When the SI 60 series began, I knew there would be no sense in trying to rank the stories in any kind of order, and no sense in trying to do something simple like taking one story from each of Sports Illustrated's first 60 years. How, for instance, does one choose between Frank Deford's 1999 story on Bill Russell, which won the National Magazine Award for profile writing, and Tom Verducci's quest to find Sandy Koufax, baseball's J.D. Salinger, from the same year? The answer, of course, is that you don't.
But even though this series could never be anything but a snapshot of 60 of the best stories SI has ever published, as opposed to a definitive ranking of the 60 best, there was never any doubt about which story would I would choose to close the series, and thus give the closest acknowledgment I could to it being the best: 'The Boxer And The Blonde,' by Frank Deford, which first appeared in the June 17, 1985 issue.
In one of the first installments of this series, last August, longtime SI writer William Nack told me about his goal when writing longform stories for the magazine: "You had to make the whole thing sound like a short story in literature with theme, dialogue, whatever makes fiction, but it's got to be non-fiction."
Perhaps no SI story succeeded in that as much as 'The Boxer And The Blonde." The tale of the life and love of Billy Conn and his wife, Mary Louise, is more than just a boxing story and more than just a love story. It remains a beloved piece of writing, especially in Pittsburgh and in the Conn family. Below, in the 60th and final edition of the SI 60 series and the 40th Q&A, Deford explains why it was the perfect story, except for the one regret that still bothers him 30 years after he wrote it.
SI: Why do a story on Billy Conn?
DEFORD: In 1981, Michael Conn, their youngest son, started writing down all the family stories he’d heard through the years and put them in a folder of six or seven pages. He was a financial advisor, and one day a movie producer came to his office and he gave this guy the story but never heard another word form him. Nothing.
Apparently that guy gave it to somebody else who sent it to me. So that’s where I got it. Thank God I did.
SI: What did you find when you went to Pittsburgh to start reporting?
DEFORD: Once I got there the story turned out to be everything it had been said to be but it was in brighter colors and there was more to it. It just worked. I remember I got there in the morning and drove out to their house and went down into the club cellar with Billy and then went upstairs and talked to Mary Louise. It was as simple as that. I didn’t have any trouble running anybody down. I remember the most prominent person I talked to was Art Rooney, the Steelers’ owner. There were parts I didn’t know about and it just got better and better and better.
SI: How much time did you spend in Pittsburgh?
DEFORD: I did the whole thing in two or three days. Sometimes the best stories are just the ones where everybody is there. I couldn’t contact Joe Lous, he was dead. I couldn’t contact Billy’s younger brother, he was dead. Only a handful of people were still around but they were all terrific. After three days there wasn’t anything more to do. So I got on a plane and came home.
SI: That’s pretty amazing, because it often reads like a novel, like you had lived there all your life.
DEFORD: Believe me I didn’t! This all just came in the space of three days. But I knew Pittsburgh because it was a lot like Baltimore, where I came from, so I felt very much at home there and felt very much at home with the Conns.
But I knew enough to know that Pittsburgh had this terrible reputation of dirt and grime and everything. That’s also a time when unions were in their ascendancy and the working man was doing well. It also was the time when boxing, even though I had not covered it I understood how it worked, and you matched the ethnic people against each other. I knew the background of it and then it was just a question of doing the research.
SI: Were you especially familiar with Conn’s life in the ring or boxing in general?
DEFORD: I seldom did any boxing stories, which was probably good in this case because I didn’t get waylaid by any kind of boxing stuff. Maybe if I’d been a boxing guy I would have thought, Well I better try to get hold of the referee or something like that, but because I didn’t know about boxing nothing obscured the true story.
SI: Billy seemed very eager and willing to talk to you.
DEFORD: He was starting to fade a little bit but he still had most of his marbles and he was delighted to do it and everybody was pleased to see me. One thing about old athletes—and it’s probably the same with old movie stars or old anybody—but people who were famous may get irritated at the media because it’s a pain at the time, but then all of a sudden they’re gone and when you come back they’re thrilled to see you, to see someone, to have the attention that they had once upon a time.
Nobody had ever told his story before, that’s the amazing thing. There were bits and pieces here and there but nobody had ever put it all together. Sometimes things just click. The only regret I have is that it was not made into a movie. It was my fault.
SI: Why is that?
DEFORD: I told Billy, “Look you want to sell this as a movie?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “We’ll go 50-50,” and he said OK. We got $50,000 from some producer [EDITOR'S NOTE: According to Michael Conn, the rights were sold to Ron Shelton, the writer and director of Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump, among other movies.]. Billy got $25,000 and I got $25,000. I said, “Remember, Billy, if things go well this is just a down payment,” and he said, “Well it’s better than a kick in the ass.”
