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Remembering The Antics of Pittsburgh's Wildest Irishmen: Billy Conn

Updated: May 29, 2020

This is the second part of Jagoff Sport's St. Patrick's Day series honoring the wild antics of Irish athletes from the area. See part one about Johnny "Blood" McNally here.

You've heard the phrase "He can run, but he can't hide" before, but do you know who said it and what they were talking about? The year was 1941, and heavyweight champion Joe Louis was slated to defend his belt against the wild Irishman Billy Conn.

Conn, a 23 year old from East Liberty, who was known as "The Pittsburgh Kid" long before Paul Spadafora was born, abandoned his title at light heavyweight to challenge Louis in a match that saw him outweighed by 30 pounds.

Conn's strategy? Stick and roll.

His hope to win a decision with elusive moves and crafty countering from a safe distance provoked the famous quote from Louis, but it wasn't my favorite line of the night. No, that would come from Conn after the fight was over.

Despite being outgunned by Louis, Billy Conn stuck to his game plan for most of night, and was actually winning the fight through 12 rounds. His ability to outmaneuver the heavier Joe Louis made for an exciting donnybrook.

Joe Louis spoke about the fight in his autobiography, saying "I made a mistake going into that fight...Conn was a clever fighter, he was like a mosquito, he'd sting and move."

But ol' Billy's Irish nature got the best of him. In the 13th round, Conn decided he wasn't going to just win the boxing match, but that he was actually going to stand in the pocket and knock Joe Louis out.

Instead, it was Joe Louis who turned the tables and knocked Billy Conn on his ass -- winning by KO in the 13th round.

After the bout, reporters questioned Conn's decision to abandon his winning strategy and try going blow-for-blow with the greatest heavyweight of all time.

His response, "What's the sense of being Irish if you can't be thick?"

It's a legendary quote, and one that embodies the true Irish spirit. In fact, Billy Conn's entire history of growing up during the Pittsburgh steel boom, fighting with his friends in the streets and smuggling moonshine into the boxing gym is full of classic one-liners.

Somebody asked Conn once if he had learned to fight in the streets; "No," he replied. "It was a long time before I got to the streets from the alleys."

From fighting in the alleys, to brawling in the streets, the young Billy Conn would eventually find himself under the wing of Jawnie Ray, a Jewish gym owner and moonshiner in East Liberty.

"[Ray] was quiet, but he was a Michelangelo as a teacher. Hell, I didn't know he drank until one day I saw him sober," Conn said of his mentor. He was often tasked with smuggling milk bottles full of bootleg whiskey into the gym for Jawnie Ray, so he nicknamed him Moonie.

Their relationship was anything short of old school merriment. From the 1985 Sports Illustrated article The Boxer and The Blonde:

"I'm glad we ain't got a contract, you dumb mick sonuvabitch," Jawnie would holler at Conn, "because maybe I'll get lucky and somebody even dumber than you will steal you from me."
"Yeah, you rummy Jew bastard," Billy would coo back. It was like that, right to the end. The last time Billy saw him, Jawnie was at death's door in the hospital... "C'mon, you guys, sneak me outta here for some drinks," Jawnie Ray pleaded from the hospital bed.

This all happened back in the 1930's, when Pittsburgh was a much tougher place to live. In the overly-sensitive world of 2020 there would be outrage over the shit people said to each other back then. But in Conn's day, everyone chirped each other and everyone fought.

Even Conn's old man got into it with Moonie on occasion. As Conn described it, "My old man swung. Jawnie swung. When it was finished, Pop had a broken nose and Jawnie had lost a tooth. That made them pals."

Conn eventually got his rematch with Joe Louis lined up, but the ornery nature of the Irish caught up to him once again.

During his son's christening, Conn got into it with his father-in-law; a man known as Greenfield Jimmy Smith. Smith was a former baseball player, known for his shit-talk and chirping from the bench. Legend has it that Greenfield Jimmy once stood in front of the New York Giants dugout and called out every single player, telling them he would fight them 5 at a time.

Art Rooney happened to be the godfather of Conn's first child, and he gave his account of the fight between Conn and Smith that took place in the family kitchen.

"[Smith] was always the boss, telling people what to do, giving orders. On this occasion he chose to start telling Conn that if he were going to be married to his daughter and be the father of his grandson, he damn sight better attend church more regularly. Then, for good measure, he also told Billy he could beat him up. Finally, Greenfield Jimmy said too much."

"I can still see Billy come off that stove," Rooney says.

Billy hit Jimmy Smith with a left, but just as he swung Jimmy ducked, and Conn connected with the top of his head. The blow fractured Billy's hand just days before the scheduled title-rematch with Joe Louis. More from The Boxer and The Blonde:

Billy was so furious about blowing the rematch with Louis that he busted a window with his good hand on the way out and cut himself more. The New York Times described Conn's appearance the next day "as if he had tangled with a half-dozen alley cats."

There would be an eventual rematch, but it wasn't until Billy Conn was well past his prime. Years later, whenever Joe Louis saw Conn, he would say, "Is your old father-in-law still beating the shit out of you?" Louis and Conn became good friends.

As for Billy Conn, you'd think his fighting days were done, but there's one last story that really cemented the guy's legacy.

One brisk January morning in 1990, the 70-year old Conn was waiting in line at a convenience store in Squirrel Hill. Some jagoff decided he was going to rob the joint. That was until Conn basically beat the shit out of him, ripped off his jacket and strangled him with it. Okay, I'm embellishing a little bit. Here's Conn's recap of what happened:

So if you're out and about this St. Patrick's day in Pittsburgh -- who knows? Maybe you happen to get into a fight. There's nothing more Irish than that. Here's to you Billy Conn!

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