"I know it," Louis replied, confused and clearly troubled now.
The 10th was something of a lull for Conn, but it was a strategic respite. During the 11th, Conn worked Louis high and low, hurt the champ, building to the crescendo of the 12th, when the New York Herald Tribune reported in the casual racial vernacular of the time that Conn "rained left hooks on Joe's dusky face." He was a clear winner in this round, which put him up 7-5 on one card and 7-4-1 on another; the third was 6-6. To cap off his best round, Conn scored with a crushing left that would have done in any man who didn't outweigh him by 30 pounds. And it certainly rattled the crown of the world's heavyweight champion. The crowd was going berserk. Even Maggie was given the report that her Billy was on the verge of taking the title.
Only later would Conn realize the irony of striking that last great blow. "I miss that, I beat him," he says. It was that simple. He was nine minutes from victory, and now he couldn't wait. "He wanted to finish the thing as Irishmen love to," the Herald Tribune wrote.
Louis was slumped in his corner. Jack Blackburn, his trainer, shook his head and rubbed him hard. "Chappie," he said, using his nickname for the champ, "you're losing. You gotta knock him out." Louis didn't have to be told. Everyone understood. Everyone in the Polo Grounds. Everyone listening through the magic of radio. Everyone. There was bedlam. It was wonderful. Men had been slugging it out for eons, and there had been 220 years of prizefighting, and there would yet be Marciano and the two Sugar Rays and Ali, but this was it. This was the best it had ever been and ever would be, the 12th and 13th rounds of Louis and Conn on a warm night in New York just before the world went to hell. The people were standing and cheering for Conn, but it was really for the sport and for the moment and for themselves that they cheered. They could be a part of it, and every now and then, for an instant, that is it, and it can't ever get any better. This was such a time in the history of games.
Only Billy Conn could see clearly—the trouble was, what he saw was different from what everybody else saw. What he saw was himself walking with Mary Louise on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, down the shore, and they were the handsomest couple who ever lived, and people were staring, and he could hear what they were saying. What they were saying was: "There goes Billy Conn with his bride. He just beat Joe Louis." And he didn't want to hear just that. What he wanted to hear was: "There goes Billy Conn with his bride. He's the guy who just knocked out Joe Louis." Not for himself: That was what Mary Louise deserved.
Billy had a big smile on his face. This is easy, Moonie," he said. "I can take this sonuvabitch out this round."
Jawnie blanched. "No, no, Billy," he said. "Stick and run. You got the fight won. Stay away, kiddo. Just stick and run, stick and run...." There was the bell for the 13th.
And then it happened. Billy tried to bust the champ, but it was Louis who got through the defenses, and then he pasted a monster right on the challenger's jaw. "Fall! Fall!" Billy said to himself. He knew if he could just go down, clear his head, he would lose the round, but he could still save the day. "But for some reason, I couldn't fall. I kept saying, 'Fall, fall,' but there I was, still standing up. So Joe hit me again and again, and when I finally did fall, it was a slow, funny fall. I remember that." Billy lay flush out on the canvas. There were two seconds left in the round, 2:58 of the 13th, when he was counted out. The winnah and still champeen....
"It was nationality that cost Conn the title," the Herald Tribune wrote. "He wound up on his wounded left side, trying to make Irish legs answer an Irish brain."
On the radio, Billy said, "I just want to tell my mother I'm all right."