great notion: Pittsburgh’s Billy The Kid
By Mike Casey
We all have great ideas. The perfect excuse to pinch a day off
work that loses its credibility the second we get on the phone to the boss. The
get-rich-quick scheme that melts into reality as soon as we’ve mailed the letter
and sobered up.
Billy Conn had a far grander notion. He got it into his head that
he could knock out Joe Louis. And as ace announcer Don Dunphy famously said, “He
was a cocky young kid from Pittsburgh who very nearly did.”
Now we see Billy Conn trotting down a staircase in a rare old
photograph, looking handsome and dapper in one of the snazzy, snappy outfits of
the day. The striking face beams contentedly, the lean and muscular body tapers
down into an almost womanly waist, the great and wide shoulders bust out east
and west like Jimmy Caan as Sonny Corleone.
As a pin-up, Billy knocked Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Brad
Pitt into the proverbial cocked hat. Fighters aren’t supposed to look that good,
but when Billy hung ‘em up after 77 fights against some of the toughest guys on
the block, that mischievous matinee idol face was still intact. That achievement
had a lot to do with the fact that Conn, at his sublime and evasive best, was
near impossible to hit. Some achievement indeed for a guy who was born in
Pittsburgh in the rough old days of 1917 and got into scraps virtually from the
time he could stand up.
Billy never did stop swinging. At the age of seventy-two, three
years before his premature death from pneumonia, the Pittsburgh Kid was taking a
coffee and glancing at the newspaper stand at his local convenience store in
Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill area. When a robber suddenly punched the store
manager, Conn answered the clang of the bell and did his bit. He slugged and
wrestled the young robber to the floor and was still giving a pretty decent
account of himself when the invader thought better of mixing it any further with
the old timer and made his escape.
Oh well, you can’t take the Irish out of an Irishman. Joe Louis
tried his best on that famous night at the Polo Grounds, but telling Billy Conn
not to be brave or reckless was akin to telling Stuart ‘The Kid’ Ungar not to
It is too bad that the only film ever shown of Billy Conn in
compilation clips these days is of the Brown Bomber rifling him to the deck with
that series of deadly shots that sent Billy into dreamland in slow and almost
Conn was an unbeatable light-heavyweight at his glorious peak.
Folks in the know will also tell you that he could have been one of the great
middleweights if fate and biology hadn’t shaped a different destiny for him.
It was nigh impossible for Billy to follow any other path than
that of a professional boxer. Before beginning to ply his trade in the more
traditional roped square, he had fought and scrapped in the biggest ring of all,
a sprawling ring of irony whose ethnical boundary lines served as irresistible
challenges for every fighting young tough who wanted to test his fists and his
mettle against opponents of every colour and creed. This was the ring of
Pittsburgh and Conn was an Irish-American with the usual fiery tendencies. The
backdrop was tailor-made, the script was perfect.
Billy, by his own modest admission, couldn’t even fight when he
started brawling for the first time. But he enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of a good
battle and was eager to learn more. He also possessed the curiously loveable
logic of a fighting man. Why work for a living when you could grind and sweat in
the toughest game of all?
Conn didn’t want to spend his life sitting in an office or
toiling for a pittance in a factory. He wanted to become the best boxer he could
possibly be and move himself into the far distant world of big money, nice
clothes and all the other pleasant luxuries that come from success.
Billy wanted it fast too and regarded amateur boxing as nothing
more than an inconvenient roadblock. He bypassed it completely after trying out
at his local gym and making the decision to commit to a professional career.
Billy quite literally made it up as he went along in his virgin
soldier years. He was sixteen when he joined the paid ranks and was playing a
brave game of bluff against older and tougher opponents. He knew that he needed
experience and would have to take some hard knocks before breaking free from the
He dropped a decision in his pro debut to Dick Woodward at
Fairmont in West Virginia, a place of poor people living in quiet desperation.
Conn was determined not to be knocked off the ladder and settle for that kind of
life. He knew he would improve if he kept punching and learning and mixing with
the best opponents his manager and trainer Johnny Ray could find. Ray coached
Billy constantly on the road and was well qualified to do so. Born Harold Pitler,
Johnny had been a good class Pittsburgh lightweight who had engaged in nearly
140 professional battles and crossed swords with such titans of the game as
Johnny Dundee, George (KO) Chaney and Johnny Kilbane.
Conn lost seven of his first fifteen fights as he soaked up
Johnny Ray’s wisdom and tried to transfer the knowledge into fluid and
instinctive moves. But Billy was getting noticed as a skilful and willing
youngster who couldn’t hit with great force but could fight like a tiger when
the going got tough. He won a decision over Johnny Birek in a cracking six
rounder at the Motor Square Garden in Pittsburgh in January 1935, the year in
which Conn really began to take off.
