Billy Conn, a great example of an old school fighter

19.07.06 - by Stuart Cornwell: It has long been a tradition among boxing fans and afficionados to argue endlessly over the likely result of imaginary matches in which great fighters from different eras are pitted against each other. In years past, when boxing was at the height of its popularity, such debates would have taken place every week among working men leaned up against the bar at their local or seated in the barbershops of yore. Nowadays the great boxing debates have shifted to the internet where an international hard core of boxing buffs can argue and re-argue their cases on boxing forums, safe in the comfort of their homes. Of course, the same old unresolvable arguments remain unresolved.

Another popular debate, apart from but closely linked to those of the fantasy match-up variety (eg. Joe Louis v. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson v. Sugar Ray Leonard), is the question as to whether the fighters a past era as a group were superior or inferior to the fighters of today. In other words, did the environment of, say, the 1920s or the 1950s produce better fighters than those we have now or is the reverse true ?

Generally, those claiming superiority of the modern fighters cite developments in scientific training knowledge or draw inferences from the measured improvements in other sports.. Those claiming that the “old school” or “old-timer” fighters were better usually emphasize the hellishly competitive environments in which the fighters had to succeed, environments that apparently required higher levels of skill and toughness. As an unashamed member of the latter camp - insofar as I believe the fighters of the 1930s to 1950s were better as a group than the fighters of the last decade at least - I would like to here pen a few words on the great Billy Conn, a great example of an old school fighter. A close look at his boxing career should highlight a few of the differences in environment between then and now and bring out the main reasons why I believe the fighters of his era have the edge over the fighters of today.

Billy Conn was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1917 and grew up in the Irish section of the city at a time when every man and boy there was brought up fighting on the streets. He started his journey into boxing at the age of 13 or 14 when he entered Johnny Ray’s gym. Johnny Ray was a local former lightweight who had engaged in (a recorded) 137 fights. His knowledge of boxing was immeasurable. The young Billy Conn was set on becoming a champion and he hung around the gym running errands for Ray, tidying up and receiving the odd piece of tuition here and there. Pittsburgh during the Depression was a hotbed of boxing and the young Billy Conn must have observed a good many hardened professionals and top-caliber fighters. Sometimes he was allowed to spar but Johnny Ray did not enter Conn into any amateur competitions, the only official boxing matches Conn would take part in were professional fights.

So for the first three years of Conn’s boxing apprenticeship he experienced the blood-and-guts atmosphere of a Depression-era gym full of tough professionals but he did not engage in any official boxing contest. No doubt he continued to get into scuffles on the rough streets of Pittsburgh, and to pick up a degree of boxing experience when given a chance to spar, but Johnny Ray - who was to remain his manager his entire career - did not believe in amateur boxing. Ray believed, quite rightly, that more could be learned from boxing against professionals. He also believed that a boy might as well get paid for risking his neck in the danger zone of a boxing ring. So at the age of 16 Billy Conn made his professional debut against a man called Dick Woodward (who was by differing accounts somewhere in the region of 21 to 25 years of age) and lost a 4-round decision. Fourteen months and 15 fights later Conn’s record was a numerically unimpressive 8-7 (2 KOs) but through experience Conn was steadily developing into an extremely good fighter.

In those days the emphasis was on improvement, gaining experience and developing ringcraft - as well as putting food on the table. The fight crowds in those days, as now, liked to see competitive fights between the young promising novices. Back in the day they tended to get a lot more of what they paid for. Nowadays, where boxers with any modicum of talent are concerned, the emphasis is often on building the fighter up in meaningless mismatches in which the fighter learns absolutely nothing.

The purpose of the modern approach is of course to hoodwink the paying public into believing a fighter’s 30-0 record is a fair representation of his “invincible” boxing ability. Even the knowledgeable fans can be fooled by this ploy since a handful of unbeaten fighters really are the genuine article. It is only by sifting through the plethora of unbeatens - most of whom are mediocre frauds - that the good ones can be found. Sometimes a fighter, whether gifted or not, will be kept on this track his entire career, rarely stepping up. And that is a surefire way to waste his potential. Likewise, fighters who actually do start their careers in evenly-matched contests pick up a few losses and are virtually abandoned and overlooked by the best connected managers. Another surefire way to stifle potential. A man with a splash of losses on his numerical record is unlikely to ever get the rewards and plaudits afforded the fighters who were weened on manufactured mismatches at the starts of their careers, regardless of whether both arrive at the top. Modern fans often tend to look at a world class fighter sporting a (for example) 20-8 record and call him a journeyman who got lucky, or worse.