That’s my only regret is that I took the money and I shouldn’t have. I should have said, This is a real jewel and I ought to protect it. Maybe I was greedy, and I wanted to see Billy make a payday. Maybe what I should have done is controlled it better and found somebody who’d let me write the script. The script came in and it was dreadful. It just missed everything and was completely flat. It missed all the stuff, all the Pittsburgh stuff. It was just another boxing story.
The greatest line that I’ve ever been given [while reporting a story] was when Billy said to his mother something like, “Mom I’ll see you when I get back from the fight,” and she said “No, son, the next time you see me will be in Paradise.” People just don’t say that. That wasn’t even in the script!
It’s still a shame to me that it was never made into a movie. What really pisses me off is there have been so many boxing movies. They’re the easiest sports movies to make because you only need two people in a ring. This is potentially the best movie ever and no one has made it. I have no idea who owns the rights to the script now. That’s a huge regret of mine and there’s been all sorts of efforts in Pittsburgh to get it made and it just never worked out. I lost control and Billy died eight years later.
SI: Had you kept in touch with either of them through the years?
DEFORD: Every now and then. Sometimes Michael will send me a picture of the Blonde. She’s still a knockout at the age of 92. She was really gorgeous. That picture of them coming out of the water that was in their club cellar and that we ran in the magazine, it’s just like somebody painted it.
It was all so perfect. It wrote itself very easily. Because it was all there, there were no tricks to it. So much of it was evocative of time and place. The story is fabulous. It’s a love story with great characters and this fabulous background with Pittsburgh, I mean on and on and on.
I remember I did have to look up about Jimmy Greenfield Smith, but big deal, what does that take, a half hour, even before the Internet?
The one thing I didn’t know anything about was the fighting that these guys got into outside of the ring. That was like one more ingredient (laughs). But the story itself was just sitting there. It was teed up all you had to do was hit the ball.
SI: So you knew right away you had something.
DEFORD: Oh yeah, from the beginning, from the moment I walked into it. It’s like some scout walking into a gym and seeing LeBron James. You gotta be an idiot – “Good God, this guy’s terrific.” Everything just got better and better and better and better. Art Rooney could tell me the detail of the fight between Greenfield Jimmy Smith and Billy Conn in their kitchen because he was there.
It’s even got a little religious element into it. It’s a fabulous period piece is what it is. Billy is sitting there and he’s telling me about how, in the Louis fight, he was being told, "Billy, all you gotta do is stay away from him," and he says, "All I can think is a couple days from now I’m walking down the boardwalk in Atlantic City and some guy goes, 'There’s the guy who beat Joe Louis,' and I wanted to hear him say, 'No, there goes the guy who knocked out Joe Louis.'” When people say things like that it’s just like, No, stop, that’s fiction.
I couldn’t possibly screw this up, no matter hard how I tried.
SI: It remains very popular. Do you ever re-read it?
DEFORD: I don’t think I have. That’s sort of not what I do. I can’t imagine sitting down and reading a story of mine, but if there was ever going to be one I’d read again, that’s the one. It had everything: a love story, a great ending, it’s evocative of a time and place, great characters, a beautiful woman at the center of it, death, jealousy, comedy—it is absolutely everything that you would want.
SI: What was the reaction like?
DEFORD: I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about it. I remember Bob Brown was the editor on it, and I don’t think Bob Brown edited more than two of my pieces; maybe this was the only piece of mine he ever did. I don’t know why it fell into his hands, but Bob didn’t want to cut a word out of it. [Managing editor Mark] Mulvoy immediately said, as all editors do, “It’s too long.” Because it was a long story. But nothing ever got cut out of it. I don’t know how they managed to do that. Maybe because they liked it so much. What you see is basically what I handed in.
The reaction was that everybody liked it and the people in Pittsburgh were crazy about it. Even in all of Billy’s obituaries this piece was mentioned. And here he’d been light heavyweight champion of the world!
I don’t know if I ever had a story that was easier to write. Just in every way from the simple business of going to Pittsburgh and everybody was nice to me and there were no problems to meet anybody.
SI: It’s often considered the best Sports Illustrated story ever. What do you think?
DEFORD: That’s not for me to say. I can’t go around saying that’s the best story. It’s the best story I ever wrote, I don’t have any trouble saying that. To compare it to somebody else’s pieces, I’ll leave that up to somebody else.
I always thought Mark Kram’s story on the Thrilla in Manila was the best deadline story that ever appeared in Sports Illustrated.
In a funny way I can sort of take credit for doing a better job on other stories than on this one because they didn’t have any ingredients. It’s sort of like the guy who can still pitch even though his fastball isn’t on. And that’s a better game than when he had everything working for him. There are other stories that I had to work harder on, but even working harder on them I didn’t come to the level that I did on this one.
But I’m glad to hear that this one still measures up and people still appreciate it.