Gus Christie’s last fight

By Pete Ehrmann on December 14, 2017
Gus Christie’s last fight
Harry Greb asked Gus Christie, "Why do I always have to be at my best when I meet you?"

Several generations of Milwaukee youngsters learned to box from him, among them Spencer Tracy, later one of the greatest actors in movie history…

Who hasn’t heard about Billy Miske’s last fight? The story of the St. Paul heavyweight who got off his deathbed to fight (and actually KO) Bill Brennan on November 7, 1923 to provide a merry Christmas for his family is boxing’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Red Smith told it first in his newspaper column in the 1940s, having heard it from Minnesota fight maven George Barton. Reader’s Digest and Esquire picked it up, and pretty soon the “yarn”—Smith’s word—“destined to keep editors happy and writers eating as long as we have paper and ink” was a holiday tradition in newspapers and magazines. A few years back ESPN concocted a schmaltzy documentary on the subject, and several generations of screenwriters have hoped to strike Hollywood gold with it.

The story of Gus Christie’s last fight may not be as poignant as Billy Miske’s, but it has its own drama and even Miske himself, who was in the opposite corner at the Elite Rink in Milwaukee on December 27, 1918.

The Milwaukee middleweight had no business fighting him, but not because the “St. Paul Thunderbolt” was a legitimate heavyweight contender with 22 pounds on Christie.

Gus had gone up against even bigger guys in his 12-year ring career and more than held his own. A year earlier the 164-pound Christie was still swinging at the end of his 15-round bout with 224-pound Tom McMahon—who beat Jess Willard before Willard became heavyweight champion—and he even had McMahon on the deck when the last bell rang, even though Christie had gone into the match with a right hand broken in a fight three days earlier and then broke the left one belting McMahon.

He’d also beaten light heavyweight champions Jack Dillon and Battling Levinsky, middleweight champion George Chip, Eddie McGoorty, and stayed 20 rounds with Les Darcy. Christie’s three fights with Harry Greb were no cakewalk for the middleweight champion Gus called “a fighting terror” who would’ve taken a prime Joe Louis. Greb himself asked Christie after one of their bouts, “Why do I always have to be at my best when I meet you?”

When Christie beat the bigger Zulu Kid in Brooklyn in 1916, the Washington Post said the latter’s size advantage was “offset by (Christie’s) very considerable advantage in brains.” That’s usually how it went, and the ultimate proof of that came back in 1912 when somebody tried to derail Christie by putting out the word that he was black. In those days when heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was the most hated and polarizing figure around, nothing was more certain to kill a boxing career in its tracks. “I don’t know where they got that stuff,” fumed Christie’s manager, Teddy Murphy, “but believe me, I wired back that Gus was all white.”

Christie weighed 95-pounds when he started fighting as an amateur at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. He got $40 for his first pro fight in 1910, and figured “boxing was an easy way to make money.” It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t lucrative. Against Jack Dillon in Milwaukee on November 3, 1913, he was knocked down in the first round. The next thing Gus knew he was walking on a downtown street and his pal Jimmy Clabby was telling him, “You put up a great scrap, Gus. You made a great comeback late in the fight.” “What fight?” said the dazed Christie. “I’m going to meet Dillon tomorrow night.” The bout had gone the distance, but Christie had no memory of the nine rounds that came after the knockdown.

“In boxing you have to start with a body built to stand abuse,” he said, “and then develop it by exercise. When I started fighting I used to run up to 18 miles, and then work for two hours in a gym. You need to be in the best possible shape to take the punishment you get around the head and body.”

For fighting the gigantic McMahon in Dayton, Ohio, Gus was down for a $750 purse; but when he got to the box office to collect after having his broken hands doctored, the promoter had skipped with the gate receipts.

Christie liked to talk about his 1917 fight with Harry Greb in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Greb’s claim to the middleweight championship. Gus lost the decision, and was paid just $50 for the match because the gate receipts amounted to around $200.

“My expenses were $65,” he recollected. “I went home with a $15 loss and a beating.”

He didn’t get many beatings in the 150-plus fights that made him famous as Milwaukee beer, and going into the Miske fight in 1918 (their fourth, Miske winning two of the previous three) Gus had never failed to go the distance.

Christie was 27 years old and in good shape except for one thing: he was totally blind in his left eye, and the right one didn’t work so good. Just a month before Gus had talked about needing two operations on his eyes that would cost him $1,000.

Nevertheless, the day before the fight “(Christie) stated that the only handicap he will have is stepping over Miske’s carcass when it is stretched out on the canvas,” reported Chet Koeppel in the Milwaukee Sentinel.

It was Christie who went down in the third round of the one-sided fight. By the fifth round, wrote Sam Levy in The Milwaukee Journal, “groups of fans, unable to gaze at the helpless sight which Christie presented, left their ringside seats and retired to the rear of the arena.”

After Miske knocked him down again with a full minute left in the tenth round, Walter Liginger, chairman of the state boxing commission, ordered the bell rung to end the fight. It went into the books as a technical knockout—the only one ever recorded against the Milwaukee fighter.

“Gus Christie is a terrible looking sight,” reported Chet Koeppel in the next morning’s Sentinel. “It was the worst beating Christie ever received in a ring or anywhere else and his face is battered practically out of shape.”

Two days after the fight Christie said, “To tell the truth, I did not know what happened after being floored in the third round until I awoke Saturday morning in a Turkish bath.” But, he added, he’d be ready to fight again in a couple weeks.

He wasn’t. Shortly after that Christie’s half-good eye went bad, and he needed emergency surgery to save his sight. He never fought again, and later considered his close brush with blindness the “luckiest thing that ever happened to me.” If he had beaten Miske, the plan was for Gus to fight Jack Dempsey.

Billy Miske died of kidney failure on January 1, 1924. Gus Christie enjoyed a successful and happy post-boxing life until the final bell tolled for him on January 25, 1970. He was longtime athletic director at the Milwaukee Athletic Club, where he’d first put on the gloves, and often joked, “I’m just as good now as I was then. I can still take the 95-pounders.” Several generations of Milwaukee youngsters learned to box from him, among them Spencer Tracy, later one of the greatest actors in movie history.

In a 1935 interview Jack Dempsey insisted that Christie was actually a better fighter than Gus’s great rival (and, outside the ropes, his pal) Jack Dillon. Gus strongly demurred, and said that Dillon, like Greb, would’ve beaten Joe Louis. Sam Murbarger managed both Dillon and Christie, and said in 1940 that Dillon “would have had a chance against the Brown Bomber today, but I honestly believe that Christie would have had a better chance against Joe than Dillon. Gus was a smart boy, a fine boxer, and could come back in a jiffy after being hurt.”

In any case, Christie didn’t always get the recognition he deserved—even in his hometown. For instance, when Gus returned to Milwaukee in late 1916 from a successful fighting tour of the east, the Sentinel ran a story hailing his entrance “into the front ranks of the middleweight and light heavyweight class[es].” 

But the accompanying full-length photo of the boxer identified as Christie was not him. It was Billy Miske.

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  1. Pete 07:29am, 12/19/2017

    Thank you, Mr. McCain and Bob, and Merry Christmas.

  2. Bob 05:07am, 12/19/2017

    Good one, Pete. As is your custom. Merry Christmas.

  3. Lucas McCain 07:07pm, 12/14/2017

    Pete E. delivers, as always.  Tough and touching.  Even the improbable fantasy of beating Joe Louis added to the fearlessness of those mythic, hard-as-nails days.

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