BILLY CONN, a clever light-heavyweight champion, is best known for a fight he lost… his challenge to Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship at the New York Polo Grounds in June 1941.
Through 12 rounds Conn boxed beautifully, jabbing, punching cleanly, moving, keeping Louis twisting, turning and chasing… three rounds to go and the 23-year-old from Pittsburgh had overhauled the champion’s early lead and was in front. One judge had it level at six rounds each, but the other two had Conn ahead.
There was still work to do but Conn was the man in the ascendancy, Louis the one with something to find. And then in the 13th the crowd of 54,487 saw Louis draw Conn into trading punches. Briefly Conn outfought him, but then held on as a series of right hands hurt him – and then more rights sent him crashing to the canvas. He was counted out with two seconds left in the round.
Conn’s grandfathers were immigrants from Derry and Cork and the beaten challenger took a pragmatic view of his tactical switch in that fateful 13th: “What’s the point in being Irish if you can’t be thick?”
Six months later the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the USA into World War II and immediate plans for a return were shelved. Conn did have three fights in 1942, but then was out for four years before, in the first big fight after the war, and without a warm-up, he met Louis again in June 1946 at Yankee Stadium, New York.
Neither man was as good as he had been five years before, but Conn’s deterioration was greater. He was knocked out in the eighth round. He boxed only twice more, in a 10-day spell in 1948, then had an exhibition with Louis in Chicago and retired.
In his prime Conn had won the world light-heavyweight title at the age of 21 with a 15-round decision over Melio Bettina in New York. He had defended it three times, twice against Gus Lesnevich before relinquishing it to concentrate on his first fight with Louis. He had also beaten top heavyweight contenders in Lee Savold, Bob Pastor and Al McCoy as well as middleweights like Fred Apostoli and Teddy Yarosz.
Conn invested his money in oil wells, was paid by a car dealership and for three years in the 1960s interrupted the quiet life he led with his family in Pittsburgh to manage the Mob-owned Stardust in Las Vegas. He occasionally refereed bouts, including a lightweight title fight between Carlos Ortiz and Sugar Ramos in Mexico City in 1966. His decision to rule Ramos out because of a cut eye sparked a riot with fans throwing rocks and bottles – and he had to fight his way to the dressing room.
In 1990 he made the headlines when he floored an armed robber in a store with a left hook out of the memory bank.
Conn died of pneumonia in a Pittsburgh hospital in 1993, aged 75.
‘He can run, but he can’t hide’
WHEN told of Conn’s upcoming “hit and run” strategy ahead of their first fight, Louis calmly replied: “He can run but he can’t hide.”
Scorecards in the Louis fight were: judge Healy had it 6-6 even, judge Monroe had it 7-4-1 to Conn and referee Joseph had it to Conn by a 7-5 margin.
Born October 8, 1917 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Died May 29, 1993 Wins 63 Knockouts 14 Losses 12 Draws 1 Best win Gus Lesnevich (I) w pts 15 Worst loss Joe Louis (I) l ko 13 Pros Clever boxing skills, indomitable spirit Cons Lacked knockout power