When Jake La Motta, once middleweight champion, admitted to the Kefauver Committee last month that he had allowed himself to be knocked out by Billy Fox in the fourth round of their fight in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 14, 1947, he merely certified what the wise guys had known before the fight, the innocents afterwards. When Fox fought La Motta, he had, by the book, won 50 of 51 fights, all by knockouts. His only defeat was to Gus Lesnevich in a light heavyweight title bout. But Fox's manager was Mobster Blinky Palermo, and Fox's record is as much a tribute to Palermo's scheming as Fox's punching: several of his victories were mythical; some of his real opponents, like La Motta, took dives.
In recent years it has been hard to find Billy. Investigators for the Kefauver Committee searched for several months before learning that he is now a patient in a Long Island mental hospital. Fox, his doctors say, "is seriously ill," but the exact nature of his psychosis has not been determined. He is aware of the developments in Washington. He is "discouraged." He has no visitors.
I found Billy Fox in 1956 when he was living on the edges, desolate, vagrant, despairing. His only possessions, besides the soiled clothes he wore, were a pipe and a scrapbook. One rainy summer morning he told me the story of his life. We couldn't publish it then, without corroboration. Now that La Motta has spoken, we can.
I was born in Tatums, Oklahoma on January 29, 1926," Billy Fox said. "My grandfather still lives there. I plan to go back there sometime before he dies. My mother died when I was 4, and we left when I was 5 and moved to Virginia. My father remarried and had a farm there. I remember him saying he was a graduate of Tuskegee Institute and used to be a teacher. A lot of my folk were teachers. Daddy was a very good man. But all the time with him it was drive all the time. There was no sympathy or love. A kid likes to feel, you know, like his father likes him. But the only one who gave me love was my mother. I never was the same after her death. My father didn't mean no harm that way. He was just a strict man. He overlooked the small things in his way. Didn't show no love or nothing. But he gave me a lot of good advice. The trouble was he wanted me to have an academic education like he had. You shouldn't make a kid do what you want all the time. I wish he had let me go to trade school like I wanted, so that now I'd have something to fall back on. One thing I should have listened to him on, though. That was finishing my education before I became a fighter. I didn't listen to him there.
"There was this picture in a book I sent away for by Nat Fleischer on training for boxers and how to box. It was of Dempsey and Tunney fighting for a million-dollar gate. 'Look it, Daddy,' I said, 'a million dollars for knocking a man out.' 'Don't worry,' he told me, 'you got to do a lot more than knock a man out for a million dollars.' And he was right. But that picture was what did it. That was what started me and finished me.
"Then we moved to Richmond. My father had a job in a movie house as a porter. I used to help my father in his job in the theater and in the little farm we had back of the house about three blocks long where he planted vegetables and potatoes. I'd have to get up early in the morning to help out in back. We lived in what you might call the suburbs. But we were poor. I wore the same clothes every day. I couldn't play with the kids, I was so busy all the time. I got invited to parties, but I wouldn't go because I had what you might call an inferiority complex. The only thing I had was plenty to eat on account of the farm we had out back. My daddy never let me go hungry. That's one thing I can say for him, too. I wasn't a bad hustler, either. I had a paper route and shined shoes and set pins in a bowling alley. I spent near all the money I made, though, on soda pop and candy. My father never gave me no money for helping him out in the movie house."
Black eyes and Benny Leonard
"I had lots of street fights at school. I was a quiet kid, very quiet. The kids thought I was trying to be cute because I was so quiet, so they started to pick on me. I'd come home with black eyes all the time. My father got sick of me fighting all the time and coming home beat up. He shifted me around to different schools, but it was always the same. I was very unhappy. But I had that book I sent away for, with a picture, also I think it was of Benny Leonard in it, and I decided I wanted to be a fighter like him, too. It was the only thing I had to look forward to—becoming a fighter and then maybe enjoying life.
"I quit school after my second year in high school. The way it was, was my stepmother and I didn't get along at all. I don't know what it was, but she had this grudge against me. One day we had this argument before I went to school. She was always picking on me. I went to school that day and made up my mind that I was going to run away. I left school early and came home before the rest. I had a bicycle I bought for $40 on my shoeshine money. I tied a few clothes on the back and that book on boxing by Nat Fleischer and rode away. Just rode away on my bicycle. It was in March of 1942. I made sure the weather was nice. Spring was just about to break. I had one penny in my pocket. I remember that. Only a penny was all I had. I was just riding into evening. Didn't know where I was going. Didn't know any of the roads where they led.
