Mystery was always in Tiger Jack Fox’s corner.
How was it, for instance, that he adopted his curious boxing style? Sketched by nearly every Spokane sports writer of his era as mimicking a man lugging two heavy suitcases, he added more cartoonish touches – thrusting his jaw forward as bait, making faces – in a rough blueprint for what Muhammad Ali made iconic a generation later.
Or why did he always seem to be cadging coffee at downtown diners on a Monday, pockets empty after a Friday night payday? Then there were the murky circumstances surrounding the knifing in a Harlem hotel that likely cost him a world light-heavyweight championship. And why Spokane for a home base anyway?
But the most disputed detail was always the first: his date of birth.
Columnists, matchmakers, ticket buyers – everyone, it seemed, was preoccupied with his age except the man himself. Boxing record books said he was born April 2, 1907. Fox insisted it was 1908 – except for those times he said he was “a year younger than Jersey Joe Walcott,” who was born in 1914. The Washington State Athletic Commission finally pulled his license in 1948, ruling that fighters couldn’t be active after age 38. So they weren’t sure, either.
Around Spokane – his home for 20 years and 34 of his fights – it was said he was “40 going on 55,” a wink both to a rigorous nightlife and the punishment from what he boasted were more than 330 fights.
Now another minor mystery: Nearly 70 years since his death, Tiger Jack Fox is worthy of a headline again – as part of a 13-person class being inducted this weekend into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canestota, New York.
He’s going into the “old timers” category – which, to belabor the gag, could have been the case when he was still in the ring.
“Old timers may be on a ballot for a while before they’re recognized,” IBHOF executive director Ed Brophy said. “It’s kind of the nature of the category. But he was a very talented fighter and one of the greats of his era, and played a significant part in boxing history.”
Significant enough to fight for the light-heavyweight title in 1939 – one of nine bouts Fox had against world champions past, current and future. He was 5-3-1 in those fights, including two dominating wins, one a knockout, over Walcott, who more than a decade later would become heavyweight champ at age 37.
And in Spokane, he was simply the main event.
His first bout on record – in 1928 in Salt Lake City – was notable mostly for his opponent, a former Utah football player named Brick Stevens, arriving in the ring without trunks underneath his bathrobe. Brick’s dash back to the dressing room was for the privilege of being battered to the canvas four times in the first round before the towel of surrender came flying into the ring.
By the time Tiger Jack Fox climbed through the ropes at Natatorium Park in July 1934, he’d already had more than 70 pro fights – two within the previous week alone in Portland and Oakland, California. Fred Lenhart, a Pacific Coast champion who had set up housekeeping in Elk, punched out a majority decision over 10 rounds as Fox ran out of gas in his first Spokane card, then dodged a rematch for four years until the Tiger knocked Lenhart out at Gonzaga’s old football stadium.
Fox had found a home and Spokane fight-goers had found a favorite.
He boxed exclusively here and in New York City in his late-1930s prime, filling the smoky Spokane Armory on Second Avenue on winter nights and the football stadium in the summer. He trained under Billy Nelson at Al Morse’s gym on Main – a cider bar is there now – and the proprietor served as his manager. And he made the acquaintance of nearly every saloonkeeper, waitress, card player and cop working downtown. That included befriending a piano player at Emma’s Café named Dick Sadler who 40 years later would steer George Foreman to heavyweight glory and watch it all come apart at the Rumble in the Jungle.
Sadler would be Fox’s apprentice corner man for a number of his Spokane fights, and many were memorable.
None more so than a 1935 rematch with Young Firpo, the boxing alias of Guido Bardelli, a single jacker from the silver mines of Burke, Idaho, up the narrow canyon from Wallace. Bardelli – inducted himself not that long ago into the rival World Boxing Hall of Fame – had won a wild decision in Portland the year before. In Spokane, Fox put him to the canvas seven times, but on the last one got carried away and hit Firpo when he was down. The battered miner won by disqualification.
Two of Fox’s three bouts with former world champion Maxie Rosenbloom came here – a draw in front of 5,000 fans at Gonzaga, and a decision victory at the Armory. That’s also where Fox took out another ex-champ and the No. 1 contender at the time, Bob Olin, in two brutal rounds.
And there were nights when Tiger Jack wasn’t so focused. John Henry Lewis was the new light-heavy champion in 1936, and had come to meet Fox in a nontitle bout at the Armory.
“Come time to fight, everybody’s going crazy,” Sadler recalled to Spokesman-Review columnist Dan Weaver on a visit here in 1987. “No Fox. I told Al Morse … ‘I’ll go find him.’ I came down to the M.P. Pool Hall on Bernard and he’s there, playin’ pinochle.”
Lewis cooled Fox in three rounds. Funnier still, Morse told the exact same story to the Spokane Chronicle when Fox died – only with boxer Billy Lancaster doing the searching this time and Fox knocking out Ford Smith.
Who knows? Maybe it happened twice. With Tiger Jack Fox, anything was possible.
The radical highs and lows of Fox’s career looked like a polygraph readout, but the extremes collided when he was matched with Melio Bettina to fill the vacant New York State Athletic Commission’s version of the world title. A date in Madison Square Garden was set for Jan. 13, 1939.
