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Would Conn really have beaten Louis?
by Don Colgan

It remains, sixty years later, a Heavyweight Championship Bout steeped in fistic lore. It is a conversation piece for boxing historians, for spirited barroom debate and worthy subject matter for feature articles in The Ring Magazine. With America on the precipice of war and Pearl Harbor less than six months away the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn title bout remains entrenched in the top five Heavyweight Title clashes of the 20th Century. The contest has become mythical and the argument that Conn had Louis beaten and had merely to stick and move for nine minutes to secure the championship via a decisive points win has been widely, yet not universally, accepted.

It is not uncommon in the recital of historiclly significant bouts that some embellishment takes place. The Dempsey-Carpentier bout was born of the romance of the unforgettable 20's. Jack, the bearded slacker who had yet to earn the enduring popularity and ultimate adoration he would enjoy in his older years. Carpentier, a World War I War hero in France and a stylish puncher, made a poignant contrast of the era. From a fistic vantage point, the match was borderline ridiculous. Carpentier had no chance. Tex Rickard asked Dempsey to carry the Frenchman for a few rounds to give the million dollar crowd at Boyle's Thirty Acres their moneys worth. Dempsey speared the challenger a few times in the opening heat and permitted George to take the offensive on occasion. Emboldened, Carpentier did catch the titleholder unawares with a stunning right hand lead early in round two, then followed up with a quick barrage that had Jack briefly covering up.

The recital of the 2nd round of the Dempsey-Carpentier bout had Jack badly staggered and on the brink of a knockdown. That Carpentier was on the brink of taking the championship back to France. Of course, nothing was farther from the truth. Carpentier caught the Champion flush and briefly stunned him. Jack took his challenger seriously enough in round three to pound his body for three solid minutes and drop him twice, the final time for the count at 1:19 of the fourth round.

The historical narrative of the first Conn-Louis encounter had Jack Blackburn telling Chappie that "You got to knock him out to win" after Conn had badly staggered Joe in the twelvth canto and gave him a thorough lacing to boot. Prior to that Conn had edged out in front from the eight round on after absorbing a walloping during the early rounds and again during the sixth and part of the seventh. Make no mistake, the Light Heavyweigt Champion absorbed punishment from Joe. It was his compelling self confidence, hand speed and determination that kept him in the bout until he forced the tide to turn in his favor and moved into the final three rounds with the title within his grasp.

After twelve rounds Conn was ahead. He was winning the fight. Joe was baffled and confused, and beginnng to take a beating. There remains a minority of boxing historians who contend that, contary to the accepted argument that Billy was nine minutes away from dethroning Joe, that Louis could have halted Billy any time he wanted to and was in no serious jeopardy of being unseated. Joe was in jeaopardy. He knew it and, most importantly, his sage trainer Jack "Chappie" Blackburn knew it. Joe's reign was about to enter its death rattle. Only Conn's insistance on trying to KO Joe instead of being satisfied with capturing the most prestigious championship in all of sports via the points route saved the Brown Bomber from the certain loss of his championship.

It was the Light Heavyweight Titleholder's "Conn fidence", combined with incredibly poor judgment and a corner that did a less than satisfactory job of keeping their charge focused on the enormity of the task at hand, that snared defeat from the jaws of victory.. Billy entered the ring as an 18 to 5 shortender and was widely expected to be blasted out of the big ballpark with more force than one of Joe DiMaggio's legendary Stadium clouts. Billy saw himself in the light of Max Schmeling during the latter phases of Max' first KO triumph over Joe, in total control of the bout with a KO outcome in his favor inevitable. However, Max was a heavyeight, indeed a former titleholder, with a legitimate knockout punch in his right cross and the experience and durability to finish the job. Conn was safely embarked upon the only possible route to victory over Joe. Box and punch, stay away from Joe's heavy artillary and continue to dazzle the increasingly frustrated and plodding Louis.

Even after Joe landed the brutal short right uppercut that snapped Billy's head back midway through the 13th round and started the Irishman toward his KO defeat at 2:58 of the round, Billy had an opportunity to recover. Had he not retaliated and instead went into retreat and cleared the cobwebs he would have survived the round and been in a strong position to split the final two rounds and earn the championship.

It was foolish of Conn to believe he could have challenged Louis' jackhammer punches and stopped the great champion. He was going to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Joe knew it, Jack Blackburn knew it and the big crowd at Yankee Stadium knew it as well. However, Joe could count on Billy to "Get Fresh" and permit his reach to exceed his grasp. Had Conn continued to fight the fight he did in rounds 10 through 12 there was little the titleholder could have done to avert the outcome. Joe's tried and true talent of cutting the ring in half and demolishing a challenger was not serving him well against Billy and fatigue, and frustration, were destined to make Joe desperate as the bout moved into the 14th and 15th rounds.

No degree of revisionist thinking can alter the fact the Joe Louis was going to be defeated that long ago night at Yankee Stadium. Billy Conn cost himself the Heavyweight Championship in a act of carelessness and foolish pride on the greatest night he ever saw. He was en route to an 8-6-1, 8-6-1, 9-5-1 verdict had he kept his head stayed the course. What path would history have taken had Billy defeated Joe? A certain return bout, probably within a year and a repeat of Louis-Schmeling II with a focused and finely honed Joe walking through Billy in three rounds.

The Brown Bomber's place as arguably the greatest Heavyweight Champion of all time, 25 titles defenses and a dozen year reign atop the heavyeight division is beyond debate. The outcome of Louis-Conn I is not! Billy had Joe beaten and got careless.

Case closed!

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  • Billy Conn
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