Conn, William David, Jr. (“Billy”)
Conn, William David, Jr. (“Billy”)
(b. 8 October 1917 in East Liberty, Pennsylvania; d. 29 May 1993 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), light-heavyweight champion and Hall of Fame boxer.
The oldest of five children of William David Conn, a steamfitter who worked for Westinghouse Electric Company, and Margaret McFarland, an Irish immigrant, Conn grew up in an Irish-American neighborhood. By the time he was thirteen, Conn was an accomplished street fighter. “It was a long time before I got to the street from the alley,” Conn said years later. He attended Sacred Heart Grammar School through the eighth grade and did not go on to high school. Conn began working in an East Pittsburgh gym owned by Johnny Ray, a former professional boxer. “I worked there three years and got lots of practice against some real good talent who worked out there,” Conn told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1988. He never fought as an amateur and learned his craft sparring with professionals. “Ray worked with Billy, told him how to hold his hands, block punches, and, most of all, explained the principle of the left jab, the punch that was to make Billy famous,” the fight trainer Freddie Fierro recalled in 1956.
At the age of seventeen, Conn launched his professional career as a welterweight. After winning twelve out of eighteen fights in 1935, he was undefeated in nineteen bouts during 1936, including a hard-fought decision over the welterweight contender Fitzie Zivic. Following this victory, Conn moved up to the middleweight division and defeated four ex-champions in 1937: Babe Risko, Vince Dundee, Teddy Yarosz, and Young Corbett III. After twice defeating the middleweight champion Fred Apostoli in nontitle fights in 1938, he decisioned Melio Bettino on 13 July 1939 for the world’s light-heavyweight championship. Conn successfully defended his title twice against Gus Lesnevich in November 1939 and June 1940.
With lightning quickness, the “Pittsburgh Kid” was among the more exciting fighters of his era. Conn, who enjoyed a national following among Irish Americans, wore green trunks adorned with a shamrock. Tall, dark-haired, and ruggedly handsome, Conn looked like a movie star. “The Irishman is indeed a beauteous boxer,” the New York Daily News noted after Conn won the title, “who could probably collect coinage by joining the ballet league if he chose to flee the egg-eared and flattened nose fraternity.”
Conn went on to knock out the heavyweight contender Bob Pastor in the thirteenth round in September 1940, then decisioned Al McCoy in ten rounds and Lee Savold in twelve rounds. In May 1941, he relinquished the light-heavyweight crown to become a full-time heavyweight.
On 18 June 1941, Conn nearly won the heavyweight championship from the legendary Joe Louis. It was supposed to have been a mismatch. Louis, unbeaten in sixteen title fights, was the four-to-one favorite, eleven-to-five to win by knockout. Conn liked his chances. “Louis is a big, slow-moving Negro. Nobody knows this better than Joe himself. He’s a dangerous fighter, because he can punch and because he’s been taught well,” Conn said before the fight. “But he’s a mechanical fighter, doing only what he’s been told. He can’t think under pressure in the ring, and he knows it.” Louis replied, “I never heard of him getting no college degrees. He talks too much and I’m going to push some of his gab down his throat.”
Louis had no problems with Conn in the early rounds. But in the seventh round, Conn went on the attack and took command of the fight. “Billy was just too fast. I couldn’t catch him,” Louis said later. “By the time the eighth round came up, I was tired as hell, and I stayed that way until the twelfth. I was completely exhausted and he was really hurting me with left hooks.”
Going into the thirteenth round, Conn led on all score-cards. After staggering Louis with a left hook in the twelfth, Conn went for a knockout in the next round. For the first two minutes of the thirteenth, Louis seemed vulnerable. But as Conn tried to end the fight, Louis struck his jaw with a powerful right, then hurt him with a left, and dropped him for the count with a jolting right. “He gave me my toughest fight of all my fights,” Louis said years later.
Conn’s epic fight made him an instant celebrity. He starred in the title role in a semiautobiographical movie, The Pittsburgh Kid, produced in 1941 by Republic Pictures. Shortly after the Louis fight, on 1 July 1941, he was married to Mary Louise Smith. Their marriage produced three sons and a daughter.
After the first Louis fight, Conn won a bruising slugfest with middleweight champion Tony Zale on 14 February 1942. Also in that year Conn enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought exhibition fights with division champions in the European theater. He was discharged as a corporal.
A Louis-Conn rematch was in the works for the summer of 1942. However, when Conn broke his hand in a scuffle with his father-in-law, the Louis fight was delayed. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announced that Louis, who was still in the army, would not be making any more title defenses for the duration of the war. The boxing promoter Mike Jacobs finally signed both fighters for a rematch in June 1946. When Louis was asked by reporters if Conn might win by decision, the champion replied, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” Conn was heavier and slower than he had been in the first fight. Louis knocked him out in the eighth round. Conn won his final two fights in 1948 with ninth-round knockouts. In his final appearance as a professional, Conn boxed with Louis in a six-round 10 December 1948 exhibition.
In his thirteen-year career, Conn won sixty-three fights, lost eleven, and fought one draw. A third of his professional fights were against world champions, and Conn defeated all but Louis. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1981 the editors of Ring magazine rated his first bout with Louis as boxing’s greatest fight.
Following his retirement in 1948, Conn lived off investments from his fight earnings. In the last two years of his life, Conn suffered from a condition known as pugilistic dementia. He died of pneumonia at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh and is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Conn’s trainer Freddie Fierro recalls his association with Conn in “The Champion Who Was Born for Laughs,” Boxing and Wrestling magazine (Feb. 1956). The first Louis-Conn fight is chronicled by Leonard Koppett in The Way It Was: Great Sports Events from the Past (1974), edited by George Vecsey, and in The Great Fights (1981), by Bert Randolph Sugar and the editors of Ring magazine. There is also a profile of Conn in Bert Randolph Sugar’s The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (1984). Frank Deford’s profile of Conn, “The Boxer and the Blonde,” which appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1985, is reprinted in The World’s Tallest Midget: The Best of Franl Deford (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (31 May 1993).