Back in 1935 it was generally assumed that a young fighter could often learn more from a defeat than from a win. So the best managers would often match their man with opponents who had a good chance of winning. Only bad managers would match their man against fighters who were certain to annihilate their fighter or were certain to get annihilated. Easy wins and quick crushing defeats were to be avoided. That was the correct approach then and is still the correct approach now.

A few months into Billy Conn’s professional career, Joe Louis came to Pittsburgh to fight a ten-rounder against the durable German veteran Hans Birkie. The seventeen-year-old Conn worked in Louis’s corner that night, minding Joe’s bucket. Louis was already 13-0 (10 KOs) and 195 pounds at twenty years of age, and to anyone who had seen him fight and were willing to entertain the possibility of another black man becoming the world’s heavyweight champion he was the hottest prospect in boxing. One wonders whether that night in Pittsburgh the welterweight upstart Conn was yet bold enough to envisage himself and Joe Louis contesting the heavyweight championship in an outdoor stadium in front of tens of thousands of people.

Three years into his pro career, at the age of 19 and with no amateur experience, Billy Conn had progressed to 34-7-1 and was a fully fledged middleweight. He had already beaten such men as Vince Dundee, Fritzie Zivic and Teddy Yarosz in hard close battles. These were some of the toughest men around (all held world titles at some point in their careers) and Conn was too. He had been matched with very few easy opponents and had developed into a tough master boxer. Johnny Ray had put him in with all styles of fighter, from hard-headed sluggers to slick slippery boxers, tall fighters, short fighters, rough dirty fighters. With almost every fight bound to be an intense challenge, Billy Conn had no choice but to learn and develop every facet of his boxing skills ; to thoroughly master the science of prizefighting. On top of this, he grew more and more acquainted with the intangible spiritual side of ring warfare - the question of heart, courage, guts, call it what you will - those special ingredients that separate fighters from ordinary folk and great fighters from ordinary fighters. With every tough fight and adverse situation a man finds himself in the more accustomed he becomes with his own inner workings. To be a warrior one must have been in a war. Billy Conn had been in lots of wars.

Promoters and matchmakers in those days would cater for a passionate and partisan fight crowd whose fierce loyalties were drawn along ethnic lines. Generally it was given that an Irish fighter against a Jew or an Italian would draw the biggest crowd. In a place like Pittsburgh Polish and German fighters could also be relied upon to pull in the punters. Fritzie Zivic was of Croatian-Slovenian parentage and his most loyal followers were immigrants or sons of immigrants from the Balkans. The heavyweight Max Baer - raised on farms in Omaha and California - famously wore the Star of David on his trunks, playing on his Jewish descent even though his mother was a German Christian and his “Jewish” German father was no practising Jew. Baer’s tactics did wonders for the gate receipts when he faced Germany’s Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, New York in 1933. After giving Schmeling a horrendous beating Baer became a Jewish hero, regardless of his somewhat tenuous link to the Jewish community. It was the Irish fighters though who were considered best box-office. Billy Conn was not only Irish he was young, handsome and Irish - and he could fight.

Some of the best fighters of the 1930s were black but unlike fighters from other ethnic groups Blacks were not generally considered to have great box office potential. This was in no small part due to the racist prejudices and anxieties of the promoters and the population at large who were loathe to envisage themselves cheering on black world champions. Black men, the poorest section of the population and the hardest hit by the depression, were the least likely to pay to see a boxing match in which one of their own may take a beating from a white man. For the Irish, the Jews, the Italians and the Poles there may have been some sport in supporting a valiant losing effort or griping about an unjust decision. For Blacks neither scenario was anything but depressingly familiar. It took the sensational and irrepressible talents of Joe Louis to convince whites that black fighters could draw the biggest crowds and become the biggest heroes. It took Joe Louis’s invincibility - his guarantee of emphatic victory - to convince a whole generation of black Americans that the boxing arena was the one place where a black man could and would prevail.

