Hidden History

When a Magician’s Curse Swung Boxing’s Biggest Bout

In 1939, Tiger Jack Fox got his first and only shot at the title, and lost it thanks to black magic, a woman with a razor blade, and a manager with a knack for hypnosis.

When a Magician’s Curse Swung Boxing’s Biggest Bout

PART ONE: THE TIGER WAS A NIGHT OWL 

John Linwood Fox, a.k.a. Tiger Jack Fox, was a superstitious man. He was a late-night playboy. But before all else, he was as powerful a boxer that has ever fought. A light heavyweight who boxed professionally from 1926-1950, Fox is distinguished as one of Ring magazine’s Top 100 Punchers in history. His 24 first round knockouts rank him second all-time, behind only Jack Dempsey. He was a showy and unorthodox boxer who often fought with his hands down at his knees, sometimes sticking his chin out or making opened-mouthed gestures in a ploy to lure opponents into attack, at which time he’d open up, punching wildly. Journalists thought it was funny. His opponents did not. 

Fox fought often, and toward the end of 1938, he was closing in on 100 career victories, with his record sitting at 98-14-10. When National Boxing Association light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis decided to move up in weight and challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight title (a fight John Henry lost in 93 seconds), the New York Athletic Commission stripped Lewis of his belt, and an elimination tournament was set up to determine a successor. Fox fought his way to a title shot; his opponent would be Melio Bettina, a young fighter from Beacon, New York. In 1939, Tiger Jack would get his big break, but first he’d have to make it out of 1938 alive.

John “Tiger” Linwood Fox, better known as Tiger Jack Fox.

Fox had long made a habit of staying out late and spending every dime he made. He hated working out; he hated preparing for fights, but it never seemed to hurt him. Trainer Al Morse told a story, recounted in the Spokane Daily Chronicle, about a time when he lost Tiger Jack prior to a 1936 bout at the Spokane Armory. As the night moved on and the undercard bouts were finishing up, Tiger Jack was still nowhere to be found. With mere minutes to go before the headline bout, Fox finally made an appearance. 

“Where in the —— have you been?” Morse asked, according to the Chronicle. 

“Well I got in a card game down the street and I was trying to win enough money for cab fare to the Armory.” 

Fox pulled his gloves on, went into the ring, and won the fight in three easy rounds. 

On December 6, 1938, Tiger Jack’s late nights caught up to him. It was three a.m. in Harlem when he met a woman, Edna Boyd, on his way back to the Woodside Hotel. Not long after, guests heard screams coming from Tiger Jack’s room. The hotel detective broke down the door, and found a room covered in blood. Boyd had stabbed Tiger Jack with a ten-inch blade, just below the heart. He was bleeding still. Fox was rushed to the hospital, and Boyd was arrested claiming self-defense. She showed the patrolman the cuts on her fingers as proof. 

Fox’s injuries were critical. He had lost a great deal of blood, and one reporter predicted that his fight career was finished, “even if he recovers.” But on December 17, Fox invited reporters to his hospital room, where he lounged in his bed reading a Wild West story, to show them that he was “not as bad off as they say.” 

When asked to give his account of the events, Fox disputed Boyd’s account that they had met on the street, and gave no explanation of the incident, saying that she had stabbed him in his sleep. 

“I was on a party with a couple of guys and girls,” he said. “The others left before the cutting. I was lying across the bed when she stabbed me.” 

Details would remain murky. When reached at the Women’s Detention Home for a statement after being charged with felonious assault, Boyd, a hotel maid, replied only “No, no, no. I will say nothing.” 

Tiger Jack promised that he’d take his shot at the title, facing Bettina on February 3, just two months after the stabbing. Edna Boyd and her knife would not, as it happened, be the only things standing in his way. 

PART TWO: “THE MAD MAGICIAN OF MAUL”  

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Superstitious athletes have a way of attracting eccentrics. Characters like five foot nine Jimmy Grippo, a boxing manager fond of suit and tie, and who sported thick black glasses, which matched his penetrating black eyes and thick, curly, black hair.  

The 40-year-old Grippo lived in Melio Bettina’s hometown of Beacon, New York. He had managed Bettina since the start of his career, but that was only a side gig. Really, he was a magician and hypnotist who would one day be credited by the Las Vegas Sun as an expert in, “clairaudience, clairvoyance, dream interpretation, extrasensory perception, handwriting analysis, magic and sleight of hand, palmistry, precognition, pupilmetrics, telekinesis and telepathy.”  