"I remember it got dark and started to rain. But the weather was warm. I saw this building in the dark, a school or church house it looked like. I crawled under and pulled my bicycle in after me. Slept all night while it rained outside. When I woke and came out I saw that it was just a building, you know what I mean, and there was a man drawing water from a well in the backyard. I looked awful. I had red clay all over me from underneath that building. He must have thought I was up to no good crawling out from under his house looking like that, but I spoke first, so he'd know I was all right. 'On my way to meet my manager,' I told him. I got my man waiting for me. I'm going to be a fighter.'
"I got to Appomattox. Auctioned off my bike on a street corner for $5 or $6 and caught the bus to Washington, D.C. I met an old lady who gave me a room and a meal and everything. Just like that. Got a job as a dishwasher and setting pins, and I'd go work out at the YMCA on my boxing at night.
"Stayed in Washington about six months maybe and then took a bus to New York and got a room at a Y on 135th Street. The city looked so big to me. I had people there, but I didn't know where they were. I'd get mixed up on the subways. Lost all the time. Went to Stillman's and tried to get someone interested in me, but no one was. I thought maybe New York was too big for me, that I better go some place smaller. I was looking for a place to start. So I took a bus to Philly. I don't know why I chose the place. I didn't know anything about it except that it was smaller than New York. I was lonely. I was. I was lonely for years.
"In Philly I got a job in a shoe shop shining shoes. I told the fellas in the shop I wanted to be a fighter. They said why don't you go down to the Sigma Theta gym in South Philly. I did. And that's where you might say my career officially started. At that time I was about 16 and living at the Y again. I trained at night and had 16 amateur fights. I lost eight and won eight.
"There was a colored fella at the Sigma Theta named Jimmy Reed who took care of the gym. When I started showing a little improvement he took an interest in me. He saw how serious I was. He'd see me making mistakes, he would correct me. Showed me how to move, how to hold my hands. Not only that, I'd buy books on boxing all the time and read them. In about the year and a half I was having amateur fights, I worked as a busboy in Horn & Hardart's. I also worked in a box factory making cardboard boxes and in the Navy Yard as a ship fitter's helper.
"I was 17 when I turned pro. The way it happened was that Jimmy Reed says nobody wanted to fight me in the amateurs anymore. I said, 'Don't you think I'm going a little too fast?' He told me, 'Don't worry. I'll match you with guys in your own class. Just leave it to me.'
"I had about six or seven fights when they told me that Blinky Palermo was going to come around to the gym and watch me. I'd heard about Blinky, of course. I knew he had good connections. He could get you the fights because he knew the right people.
"So I was punching the bag in a gym in South Philadelphia when Blinky come up the stairs to watch me. I knew he was somebody the way he was dressed. He was dressed real nice in a dark overcoat and dark hat. We went down the stairs together. He took me downtown and told me he liked the way I punched. He should have liked the way I punched. I couldn't box at all. Palermo didn't know much about fighting then. He never did. He took me into a store and bought me some expensive clothes. He told me my clothes were out of date. I never wore any jitterbug clothes. What I had was always clean and well-pressed. He bought me sport shirts and pants. Blink didn't like what I picked out. He said, 'I want you to look sharp.' The clothes he picked out for me were of good quality. You can tell good material when you see it. I couldn't bring myself to wear them for a long time, though. I just hung them up in my closet at the Y and looked at them.
"The first thing funny happened when I fought this Larry Kellum, who I had already beat under his own name. This time he called himself Andy Holland. I didn't like it, but I kept my mouth shut.
"Now, I'll tell you, looking backward, the fights I think where they might have laid down for me. First, there was the second Ossie Harris fight. I threw some punches in there, but I wasn't in the best condition. I remember I was behind on points. Blinky was in my corner. In the 10th he said, 'Throw a lot of punches. Throw a lot of punches.' It was then I thought it might be a fix. It's funny, I think I remember, I think I remember Blinky in the other guy's corner, in Harris' corner, before the 10th round started. I threw a lot, but I didn't think I had any power in my punches. I was surprised when he went down. 'Blinky,' I said afterwards, 'did you fix that fight?' 'No,' he said, 'don't pay those guys no mind who tells you things like that.' I believed him then. I mean I was slightly doubtful, if you know what I mean, but I believed him.
"Then there was Nate Bolden. Him I knocked out in two. That's another one I feel funny about. Now you knew, I can't be sure. It's just the way I feel. Sometimes you can tell. Bolden, I was a little suspicious of him. He was too elusive, dodging, ducking all the time, to get caught like I caught him. But I can't be sure. Then there was Joe Reddick. He was tough in the gym, but I don't know. I don't think he was as serious as I was. He might have been dissipated. And, of course, that Larry Kellum. He couldn't beat me anyhow anyway. He was just fighting for money. He drank whisky all the time.
