During the early part of 1941, Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis shuffled across the country, engaging in a series of title defenses that became known as The Bum-of-the-month Tour. Whether these relatively harmless challengers bore obscure names like Tony Musto, Gus Dorazio and Red Burman or more celebrated names like Abe Simon (a giant) and Buddy Baer (a giant and Max's brother, as well), the number of rounds each remained upright varied only in relation to his own special threshold of pain.
Louis' busy campaign ended on June 18 in New York. His opponent there was Billy Conn, his seventh challenger in seven months, although no one really considered this fight an appendage to Joe's dubious tour.
Conn, while considerably outweighed and outgunned by Louis, was one of the finest middleweights and light heavyweights of all time. He was also the most popular challenger Louis ever had. His ruggedly handsome profile, deep-set blue eyes and dark curly hair masked the soul of a street fighter. His swift, crafty movements in the ring were sometimes augmented, sometimes nullified, by brash aggressiveness. A storybook Irishman, Conn breathed fire and oozed sentimentality. He appreciated these qualities in others, too, and when Bummy Davis, a Brooklyn welterweight, was shot dead while trying to slug a stickup man, Billy was deeply affected.
"I never met Bummy, but he was a tough kid and I admired him," Conn said. "I couldn't send any flowers to the funeral because it was Jewish, but I sent the biggest box of candy they could find."
September 11, 1966
Brooklyn's Brownsville, which nurtured Bummy Davis, would have impressed Conn as homelike. He was born amid similar bleak surroundings in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh in 1917. There he grew up fighting the other kids in the streets and, when nobody-else was around, fighting his brother at home. He had the features, if not the disposition, of an altar boy.
"The first time I saw Billy his head was only this big," Johnny Ray, who was later his manager, said as he clenched a small fist. "He had a baby face, and when you looked at him you just wanted to pick him up and hug him."
This was about the time that the 14-year-old Billy appeared at Ray's East Liberty gymnasium. Billy ran errands for the older men, bringing back sandwiches and moonshine from a shabby store across the street and, in the intervals, learned something about boxing from Ray.
School was a different matter. The otherwise graceful youngster plodded through Sacred Heart grammar school like a drunk trying to push his car out of a ditch—one step forward and two steps back. When he had laboriously reached the eighth grade an exasperated nun finally turned her wrath on Billy and the other aging youths in the back of the classroom. "Why don't some of you big boys get out of here and go to trade school?" she asked. "All you do is keep the smaller children out."
Billy took the suggestion seriously; he sampled trade school briefly but found Johnny Ray's gym more instructive. At 17, in 1935, he began to get paid for punching people. He lost his first professional fight, then quickly fought his way to prominence and in 1937 defeated four former welterweight and middleweight champions. Coming to New York at the beginning of 1939, he walloped another ex-champion, Fred Apostoli.
New York's boxing fans welcomed this handsome, cocky young Irishman. Managers and hangers-on, lounging in groups along that arid stretch of sidewalk on 49th Street called Jacobs Beach, predicted that one day Conn would grow up to challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship.
In the meantime there was a rematch with the dangerous Apostoli. Scheduled for 15 rounds, it was a test of Conn's stamina against an experienced opponent. A noisy trainload of Conn's Pittsburgh friends, wearing green papierm√¢ché hats, came to New York for the fight. It erupted into one of the wildest brawls the Garden fans had witnessed in years, and they loved it.
"Apostoli started roughing me up in side," Conn recalls. "I called him a name, and I said I was going to kill him. 'Stop talking, you Irish so-and-so, and come on and fight,' Apostoli said. 'I'm coming,' I said, and we had a hell of a fight. But the microphone was lowered over the ring, and the crowd caught everything we said. Later General Phelan, the boxing commissioner, called me into his office because he'd heard the bad language. 'Why, general,' I said, 'you know I'm an old altar boy. It was that dago doing all the talking.' 'That's right,' the general said. And he forgot about it."
The close decision Conn received in that fight propelled him toward a shot at the light-heavyweight championship. He outpointed Melio Bettina to win the title, defended it a couple of times and in 1940 began to campaign as a heavyweight. Light on his feet, fast of hand and mind, he found most heavyweights perfect foils for his style. Conn seemed to have added a punch with his extra weight and scored his most impressive victory by knocking out heavyweight contender Bob Pastor with a merciless body attack.
Yet Conn's weight did not rise much above the light-heavyweight limit of 175 pounds, and there were many boxing men who believed he was being pushed too fast toward a bout with Louis. Only Conn himself and Promoter Mike Jacobs really believed in the match. In November 1940 Conn fought Lee Savold, a strong, young heavyweight who was the division's heaviest puncher aside from Louis.