Grippo’s biography is, fittingly, a bit of a mystery. The story goes that he was born in Venosa, Italy, in January of 1888, the oldest of nine children. There, he first learned of hypnotism from a local elder. When Grippo was around 12 his family immigrated to America, settling in Beacon. He caught Harry Blackstone Sr.’s show once when the magician barnstormed through upstate New York and the Great Blackstone’s performance captivated Grippo. By 18 years old he was versed in the art of legerdemain (defined as the “skillful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks”). Hypnotism was also an early specialty, and Grippo’s work in this discipline gradually became highly respected and had him partnering with doctors to use hypnotism as an alternative to anesthetics. (Grippo was a pioneering advocate of hypnosis for mothers during childbirth.) In 1932, Grippo was summoned to a New York hospital to perform hypnotism on the King of Siam, to calm the nervous King prior to eye surgery. Following the successful operation, the King presented Grippo with a large diamond and ruby ring shaped like a sheik’s head. 

Jimmy Grippo

In the years to come, Grippo would become the first house magician at Caesar’s Palace when it opened in Las Vegas in 1966. There, according to present-day magician and preeminent coin manipulator, David Roth, Grippo’s specialty was sleight of hand magic with rings and coins. Roth met him some 40 years ago, but one thing stands out above all else: “Jimmy was a showman.”  

In Beacon, Grippo lived down the street from the Bettinas. When shy, skinny young Melio was bullied in school, it was to Grippo that his mother came for help. The magician got him started in boxing, managing him when the boy turned pro, and using hypnotism and auto-suggestion to bolster the young prizefighter’s confidence. When they came to New York City to train at the legendary Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, Grippo hypnotized Bettina twice a week.  

“Hypnosis can be a tremendous help to an athlete, but you use it in training, not combat,” he later told the Miami News. “I’d drill into his subconscious mind that he was going to retain the knowledge he would pick up in the gym, that he would have good reflexes, that he would be able to absorb punishment, that he was going to win. In a wakeful state he now had greater confidence. It was the power of suggestion at work.” 

It was hard to argue with the results. Bettina grew husky and strong, a rough-and-tumble fighter who was a far cry from the reserved kid who first showed up at the gym. He stuck with the sport through the Great Depression, earning more in the ring than he could anywhere else. By 1938, Bettina was rolling, having not lost a fight in nearly two years, his record sitting at 43-6-2. He was 23-years-old and ready to fight for the championship of the world. 

Tiger Jack, meanwhile, was not.  

“He doesn’t look at all ready,” wrote Carl Beckwith of the Washington Afro-American just days prior to the Bettina fight. “We noticed that when he shook hands, he kept his arm as close to his side as possible, and in climbing in and out of the ring, he definitely favored his right side.” But Tiger Jack didn’t care. This was his chance, and he wasn’t going to miss it.  

As the bout approached, the bookies made Fox a 3-1 favorite. On fight day, the New York Times declared, “Fox is the choice to turn back his youthful rival… He is a sturdy, well-rounded boxer, who can stand up well under a punch.”  

But could he stand up to a hex? 

“Jimmy Grippo, who manages Melio, is a magician and a hypnotist,” wrote Harry Ferguson of the United Press. “He is planning, it seems, to send his man into the ring in a trance which will make him impervious to a smack on the kisser… Manager Grippo, who never has objected when anyone referred to him as ‘the Svengali of Pugilism,’ intends to make his hypnotism work both ways by putting a hex on Fox. He explains that if he can come face to face with Fox before the gladiators begin gladiating he can send Fox into a trance that will make him helpless against a left to the belly.”  

PART THREE: “YOU WILL NOT QUAIL”  

Madison Square Garden. February 3, 1939. Tickets ranged from $18 all the way up to $189. A snowstorm battered the region, and only 7,947 showed up for the fight. The weather hardly slowed the Beacon battalion, as an estimated 1,500 fans trekked the 65 miles south from the Hudson Valley. Some called Bettina a country boy, others a farm boy, but up in Beacon the kid was a star. 

Before the bell rang, Grippo gave Bettina his marching orders.  

“You will be courageous,” quoted Red Smith in the New York Times. “You will not quail. You will feel no pain and you will conquer. He will not hurt you. You will attack, attack, attack. And you shall prevail.” 

Then Grippo set his eyes on Tiger Jack. Fox was ready for him. At the weigh-in, he’d worn sunglasses to protect himself from Grippo’s gaze, and now he did everything he could to avoid making eye contact with the magician.  

