This month marks the diamond anniversary of one of the most memorable fights in ring history. On 18 June 1941, Joe Louis and Billy Conn did battle at the Polo Grounds in New York in one of the most storied bouts in boxing lore.
Louis was heavyweight champion of the world with a 49-and-1 record and 42 knockouts. His first-round stoppage of Max Schmeling in 1938 had redefined what it meant to be black in America and fixed The Brown Bomber firmly in the consciousness of the free world. Now, in 1941, England was at war. Six months later, in Winston Churchill’s words, the new world would come to the rescue of the old.
Louis had seventeen successful heavyweight championship defences to his credit before weighing in at 199-1/2 pounds to face Conn.
Conn who’d relinquished the light-heavyweight crown to campaign as a heavyweight, sported a 59-9-1 ledger and had been on the canvas only twice in his ring career. He’d never been knocked out but lacked big-punch power, having scored only 13 knockouts in 69 fights.
More ominously, Conn officially weighed in to fight Louis at 174 pounds. And it was reliably said that his actual weight that night was 169.
Conn had a way with words. Before the bout, he told reporters, “Joe’s a nice guy. I ain’t mad at him. I just want that title of his.”
He almost got it.
Louis scored well in the early going but couldn’t put away the challenger. Conn, boxing masterfully, controlled the middle stanzas. After twelve rounds, Louis trailed on the scorecards by a 7-4-1, 7-5, 6-6 margin.
The time of the knockout was 2:58 of the thirteenth round. Conn said afterward that he got too brave and careless. An alternative explanation is that, eventually, the inevitable happened. A right to the jaw followed by a barrage of right hands put the challenger on the canvas. He struggled valiantly to regain his feet, but was unable to do so until just after the count of ten.
If Conn had beaten the count, he would have had a minute to recover before the start of round fourteen. But in all likelihood, Louis would still have prevailed.
In 1941, championship fights were scored on the basis of rounds, not points. That would have benefited Conn. Had round thirteen been scored, the challenger would still have led 7-5-1, 7-6, 6-7. But at that point, Conn was hurt and tiring badly. Even if Louis failed to score a knockout in round fourteen or fifteen, most likely the Brown Bomber would have dominated those six minutes. That would have given the champion a 9-6, 8-7, 7-7-1 triumph.
“Billy was great last night,” Conn’s manager Johnny Ray said afterward. “But Louis was just a little greater.” Ray also said of his fighter, “He was swell in defeat, but we’d rather have won.”
Five years later – on 19 June 1946 - Louis and Conn fought again, this time at Yankee Stadium. Louis had managed to stay reasonably sharp during the intervening years by boxing exhibitions during the war. Conn hadn’t fought in four years and was a shadow of his former self.
“He can run but he can’t hide,” Louis said of Conn before their rematch.
To that, Art Rooney (one of America’s preeminent sportsmen) added, “Billy is like every guy who’s been knocked out by Joe Louis. Sure, Billy was great the first time. He’d never been tagged by Joe before and he never knew how hard Joe could hit. He knows now, and it’s not good. No guy going in against Louis the second time has the same confidence.”
Louis knocked Conn out in the eighth round.
So on 18 June, raise a glass to Joe Louis and Billy Conn. Seventy-five years after their historic first encounter, they’re remembered together in history and deservedly so.
Mike Tyson retired from the ring eleven years ago but still has a hold on the American psyche. That was clear when he became an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Speaking in Indianapolis, Indiana, in late-April, Donald Trump proclaimed, “Mike Tyson endorsed me. I love it. He sent out a tweet. Mike, Iron Mike. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. When I get endorsed by the tough ones, I like it. Because you know what? We need toughness now.”
Tyson, of course, was convicted of rape in Indianpolis in 1992. With that in mind – and seeking to score political points – Trump rival Ted Cruz responded, “Mike Tyson spent three years in prison in Indiana for rape. And yet in Donald Trump’s world, this convicted rapist is a tough guy. I’ve got news for Donald Trump. Rapists are not tough guys. Anyone who believes a convicted rapist is a tough guy; you can understand the whole race right there.”
Greg Garrison (who successfully prosecuted Tyson and now hosts a radio show in Indianapolis) also got into the act, admonishing, “Mr. Trump, tough is one thing. A rapist is quite something else. A 17-year-old girl, her clothes ripped off her; I’ve been thinking about this all night. Kept me up. You know how I feel about this election stuff. I don’t want to throw rocks at anybody. But this is where I want you to listen to me with both of your ears open. Did nobody in that whole entourage of yours know that that snake raped a lovely kid in this town? I think I’d beef up my intelligence operation a little bit.”
Such is the state of politics in America today.
On 11 June, BoxNation will televise the WBO super-featherweight title bout between Vasyl Lomachenko and Roman Martinez.
Lomachenko, age 28, is one of the most decorated amateurs in ring history, having won gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics as a representative of Ukraine. He turned pro on 12 October 2013, lost a split decision to Orlando Salido in his second professional bout, and conquered Gary Russell in his next fight to claim the WBO featherweight crown. This is known as a fast track.
My most vivid memory of Lomachenko dates to an interview session he had with HBO’s commentating team on 10 October 2013 (two days before his pro debut)
Max Kellerman asked a fairly convoluted question about Vasyl’s fighting style that was translated into Russian.
“Ya ne paneemayu [I don’t understand],” Lomachenko responded.
Kellerman tried again with a similar result and finally settled on, “What is the key to what you do in the ring?”
“I don’t want to get hit in the head,” Lomachenko answered.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book - A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.