"Now about those 49 knockouts I was supposed to have had before the La Motta fight. Blinky made up six of them. Asked him why he did it. Blinky, he told me he was doing it for publicity. Said it would look better that way. He told me, 'You do the fighting, I'll do the managing.' That was his line, and I accepted it. Now, here are the fights I don't think I ever had. There was Jimmy Davenport. I don't remember him. Billy Smith, he's in there twice. I don't remember him, either. Who's this Kid Wolf? Johnny Furia, Wesley Hayes, I never heard of those guys.
"It was in 1946 when I first asked Blinky to get La Motta for me. I told him, I said, I got to beat some well-named guys. I got to get better recognition.' I didn't admit to myself that I was going too fast. The picture which I showed my daddy of the million-dollar gate was dancing in my mind.
"Before I went to camp Blinky tells me he's going to give the referee $1,000. He said he was going to beat La Motta to the punch and get the referee first. I said, 'Blinky, either get yourself a neutral referee or one you don't have to pay.' He said that was the way he was going to do it and that the $1,000 would come out of my share. I'm thinking how maybe he put the $1,000 in his pocket, that's what I'm thinking, because it looked like the referee was giving us equal breaks during the fight.
"Now, that La Motta was strong, but he was a little slow. I mean, if I had rassled him I couldn't have beat him. I had to keep him moving. To me it looked as though he was trying to knock me out. I couldn't budge the guy. Throwing fast jabs into his eyes and nose five at a time. Then he started protecting his face, and I started giving him shots to the body hard as I could. Felt the bone in there on one shot. Think I might have broken his rib. I knew it hurt by the expression on his face. It could be he wasn't trying. I don't know. I kept throwing all the time, though. I couldn't afford to get punched. My punching's my defense. I thought he was out to get me. I remember one time, though, that was kind of funny. He kind of caught me off balance, started to throw a punch, then he held back. Oh, there were boos from ringside. Somebody said 'boo,' just like that. I didn't know what La Motta was trying to do."
The cops on the corners
"Oh, they booed after the fight. On my way to Philly I stopped off at the corner and bought the papers. 'Fix, Fix,' said the headlines. I showed them to Jimmy Reed. Jimmy didn't say anything but 'Yeah, I see that.' He was a little disappointed but not as disappointed as I was. I was really brokenhearted. I asked Blinky. Blinky said no. He swore on his wife and children. He said, 'No, he didn't take no dive.' But I'd keep hearing guys talking about it in boarding houses where I lived and bowling alleys and places where I worked. If you keep hearing something over and over again, it must be right. Got where I used to go up to cops on corners on the street. I didn't tell them my name. I'd say, 'Say, officer, I want to ask you a question. Do you remember the La Motta-Fox fight?' They'd say yeah, they remember it. I'd say, 'Did La Motta take a dive?' The cops'd say, 'Yeah, La Motta took a dive in that fight.' And then I believed it.
"I still feel hurt. It affected my whole life. Made me feel despondent, downhearted, disgusted. I had such good intentions. I have a conscience, and it works on my mind. Why did he have to do it to me? Why couldn't he have done it to a guy who didn't give a damn?
"I used to brush my teeth twice a day, not only in the morning but in the night, too. Was a time there, I think it was three weeks, I didn't brush my teeth at all. Just didn't feel like doing anything, the way I felt. Didn't start back smoking until I read in the papers my fights were fixed. I mean, what's the use of my going through all that sacrifice when guys take advantage of you? So I started smoking. Might as well get some enjoyment out of life. You know how serious I'd been. First thing in the morning I'd get up, shadow-box. I'd shadow-box last thing at night. I wasn't no jitterbug ever. I was always very serious.
"I couldn't pull myself together after the La Motta fight. Thought I'd just wasted my time. For the second Gus [Lesnevich] fight I couldn't train right. Everything I did was halfhearted. I felt lonely and disgusted. I was stopped in the first round and that was it."
Numbers guys and Carbo
"After the second Gus fight I thought maybe a change of managers would help. Herman Taylor [the promoter] called me down to his office for a proposed rematch with La Motta. When I was there I said, I don't want to fight for Palermo any more.' He kept asking, 'Do you really mean it?' all the time I was there, as if to say don't do that. But I didn't listen. Finally Herman Taylor, seeing how my mind was made up, got me Hymie Caplin as manager, who had had five champions. Irving Greenberg was putting up the money. They told me he was in the numbers. He didn't really want to manage me. He just wanted to be around kind of like a financial partner. Sure I knew Blinky was in the numbers before I signed with him, but Joe Louis' manager was in the numbers, too. I met Carbo once or twice, too. Met him in a restaurant in New York where we had dinner, between 49th and 50th somewhere. Seemed like a nice guy. Blinky shook hands. Lot of guys at the table. When we got outside I asked Blinky, I said, 'Who's that?' 'That's the boss,' Blinky told me.