“He wouldn’t look me in the eye,” Grippo later related. “When we started to put on the gloves I went to his corner but he kept his head down.” 

Another tactic was required. Grippo looked back at his own corner and yelled, “Don’t forget to put the stuff in the gloves.” Tiger Jack’s seconds ran to Bettina’s corner to make sure that they weren’t putting weights in his gloves, and Tiger Jack’s head snapped up in the commotion. Grippo got his eye contact. The hex was in. 

“What you doin’ to me?” moaned Tiger Jack, according to Grippo. 

Finally, it was time to box. Things got off to a slow start, the fighters sizing one another up, exchanging punches and maneuvering for position. Bettina was not only green, but also a plodder, moving at his opponent straight ahead, punching from a low crouch. He pressed Fox into the ropes. Fox countered, throwing rights and lefts, catching Bettina with a thundering blow to the head, opening a cut above Bettina’s left eye.  

Bettina bounced back to take the second and third rounds, pacing the action. In the fourth, Fox connected with a vicious right hand that staggered Bettina. The belt looked like it was within Fox’s reach. Fox attacked with a flurry of punches, while Bettina looked to crowd him, bullying Fox into the ropes to stem the onslaught. It was toe-to-toe action in the fifth, with Bettina getting the better of it with short, stiff combinations to the head. He won the sixth round as well. In the seventh the two fighters banged heads, then Fox went in for the kill, landing a solid left, but just missed with a right uppercut. Bettina’s face was red and his left eye was cut. The seventh ended with a flurry, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Jimmy Grippo, manager of Melio Bettina, shows Tiger Jack Fox some sleight-of-hand tricks at Boxing Commisison offices on February 1st, 1939, two days before the match with Bettina. (Photo by New York Daily News via Getty Images)

In the eighth, Bettina came alive, charging ahead and striking with three consecutive shots to the jaw. Fox countered with a left to the body, then just missed with a wild right and nearly tumbled to the canvass in the process. Bettina saw his opening. He struck with a big left hook, sending Fox down for a nine-count. Back on his feet, Fox was wobbly and Bettina continued punching unceasingly until the bell. Fox held on, barely, and stumbled to his corner. The Beacon faithful roared with approval, eager for more of the same in the ninth round.  

PART FOUR: THE GREAT MANERO AND A CAVE IN ALBANIA 

A magician’s audience walks away buzzing about the climax of a trick, but the voila is not always the most important part. For a magician like James V. Grippo, a showman, it’s what comes before the trick that matters most of all. 

When asked where he first learned the power of hypnotism, Jimmy would take his listeners on a journey back to verdant Italy, where he lived an idyllic childhood eating figs and grapes and olives, until the day he met a 114-year-old mystic named Manero. The two traveled across the sea to Albania, to a cave lit by an olive-oil lamp, where Manero spent nine years imparting the secrets of hypnotism.   

“He hypnotised me four of five times a day, an hour at a time,” Jimmy later told Las Vegas Today. “From these sessions I learned how to hypnotise others and the unique power of self-hypnosis, which in turn had taught me how to be the master of my body and not a slave to it.”  

Grippo would regularly tell such stories. This was the groundwork. The trick before the trick. Tell enough reporters, like old Harry Ferguson, and Jimmy’s stories got around. Never mind that his Manero story would have had him learning hypnotism as a three-year old if he indeed made it to America when he was 12 — Jimmy’s trick was the story of the cave. It didn’t matter if it was true or not, you believed he absolutely could have been a boy apprentice in Albania. If nothing else, he possessed the power to make you consider — could he be a sorcerer, a magic man, a spellbinder — and the answer was always “yes, he very well could have been.” So before the ninth round, before the first bell, before he looked into Tiger Jack’s eyes, the groundwork was already laid. Not even the sunglasses could have saved Fox. 

Prior to the ninth round Fox’s trainers worked feverishly to patch him up. But as soon as the bell rang, Bettina had him against the ropes and was pounding away. Here was Tiger Jack Fox, who according to Red Smith “could hit like the wrecker’s big iron ball.” Tiger Jack Fox, a savvy veteran of more than 100 fights, getting sleighed by a farm boy. Pummeled by a plodder. How could it be? Was it as simple as Bettina absorbing his manager’s words? You will not quail…he will not hurt you….attack, attack, attack…And you shall… 

Again, Bettina backed Fox into the ropes. A right, then a left, back and forth. Fox was gasping for air, but would not go down. Bettina trapped Fox in a neutral corner and battered away. And sure enough, it really was just as Grippo had told him. And you shall prevail. Referee Eddie Josephs called it at the 1:22 mark.  