Problem was, with the fight a month away, Tiger Jack Fox was in Harlem Hospital, lying “near death,” according to the New York Daily News, after being knifed just below the heart with a 10-inch blade wielded by 23-year-old Edna Boyd, in his room at the Woodside Hotel.
Fox told police he’d been stabbed in his sleep. Boyd said she’d been detained against her will. Hotel personnel who broke down the door after hearing screams found a blood-spattered room and Fox on the attack. Boyd was charged with felonious assault; Fox got an ambulance.
But the Fox camp – likely to keep the chance-of-a-lifetime fight from being canceled altogether – soon turned down the volume. Morse called the cuts “superficial.” A week later, Fox entertained reporters in his hospital room. The fight was hastily rebooked for Feb. 3.
Even so, as the date approached reporters remarked on Fox favoring his right side. And that wasn’t the end of his worries, to hear him tell it.
Bettina’s manager was Jimmy Grippo, a relentless self-promoter but also an acclaimed hypnotist who claimed to have used his skill to boost his fighter’s confidence. And he also boasted that he could put a hex on opponents – and Tiger Jack was a sucker for the mystical.
Nevertheless, he entered the ring a 13-5 favorite and fought well early. But a left hook put Fox down for a nine count in the eighth round and he was helpless on the ropes as the bell sounded. A minute on his stool didn’t change things, and referee Eddie Josephs called a halt to the beating at 1:22 of the ninth. Reporters noted the short turnaround from the stabbing; Fox always blamed the “evil eye.”
And even through another decade of paydays, that was pretty much all for Tiger Jack Fox.
He laced them up for real against hardly anyone of note after that, and some outcomes were comical. In Salt Lake City against an overmatched wild man named Arcade “Windmill” Pearce, referee Abe Ablett stopped the bout in the third round – at which point Pearce took the attack to someone who wouldn’t hit back.
“The guy slugged me five times and didn’t hurt me,” Ablett said, “so how the hell is he gonna hurt Fox?”
He seemed to announce his retirement after every bout, and shut it down for three years during World War II. But he was on another comeback by 1944, and in 1947 boxed a four-round exhibition with Joe Louis in front of 8,000 at Gonzaga – the first time a reigning heavyweight champ had gloved up in Spokane.
In truth, it was their second encounter. On the eve of the Bettina fight, Louis was holding court for reporters at the Hippodrome Theatre when Fox happened through, and was asked how he’d fare against the champ.
“It would be what I call a ‘goodbye fight,’ ” Fox explained. “By that I mean we would both come out swinging at the bell. If Louis hit me first, it would be goodbye for the Tiger – and if I hit Louis, it would be goodbye for Joe.”
Louis was greatly amused.
With the Washington commission’s license deadline looming, Fox fought once more in Spokane in 1948 against Freddie Beshore, who would later have the distinction of being knocked out by Louis, Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano in the span of 12 months. Some 6,000 fans turned out at Ferris Field to witness a loss The Spokesman-Review headlined the “End of the Trail.”
Except it wasn’t. Fox popped up in rings in Anchorage, Alaska; Edmonton, Alberta; and Idaho. After a year’s inactivity, he was rushed to Twin Falls, Idaho, in December 1950 as an emergency stand-in for Ponce de Leon, who had been jailed in Spokane for vagrancy. Fox was kayoed 2 seconds before the end of the second round, having suffered a hernia on a wicked punch to the stomach by Jose Ochea.
“This time I really got hurt,” he told promoter Tex Hager. “I’m sorry I let you down. Thank you for trying to help me.”
The record going on his IBHOF display: 160-23-10, with 109 knockouts. The Associated Press reported that his 24 first-round KOs were more than any other boxer other than Jack Dempsey.
Not seven months after his last fight, Fox sustained a stroke in his downtown hotel room and suffered partial paralysis. He made a slow recovery – crediting a faith healer – while living at the home of Alice Freeman, with whom Morse had billeted the fighter when he first came to Spokane. Fox regained some speech, and made his way along city sidewalks with the aid of a cane. He returned to the Armory regularly as a spectator.
On April 5, 1954, Tiger Jack Fox headed downtown to the El Rancho Theater on Main Avenue where the Parkade now stands. Catching the 25-cent triple feature was an almost daily routine, but this time Fox collapsed in the entryway from a heart attack, and was counted out for the last time.
Early on a gray Friday, before the temperature had even cleared 40 degrees, the Rev. Bernard Berry recited requiem mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral. The crowds that roared for his punches at the Armory or Gonzaga Stadium did not show for his funeral. Children from the school next door filled the pews among the few scattered mourners, which included his ex-wife.
Which is not to say Spokane’s boxing fellowship forgot about Tiger Jack.
Unwilling to have him buried in a pauper’s grave, promoter Gus Cozza pledged $100 and made his second-floor gym at Main and Washington available for a benefit card that raised $300 more. Hager passed the hat at his pro wrestling event for another $120. Washington Monumental Works offered the gravestone, a spokesman saying that Fox “deserves at least that after all the pleasure he’s given people.”
In the shade of a pine at Holy Cross Cemetery, a solo plot is surrounded by families – McNevins, Cerenzas, Sullivans, Ballingers – with stones nearly identical, all modest and dignified.
“John Linwood Fox,” his reads. “Died 1954.”
No year of birth. Tiger Jack took that detail with him to his grave.