"I was living high then, buying expensive clothes, buying cars, selling them like a fool, riding around town having a ball. I married a girl from Pittsburgh in 1947. Bought a house in Philly and sold it back at a loss. I had two houses at one time. Most of my money was lost in cars and houses. Taxes I didn't figure, and Blinky, he had a big IOU list on me. When I broke up with him and went back to New York I was broke.
"Hymie Caplin had a lot of fights lined up but I didn't have time to train. Matches were too close together. I didn't know that Hymie had sickness and was looking to die. Greenberg was just trying to make him happy doing what he liked best before he died. Caplin had come out of prison. He was in there for swindling.
"Now, Jimmy Reed always let me have my way. He would help me, but he didn't rule my training. I read that certain book by Nat Fleischer, and I lived by it. Hymie, though, trained me different. He wanted me to be a boxer. Had me jumping up and down all the time, moving around. That hurt me. Instead of me moving in punching, I was waiting to block a punch. Way I fight, I never imagined the other guy hitting me. It was always me hitting the other guy.
"Had me eating different then, too. He had me eating lobsters, which I thought were awful, but I didn't want to hurt the guy's feelings. I think I had about 12 fights with Caplin and lost four or five of them. Got so I lost so many times I thought I'd rest and lay up a while. Then Caplin and I had an argument about training. I told him he was acting like he wanted me to lose. Right there I think I walked out on him. Greenberg said if I didn't fight for Caplin I didn't fight for nobody. I said, 'Give me my release.' Greenberg said, 'Meet me in the Pennsylvania commission office.' I think Greenberg called Ox DaGrosa [Pennsylvania boxing commissioner] before I came down, because when I got there they suspended me right there. Wouldn't let me fight, they said, because I might get hurt, which I think was something they cooked up between themselves. That was in 1950.
"While I was in the money my wife and I tried to have a baby, but she had two miscarriages. Now when I was broke and the payments on the house due, my money from the fights gone, out pops the baby. I tried to get my license back, to get someone interested in me. People said yeah, but I could see they weren't interested. I couldn't come back. If I only had some money, I could have gone out of town and fought under a different name or something, but I didn't have any money.
"I got a job in a factory. I was a porter in a restaurant. Then I couldn't find no jobs, and I had to set pins like I did when I was a kid back in Richmond. I couldn't contact Palermo or Greenberg to help me because I thought they were still mad at me. I didn't know that Caplin had died in a hospital or that Ox had died, either. I started playing the horses.
"My home life was mixed up, too. Couldn't be happy. Kid, Billy Jr., was born the same year I was suspended. Lack of money caused the arguments I had with my wife. Couldn't pull myself together. Said things to my wife I wouldn't have said otherwise. Finally we decided to separate. That was in 1952. She lives in Far Rockaway, in a project. I used to have a lot of fun with the kid."
Gus and embarrassment
"Walked the streets at night. Hung around bowling alleys that stayed open all night. Just didn't give a damn. One day I was setting pins in Rego Park, and who should come in but Gus. Didn't recognize him at first. I was never so embarrassed in all my life. He was very nice about it. Shook my hand. Wished me luck. He was always friendly to me, even when he knocked me out.
"I worked all over the city in the last four years—Long Island, Levittown, 42nd Street—setting pins. Now I'm not doing anything. You might just say I got fed up setting pins.
"I keep to myself these days. Maybe I shouldn't, but that's the way it is. Guys stare at me in the street. I don't know if it's the way I look, or maybe they remember who I was. When I had money I used to go round with the fellas. Now I don't even see my kid. Not because I don't want to but because every time I see him he says, 'Daddy, you bring me something?' I don't like to disappoint him. So afraid his mother's going to spoil him. He looks just like me.
"I've just got no appeal for living. Never had it in me, though, to commit suicide.
"I like to live near the park so I can go for walks."
PORTRAIT OF A HERO WHO LOST BY WINNING
MANAGER PALERMO padded Fox's amazing ring record for "publicity."
"HIGH POINT" OF BILLY FOX'S CAREER CAME IN FIXED FIGHT WITH JAKE LA MOTTA
LOW POINT FOLLOWED WHEN GUS LESNEVICH KNOCKED OUT FOX IN FIRST ROUND