- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

For all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these, “It might have been!”

John Greenleaf Whittier departed this mortal coil in 1892, so we know the poet wasn’t thinking of boxer Billy Conn when he wrote those words. But … he might have been.

On the night of June 18, 1941, at New York’s old Polo Grounds, Conn was effectively stripping Joe Louis of his heavyweight title when he made a horrible decision before the 13th round: I can slug it out with this guy.

This was the equivalent of a pitcher thinking he could get a fastball past Ted Williams or maybe a guy in a Subaru feeling he could cut off an 18-wheeler. In a word, wham!

For 12 rounds, Conn bamboozled and bloodied a supposedly invincible opponent who outweighed him by 25 pounds and was at the height of his considerable powers. As the 13th started, his manager, Johnny Ray, crouched tensely at ringside. “Billy, stick and run — stick and run!” he yelled. “Don’t get careless! You’ve got the fight! Stay away, Billy, stay away!”

But as Conn, aka the Pittsburgh Kid, put it afterward, “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t be thick.” Besides, his fiancee, beautiful Mary Louise Smith, was in the crowd, and he wanted to do something more impressive than sticking and running. So Conn waded in — and out.

Did Louis, a stolid slugger known in that less sensitive era as the Brown Bomber, lick his chops? We can only imagine.

Advancing to the center of the ring at the start of the round, Conn fetched Louis a right to the chin and a left to the head. The trouble was that the champion responded with a much better left that sent Conn reeling. And now the killer in Louis rushed to the surface.

For the next minute or so, he and Conn exchanged punches as the spectators yowled. But it was not a fair contest. Conn was a slickly superb boxer, Louis the most devastating puncher since Jack Dempsey two decades earlier.

In Conn’s corner, manager Ray wore a horrified expression. He knew no one could slug it out with Joe, particularly a brash light heavyweight weighing 174 pounds.

Then Louis delivered a left to the stomach that made Conn’s knees buckle and brought his hands down. The champion did not miss his opportunity, smashing a roundhouse right to the jaw that sent Conn to the canvas. Blood pouring down his face, he rose to his knees at the count of six and got one foot under him at eight. But by the time he was totally upright, referee Eddie Joseph had uttered the words every fallen fighter dreads, “Ten — yer out!”

The two met again five years later, after the war, and Louis sounded a famous prediction: “He can run, but he can’t hide.” This time Conn fell in the eighth round of a lackluster bout as Louis neared the end of his record 25 successful title defenses. But nobody ever came closer to making Joe an ex-champ than Billy in 1941.

After avenging his only loss by knocking out archenemy Max Schmeling in one round on June22, 1938, Louis soon found himself bereft of worthy opponents. By 1941, he was engaged in what became known as the “Bum of the Month” campaign, yawning past the likes of Red Burman, Gus Dorazio, Abe Simon and Tony Musto — guys who weren’t even household names in their own households.

Things got a little tougher May 23 in Washington, when Louis had to survive being knocked out of Griffith Stadium’s ring in the first round by Buddy Baer before stopping him in the seventh. Then it was Conn’s turn as boxing fans pondered the ancient question of whether a good little man somehow could beat a good — in this case a great — big man.

Conn, who started his pro career as a welterweight in 1934, won 19 straight bouts while defending the light heavyweight crown he had won from somebody named Melio Bettina in 1939. Billy was 23 years old and cockier than anybody should have been going into the ring against Louis. From his training camp in Pompton Lakes, N.J., he fired daily verbal jabs at the champion, saying among other insults that Louis would collapse from chasing him if the fight went past the halfway mark.

Louis’ only reply was typically terse: “I’ll take care of Billy when I see him.”

Many felt Conn was too fast for the plodding champion. Said Ray prophetically: “I don’t see how my kid can miss if he does what I tell him. [But] he’s so confident, I don’t know if he’ll follow orders.”

The first two rounds were all Louis, with the champ raising a welt on the left side of Conn’s photogenic face. But the tide shifted in the third and fourth as Conn, running hard, got off his bicycle long enough to sting Louis repeatedly with jabs and uppercuts. From the eighth through the 12th rounds, Conn dominated as Louis resorted to wild swings. In the 12th, Conn appeared to be getting stronger as Louis faded.

Then came the fatal 13th and, as someone on the scene undoubtedly wrote, that was all she wrote.

Louis retired as champion in 1949, only to discover the Internal Revenue Service hot on his tail and trail. Bald, beefy and broke, he returned to the ring briefly, lost a title challenge to Ezzard Charles in 1950 and quit for good at age 37 after being knocked out by future champion Rocky Marciano in 1951.

Sadly, Louis meandered through the next 30 years trying to make a living by refereeing wrestling matches and “working” as a casino greeter. Reportedly, Frank Sinatra paid most of the old fighter’s expenses in the final years before Louis’ death in 1981.

Conn hung up his mouthpiece in December 1948 at only 31, fittingly enough after boxing an exhibition against Louis. Billy never lost his brashness. In 1989, at age 72, he was in a Pittsburgh convenience store when a young man tried to rob the joint. Conn wrestled the kid to the floor and got in a few licks before the would-be burglar escaped — without his own wallet. Said Conn’s son, Billy Jr.: “I guess when you’re a former fighter, you throw a few punches — even at 72.”

Conn died in 1993 after joining Louis in the Boxing Hall of Fame with a lifetime record of 63-11-1. But he is remembered more for one of the losses than for all of the victories.

“Why couldn’t you let me have the title for a year or two?” Conn jokingly asked Louis years after their first fight.

Long before Howard Cosell got his first toupee, Joe told it like it was. “You had it for 12 rounds, and you couldn’t hold it.”

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