Billy Conn: The Anti-Low Risk Fighter
By: Sean Crose
Let’s just start right off by saying Billy Conn was most certainly not like many contemporary boxers. We live, after all, in the era of the catchweight, of the long marination, and of the slow weight acclimation. Conn would simply have rolled his eyes at this sort of thing. Oh, and before dismissing Conn as being some old timey lug, keep in mind that his footwork and overall skill was impressive even by today’s standards. While it’s true most fighters of long ago wouldn’t do well in the ring today, Conn might well be one of the few exceptions to the rule. Yup, he was that good.
Allow me a moment to be crass here – Conn had balls. Real balls. And while it’s true that even the biggest modern cherrypicker is far from a coward if he’s willing to get hit in the face for a living, Conn was a rarity even by boxing’s tough standards. For Conn – wait for it – fought for the heavyweight championship of the world weighing no more than 175 pounds. And, as if that weren’t enough, he did so against none other than the great Joe Louis. That’s right, Conn stepped into the ring to face Louis in the spring of 1941 at a twenty pound weight disadvantage.
Think that’s crazy? Here’s what’s crazier – Conn almost won. Believe it. The slick Pittsburgh native made Louis look slow and uncomfortable for minute after minute that night at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Conn, a true “scientific fighter” just wouldn’t let Louis control the tempo. What’s more, he even hurt Louis late in the fight, buckling the great fighter’s knees. Yet that may have proved to be the gutsy fighter’s undoing.
For Louis, realizing it was time to really turn up the heat, started coming on strong. And Conn? Well, Conn did the absolute worst thing he could have done – he went toe to toe with the man. Why Conn, who had flustered Louis in the fight, decided at the worst possible moment to turn tough guy may be one of the sport’s great mysteries. Needless to say, Conn went down and out in true highlight reel fashion before the thirteenth round was over. He later blamed his stupidity – is there another word for it? – on his being a thick headed Irishman.
No matter. The man’s mistake cost him dearly. Although there was a rematch held at Yankee Stadium five years later – which was to be the first televised bout in history – the moment had passed. Louis, who famously claimed beforehand that Conn could run but not hide, won the second match by eighth round knockout. Regardless, Conn offers a lesson to modern fighters keen on the low risk – right reward school that seems to permeate boxing’s current consciousness. There’s no honor in getting hurt, to be sure. What’s more, boxers have every right to protect their well beings and finances. Yet they’re also fighters. And fighters fight.
They’re also athletes. And athletes challenge themselves – at least they do if they want to make the most of their careers.