So, it was often the case in Billy Conn’s career that he would be matched against the best young fighters of other ethnic heritages in pride-fuelled rivalries fiercely contested. More often that not there were rematches. He fought Jewish Solly Kreiger twice in Pittsbugh, once in New York. He fought Polish Teddy Yarosz three times in Pittsburgh. He fought the tough black fighters Oscar Rankins (who had him down and almost out) and Roscoe Manning. This was all before he got a shot at a world title at the age of twenty-one. But his toughest fights - and those that really put him in line for a shot at the title - were his two wars with Italian Fred Apostoli.

Fred Apostoli was the middleweight champion of the world when he met Conn in a ten-round bout in January 1939 in Conn’s New York debut. By now Billy Conn (at 6'1") had outgrown the middleweights and was weighing around 167 pounds so no title was at stake. Apostoli was a crowd favourite, a ruthless and relentless body puncher, and was expected to beat Conn. After ten rounds of torrid action Conn was declared the winner.

Billy was now approaching his peak as a fighter, at twenty-one years of age with 54 professional fights under his belt he was near enough the finished article - a picture-perfect textbook boxer with a shell-like defence, a quick left hook, a blinding jab and sharp right hand. He moved around the ring with deft footwork but could (and would) stand his ground and fight in the trenches if need be. He could take a punch well and fire straight back with punches of his own. Billy Conn was as good a fighter as there has ever been. He lacked the concussion-inducing punch of a pure slugger but he could hurt any man with a barrage of punches and could administer a beating on his own terms. Many of today’s fans would write him off as a harmless puncher by noting that he only scored 15 stoppage wins in 77 career fights - but that would be ignoring the fact that he fought so many tough and durable foes multiple times. If Conn had been built up on the handpicked tomato cans who today’s prospects get to feast upon then he too would be boasting an eighty-percent “knockout rate” or whatever other useless statistic so impresses the more gullible sections of the audience.

Five weeks after defeating Apostoli in Madison Square Garden Billy Conn set foot into the same ring to do battle with the same man once again. This time the fight was scheduled for fifteen rounds. What followed was one of the most gruelling and bloody battles to ever take place within that famous venue in front of almost 20,000 screaming fans, most of whom were either Italian or Irish. For the full fifteen rounds the two fighters boxed, fought and slugged it out in a fight that Conn described as his toughest ever and that more than one writer described as a “bloodbath”. Billy Conn earned the decision (by scores of 8 rounds to 7 according to one judge, and 9 rounds to 6 according to the other two) and Apostoli earned Conn’s eternal respect. A post-fight newspaper photograph of Conn shows him unrecognisable, his faced bandaged like a mummy, the caption reads “If this is the winner, what does the loser look like ?”

Such gruelling battles as the Conn-Apostoli rematch are rarely seen in boxing today - in fact that fight would have probably been stopped almost as soon as the blood began to flow, under today’s standards of refereeing. Remember, this was not even a title fight. Billy Conn had still only been boxing four and a half years and he was what would now be considered a battle-hardened veteran. There is no doubt that today’s best fighters are tough brave men who risk life and limb in the ring. But far more was asked of the old-timers. They took big risks every single fight - the top contenders were always expected to fight each other over and over, and with no guarantee of a shot at the title.

Billy Conn got his shot at the title. In those days there were only eight weight divisions and one world champion in each division (none of these plastic belt-holders we see today) so when a fighter got an opportunity he knew he might never get another. It was not like in more recent times when even the most mediocre challengers get retreaded around an endless merry-go-round of“world” titles in an ever-increasing number of weight divisions. After the Apostoli rematch Conn was brought back to Madison Square Garden once again - this time for his final encounter with Solly Krieger who he completely out-boxed over 12 rounds - before meeting the world’s light-heavyweight champion Melio Bettina.

Bettina was no pushover (he had beaten Tiger Jack Fox, one of great black fighters of the time, to win the title) but Conn proved himself a worthy champion by convincingly beating Bettina over 15 rounds. After repeating the result in the rematch and twice seeing off the challenges of Gus Lesnevich he relinquished the title to campaign against heavyweights. He was targeting a shot at the world’s heavyweight championship, now ominously held by the great Joe Louis.

