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.'