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International Boxing Hall of Fame
"The Pittsburgh Kid"
William David Conn
The Pittsburgh Kid
|Wins by KO||
William David Conn (October 8, 1917–May 29, 1993), better known in the boxing world as Billy Conn, was a Light-Heavyweight boxing champion famed for his fights with Joe Louis. He had a professional boxing record of 63 wins, 11 losses and 1 draw, with 14 wins by knockout. His nickname, throughout most of his career, was "The Pittsburgh Kid".
Conn debuted as a professional boxer on June 28, 1934, losing to Dick Woodard by a decision in four rounds. His first win came almost a month later, on July 20, against Johnny Lewis, via a knockout in round three.
Conn built a record of 47 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw (tie), with 7 knockout wins, before challenging for the world's Light-Heavyweight title. Along the way, he beat former or future world champions Fritzie Zivic, Solly Krieger and Fred Apostoli, as well as Teddy Yarosz and Young Corbett III.
On July 13, 1939, he met world Light-Heavyweight champion Melio Bettina in New York, outpointing him in 15 rounds and winning the world's Light-Heavyweight championship. Conn defended his title against Bettina, and twice against another world Light-Heavyweight champion, Gus Lesvenich, each of those three bouts resulting in 15 round decision wins for Conn. Conn also beat former world Middleweight champion Al McCoy, and heavyweights Bob Pastor, Lee Savold, Gunnar Barlund and Buddy Knox in non-title bouts during his run as world Light-Heavyweight champion.
In May of 1941, Conn gave up his world Light-Heavyweight title to challenge world Heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Conn attempted to become the first world Light-Heavyweight champion in boxing history to win the world's Heavyweight championship when he and Louis met on June 18 of that year, and incredibly, to do so without going up in weight. The fight became part of boxing's lore because Conn held a secure lead on the scorecards leading to round 13. According to many experts and fans who watched the fight, Conn was outmaneuvering Louis up to that point. In a move that Conn would regret for the rest of his life, he tried to go for the knockout in round 13, and instead wound up losing the fight by knockout in that same round himself. Ten minutes after the fight, Conn told reporters, "I lost my head and a million bucks," . When asked by a reporter why he went for the knockout, Conn replied famously, "What's the use of being Irish if you can't be thick (i.e. stupid)?" Later he would joke with Louis, "Why couldn't you let me hold the title for a year or so?", to which the Brown Bomber responded, "You had the title for twelve rounds and you couldn't hold on to it."
In 1942, Conn beat Tony Zale and had an exhibition with Louis. World War II was at one of its most important moments, however, and both Conn and Louis were called to serve in the Army. Conn went to war and was away from the ring until 1946.
By then, the public was clamoring for a rematch between him and the still world Heavyweight champion Louis. This happened, and on June 19, 1946, Conn returned into the ring, straight into a world Heavyweight championship bout. Before that fight, it was suggested to Louis that Conn might outpoint him because of his hand and foot speed. In a line that would be long-remembered, Louis replied: "He can run, but he can't hide." The fight, at Yankee Stadium, was the first televised world Heavyweight championship bout ever, and 146,000 people watched it on TV, also setting a record for the most seen world Heavyweight bout in history. Most people who saw it agreed that both Conn and Louis' abilities had eroded with their time spent serving in the armed forces, but Louis was able to retain the crown by a knockout in round eight. Conn's career was basically over after this fight, but he still fought two more fights, winning both by knockout in round nine. On December 10, 1948, he and Louis met inside a ring for the last time, this time for a public exhibition in Chicago. Conn would never climb into a ring as a fighter again.
Retiring from the ring as a boxer did not mean retiring as a public figure for Conn. Conn, who appeared in a 1941 movie called "The Pittsburgh Kid," maintained his boxing skills into his later years. He stepped into the middle of a robbery at a Pittsburgh convenience store in 1990 after the robber punched the store manager. Conn took a swing at the robber and ended up on the floor of the store, scuffling with him. "You always go with your best punch—straight left," Conn told television station WTAE afterward. "I think I interrupted his plans." The robber managed to get away, but not before Conn pulled off his coat, which contained his name and address, making the arrest an easy one. His wife said jumping into the fray was typical of her husband. "My instinct was to get help," she said at the time. "Billy's instinct was to fight."
As he became an older citizen, he participated in a number of documentaries for HBO, and he was frequently seen at boxing related activities until his death in 1993, at the age of 75.
In 1995, Conn's picture appeared on the cover of British pop singer Morrissey's single "Boxers." The photo was taken from an issue of Ring Magazine.
A portion of North Craig Street in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh is named Billy Conn Boulevard.
Billy Conn is also mentioned in the classic movie "On the Waterfront". In the famous scene in the back of the cab - "I could have been a contender", Rod Steiger (playing Marlon Brando's brother) reflects on Brando's character Terry's early promise as a boxer with the words "You could have been another Billy Conn".