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Billy Petrolle


Think of North Dakota boxers, and you probably think Virgil Hill. But Hill is not the only great boxer from the state. Back in the 1920s and 30s, there was Billy Petrolle, a lightweight called the “Fargo Express.” He is ranked as one of the two greatest fighters to have never won a world championship.

William Michael Petrolle was born on this date in Berwick, Pennsylvania, in 1905. At some point, Petrolle moved to Fargo where he and his brother, Jimmy, launched their boxing careers. Billy was only 5' 7", weighing between 130 and 144 pounds, but he soon became renowned for his body punching, and he won his pro debut in 1922 with a 2nd round knockout over Kid Fogarty in Fargo.

Petrolle’s style was one of reckless abandon, and he always gave the crowd a good show. Over his 10-year career, he fought an amazing 157 bouts with 63 knockouts, often fighting three times a month. Many boxing greats who managed to beat him called it a career highlight. In fact, Petrolle was so feared that he was given only one title shot. It came from Tony Canzoneri, who Petrolle had beaten twice before. In one fight, Petrolle knocked him out in the first round, and in a fight right before Canzoneri won the crown, Petrolle soundly beat him in a ten rounder.

It took a little over two years, but Petrolle finally got his title shot on Canzoneri’s home turf in New York City. They fought a grueling fifteen-round battle. Canzoneri got the nod, but Sportswriters felt Petrolle was the victim of a hometown decision.

Besides Canzoneri, Petrolle fought and beat two other Hall of Famers: Jimmy McLarnin and Jackie "Kid" Berg. In 1934, he fought another Hall of Famer, Barney Ross. After losing that one, Petrolle retired from boxing and moved to Duluth to work in the foundry business.

That same year, famed author John O’Hara put Petrolle into his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. He wrote, “Al read his paper. There was always some stumblebum from Fargo fighting in Indianapolis.… Al wondered where Fargo was. It was past Chicago. He knew that. They had one good boy from that town. Petrolle. Billy Petrolle, the Fargo Express. But the rest of them! God, what a gang of tankers…”

Well... the rest of the world has now mostly forgotten Billy Petrolle. But the World Boxing Association hasn’t. In 2000, they inducted the Fargo Express into the WBA Hall of Fame.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm