During the early part of 1941, Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis shuffled across the country, engaging in a series of title defenses that became known as The Bum-of-the-month Tour. Whether these relatively harmless challengers bore obscure names like Tony Musto, Gus Dorazio and Red Burman or more celebrated names like Abe Simon (a giant) and Buddy Baer (a giant and Max's brother, as well), the number of rounds each remained upright varied only in relation to his own special threshold of pain.
Louis' busy campaign ended on June 18 in New York. His opponent there was Billy Conn, his seventh challenger in seven months, although no one really considered this fight an appendage to Joe's dubious tour.
Conn, while considerably outweighed and outgunned by Louis, was one of the finest middleweights and light heavyweights of all time. He was also the most popular challenger Louis ever had. His ruggedly handsome profile, deep-set blue eyes and dark curly hair masked the soul of a street fighter. His swift, crafty movements in the ring were sometimes augmented, sometimes nullified, by brash aggressiveness. A storybook Irishman, Conn breathed fire and oozed sentimentality. He appreciated these qualities in others, too, and when Bummy Davis, a Brooklyn welterweight, was shot dead while trying to slug a stickup man, Billy was deeply affected.
"I never met Bummy, but he was a tough kid and I admired him," Conn said. "I couldn't send any flowers to the funeral because it was Jewish, but I sent the biggest box of candy they could find."
Brooklyn's Brownsville, which nurtured Bummy Davis, would have impressed Conn as homelike. He was born amid similar bleak surroundings in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh in 1917. There he grew up fighting the other kids in the streets and, when nobody-else was around, fighting his brother at home. He had the features, if not the disposition, of an altar boy.
"The first time I saw Billy his head was only this big," Johnny Ray, who was later his manager, said as he clenched a small fist. "He had a baby face, and when you looked at him you just wanted to pick him up and hug him."
This was about the time that the 14-year-old Billy appeared at Ray's East Liberty gymnasium. Billy ran errands for the older men, bringing back sandwiches and moonshine from a shabby store across the street and, in the intervals, learned something about boxing from Ray.
School was a different matter. The otherwise graceful youngster plodded through Sacred Heart grammar school like a drunk trying to push his car out of a ditch—one step forward and two steps back. When he had laboriously reached the eighth grade an exasperated nun finally turned her wrath on Billy and the other aging youths in the back of the classroom. "Why don't some of you big boys get out of here and go to trade school?" she asked. "All you do is keep the smaller children out."
Billy took the suggestion seriously; he sampled trade school briefly but found Johnny Ray's gym more instructive. At 17, in 1935, he began to get paid for punching people. He lost his first professional fight, then quickly fought his way to prominence and in 1937 defeated four former welterweight and middleweight champions. Coming to New York at the beginning of 1939, he walloped another ex-champion, Fred Apostoli.
New York's boxing fans welcomed this handsome, cocky young Irishman. Managers and hangers-on, lounging in groups along that arid stretch of sidewalk on 49th Street called Jacobs Beach, predicted that one day Conn would grow up to challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship.