JOE LOUIS’ 18th defence of his heavyweight crown in 1941, against the Pittsburgh light-heavyweight Billy Conn, should have been a formality… yet there were plenty of good judges who gave the slick-boxing challenger a real chance. How right they were!
Conn was on a roll of 19 consecutive victories, had won, defended and then relinquished the light-heavyweight championship. He brought thousands of fans with him and promised them if he was hurt he would keep his head and not trade toe-to-toe, as he had done at times in the past.
Conn was rocked by a right in round two but settled down and buckled Louis’ knees with two rights in the fourth. The champion responded in the fifth with body punches that shook Conn up. He weaved to the wrong corner at the bell. In the sixth he withstood another big body attack and blood leaked from an eye.
From the seventh, rather than fade away, Conn seemed to find strength in his legs and by the closing stages of the eighth was moving forward and peppering Louis with fast punches.
Conn won the ninth, Louis the 10th, but the challenger used his speed and poured out punches without getting over-involved in the 11th and 12th.
With three rounds left, referee Eddie Joseph had Conn two rounds up, Marty Monroe saw the challenger three in front, and Bill Healy had it level.
Conn had the momentum, just needed to keep his head, stick to his boxing and the job was done. Jack Blackburn, Louis’ great trainer, told him he needed a knockout and waved smelling salts under his nose.
And so history turned. Conn stopped thinking, found a right that cut Louis’ ear but instead of hitting and moving he charged – straight into the path of a right hand to the chin. Conn was hurt, should have held or kept out away until his head cleared, but instead the red mist came down.
It was bold, brash, thrilling but it was also madness. Eventually a right hand spun Conn round and down. He was still trying to prise himself upwards off his haunches as Eddie Joseph completed the count on one of the most dramatic heavyweight title fights in history – with the clock at two minutes 58 seconds of the 13th round.
Five years on, after the war, they would do it again and Louis would beat a less nimble Conn in eight.