Bill (KO) Brennan

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Name: Bill Brennan
Alias: Bill Shanks, KO Bill
Birth Name: Wilhelm Schenck
Born: 1893-06-23
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died: 1924-06-15 (Age:30)
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Height: 6′ 1″   /   185cm
Boxing Record: click

Career Overview

Because Bill Brennan is one of those fighters over whose career the rumors of organized crime hung like a mist, it is hard to determine fact from fiction in terms of his career and life. What is indisputable is Brennan's talent. He was a hard-punching, world class fighter who thrilled crowds but was often underrated by the press of his era. Regardless of his critics and mobster connections, no one can dispute that he gave boxing legend Jack Dempsey two of his toughest fights in 1918 and 1920. Brennan fought a total of 102 professional bouts, many against the best heavyweights of his generation, during a decade of prizefighting.

Early Years

Born Wilhelm Schenck, Brennan was of German stock. Raised in poverty in Chicago at the turn of the century, he learned to fight in the streets. When he turned to prizefighting (still an illicit and often illegal enterprise) as a career, he changed his name to shield his family's reputation as well as to hide his German background. He turned professional in 1913, during the Great War, and feared that the name Schenck would turn crowds against him. Irish fighters, on the other hand, were always popular. So he became Bill Brennan and had his first fights for pay that year, against otherwise forgettable pugs from the Midwest. As a regular job, however, he worked as a barkeep and those who came to see him fight began to affectionately call him "the Battling Bartender." By 1916, Brennan was campaigning as an up-and-comer in New York. He knocked out veteran fighter George Rodel in twice that year, two of the fifteen successful knockout wins in twelve months. Also that year he suffered his first pro loss, to St. Louis's Joe Cox, a seventh round disqualification. He would later avenge the defeat by flattening Cox in three. In 1917, Brennan thrice fought Battling Levinsky, the defensive specialist who was the former light heavyweight champion of the world. Their first bout was a twelve-round draw, the second a decision win for Brennan, the third a decision for Levinsky. Also in 1917, he fought a ten-round no decision bout (official decisions were officially outlawed in New York at the time) against popular New York heavyweight Jim Coffey. Though the fight went the distance and no decision could be announced, ringside reporters wrote that Brennan had his opponent in trouble on several occasions. He was getting good notice in the papers now, praise for both his punching power and his defensive capabilities.

Dempsey Fights

Bill Brennan: 1921

If 1917 had been the year of Brennan's ascent into nationwide attention, 1918 threatened that status. The year started out well enough, a draw with Levinsky in a fourth bout. A leading contender for the heavyweight crown worn by Jess Willard, Brennan was matched with fellow knockout artist Jack Dempsey on February 25, 1918, to determine who has the right to challenge for the title. Dempsey dominated the fight, but Brennan showed grit in surviving the onslaught. Reporters praised the beaten man for his bravery in lasting until the sixth round. Rising from five knockdowns during the course of the bout, Brennan could not rise when floored for the sixth rime in six rounds. He had suffered a dislocated his ankle and literally could not stand up.

The loss to Dempsey and failure to secure a title shot briefly put Brennan's career in a free-fall. In 1919 he lost decisions to heavyweight contender Billy Miske and future Hall-of-Famer Harry Greb, but rebounded later in the year with four successive knockout wins against forgettable opponents. On into 1920 he continued this kind of success against mediocre opposition until finally a title shot came his way in the form of a rematch with Dempsey, who had taken the title from Willard. Dempsey and most sports writers expected Brennan, who had not scored a noteworthy victory against a top level fighter in three years, to be fit as fodder, a push-over win for quick cash. Rumors surfaced, however, that Brennan had a backer in Chicago bootlegging kingpin Al Capone, who allegedly wanted to take advantage of the odds in Dempsey's favor by betting on the underdog. Whatever the case, certainly nothing that took place inside the ring that night of December 14, 1920 at Madison Square Garden was planned.

There is little attention given today to the hard fight between Dempsey and Brennan for the title, but it was, according to the New York Times, "one of the most vicious and closely-contested fights in history." Brennan certainly improved upon his performance in their first engagement. In the second, he stunned Jack with an uppercut. However, Brennan mysteriously failed to follow up on the advantage and the champion survived the round. The rest of the fight was a competitive slug-fest, with Dempsey digging into Brennan's body and Brennan landing hard shots to Dempsey's head. Bill began to focus on the champion's ear and, by the fight's conclusion, Dempsey's ear "looked like a cross between a veal cutlet and a bloody sponge." In the twelfth, a right-left combination from the injured but determined champion dropped Brennan for the count.


With part of the $30,000 he earned against Dempsey, Brennan purchased a speakeasy nightclub in Manhattan, Club Tia Juana, which he managed while continuing his boxing career. He continued to face no-hope competition, racking up win after win in locales as diverse as Havana, Cuba and St. Paul, Minnesota. On the rare occasion he stepped up to face a ranked contender, however, Brennan was beaten. He retired in 1923 after back-to-back knockout losses against Luis Angel Firpo and Billy Miske. Focusing on his speakeasy, Brennan allegedly ran into business trouble with mobsters. He supposedly refused to work with them and on June 15, 1924, at four in the morning, was shot dead at the Tia Juana. He was thirty years old. Police arrested three men they believed to be responsible, but only one was convicted. Joseph Pioli, alias Frank Rossi (or Rassi), was sentenced to twenty years at Sing Sing Prison, but was paroled in 1938.


Disputed Facts

  • A Dec. 12, 1920 New York Times article mentions his birthplace as being County Mayo, Ireland on June 23, 1893.
  • His killers were Frankie Rassi (a.k.a. Joseph Pioli) and James Hughes (who went by Terry O'Neill in the ring). Rassi had earlier served prison time for murdering his brother on New Years Eve 1923. Police believed Brennan's murder was due to a quarrel over boot-legging, alcohol being illegal in the United States during this period. He left a wife and three-year-old daughter.

Undocumented Bouts

  • The linked record shows Brennan's verified fights. His published records, such as in T.S. Andrews' World's Sporting Record Book series, Ring Battles of Centuries. etc. list a number of fights for which newspaper accounts have not yet been found. Possibly they might be located in Louisville, Kentucky newspapers, and in newspapers of Chicago (but not in the Chicago Tribune), Indiana, etc. Here is a list of unauthenticated listings from Brennan published record:
  • 1914: Al Goodale, W ko 1; Tom Devlin, W ko 2; Mike Cantwell, W ko 2; Frank Bowers, W ko 3; Billy Irons, W ko 1; Jack Cameron, W ko 1; Frank Cline, W ko 3; Frank Heider, W ko 4; Jack Hubbard (Jumbo Wells), W ko 14. Jeff Davis, W ko 3; Art Nelson, No decision 10.
  • 1915: Joe Morris, W ko 5; Paddy Kelly, W ko 3; Jim Tompkins, W ko 1; Bud Adams, W ko 4; Billy Clay, W ko 3; George Cotton, W ko 2.
  • 1916: Tim O'Neil, W ko 3; Joe Lennox, W ko 2; Charley Emerson, W ko 2.