Like a prisoner busting free of his chains, Billy shrugged off
his novice’s garb and suddenly became a consistent winner. In 1936, he won a
couple of thrilling decisions over Louis Cook at the Northside Arena and
followed up with another quality win over General Burrows, which drew the
attention of the local media. Conn was beginning to be hailed as a genuine
talent who would go far. He was maturing into a very clever boxer, who could
move quickly and adroitly, possessed a fine repertoire of moves and punches and
had an excellent defence. He was speedy with his fists and a very adept
sharpshooter at his best. When Billy scored the first of five career victories
over the tough Honey Boy Jones at Greenlee Park, he seemed to come of age as a
fighter and was moving rapidly into the major league.
piano with Fritzie
Fritzie Zivic, future welterweight champion and a fellow
Pittsburgher of Conn, Harry Greb and a few other famous gents from that town,
once famously said, “I used to bang ‘em pretty good. You’re not playing the
In 1936, Fritzie was already banging ‘em pretty good, even though
he was still five years away from dethroning the great Henry Armstrong. When
Zivic met Conn at Duquesne Gardens in Pittsburgh, eighteen-year old Billy was
introduced to one of life’s classic individuals. With that wry affection that
old fighters reserve for each other, Conn would later recall that Zivic did
everything but kick him. Fritzie, one of the all-time great tough nuts,
certainly saw nothing untoward in taking the handsome youngster’s face and
creatively smashing it in. Zivic also re-arranged any other part of Conn that he
could reach with the assorted implements of his mischievous toolbox. In thirty
frenetic minutes, Billy was given an entire university course on boxing by an
old-fashioned lecturer who worked to the theory that students learned much
faster if they were repeatedly beaten about the head and verbally abused.
Amazingly, Conn retained enough of his vital parts to win a split
Billy was moving up fast and now mixing with the cream of a truly
golden age in boxing. He posted a couple of close but important decisions over
Vince Dundee and the wonderfully talented Teddy Yarosz, but the going got
tougher as the quality of opposition became richer. Billy always had trouble
with Yarosz. He pipped Teddy in a return match over fifteen rounds at Duquesne
Gardens, rallying strongly over the last three rounds, but the fans didn’t
appreciate the decision. Teddy got his own back, winning a twelve-rounder at
Forbes Field in the final encounter between the two men.
The deep waters of a mightily impressive ocean of talent were
providing Conn with a tough but priceless boxing education. Billy was decked and
outpointed by the sorely underrated Young Corbett III in August 1937, but the
Pittsburgh Kid learned from his mistakes and clearly mastered Corbett in a
Then came another wise, bruising ring mechanic in Solly Krieger,
who knocked Billy down in the eighth round and won a wide decision in the first
match of their trilogy. Billy was always annoyed with himself over that one. He
wasn’t in shape and Krieger just banged on The Kid all night long. Solly could
take a shot as well as he could give one, and Conn could only take his
punishment and chalk it up to experience.
But Billy was almost there. He was knocking at the door loudly
and he wouldn’t be kept out for much longer. From November 1938 to May 1939, he
impressively won a quartet of fights that would lead to a bout with Melio
Bettina for the vacant NBA light-heavyweight championship.
Conn avenged the loss to Krieger by winning a comfortable
decision and then engaged in two successive fights with the man he rated as his
toughest opponent: the clever boxing bell hop from San Francisco, Fred Apostoli.
The fights were staged at Madison Square Garden and Billy won them both by
decision, but these are only the bare and respectable facts.
Conn had all the time in the world for Apostoli. He saw a man in
clever Freddie who could box, punch and do it all. After their second fight, a
bruising fifteen rounder, Billy needed five days in hospital to recuperate.
In the gloriously rich and candid language of more innocent and
democratic times, Conn described that battle to writer Peter Heller: “The thing
I remember with Apostoli, in the second fight I got in an argument with him. We
stepped back and called each other all the names. I said, ‘Listen, you dago
bastard, keep your thumb out of my eye!’. He says, ‘Listen, you Irish son of a
bitch, quit beefin’ and c’mon and fight!’ We were hot at one another. I had two
paisans in my corner and a drunken Jew. So Apostoli hit me a left hook in the
stomach just before the bell, and I go back to the corner. They start hollering
at me for calling Apostoli names. The put the microphone under the ring because
they could hear us swearing for nineteen rows back. It was being short-waved
around the world. I says, ‘Hey, listen. This dago just broke my spine. Do me a
favour. Take this drunken Jew and the whole three of you go over to that
bastard’s corner and let me alone’. Oh boy, he (Apostoli) beat the piss out of
me. He could really fight!”
Billy Conn was the complete fighter by the time he completed his
next assignment by notching his second victory over Solly Krieger. Conn gave a
brilliant exhibition of boxing as he did pretty much as he pleased and almost
pitched a shutout. The Pittsburgh Kid was about to wear the crown.
It seems hard to believe that the battle hardened Billy Conn was
still only twenty-one years of age when he ruled the light-heavyweight roost
after outpointing the tough Melio Bettina. But there was no money to be made in
the graveyard of that division and Billy knew it. He also knew that he was in
the form of his life and might as well go fishing for the sharks. And he wanted
the biggest shark out there in the mighty Joe Louis.
Conn was very confident of his chances against the heavyweights
and he continued on his merry way, a fighter on a roll. He decisioned Bettina
again, made two defences against the tough Gus Lesnevich, then moved up to
tackle the dreadnoughts.
