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Frank Deford
June 17, 1985
This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever
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June 17, 1985

The Boxer And The Blonde

This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever

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On the street, stereotypes prevailed all the more. Usually that meant that everybody (your own group included) was dimwitted, everybody else practiced poor hygiene, everybody else's women were trash, and everybody but the Jews drank too much and had the most fun. Were the Irish the best fighters? Joey Diven says, "Ah, they just stayed drunk more and stayed louder about it."

One time Joey Diven was working as a doorman over at the AOH on Oakland Avenue. The AOH is the Ancient Order of Hibernians. You needed a card to get into the place, which was located on the third floor, or, as Joey explains it, "Up 28 steps if you accidentally fell down them." This particular night, a guy showed up, but he didn't have a card, so Joey told him to take off. "Come on, let me in, I'm Irish," the guy said. Joey said no card, no admittance, and when the guy persisted, Joey threw him down the steps.

Pretty soon there was a knock on the door again. Joey opened it. Same guy. Same thing: no card. "Come on, let me in, I'm Irish." Joey threw him down the steps again.

A few more minutes and another knock. And get this: It was the same guy. What did Joey do? He ushered him in, and said, "You're right. You must be Irish."

What made Joey Diven such a good street fighter was that he held no illusions. Poor Jackie Conn (who is dead now) was different. He thought he could be as good as his brother in the prize ring. Jackie was on the undercard a night in '39 when Billy defended against Gus Lesnevich, but the kid brother lost a four-rounder. The failure ate him up so, he came apart afterward in the locker room. Just before Billy went off to fight Lesnevich, he had to soothe Jackie and make sure the brother would be taken to the hospital and sedated. Diven was different. "Ah, I didn't ever have the killer instinct like Billy in the ring," he says. "You see, even though Billy's such a Godfearing man, he could be ruthless in the ring. That's why Billy was so good."

Still, Joey will razz Billy good. For example, he says that Conn always was a rotten drinker—"Three drinks, and he's talking about the Blessed Mother or Thomas Aquinas." He also kids Conn that, when he travels, he still sleeps with all his valuables tucked into his pillowcase. Once when they were staying together in Las Vegas, Billy got up in the middle of the night to take a leak, and Joey was awakened by the sound of change rattling in the pillowcase. Billy was taking his nickels and dimes with him to the bathroom.

"Hey, Billy," Joey said. "You didn't have to take the pillow to the toilet. There's nobody here."

Conn stopped. "You're here," he said.

Joey had a lot of fun with Billy. They had a lot of fun street-fighting. It wasn't ever vicious. In those days, nobody ever drew guns or knives or even clubs. Nobody was loco with drugs. You could do all the same stuff Billy did in the ring—gouging and biting and that type of thing, plus the friendly name-calling—all the things that made up what used to be known as a fair fight. "No booting, though," says Joey.

"And it never took more than four or five minutes. Somebody would get in one good shot, and that would wear you out pretty quick, and after that there'd be a lot of mauling and rassling, and then it was history." It wasn't at all like in the movies, where the fights go on forever no matter how many times people get clobbered. "As soon as a guy said he'd had enough, that was it. No more," Joey says. That was the code. "Then you'd go back into the joint together and buy each other a drink, maybe even end up getting fractured together." An Iron and an Imp, twice. Do this again for both of us. One more time.

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