Conn, William David, Jr. ("Billy")
CONN, William David, Jr. ("Billy")
(b. 8 October 1917 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 29 May 1993 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), world light-heavyweight champion who gained lasting fame for his near-upset of heavyweight champion Joe Louis in their legendary 1941 bout.
Conn was one of five children born to William Conn, Sr., a steamfitter at Westinghouse, and the former Marguerite McFarland, a homemaker. Young Conn dropped out of Sacred Heart School in the eighth grade and spent the next three years learning to box in a Pittsburgh gym managed by Harry Pitler, nicknamed "Johnny Ray." A former lightweight fighter, Ray had once trained with Hall of Fame boxer and Pittsburgh legend Harry Greb.
Known as "The Pittsburgh Kid," Conn idolized Greb and began fighting as a youth in the alleys and streets of the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. Conn never boxed as an amateur and made his professional debut as a sixteen-year-old welterweight on 28 June 1934. Conn lost the bout, a four-round decision to twenty-four-year-old Dick Woodward, in Fairmount, West Virginia. One month later, on 20 July, Conn earned his first professional victory with a three-round knockout of Johnny Lewis in Charleston, South Carolina. Conn then embarked on a tour of West Virginia towns, gaining valuable experience by fighting seasoned veterans.
Conn's first big win came on 28 December 1936, when he defeated Fritzie Zivic in a ten-round decision. Zivic was then a top-ten contender and a future member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Using speed of hand and masterful boxing skills to disguise his lack of a true knockout punch, Conn rang up an impressive run of victories over various top-ten contenders. On 27 May 1937 Conn survived an eighth-round knockdown to defeat the highly regarded Oscar Rankins. It was Conn's twenty-third straight victory, and by 1938 he had moved into Ring magazine's top-ten list of light heavyweight contenders.
Conn was beloved in his native Pittsburgh and celebrated for his Irish good looks and classic boxing style. He even starred in a movie about himself called The Pittsburgh Kid. By age twenty-one Conn had defeated nine former or future world champions. After fifty-two fights in and around Pittsburgh and West Virginia, Conn made his Madison Square Garden debut on 6 January 1939 and gained national recognition when he earned a ten-round decision over Freddie Apostoli. Apostoli at the time was regarded by many observers as the finest fighter pound-for-pound in the world. Five weeks later Conn gained a bloody, fifteen-round decision over Apostoli in New York City, and the two fights have been hailed as among the most exciting in Conn's career. Conn later called the Apostoli fights the toughest of his career.
Conn followed with a twelve-round decision win over Solly Krieger, and then signed to fight Melio Bettina for the vacant world light-heavyweight championship. The title had been vacated following the retirement of champion John Henry Lewis, and Conn and Bettina met on 13 July 1939 to decide a new champion. Conn trailed after the first six rounds but dominated the rest of the way to earn a fifteen-round decision. Two months later, Conn retained his title with a fifteen-round decision over Bettina at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.
Conn defended his crown twice more, both times defeating Gus Lesnevich, then set his sights on heavyweight champion Joe Louis. A fearsome boxer-puncher, Louis at the time was two years into his reign and had embarked on a string of defenses that came to be known as the "Bum of the Month Club." Conn took his first step toward Louis with a thirteenth-round knockout of top-ten heavyweight contender Bob Pastor on 6 September 1940, then earned points verdicts over Al McCoy and Lee Savold. The latter victory came only after Conn was forced to survive a broken nose in the eighth round.
Conn relinquished his light heavyweight title in 1941 to fight Louis, and the bout was held 18 June before 54,486 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Conn was twenty-four years old, Louis twenty-seven, and the two had a history together. Years earlier, Conn had helped work Louis's corner during a bout. Conn weighed in at just 169.5 pounds, and worried promoter Mike Jacobs inflated the challenger's poundage to 174. Louis trained down from his normal 204 pounds to 199 to compensate for Conn's speed, but the lost weight had a negative effect on the champion. Conn started slowly, as was his habit, but began to take the fight to Louis in the middle rounds.
Mindful of Louis's "Bum of the Month" campaign, a grinning Conn told the champion, "Joe, you're in a fight tonight."
"I know it," Louis replied.
With more than 6,000 Pittsburgh fans cheering him on, Conn shook Louis with combinations in the eleventh round, and then brought the huge crowd to it feet when he staggered the champion with a perfect left hook in the twelfth. Conn returned to his corner leading on two of the three ringside judges' cards, and "Conn-fident" that he could knock Louis out. Conn was inspired to go for the knockout rather than the points win to impress his girlfriend, Mary Louise Smith, and his ailing mother, who would soon die of cancer.
"I can take this SOB out," Conn told Johnny Ray in the corner. Instead, it was Conn who was taken out. Rocked by a furious Louis rally, Conn dropped to the canvas and was counted out two minutes and fifty-eight seconds into the thirteenth round, only two seconds away from the sound of the bell.
Afterward, Conn smiled and told reporters, "What's the good of being Irish if you can't be dumb?" Mindful of his mother's condition, Conn said, "I guess I had too much to win for tonight, that's why I wanted to knock him out. Otherwise, I'd a won easy."
Conn married Smith in 1941 and starred in The Pittsburgh Kid that same year. He turned down other movie offers, including a role in the classic motion picture On the Waterfront.
A proposed rematch with Louis was postponed first because of Conn's family concerns (his mother had passed away), and then by a broken hand suffered in a fight with his father-in-law, "Greenfield" Jimmy Smith. Conn did run off a string of three straight victories, including a win over an up-and-coming Tony Zale in 1942. United States involvement in World War II canceled plans for a Louis-Conn rematch, and Conn joined entertainer Bob Hope and other celebrities on a morale tour for Americans in the service.
Conn and Louis were finally rematched in 1946, but the years away from the ring dulled the abilities of both fighters. In a bout lacking the drama and intrigue of their first epic encounter, Conn was knocked out in the eighth round.
"The Pittsburgh Kid" retired after the bout, and then had a two-bout comeback in 1948. He won both fights, and then retired for good. He and his wife had four children. At age seventy-two Conn was back in the news when he scuffled with a convenience store robber in Pittsburgh. Conn passed away at age seventy-five and is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh. He fought professionally from 1934 to 1948, compiling a record of 63–12–1. The world light heavyweight champion from 1939 to 1941, Conn was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
While Conn is known by many sports fans chiefly for his near-upset of Louis in 1941, he is remembered by boxing historians as one of the great boxers in ring history, a handsome, skilled boxer who emerged as one of the great light heavyweight champions of all time.
Conn and his wife were featured in a lengthy Sports Illustrated article, "The Boxer and the Blonde" (17 June 1985), written by Frank Deford. (This issue of Sports Illustrated is now considered a collector's edition.) Conn's ring career was well documented in Gilbert Odd, Boxing: The Great Champions (1974); Bert Randolph Sugar, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (1984); and James B. Roberts and Alex G. Skutt, The Boxing Register (1999). Conn is also the subject of an Internet website featuring photos and articles documenting his life and career. The site, named "The Official Site of Boxing Legend Billy Conn," <http://www.billyconn.net/>, is maintained by Ryan Conn, Billy's grandson.