Dakota Datebook

Billy Petrolle, the Fargo Express

Friday, January 9, 2004

Think of North Dakota boxers, and you probably think Virgil Hill. But Hill is not the only great boxer to come out of the state. Back in the 1920s and 30s, there was a lightweight, Billy Petrolle (pet-TROLL-ay), who went by the name of 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 in Berwick, Pennsylvania, in 1905, and tomorrow is his birthday. 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.

Petrolle’s manager was legendary “Deacon Jack” Hurley, a flamboyant promoter who once said, “Putting an ex-fighter in the business world is like putting silk stockings on a pig.”

The WBA reports that Petrolle won his pro debut with a 2nd round knockout over Kid Fogarty in Fargo on October 27th, 1922. His style was one of reckless abandon, and he always gave the crowd a good show.

Over his 10-year career, Petrolle fought an amazing 157 bouts with 63 knockouts, often fighting three times a month. Many boxing greats have said it was one of their career highlights to have beaten him. In fact, Petrolle was so feared in his day, 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 the 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, but unfortunately for the Fargo Express, the fight was on Canzoneri’s home turf in New York City. They fought a grueling fifteen-round battle, and Canzoneri got the nod. Sports writers reported that the fight was a tough, close battle, but they thought 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. Every time you picked up the paper and looked under Fight Results, there was somebody from Fargo doing a waltz somewhere. Either they were all would-be fighters in that town, or else they just used the name of the town and didn’t come from there at all… 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 they were. He wondered just what was the angle on there being so many fighters from Fargo.”

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

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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