Melio Bettina: Ne’er Brought to Mind

By Clarence George on January 23, 2014
Melio Bettina: Ne’er Brought to Mind
Melio Bettina fought Billy Conn twice in 1939, at Madison Square Garden and Forbes Field.

If he were around today and in his prime, he’d be in the ring with Tavoris Cloud, Eleider Alvarez, Tony Bellew, even Stevenson and Kovalev…

“For winning the title I got $750.”—Melio Bettina

Now that the Light Heavyweight Fight of the Century, or whatever the hype was, is over and soon forgotten, tossed unceremoniously upon the dung heap of mediocre and meaningless bouts, Lucian Bute to resume his dead-end career at super middle, Jean Pascal to soon or late be dismembered by Adonis Stevenson or Sergey Kovalev, maybe both, a reminder of a light heavy who deserves considerably more than the blank stare his name usually evokes.

Short and stocky and with ample hair on his chest, both literally and metaphorically, Melio Bettina became a boxer because he got between 10 and 20 bucks for mixing it up and only 25 cents for mixing cement. “I was fighting twice a week and making enough to keep everyone eating,” said the burly southpaw.

Born on November 18, 1916, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Emilio made his home in Beacon, New York. In 1934, he won the Intercity Golden Gloves, in which New York fighters were pitted against their Chicago counterparts, by decisioning Tony Zale for the light heavyweight title. He turned professional the same year. He fought 100 bouts in his 14 years as a pro, averaging seven fights a year, winding up with a record of 83 wins, 36 by knockout, 14 losses, and three draws. The 5’9” Eyetie was stopped only three times, by Frank Zamoris via sixth-round TKO in 1936, by Gus Lesnevich via first-round KO in 1947 (the quickest main-event knockout in the history of Madison Square Garden), and by Johnny Flynn via sixth-round KO in 1948. That was Bettina’s last fight, opting instead to make a living selling Chevies, though he always made time for his flower and vegetable garden.

Unlike Pascal, who fights only when the moon is in the seventh house, Bettina graced the squared circle with commendable frequency, fighting 26 times between January 1936 and December 1937, for instance. And he always took on his fellow hard boys, beating the likes of Clarence Burman, Pat Valentino, Jimmy Bivins, Gus Dorazio, and Joe Muscato.

Melio fought Fred Apostoli twice, the fights less than a month apart. He lost the first bout (a “savage” slugfest, according to the New York Times) by majority decision, but retired the former middleweight champ in the 12th round of the second.

After John Henry Lewis vacated his light heavyweight championship to challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown (an ill-advised venture, resulting in his getting knocked down three times before being kayoed in the first), Bettina stopped Tiger Jack Fox by ninth-round TKO at Madison Square Garden on February 3, 1939, winning the New York State Athletic Commission Light Heavyweight Championship of the World. He grossed $750, about $13,000 today. “Fox was tough,” said Bettina. “He was unorthodox. He just threw all kinds of punches.”

Melio was managed by magician and hypnotist Jimmy Grippo, and Fox claimed that he lost because of Grippo’s “evil eye.”

Bettina didn’t do nearly as well taking on Billy Conn, who was less susceptible than was Fox to Grippo’s malocchio, for the vacant National Boxing Association title. They met at Madison Square Garden on July 13, 1939, Conn winning by unanimous decision both the NBA and Bettina’s NYSAC. The rematch, which took place at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field on September 25, 1939, was very much a repeat performance, Conn again winning by unanimous decision.

Following the NBA’s ruling that Conn had in effect vacated his title because he hadn’t defended it for six months and because he’d signed to meet Louis for the heavyweight crown, Bettina and Anton Christoforidis fought for the championship at the Arena in Cleveland on January 13, 1941, Bettina losing by unanimous decision.

Melio never again fought for a title, but won 31 of his last 35 fights. Among others, he twice beat the very tough Harry Bobo—the “Peabody Paralyzer,” born in aptly named Scuffletown, South Carolina.

Inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame the year before his death, Bettina died age 80 on December 20, 1996.

If he were around today and in his prime, he’d be in the ring with Tavoris Cloud, Eleider Alvarez, Tony Bellew, even Stevenson and Kovalev. Win or lose, he’d know how to mix it up. And because climbing through the ropes was how he fed his family, holding off until Jupiter aligned itself with Mars would most definitely not be an option.

Unless, that is, he made the necessary adjustments. Perhaps he would. After all, as Oscar Madison’s girlfriend observed in the classic Odd Couple episode, “Password”:

“This is the dawning of the age of aquarium.”

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Billy Conn vs Melio Bettina

Melio Bettina W 3 Tony Zale - 1934 Golden Gloves

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  1. Clarence George 05:17am, 01/26/2014

    Thanks very much indeed, Tex.

  2. Tex Hassler 05:13am, 01/26/2014

    Bettina fought just about all the good fighters in his era and beat many of them. This is the first article I have read on him in many years. Good and thanks.

  3. Clarence George 02:11pm, 01/25/2014

    Thanks very much, Mike.

    The Tiger Jack Fox story, both in and out of the ring, couldn’t be written as fiction—no one would believe it.  He wanted Benjamin “Evil Eye” Finkle (totally forgotten today) to counteract the supposed magic of Jimmy Grippo, but Evil Eye refused to interfere in the business of a fellow practitioner of the dark arts.

    Someone (you?) should write about Evil Eye.  One of boxing’s more fascinating characters…and that’s saying something. 

  4. Mike Casey 12:26pm, 01/25/2014

    Very good article on a very good fighter, Clarence. Tiger Jack Fox was a great fighter too who didn’t always get the breaks. But look at his record and the men he beat.

  5. Clarence George 10:28am, 01/24/2014

    Thank you, Irish.  And I of course agree—Bettina is very much my kind of guy…and boxer.

    Ah, the “Peabody Paralyzer.”  Bobo was nothing to sneeze at.  He twice beat Lee Savold, once by kayo.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:51am, 01/24/2014

    Clarence George-Great research resulting in a really fine tribute to blue collar Melio…my kind of guy…...which reminds me…...“Harry Bobo the “Peabody Paralyzer” from Scuffletown” can’t make this stuff up.

  7. Clarence George 08:08am, 01/24/2014

    So glad you liked it, Beaujack, and thank you for another great share. 

    Right you are—the Bettina-Bivins draw took place at MSG on March 16, 1945.

    No, that “evil eye” didn’t work against Conn, though I read somewhere that Conn’s son once told Bettina that he thought he should have gotten the nod in the first bout.

  8. beaujack 07:19am, 01/24/2014

    Clarence, excellent article on a little known LH champion of the past Melio Bettina. I saw Bettina fight one time in 1945 when Melio and Jimmy Bivins fought a dull 10 rd draw at the old MSG. Both Bettina and Bivins were past their LH prime, packing too much weight on themselves. At his best as a LH, Bettina and his southpaw awkwardness was a tough man to lick, but one of my very favorite fighters ever Billy Conn solved this dilemma twice, by decision. Evidently Jimmy Grippo and his “:evil eye” didn’t do the trick against handsome Billy Conn as he was known…

  9. Ted 07:03am, 01/24/2014

    Sehr gut. Weiter so

  10. Clarence George 06:56am, 01/24/2014

    Ich danke schön.

  11. Ted 06:40am, 01/24/2014

    Great attention to detail

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