The Conn Clan hears the bad news. (Pittsburgh Press, photographer unknown) A Conn workout before the big fight draws lots of attention (Photographer unknown) Joe Louis walks to his corner after the knockout. (ACME picture) The Pittsburgh Press on the day after the fight. Billy Conn in the early 1990s. (Photo by Steve Mellon)

June 18, 1941: “The Conn Clan is distraught as Billy is knocked out”

It was a sports night in Pittsburgh. Radios squawked in living rooms and bars and social clubs throughout the city. On a porch at 5435 Fifth Ave., the atmosphere was electric and tense.  A half dozen girls listened with special intensity. They were the Con Clan — relatives and friends of Pittsburgh boxer Billy Conn, whose fight with heavyweight champion Joe Louis was nearing its end.

Throughout the night at the Conn home, three radios blared news of the bout. Billy’s mother, terminally ill and under doctor’s orders not to listen, remained in an upstairs bedroom and prayed. One aunt fled when the opening bell sounded. Reports from the Polo Grounds made her too nervous. And when Billy launched a furious attack on Louis in the 12th round, Conn’s six-year-old cousin Davey Herr got so excited he knocked over a table of phonograph records, shattering several discs, including “Mariquita Linda” and “It Makes No Difference Now.”

The Conn-Louis fight is legendary. You know how it ends. The Pittsburgh Kid battled himself into the lead, then tried for a knockout in the 13th round. Instead, Conn himself was KO’d. The Conn Clan, including the fighter’s sister Mary Jane (she’s the one sitting at left), wailed and weeped.

No athlete captured the Pittsburgh ethos more fully than Conn. He was a tough and spirited underdog (Louis outweighed him by more than 30 pounds) and knew something of commitment — to his hometown and to his wife. He lived for decades in the same Squirrel Hill house, and his courtship of Mary Louise Smith is a story an old-time romance novelist could have dreamed up. The marriage was ended only by Conn’s death in 1993.

Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if Conn had followed the advice of his handlers, avoided Louis in the later rounds of that famous fight and held onto his lead on points. What if Conn had become champ? It’s our guess we’d still be talking about a guy who lived for decades in the same Pittsburgh house and who grew old with the woman he fell in love with when both were young and beautiful. He knew what was really important. He was a Pittsburgh kind of guy.

— Steve Mellon

Daniel Emanuelson: "Billy Conn is a burgh treasure. Thank you Mr. Conn for being Billy Conn, a good man and a good role model."
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