The following is the never before told story of the contest between young Billy Bryne and Brawlin' Joe Rocko—a former boxing champion. A bout which promised to delight even the most jaded observers of the Game.
A Tale of Old Chicago
David Allen Smith
Copyright © 2018
Tormented by poverty and anger, the hoi polli of the dirty back streets of 1894 Chicago stalked dark alleys, sour-smelling bars, run down rat-infested row houses, and grubby corner liquor stores, with nothing better to do than rob defenseless residents. These desperate deviants were never seen in Oak Park, where the corrupt police force took offense at anyone cutting into their game.
These lost neighborhoods produced the most violent children imaginable which, if they survived, became coniving cutthroats simply because they did survive.
One such child—I speak merely of his youthful age—was Billy Bryne. Young Billy, already six foot one and 180 pounds, was a true modern savage who lived by his wits and fists in a harsh and unforgiving world. He would ultimately evolve and mature, but at this point he was a brash, young thug who feared no man. Tall, broad of shoulder and strong, he was a ruthless robber, gangster and mucker—a wicked and cunning representative of the worst society had to offer.
In addition to sustaining his pocket book with holdups and theft, Billy found part time work at Larry Hilmore's boxing academy, running errands and doing odd jobs. In an effort to further elevate the young man's financial status the proprietor had suggested that Billy train as a prize fighter. This young Billy did half-heartedly. Billy's after hours activities and a budding penchance toward drunkedness prevented him from attaining long term success. During a period of six months he sparred against third rate heavyweights for $5 a throw. One day Larry said to Billy, "Why don't you quit drinking and become a real boxer? You've got talent and heart. You could be a contender!"
"Nah, cuts into me business, youse know wot I mean. Anyways, I don't wanna fight no more."
"But Joe Rocko's back in town. I'll pay you twenty bucks to fight Rocko!"
"Twenty bucks for ten rounds. You won't win, but it's good money."
"He always detest'd me family. Wot I ever do ta him?"
"Who knows? Listen, kid, Rocko's trying to make a comeback. Saturday night. $20 to you, win or lose. Do you want the fight?'
"Wot's wid da small fortune, Larry? You got sum-in' you ain't tellin' me?"
"A bunch of swells want to back Rocko for a challenge fight. Not you, the next one, but they need to hype him to get the bettors interested. Like I said, you get the double saw buck no matter what."
Billy thought it over. "Okay. I'll throw wit anybody fer dat. Beats pickin' pockets." He laughed. "I bet youse I beat da basterd, too!"
* * *
It was a hot August evening and a motley throng of fight fans had gathered around the squared circle. They came to witness a fight envisioned as a minor pugilistic outing for the egotistical Joe Rocko, but they came anyway. They came to see the brawny, professional Italian boxer, whose potent jabs were lightning fast, whose bobbing, dancing style had at one time exhausted, and then dispatched twenty-four consecutive opponents—all KOs! They came to be entertained by Rocko's gaudy acts of showmanship, and observe him belittle his adversary in humorous, if arrogant ways. The rest simply came to see Joe Rocko, local legend. Oh, Rocko had flown high for a few years until that fancy New York woman led him astray, drained his wallet, then vanished, leaving him a bit over weight, a little bit slower in the reflexes, and a whole lot smarter once he got off the bottle. The remaining fans came to laugh at a relatively unknown ghetto hoodlum, though none would ever dare say that to Billy Byrne's face!
Most believed Billy Bryne was destined for a hopeless battle. A few, watching as gloves were laced (no bare knuckle here!) observed that Billy was a rough-cut manly brute, with short black hair and piercing brown eyes. Extraordinarily muscular, he presented an almost Herculean image. He stood under the lights, brazenly flexing his bulging biceps. That he was powerful, few could question.
Hilmore's gym had a fair crowd that night, and like all crowds their whispered conversations rose and fell like storm driven waves hitting the shore. "Street thug..." "Dozen fights, split even..." "Ten on Rocko..." "I'll take the kid, why not?"
