In the meantime there was a rematch with the dangerous Apostoli. Scheduled for 15 rounds, it was a test of Conn's stamina against an experienced opponent. A noisy trainload of Conn's Pittsburgh friends, wearing green papierm�ch� hats, came to New York for the fight. It erupted into one of the wildest brawls the Garden fans had witnessed in years, and they loved it.
"Apostoli started roughing me up in side," Conn recalls. "I called him a name, and I said I was going to kill him. 'Stop talking, you Irish so-and-so, and come on and fight,' Apostoli said. 'I'm coming,' I said, and we had a hell of a fight. But the microphone was lowered over the ring, and the crowd caught everything we said. Later General Phelan, the boxing commissioner, called me into his office because he'd heard the bad language. 'Why, general,' I said, 'you know I'm an old altar boy. It was that dago doing all the talking.' 'That's right,' the general said. And he forgot about it."
The close decision Conn received in that fight propelled him toward a shot at the light-heavyweight championship. He outpointed Melio Bettina to win the title, defended it a couple of times and in 1940 began to campaign as a heavyweight. Light on his feet, fast of hand and mind, he found most heavyweights perfect foils for his style. Conn seemed to have added a punch with his extra weight and scored his most impressive victory by knocking out heavyweight contender Bob Pastor with a merciless body attack.
Yet Conn's weight did not rise much above the light-heavyweight limit of 175 pounds, and there were many boxing men who believed he was being pushed too fast toward a bout with Louis. Only Conn himself and Promoter Mike Jacobs really believed in the match. In November 1940 Conn fought Lee Savold, a strong, young heavyweight who was the division's heaviest puncher aside from Louis.
" Conn will take a lot of punishment." Pinky George, Savold's manager, promised before the fight. "If he can take it from Savold and then beat him you'll have a pretty good line on whether or not he can take it from Joe Louis."
Conn, who won on points, later admitted that he had never taken such severe punishment. "I'm outboxing Savold all right, and then the crowd in the gallery begins to clap. You know, like this," Conn said, beating the palms of his hands together in a derisive rhythm. "This is very embarrassing for me, so I decide to mix it up a little. I walk in, and I get hit with three punches. The first one on top of the head. I think my skull is fractured. The next one cuts my eye. The next one breaks my nose. I step back and thumb my nose at the gallery, and then I go back to boxing and I win easy."
Here Conn ruefully reflected for a moment and touched again on an unpleasant memory. "He had no business hitting me at all, but he hit me three punches and damned near killed me. The reason I got hit with those punches was on account of I got careless."
Apparently the lesson was not as lingering as the pain. Seven months later Billy got careless again.
The Conn-Louis match was made with startling suddenness. Louis had disposed of Buddy Baer to wind up his Bum-of-the-month Tour in May. At the beginning of June, Mike Jacobs signed Conn as the champion's next opponent, setting June 18 as the date.
Boxing fans quickly responded, and 54,487 tickets were sold in less than three weeks for what was to be one of the last big fights before Pearl Harbor. New York's Irish, having lapsed into unaccustomed silence after Louis had knocked James J. Braddock off the heavyweight throne, emerged to identify with the confident Billy. But Conn had even wider support. Thousands came to the Polo Grounds proclaiming that he would tumble before Louis' early attack but secretly rooting for the smaller man (Billy weighed 174 pounds, still under the light-heavyweight limit). Perhaps Johnny Ray best summed up his fighter's national appeal.