"Conn will take a lot of punishment." Pinky George, Savold's manager, promised before the fight. "If he can take it from Savold and then beat him you'll have a pretty good line on whether or not he can take it from Joe Louis."
Conn, who won on points, later admitted that he had never taken such severe punishment. "I'm outboxing Savold all right, and then the crowd in the gallery begins to clap. You know, like this," Conn said, beating the palms of his hands together in a derisive rhythm. "This is very embarrassing for me, so I decide to mix it up a little. I walk in, and I get hit with three punches. The first one on top of the head. I think my skull is fractured. The next one cuts my eye. The next one breaks my nose. I step back and thumb my nose at the gallery, and then I go back to boxing and I win easy."
Here Conn ruefully reflected for a moment and touched again on an unpleasant memory. "He had no business hitting me at all, but he hit me three punches and damned near killed me. The reason I got hit with those punches was on account of I got careless."
Apparently the lesson was not as lingering as the pain. Seven months later Billy got careless again.
The Conn-Louis match was made with startling suddenness. Louis had disposed of Buddy Baer to wind up his Bum-of-the-month Tour in May. At the beginning of June, Mike Jacobs signed Conn as the champion's next opponent, setting June 18 as the date.
Boxing fans quickly responded, and 54,487 tickets were sold in less than three weeks for what was to be one of the last big fights before Pearl Harbor. New York's Irish, having lapsed into unaccustomed silence after Louis had knocked James J. Braddock off the heavyweight throne, emerged to identify with the confident Billy. But Conn had even wider support. Thousands came to the Polo Grounds proclaiming that he would tumble before Louis' early attack but secretly rooting for the smaller man (Billy weighed 174 pounds, still under the light-heavyweight limit). Perhaps Johnny Ray best summed up his fighter's national appeal.
"No matter who he is fighting," Ray said, "Billy lets everybody know he is boss of the ring, even before the fight starts. Just the way he walks out there to get his instructions from the referee lets you know he isn't afraid of anybody."
Certainly no challenger ever entered the ring against Louis with more confidence. Billy started slowly that evening, but this was his habit. Louis hurt him with a right hand in the third round, but Conn fought back, peppering Louis with short lefts and rights. He walked cockily to his corner at the bell, the crowd's delighted cheers ringing dangerously loud in his ears.
Having taken Louis' best punch and come back to win the round, Conn felt he was now the boss. He stood up under more punishment in the fifth and sixth rounds, holding or circling Louis until he had recovered from the champion's heavy body punches. Now Conn began to set his own pace. He boxed out of range of Louis' long punches to the head and kept his swift left hand in Louis' face.
"Box him, Billy," Johnny Ray and his handlers, Manny Seamon and Freddy Fierro, cautioned him between rounds. "Box him!"
Louis was stung repeatedly by Conn's combinations. For the first time in his career he appeared clumsy, aiming punches at his moving, dancing opponent and missing badly. Conn piled up points. His best round was the 12th, when he befuddled Louis with his speed, then hammered him into the ropes. Fans and reporters both felt Conn had only to stay out of danger during the next three rounds to win the championship on a decision.
Conn moved out briskly for the 13th round, the crowd's wild roar of anticipation drowning out his cautious handlers' advice. He jabbed Louis and hooked him. For a moment the champion appeared dazed. Then, as Conn moved again to the attack, Louis threw a right uppercut, which landed on Conn's chin.
"Move, Billy, move!" Ray and Fierro screamed from the corner, while Billy wobbled on his suddenly unmanageable legs.
But Conn no longer heard. Louis smashed him across the ring, throwing punches with all his old speed into a defenseless target. Billy sagged into the ropes, and a right cross finished him. He fell on his side in Louis' corner, his face in the resin. Referee Eddie Joseph completed the count only a moment before the stricken Conn struggled to his feet and only two seconds before the bell would have ended the round and given him a full minute's rest.
The time was 2:58 of the 13th round. The limp crowd tumbled into the aisles, groaning at Conn's foolish gamble while marveling at his fearlessness before Louis. Even veteran reporters babbled. Hype Igoe, the dean of boxing writers, was beside himself. "Gorgeous audacity!" he exclaimed in the New York Journal-American. "Cruel overconfidence!"
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of that year canceled a rematch planned for the following summer, and it was five years before a puffed-up Conn, his reflexes gone, climbed through the ropes for his second shot at Louis. After seven listless rounds, Louis ended the fiasco with three thunderous punches to Billy's chin.
But that wasn't the real Conn. Louis in 1941 had beaten a great, if smaller, fighter. At a boxing dinner some years later Conn needled Louis, who was seated next to him on the dais.
"Why didn't you let me win that one, Joe?" he asked. "You could have sort of loaned me the title for six months."
Just the glimmer of a smile relieved Louis' solemn face. "Billy," he said, "you had that title for 12 rounds."