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Roy McHugh Remembers: Conn's loss to Louis still a knockout tale

Part Two: When Pittsburgh was a Fight Town

Monday, November 29, 1999

By Roy McHugh

The prizefighting business was always to some degree a mess. But long, long ago, when there were vestiges of organization, when there were fewer weight classes (usually just eight), fewer sanctioning bodies and fewer disagreements among them, when Pittsburgh was a fight town, when places like Binghamton and Fargo and Youngstown and Holyoke were fight towns, to be a champion actually meant something. All the more remarkable, then, that Western Pennsylvania was such a breeding ground for the species.

 
    Second of three parts

"Roy McHugh Remembers" is a periodic feature of the Post-Gazette spoirts pages. McHugh was sports editor and later columnist-at-large at The Pittsburgh Press from 1963 until his retirement in 1983. "When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town" retells the stories of some of the great fighters in the city's history.


Part One: Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Boxing

 
 

Billy Conn

By the age of 23, Billy Conn had been up against nine world champions in three weight divisions and had beaten them all. Nobody ever talked about that. "The only thing I hear," Conn said, "is, 'Billy, you cost me money when Joe Louis knocked you out.' "

It's a Pittsburgh legend, the cautionary tale of how Conn had the heavyweight title all but won and then made the mistake of his life. In the Polo Grounds that night -- June18, 1941, with 55,000 cheering him on -- he had put up a spectacular fight. A stripling outweighed by 31 pounds, he was too quick for Louis, dancing, circling, moving inside to throw fast combinations and then disengage. In the 12th round, he staggered Louis. It gave him ideas. Now he would finish the job. Before the bell for the 13th, he told his manager, Johnny Ray, "I've got him!" "Box!" Ray warned. "Stay away!" Positive now that he could slug with Louis, Conn wasn't listening.

Halfway through the round he learned his lesson. The old verities, it seemed, were still in effect. Dance with the one who brung ya. Don't change horses in the middle of the stream. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Over a missed left hook, Louis crashed a thunderous right. Conn took 25 punches without a return before going down -- and entering folklore.

Of the Pittsburgh champions, Conn was the most picture-perfect. He was fast with his hands and fast on his feet. He boxed in the upright classical style, and he had what the French call elan. Light-heavyweight champion at 21, by virtue of beating Melio Bettina, he insisted on moving up to the heavyweight ranks because "that's where the money is." Sure enough. His two fights with Louis -- the less said about the rematch the better -- netted him more than $400,000, in the 1940s a pretty fair bundle.

Billy Soose

In 1938, when colleges had boxing teams, Billy Soose, a Penn State sophomore from Farrell, fought 16 times, knocking out 15 of his opponents in the first round. The 16th, a glutton for punishment, lasted until the second round.

Soose turned professional when the Eastern College Athletic Conference took away his eligibility. He had been getting "expense money" for amateur fights in the summer. Jack Dempsey offered to manage him, and so did Jake Mintz, who would one day manage heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles. But Soose signed a contract with his old Farrell neighbor, Paul Moss, a Hollywood press agent and screenwriter unversed in the niceties of the fight racket.

At Moss' request, movie stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell took Soose into their home. Not many fighters had such tender loving care. According to Hearst columnist Bob Considine, Moss was very much "the sensitive type," known to faint at the sight of his boy Soose taking a punch. At Soose's first fight, Dick Powell couldn't watch. He covered his eyes with his hands. Less squeamishly, Alice Faye and Lupe Velez climbed through the ropes after one of Soose's fights and planted kisses on his unmarked face.

After breaking his right hand on the chin of Al Quaill in his Pittsburgh debut at Forbes Field, Soose was never again a two-fisted fighter. He outboxed his opponents, using his right for diversionary purposes. In 1941, at Madison Square Garden, he decisioned Ken Overlin for the middleweight title. Overlin was the New York State Athletic Commission's champion. Earlier, in a non-title bout, Soose had beaten Tony Zale, recognized as champion by the National Boxing Association.

Soose was tall for a middleweight, over 6 feet, and he moved up into the light heavyweight ranks without ever making a title defense. After two more fights, he enlisted in the Navy with an officer's commission (World War II was under way), and never boxed again. Until his death last year, he lived in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he owned and operated a lakeside resort.

TOMORROW: Fritzie Zivic, Teddy Yarosz and the traveling contenders.



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