Against the heavyweights of the day Conn regularly gave away 15 or 20 pounds, sometimes more. At 6'1" he was tall and rangy enough to compete, and with his skills and toughness he was more than a match for the big men he fought. Bob Pastor - a tremendous heavyweight though not a huge one - had given Joe Louis two of his most difficult fights but Conn gave him quite a hiding before knocking him out with a left hook to the body in the thirteenth round. Al McCoy, a twenty-seven year old veteran of over 160 fights, was out-pointed over ten and then rewarded with a shot at Louis ahead of Conn. Louis versus Conn was set to be a big outdoor summer fight - McCoy got his shot indoors the preceding winter. McCoy actually did relatively well against Louis, lasting 5 rounds before being pulled out before the sixth with an eye injury. Next up for Conn was strong Lee Savold who was easily out-boxed over twelve rounds. And two months before facing Louis for the world’s championship Conn stopped Finland’s big Gunnar Barland at Chicago Stadium. Of course none of this made much difference to Conn’s chances against Joe Louis. Most people believed - not unreasonably - that he had no chance.

Billy Conn’s official weight when he faced Joe Louis that night in the summer of 1941 was announced as 174 pounds. In fact he had weighed in at 169 pounds but the promoter Mike Jacobs, in an attempt to make the fight look like less of a mismatch, had added 5 non-existent pounds to Conn. Louis scaled 199 ½..

The fight that took place in Polo Grounds, New York that night has gone down in the annals of boxing history as one of the true classics. An epic of magnificent proportions it certainly stands as Billy Conn’s defining fight and probably as Joe Louis’s too. Sometimes the story of the fight is portrayed as Conn boxing rings round a slow-footed Louis for twelve whole rounds before becoming the victim of his own desire to stand-to-toe - at which point Louis delivered the knockout blows in the fateful thirteenth round. That account is somewhat fictional. The actual fight was far more dramatic than that.

The champion won the first two rounds easily, but the third was more even as Conn relaxed and started to get into his stride. Conn took the fourth round and not just by running and moving but by standing his ground and exchanging blows. But Louis came back to hurt Conn in the fifth and inflict a cut over Conn’s right eye. The fight settled into an evenly-matched chess match as Louis realised he was in with a great fighter and Conn grew in confidence. The eighth round was one of Conn’s best and he was looking the far fresher man at this point. Perhaps Joe Louis’s remarkably busy schedule of facing a new challenger every month was starting to take its toll.

The fight reached its final dramatic final stages at the end of the twelfth round. Billy Conn, by now boxing beautifully against the stalking champion, caught Joe with a barrage of fast accurate blows - in particular an exquisite left hook - that had Louis visibly hurt. The champion recovered and the bell sounded. Now - according to Conn - it became Billy’s goal to knock the champion out to claim the title in the very next round. Maybe that was his downfall. Or maybe his downfall was the fact that Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight of all-time and he was not quite ready to lose his championship. Not as long as he had dynamite in his fists, which he always did. It is impossible to separate one factor from the other. What happened was that Joe took control almost immediately in the thirteenth round and it was not long before he’d landed a terrific right hand on Billy Conn’s jaw. Such a punch would have finished most fighters off there and then but Conn was tough and stayed upright. Thereupon the champion Joe Louis rained in blow after blow - textbook blows, his best shots - until Conn finally slumped to canvas. At 2 minutes 58 seconds of the thirteenth round Billy Conn was counted out of the greatest fight of his life.

These days we do not have fighters like Billy Conn or Joe Louis. These days we do not have fighters learning their craft in sink-or-swim pitched battles in small smoky boxing clubs. Well, there may be some but that is certainly no longer the orthodox method to develop champions. Do we even have champions ? I mean real champions. We have so many “champions” that it is no longer an elite club. We still have the occasional great fighter - Bernard Hopkins for example - but it could be said that he is great in spite of the way boxers are groomed and developed, not because of it. We certainly do not have 169 pound fighters taking on the heavyweight champion of the world. A few years ago we had Roy Jones taking on John Ruiz and claiming it as some sort of David and Goliath epic. Does beating John Ruiz make you the seventh wonder of the world ? I think not. Billy Conn would have won every round against Ruiz, and the boxing fans of the 30s probably would have just shrugged, “Ruiz ! Who’s Ruiz ? Put him in with Louis !”

photo © Billy Conn Official Site

Article posted on 20.07.2006

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