Billy moved within the Brown Bomber’s sights with a thirteenth
round knockout of speedy Bob Pastor and an emphatic points win over Lee Savold.
All the hard work had paid off. Now there was only one clear and tempting target
on the horizon, one simple and impudent ambition. Billy would take down the man
himself and rock the boxing world.
There is a gorgeous precocity to youth. We have all felt its
wonderful rush at the time, yet we see its frightening danger as older men. A
kid at the wheel of a car plays chicken with a truck coming the other way and
only the worldly can see the imminent crash.
When Billy Conn climbed into the ring at the Polo Grounds on June
18 1941, he saw only one winner and it wasn’t the truck. The truck was too slow,
too methodical. Cocky Billy had said it many times in his training, taunting
Louis with predictions about how the fight would go. He would tire Joe and then
he would knock him out. Louis took it all with his typical and ominous stoicism.
Pretty boy Billy may have had his boxing and his silky skills, but Joe had been
gifted with a pair of fists that could devastatingly cancel out most
For all his youthful gung-ho, Billy Conn was not a foolish man in
his judgement of fellow fighters, most especially the great Joe Louis. Billy had
the utmost respect for Joe, which was clearly apparent in the early going. The
popular misconception of the fight is that Conn sailed away from Joe from the
opening bell and was a country mile ahead when the guillotine dropped in the
fateful thirteenth. This was not the case. It is also a myth that Louis could
not have won the fight on points.
Billy was ahead by scores of 7-5, 7-4-1 and 6-6 at the finish. A
Louis sweep of the last three rounds would have got Joe home by 8-7, 9-6 and
In the first two rounds, it seemed that Conn might not get
through five sessions. Billy could always move, but how he moved in those
opening six minutes. For all the reports that Joe had looked sluggish in his
training, the Bomber was all business as he forced Conn to beat a hasty retreat.
A big right from Louis at the end of the first round seemed to be a harbinger of
imminent doom for the challenger.
In the second, Billy’s nimble footwork couldn’t keep him away
from Joe’s left hook, but it was a right to the stomach from Louis that brought
a gasp from the ringsiders. It was a painful, perfectly placed punch, and Conn
bent from its terrific force. Trainer Johnny Ray was urging Billy to stick to
his boxing, but the fancy stuff was getting the kid nowhere. Catching fire from
his frustration, Conn rattled Joe with a quick combination. It didn’t seem like
much at the time, but thereafter the pattern of the fight shifted dramatically
in the brave challenger’s favour.
Billy was through with running. It simply hadn’t worked. In the
following rounds, he stood his ground more and placed his faith in his reflexes
and quick punching. In effect, he became the aggressor, but with careful thought
Conn brought a very effective uppercut into play, which
repeatedly caught Joe and clearly threw him off his course. The champion
realised the seriousness of his situation and knew that he couldn’t afford to
allow Billy too much more slack. Joe attacked earnestly in the sixth, bringing
out the heavy artillery to cut Conn and kept him under pressure. Noticeably,
however, the cocky Pittsburgh Kid was not only standing up to the punishment but
also making Louis look ponderous and awkward. Joe was missing widely at times
and being out-fought on the inside. It was a wonderfully intriguing and exciting
battle, all action and effort from two very contrasting craftsmen.
The crowd was seeing what every crowd loves to see. David was
beating Goliath and edging his way ever more tantalisingly towards the finishing
line. He was doing it in style too. Conn was fearless. It was as if the gods
themselves had given him the green light and told him that nothing could go
In the eleventh and twelfth rounds, Louis seemed to be doubting
his ability to lasso the cheeky kid who was threatening to bump him off the
throne. Joe was hesitant and unsure, anything but the punching machine that had
blasted and chopped its way through a succession of other hopefuls. Billy just
kept scoring with his stream of educated shots as the crowd’s approval thundered
around the Polo Grounds.
When Conn came out for the thirteenth, it was with three simple
words from Johnny Ray in his ears: “Don’t get careless.” And if course Billy
Conn did get careless. He simply couldn’t help himself. He had been punching
prudently, but suddenly he was just punching, convinced he could take out one of
Louis, whether alert or snoozing, could always sniff out a man in
distress. Billy had strayed out of safe distance and Joe took the incoming fire
and awaited his moment. He drove Conn back with a powerful left hook and the
final act began to play out. What normal people don’t see, fighters do. Louis
had seen the suddenly uncertain look in Billy’s eyes, the uncertain little jig
of his legs as he retreated.
Joe opened up and Conn responded with one last defiant burst of
fighting courage. But it was over for Billy. He had stumbled into the minefield
and he could no longer tiptoe around the sleeping explosions. Suddenly, he
wavered and wobbled, hit by a paralysing left to the stomach. He seemed to hang
there forever until Louis snapped his strings and put him to sleep with a
thunderous right to the jaw.
Years later, Billy Conn reflected on the curtain coming down on
his great dream. Older, wiser and more philosophical, he could even manage a
chuckle as he spread his hands and said, “I was doing it until wise guy me got
fresh and tried to knock him out.”
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