    

Billy Miske was born in St. Paul Minnesota on April 12, 1894, and his professional boxing career began at the tender age of eighteen when he decisioned Joe Christie in a middleweight contest in 1913.  By all accounts, Miske was an extremely tough fighter, losing only once by knockout in a career that spanned 104 contests in just over ten years (the only knockout, and knockdown of his career came against Jack Dempsey in 1920).  It is a universally agreed upon fact that Miske was a standout fighter of his era, as his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010, and his record of 72-14-17 with 34 knockouts(including newspaper decisions) can attest.  Miske fought the best, and never backed down from a challenge, including the one that would ultimately cost him his life.

In 1916, Miske was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a rare condition that affected the functioning of his kidneys, and caused debilitating back pain, inflammation, and difficulty breathing.  He was advised by doctors to desist from boxing completely, and barring any unforeseen setbacks in his treatment, was told he could expect to live five more years under the best of circumstances.  For most, the decision to hang up the gloves would have been a foregone conclusion, as matters of health would most likely have superseded all other existing concerns.  For Miske, however, who was obviously cut from a different mold, not only did he refuse to give up boxing, but he also went on to fight over seventy times over the next five years.  Faced with mounting financial obligations, Miske was forced to submit his ailing body to further abuse in order to provide for the wellbeing of his family.  Unfortunately, there was no denying the inevitable, and in the fall of 1923, with money running low, and his health rapidly deteriorating, Miske pleaded with his manager, Jack Reddy,  to secure him one last fight so that he could provide one last favorable Christmas for his family. “I haven’t got long to be around,” Miske told Reddy.  “I’d like to have my family around me, all happy for just one more Christmas.  It will be my last one.  You got to get me a fight.”

Reddy knew the gravity of Miske’s physical condition, and he was aware of the fact that Miske could hardly walk, much less train for a fight, yet he did what his friend asked of him, and scheduled him a fight against former top contender Bill Brennan on November 7, 1923 in Omaha Nebraska.   Reddy implored his friend to reconsider, fearing that he would become another tragic ring statistic if he went through with the fight.  Undeterred, Miske simply replied, “What’s the difference?  It is better than waiting for death in a rocking chair.”   

So Billy Miske left his home in St. Paul just three days before the contest in Omaha after a month long training camp that consisted almost exclusively of bed rest, and heavy doses of pain pills.  Since traditional training methods were not tolerable in his state, everyone within his camp felt that he was invoking disaster by fighting at all, much less taking on a quality opponent such as Bill Brennan.  However, once the initial bell tolled, opinions quickly changed, and everyone ringside realized they were witnessing something special, as Miske, perhaps inspired by divine intervention, did the unthinkable and stopped Brennan just inside four rounds.  In one of the most courageous acts in sporting history, Billy Miske had defied the odds and had written a most incredible final chapter to his fabled life story.  Days later, he returned to home and immediately began making preparations for his final encore, his last memorable gift to his wife and children.

Christmas day at the Miske household was filled with laughter, lavish gifts, and scenes of outward merriment.  Miske concealed the crippling pain that was forcing his body to shut down, and he put on a brave face in perhaps his greatest performance.  On December 26, Miske called Reddy and asked to be taken to a hospital, knowing that his mortality was down to being measured in minutes and hours.  Hospitalized for close to a week’s time, Billy Miske finally passed away from complications resulting from kidney failure on January 1, 1924 at the tender age of 29.  He left behind two children, but in dying, he made good on a final promise to them, and he imparted a lifetimes’ worth of lessons on integrity and courage to countless numbers of individuals like myself, who continue to draw strength through his courage.

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