Bettina’s supporters kicked up the brass band.  

Bettina had won the title.

Tiger Jack Fox and Melio Bettina weigh in at the Garden, February 3rd, 1939. (Photo by New York Daily News via Getty Images)

A week after the championship tilt, Newsweek and Ring Lardner’s coverage of the bout was focused almost solely on the manager, referring to Fox as “Grippo’s victim,” and pointing to the eighth round as the moment when the magic kicked in. Grippo’s hypnotic stare remained “undefeated.”  

Fox, meanwhile, had no other recourse but to get back out there. He was back in the ring, and the win column, by March. He would fight a total of 11 matches in 1939, winning seven with a draw and a no contest thrown in.  

Bettina’s winning streak did not last much longer. Five months later he fought Billy Conn, whose team attempted to bar Grippo from participating in the official weigh-in. They failed, but Grippo earned a rebuke from the New York Boxing Commission, warning of “no monkey business,” and Conn took the title from Bettina in July of 1939 by unanimous decision. 

Moving forward, Grippo was the story, not Bettina. Here was Harry Ferguson again, obviously enamored with Grippo’s hocus pocus, writing before Bettina took on Red Burman at Ebbets Field in 1941: 

“If it were strictly a fight between Burman and Bettina, your agent would be inclined to pick Burman. But there is a third person involved in this conflict — Bettina’s manager who has the glittering eye of Svengali, who is a better magician than Berlin and who can put people under a Hypnotic spell. Grippo is the name — Jimmy Grippo — but whenever the scholars assemble in leatherfist lane to discuss such erudite subjects as the super-natural and hypnotism they refer to him in hushed voices as ‘Grippo the Great.’” 

EPILOGUE: “WHO HAS CAST THE EVIL EYE ON YOU?”  

Melio Bettina retired in 1948 with a career record of 83-14-3, losing his only other title shot to Anton Christoforidis in 1941. Tiger Jack bounced back, boxing all over the northwest, then Canada, then Alaska, where he became the Alaskan Heavyweight Champion at the age of 46. Fox’s last official fight came in December of 1950 in Twin Falls, Idaho. A sad affair at the Radio Rondevoo, Fox was called in as a last minute replacement after the original opponent found himself in stir. Old man Fox suffered a hernia in the bout before falling in the second round.  

Fox suffered a stroke in 1951 that nearly paralyzed him, but he got off the canvas as usual, recovered and became an ever-present figure around Spokane, walking with a cane, taking in the fights, and buying 25-cent movie tickets to spend the day at a triple feature. He fell one last time in April of 1954, suffering a heart attack while entering the El Rancho Theatre on Main Street. His final record in the ring stands at 140-23-12 — an astonishing number of fights, considering that most of today’s greats average between 50 and 70 fights in a career — and a remarkable 91 KO’s.  

Fox’s obituary made note of his nocturnal nature. “The Tiger never believed in letting his ring career interfere with his good times.” The write-up also mentioned that the stabbing “undoubtedly cost him the world title.” Perhaps. But when anyone asked, he always pointed the blame at his opponent’s manager. Fox never doubted Grippo’s hex. 

Long after Tiger Jack and Bettina were forgotten, Grippo stayed in the game, offering his services to boxers looking for a magical edge. His name pops up all the way into the ’60s and ’70s, in bouts involving Liston, Patterson, Ali, Norton, Holmes, and so on. He worked into his 90s as the self-appointed greeter at Caesar’s Palace, wowing guests fresh from the airport with magic and coin tricks, and he performed for every president from Eisenhower to Carter. His quintessential performance, however, came just after World War II, when he was summoned to 10 Downing Street, to perform for Winston Churchill.  

Grippo approached the Prime Minister, according to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, with no fireworks, no assistants — just a solitary pack of cards.  

“Pick a card,” asked Grippo, instructing the Prime Minister to make his selection mentally, without touching the deck. Once Churchill chose, AlakazamGrippo forcefully flung the cards against a window across the room. The cards scattered. Outside it rained. At the base of the window the cards were counted. Fifty-one. Jimmy pointed to the window where the 52nd card — Churchill’s card — was stuck to it… The outside of the window. The card was streaked with rain.