Billy paid no attention. Water off a duck's back. Maybe his chances of winning seemed exceedingly poor, but he had a secret weapon: the killer instincts of a wild animal. And the fire in his eyes let all know he had come to rumble.
Fancy pants, trouble makers and drunks were all well represented in the audience. Amid the heat and closely packed conditions, tempers grew short as patrons of the fight game waited in tense anticipation for the contest to begin. Much swearing and arguments were to be heard and several instances of fisticuffs broke out. Such things—along with the bright arc lights, cigar smoke and murmurings of the sweaty crowd—served to further elevate the impatience of some, and the discomfort of others.
Finally, with all the customary posturing and fanfare, the combatants were introduced. Aside from a few condescending looks, Rocko did not employ his customary insulting antics. Indeed, he seemed quite nonchalant, as if preparing to practice with a sparing partner. On the other side, an intense Billy Bryne stared fixedly at Rocko while an overwhelming energy coursed through him.
The bell rang and the fight got under way. Both men advanced to the center of the ring. No friendly tapping of gloves was evidenced. The contestants spent most of the first round sizing each other up, with little meaningful action being initiated by either side. Rocko, a boxer-puncher, did not dance, nor otherwise display his repertiore of unorthodox manuevers. Billy, a slugger more comfortable with a sap than his fists, exhibited an upright stance as he endeavored to avoid Rocko's dangerous left jab. A flat-footed novice boxer, Billy appeared clumsy and slow compared to the more polished Rocko.
Toward the middle of the round, Rocko began to dance, while circling counter-clockwise. Several times he came in quickly, jabbed and retreated before Billy had a chance to react. Then he attacked again, administering several more pointed jabs, followed by a stinging right to the side of Billy's head. The speed, agility and coordination were surprising, especially for a man of Rocko's size. The former champ was scoring points easily, and Billy had yet to respond with as much as a single swing. Then just as Rocko was about to mount another attack, the round ended. The mucker stared defiantly at the superior boxer, but no words were exchanged.
Rocko bounced back to his corner with confident, springy steps, a gloved hand raised in the sign of victory. He did not take his stool, but instead stood and grinned widely at his many admirers. In response, they rose as one and cheered with mad approval.
Billy returned to his corner in a more reserved manner and sat to rest. His corner man rubbed a towel over his face and hair, and massaged his neck and shoulders.
The young man was not hurt, except for perhaps his pride. The look on his face was hardly one of defeat; rather, it was one of fierce determination. Indeed, the sinewy son of the alleyways possessed a force of will that only a certain kind of man can appreciate.
The bell rang for round two. Again the boxers shuffled forward. This time Rocko swung his right hand round and round just over his head, like a cowboy lassoing a calf. Billy was not amused. He rushed Rocko, swinging hard as he came: two left hooks, and then a heavy right cross, followed by a series of left jabs. The initial hook grazed Rocko's face as he leaned back in avoidance. The remainder of blows he parried with relative ease, after which the boxer laughed and danced off to Billy's right.
Suddenly Rocko came on with a flurry, whipping Billy liberally with lightning fast combinations, more powerful than before. Then he backed off. While bobbing and weaving Rocko sneered, “Hey, what's a matter? Can you no hit back?”
Billy tried, then after a dozen ineffective swings, stepped back. He spit and raged, frustrated at his lack of production.
The fight wore on and Rocko was making a monkey out of Billy. Rounds 5 and 6 came and went. All the score cards had the fight 6-0 for Rocko.
In round 7, Billy was boxed into his own corner. He covered up, trying to defend against a barrage of uppercuts, waiting for an opportunistic opening.
Billy's dear mother, an accomplished pick pocket, who sometimes waited tables, sat in the third row, a fat cigar protruding from her mouth. Few other women were present, thus she comprised an especially conspicuous image in her shabby red dress. Plus, getting on in years, she had put on some obvious heft. She lamented her decision to see the barbaric spectacle, and watched helplessly as Rocko hammered her son with unaswered punches of every manner. Billy staggered about, finally succumbing to the calculated and cruel violence raining down on him. In fact, he was about to go down.
