A Boxer Named Black Jack
Brooks Smith has resdiscovered the career of boxer Black Jack Billy Fox.
Brooks Smith continues to rediscover Richmond's sports history. And today, Brooks, you tell me we are going to talk about someone named Blackjack Billy Fox. His game was not card playing, I gather.
Smith: Not cards, but, boxing. And this is a kid who wasn't born here, but moved to Richmond when he was quite young. HIs father was a porter in one of the downtown movie houses and Fox, from a very early age was a hustler, in the best sense of the word. He delivered papers, he shined shoes, he set bowling pins, he tended to the family garden, he did just about anything a kid could do to make a couple of pennies. He was described by reporters of his career as a quiet kid, but, querulous, too. At the age of sixteen he quit school and ran away. As the story goes, his worldly possessions at the time were a bicycle he earned shining shoes, a book on boxing and a penny in his pocket. So, he rode his bike to Appomattox, traded it for a bus ticket and he made his way up the east coast; ended up in Philadelphia, where he set bowling pins by day and boxed at the local YMCA by night.
Well, did he achieve any success as a boxer?
Smith: Well, his success was nearly mythical. He had 36 consecutive knockouts, often hyperbolized in the boxing press as 49 straight knockouts; and it earned him a shot at the light heavyweight title, which he fought at Madison Square Gardens in 1947 against the reigning champion, Gus Lesnovich. And it was by all accounts a slug fest. Unfortunately, Fox went down in the tenth round through a technical knockout.
And, what happened to him after that?
Smith: Well, of course, down, but not out, he went back to the ring and struggled to earn a rematch and he won seven straight. And in the midst of that streak, he became immortal because November 14, 1947, he fought Jake "The Raging Bull" LaMotta at Madison Square Gardens. Raging Bull, of course, was immortalized by Martin Scorsese in the film of that name. And, it was the bout in which LaMotta took a fall. He went down in four soft rounds in what everyone thought was a fixed fight. There were boos from ring side; the newspapers the next morning proclaimed in bold letters "Fixed, Fixed". And, as the story goes, LaMotta took the fall in order to have a shot at the title bout a year or two later, which he earned. And he was the light heavyweight champion for a period of years. For Fox it meant another shot with Gus Lesnovich, just a couple of months later. Unfortunately, Fox went down in just under two minutes in a fight that wasn't terribly noteworthy at all. It took another decade or more before the Senate conducted an investigation into organized crime and called LaMotta to the stand; and LaMotta admitted that he had taken a fall in exchange for a promise at the title. And this is the sad part of the story. Fox ended up a broken man. He said that the fight affected the rest of his life; that all he really wanted was a fair fight. He wasn't complicent in the deal, he didn't want LaMotta to take the fall. And I guess you can question that at the time Fox's manager was a fellow named Blinky Palmermelo, so there was organized crime involvement in boxing in a pretty ubiquitous way. But, in any event, in 1956, a Sports Illustrated writer found Fox desolate, vagrant and despondent on the streets of New York and by the time of the Senate investigation of 1960, Fox couldn't be found. So, I guess he ended up fading into the night.
Well that's interesting. Blackjack Billy Fox with Richmond connections and portrayed in the movie "Raging Bull." Thanks to Brooks Smith, Rediscovering Richmond; and you can hear Brooks' pieces at Ideastations.org/radio/archive.