Louis-Conn II: A Heavyweight Title Fight Comes To Television
By: Sean Crose
For those who don’t know, Joe Louis was one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. What’s more, he was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Believe it or not, these are facts that few fight analysts and/or historians will ever argue against (boxing know-it-alls are a traditionally ornery bunch). As in the case of Ali (and precious few others) Louis’ greatness is pretty much universally accepted. Just how good was the guy? Well, from the year 1936 to the year 1950, the man didn’t lose a single fight. Not. A. Single. Fight. Oh, and he had well over thirty bouts during that time span.
Jack Sharkey, James Braddock, Max Baer, Max Schmeling, and Joe Walcott were just some of the notables Louis met and bested during his notable run. Impressive stuff for a man widely known for taking out one no-hoper after another (for a while, Louis’ competition was known as “the bum of the month club”). Yet, while Louis is rightly regarded as one of the most dominant boxers to ever slip on a pair of gloves, there were men out there known to present the guy with a challenge. Schmeling beat him the first time they met. Walcott gave him almost more than he could handle. Even the over the top “Two Ton” Tony Galento had Louis briefly taste the mat.
One fighter that gave Louis more trouble than the man could have possibly imagined, though, was Billy Conn. A product of Pittsburgh, Conn had a less than terrific start as a boxer, before finally getting the hang of things and collecting a whole lot of wins for himself. After winning and defending the light heavyweight title, however, Conn decided to go for greatness and take on Louis for the heavyweight championship of the world. It was a bold and daring move. Louis wasn’t just any heavyweight, after all. And besides, moving up to take the biggest prize in sports against a bigger man (Louis would outweigh Conn by at least twenty pounds)was a daunting challenge in and of itself.
Yet Conn almost pulled it off. Meeting Louis at New York’s Polo Grounds on the evening of June 18th, 1941, Conn employed incredible boxing skills to frustrate Louis and avoid the impact of the champions’ frightening power punches. Not only was Conn proving to be the great Louis’ equal – he was handily beating the man. Then came the thirteenth round. The slick, slippery Conn decided to play tough guy after surprisingly hurting his opponent. Yet the results of Conn’s hubris were entirely predictable…Louis ended up winning by knockout that very round. The story, however, wasn’t over. After the Second World War, which saw both Conn and Louis serving in the military, the two fighters were to meet again, on June 19th, 1946, at Yankee Stadium.
A lot of time passed since the first fight, however, and the world had changed in incredibly dramatic ways. The United States, previously seen as a kind of marginalized, movie making nation where poor people were apt to move, was, as a result of the war, now the world’s great power, deeply engaged in a “cold war” with the Soviet Union for the direction of civilization (hard to believe, but true). What’s more, American life itself had changed since Louis and Conn had first squared off. Television, which had been around for years, was about to really take hold with the American public. And boxing was to become one of the young medium’s prime attractions.
And what better way to bring boxing to tv fans than to broadcast a live rematch between the great “Brown Bomber” and his slippery foe?
Unfortunately, the second fight wasn’t nearly as thrilling as the first. “He can run, but he can’t hide,” Louis claimed beforehand, in perhaps the first utterance from a fighter that absorbed itself into everyday language. Louis was right. He was able to end Conn’s second attempt at glory in the eighth round. Conn’s big moment had passed, having slipped into the vapor of time half a decade and a full historical era earlier. Still, the rematch between Louis and Conn served it’s purpose, bringing a heavyweight title fight to a groundbreaking new medium. Make no mistake about it, boxing is still living in the shadow of that long ago night in New York
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.