Mrs. Byrne considered shedding a tear.
Rocko wouldn't let Billy fall. The smiling boxer wanted to take it to ten rounds, to show off—to humiliate this fool punk further. It was then the grinning tormentor noticed Billy's mother in the crowd. Long had he harbored ill will toward the Byrnes. He leaned over the ropes in her direction, venting loud horse laughs. With blatant disrespect Rocko shouted:
“Looks like a your boy ain't ready to brawl with a bruiser like a me! Maybe you ain't fed him right, or maybe you're just a dumb ugly sow!”
Mrs. Bryne deliberately reponded with a hand gesture polite women never use.
Meanwhile, Billy hung on the opposing ropes where Rocko had left him, nearly devoid of life. But when Billy heard the shameless, derogatory insults Rocko hurled at his mother, a savage rage exploded deep inside him! His head cleared as a fire rose up, filling him with an extreme new purpose. His countenance transformed from one void of expression to the most murderous scowl conceivable. Simultaneously, the bell rang for round 8.
Billy quick-walked straight into Rocko. He unleashed a fury of blows borne from hot Hell! Rocko's eyes went wide as the punk-no-more stomped forward. Billy could not speak, so taken with rabid frenzy was he. Only a low maniacal growl emmanated from him. It was then that Rocko felt a sudden chill run down his spine. He was no longer facing a sane advesary!
Billy charged into Rocko like a fearless feral creature, flinging the man into his own corner with super human strength. Rocko's fists flailed wildly at Billy, but were batted down. The vengeful street kid pummeled Rocko, and each blow hurt the once smug boxer! He caught the now cowering Rocko with a crushing right cross, and followed it with a punishing left hook and another and another and another.
The stunned crowd grew silent. Now it was Rocko who was being cut to pieces before their very eyes. Billy made no effort to restrain his devastating attack. He slammed Rocko's head sideways with a bone-crunching punch. Feebly, Rocko attempted to stem the advance of the rampaging youth, yet still the crazed challenger closed and punched! Rocko's eyes shut for the evening when Billy lifted him fully off the canvas with a monstrous uppercut.
Rocko grunted as his eyes rolled back into his head and then lay sprawled at Billy's feet.
The gym was silent. Then bedlam ensued. The erstwhile champion had been defeated! Billy sported a wide grin.
The stunned referee raised Billy's gloved right hand in victory. Simultaneously, his mother's face lit up with a mixture of joy and relief. She stood at her seat, proudly waiting to congratulate her ruffian son for a valiant, if improbable victory. But before that could take place, Billy was besieged by a wild-eyed group of turncoat well wishers, who invaded the ring and lifted him onto their shoulders, chanting Bil-ly! Bil-ly! Bil-ly!
After the celebration and din died down, a newspaper reporter made the mistake of attempting to interview Billy. "How does it feel to beat former champion, Joe Rocko, Billy Bryne?"
"I said I cud beat him, an' I did!" he bellowed. "Now gits de hell outta me way!"
At that point Billy shoved the hapless reporter into the ropes, causing him to rebound and land hard upon his face. As the man lay dazed, Billy deliberately spat upon the canvas and silently dared anyone to take offense. Young Byrne exited the ring. The astonished crowd parted in silence as Billy pushed his way through.
He met and embraced his smiling mother. Both were satisfied with the outcome, plus the much needed acquisition of twenty bucks, which Hilmore pulled out of his wallet and gave to Mrs. Byrne when Billy pointed with his chin.
"Hell of a fight, kid." Hilmore grinned.
"Aw, go on wid ye!"
Hilmore clapped Byrne's back and moved off to get the next fight started.
"Like I told ya, Ma, we splitin' da money." Billy held out his hands. "Get these off me mitts. Got in the way with me work out."
His mother laughed. As they walked out of the quieted arena toward the locker room, Billy's mother had somehing to say, and she yelled it loudly so all in attendance could hear:
"I'd a kick'd Rocko in de face if I cud'a! I'm glad me Billy beat da som-bitch! An' I'm damn proud to be his mama!”