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Finally, when he was 17 years old, Ray drove him down to Fairmount, W. Va., where he went four rounds against an experienced 24-year-old named Dick Woodwer. There were probably 300 fans at the armory, and Woodwer outpointed the novice. Conn's share was $2.50.
Ray gave him four bits. "Hey, Moon, what is this?" Billy said. "I get two and a half."
"We gotta eat," Ray said.
"Yeah, but how come we're both eating out of my share?"
"You were the one who lost," said Ray.
They never had a contract, but no other man ever managed Billy Conn. He even told the mob to back off when it tried to muscle in.
In the beginning, Ray had Billy fighting somebody somewhere every two weeks or so. Fairmount, Charleston, Wheeling, Johnstown. It was nickel hamburgers, 15¢ moonshine and 16¢-a-gallon gas that kept them going. "You tell kids that nowadays, they're sure you ran into too many of Joe Louis's blows," Billy says. And nowadays it's not just the prices that are different. A prospect is brought along against hand-picked roundheels on Sunday afternoon TV. After 10 bouts everybody gets to fight for the championship of something or other. Conn was barely out of West Virginia after 10 fights, and even after 14 he was hardly .500; then he had to win or draw 13 in a row before he was allowed a 10-rounder. It was against Honeyboy Jones.
But he was learning. Always, he learned. Even when he fought for championships, he seldom won any of the early rounds. "They don't matter," he says. They counted, but they didn't matter, because that was the time you picked up the other guy's style. And Ray put him in against everybody, every style.
Near the end of 1936, when Conn was still only 18, Ray threw the boy in against the older Fritzie Zivic. "He put an awful face on me," Billy says, and he still honors Zivic, a Pittsburgh guy, by calling him the dirtiest fighter he ever met. But Billy outpointed Zivic and moved out of the welterweights.
A few months later, he won his 23rd in a row over a red-haired black powerhouse named Oscar Rankins, who knocked Billy down in the eighth with such a stiff blow that, says Conn, "I didn't know I'd won till I read it the next day in the paper." Years later, when Joe Louis heard that Conn had fought Rankins, he said to Billy, "The people who managed you must not have liked you very much. Nobody would let me fight that sonuvabitch."