Louis vs Conn:
Polo Grounds, New York City, June 18, 1941.
It is the Heavyweight Championship Fight between the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis and former Light-Heavyweight champion Billy Conn. Louis had been Heavyweight Champion since 1937 when he knocked out “the Cinderella Man” (Ron Howard’s 2005 movie starring Russell Crowe) James Braddock. The fight against Conn would be Louis’ 18th title defense that included his first-round knock-out of Max Schmeling to avenge his only defeat back in 1936. The German, Schmeling, had knocked Louis out in the 12th round (Louis-Schmeling is a great story on its own). But Bill Conn was nothing like Schmeling.
Billy Conn was a brash young man from Pittsburgh. He gave up his Light-Heavyweight Crown to move up in class to challenge the great Joe Louis. The size difference was enormous as Louis weighed in at 201 lbs to Conn’s 169 lbs. Joe Louis was more than a 3 to 1 favorite, most experts feeling that it would be another beating supplied by the Champion.
In the first round Conn came out cautious, it looked like he wanted to stay away from Louis. He slipped and fell down about half way through the round. Without much action the advantage was with Louis’. Round two and three Louis was in complete control as he kept landing body punches to Conn’s mid-section. Many thought it was just a matter of time before the Champion would knock-out his much smaller opponent. Just another “Bum of the month” exercise.
But in the fourth round, Billy Conn came out a different fighter. He kept pounding Louis with left-right combinations, way too quick for Louis to respond. Rounds four and five clearly belonged to Conn, even though Louis opened a cut above Conn’s left eye at the end of fifth. Round six saw Louis regain his form and punish Conn with a series of body punches, at the cost of an injured hand late in the round.
The hand injury led to Conn completely taking over the fight in round seven, eight, and nine. Louis seemed to have no answer for Billy’s lightning fast left-right combinations. Louis had a better showing in the tenth round, which was highlighted by another Conn slip, which Louis graciously did not exploit. He chose not to go after him as Conn was going down (Louis was the definition of a gentleman in and out of the ring).
Everyone knew that rounds 11 and 12 would clearly lead to a new Heavyweight Champion. Louis was almost defenseless as Conn delivered crushing combinations that would stagger the Champion. Round twelve was especially damaging to Louis. A left-right combination, followed by a vicious left hook and a crushing right cross left the Champion dazed, about to go down, only to grasp at Conn forcing a clench that probably saved the fight. After the break Conn again attacked Louis, but couldn’t bring the bigger man down. At the end of the round Billy Conn thrust his right hand in the air, convinced that he had the fight won.
Thus began round 13. One of the most famous rounds in Boxing History. In his corner before coming out for the thirteenth round, Conn said to his trainer, Johnny Ray, “I’m going to knock him out!” to which Ray cautioned “Hey Billy, this is Joe Louis, you don’t make mistakes against him! Stay away from him.” When Billy ignored him, Ray’s final word to the brash Conn was, “You’re on your own.”
Conn came out on fire in the 13th round. Throwing caution to the wind, Conn pummeled the Heavyweight Champion with an eighteen-punch combination that seemed to indicate that the end was near. As a matter of fact, the end was near, but not the way the 54,487 fans had anticipated just moments earlier. In his effort to end the fight, Billy became reckless. Suddenly, Louis caught him with a withering overhand right, followed by a barrage of body punches. Conn was hurt and Louis seized on the opportunity. A right to the head immediately followed by left uppercut, then left-right combination and Conn was barely standing. The round was in its closing second, so Conn was covering up trying to make it to the bell. Louis sensed the moment and caught Billy with a ferocious left hook and Conn took one step and went down in a heap. It was over just like that! Conn explained later, “I lost my head and a million bucks.”
The country clamored for a rematch after such a fight, but a fight scheduled for early in 1942 was scratched when Conn broke his hand in an altercation with his father-in-law. Then the war came, and both men put on their uniforms to serve the nation. It wasn’t until 1946 that the rematch could take place. It was held at Yankee Stadium and was the first Heavyweight Championship Fight to be televised. Seats were going for $100 apiece. This is the fight where Louis quipped about Conn that “He can run but he can’t hide.” Early in the bout it was obvious that neither fighter was up to their old standards. Conn especially was lethargic and couldn’t land a punch. Louis knocked him out in the eighth round with a devastating right. Conn would never fight again.
Louis would retain the title for another two years and retire after his 26th title defense on June 25, 1948 in Yankee Stadium when he knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in the eighth round. His professional record at the time was 66-1.
Thinking he was set for life, he was unexpectedly put upon when the IRS sent him a back taxes bill for over $500,000. He left his finances in the hands of others, and didn’t realize the situation. He was forced to fight again to pay his back taxes. In 1950 Ezra Charles was the Heavyweight Champion. 36-year-old Joe Louis attempted to get his title back, but was out of fighting shape and was no match for the younger Champion. Joe went the distance, but clearly lost the fight. Worse of all it was a disappointing gate and Louis was unable to pay his back taxes. He agreed to fight again in October of 1951. This time against the undefeated Rocky Marciano. This fight was no contest. Marciano beat him so bad (Louis was knocked through the ropes in the eighth round) that Rocky himself was apologetic. “This is the last guy on earth I want to fight.”
Joe Louis would pass away in 1981 at age 66 an American hero. Jimmy Cannon summed him up best, “Joe Louis is a credit to his race…the human race!”
Billy Conn died in 1993 still smarting from his blown opportunity, “What’s the sense of being Irish if you can’t be stupid!” Louis and Conn would become lifelong friends, exchanging stories for the rest of their lives. One time Billy asked Joe, “Why couldn’t you let me hold the title for a year or two?” Louis responded “You had the title for twelve rounds and you couldn’t hold on to it.”