Film triggers boyhood memories of boxing match on radio

Bath gets delayed as Billy Conn challenges Joe Louis in 1946 rematch

Earl Rinker

One of the best films of 2005, in my opinion, was ďCinderella Man.Ē  The film portrays the true story about a boxer by the name of James Braddock who came back from injury and boxing inactivity to win the heavyweight championship of the world in the midst of the depression.  I canít say that Iím a big fan of boxing, but enjoying sports in general, I did get interested in some of the heavyweight boxing matches when they involved great fighters ranging from Joe Louis through the years to Cassius Clay (better known today as Muhammad Ali).  I have pretty much lost interest in the fight game since the time when Ali lost his last match.  I have no idea who the heavyweight champion of the world is today, let alone who the champions are in the lesser weight classes.

My wife has no love of boxing, but we both agreed that the film was a good one because of human interest elements.  I donít claim to be a movie critic and Iím not writing a movie review.  Itís just that the movie triggered my memory about a boxing match that took place after the war in 1946.  We find out near the end of the movie that Braddock, surprising everyone in and out of the boxing world, knocks out Max Baer in 1935 (the year I was born) in 15 rounds for the world championship.  The movie ends there, but the screen credit notes that Braddock fought Joe Louis in 1937 and lost his title by a knockout in the eighth round.  On his way to the heavyweight title Louis had knocked out Max Baer among others.

When I was old enough to pay any attention to sports, Joe Louis was the world heavyweight champion.  He was usually knocking out all opponents.  One sportscaster had classified his opponents as members of the ďBum of the Month Club.Ē  There were no boxing matches during World War II. After the war sportswriters started filling the sports pages with talk about a rematch between Joe Louis and a boxer out of Pittsburg, by the name of Billy Conn, nicknamed The Pittsburgh Kid.  I was 10 years old (soon to be 11) and was just becoming a big Red Sox fan.  (The Sox won the pennant in 1946, the first one since their World Championship in 1918.)  My interest in sports was rising, and I was beginning to read the sports pages so the boxing rematch was becoming of some interest to me.

Living in north central Vermont, I didnít know much about African Americans, and I'd like to think that my interest in rooting for Billy Conn was because he was the underdog and not because he was white and Louis was black.

I was not old enough to remember a huge match between Louis and Conn which took place in 1941 but the papers were full of information about what was considered a boxing classic, maybe the greatest boxing match ever.  Conn had been the Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World and had disposed of everyone he faced, usually by knockout, since his first year of professional boxing.  While it was risky for Conn to move up in class, he had plenty of self-confidence and there was really no one left for him to fight in the light heavyweight division.  It seemed as though most folks in the know felt he was the only one left who could challenge Louis.  

During the earlier match, it was generally accepted that Conn was beating Louis on points; and, in fact, in the 12th round Conn had hit Louis so hard with a left hook that he was sent reeling.  Boxing aficionados had Conn winning the bout.  All he had to do was stay away from Louis for the next three rounds which, with his superior speed, he should have been able to do easily.  Conn didnít want to do that, later saying that his Irish heritage made him throw caution to the wind.  He wanted to put Louis away.  Conn got careless and was knocked out in the 13th round.  He was quoted as saying ďWhatís the use of being Irish if you canít be thick?Ē  He just felt he couldnít take the title running away.

It seems as though the rematch was hyped for months, and the bout finally took place on September 6, 1946.  I was planning to take a bath the night of the fight.  I had my portable radio all set up in the bathroom so that I could listen while taking my bath.  In my memory over all these years, I had recalled getting in the tub and before I had a chance to soap up, the fight was over, ending in the first round with a Joe Louis knockout.  The movie, having drawn my attention to the Louis-Braddock fight, had reminded me of the Louis-Conn rematch, and I thought it might make for a neat short story.  

I figured I should do a little research so that I could be accurate with my dates, times and other information. Imagine my surprise to discover that the match actually went into the eighth round.  It was said that Conn was too out of shape since his layoff during the war years, and he was already losing the match on points.  My memory was correct in the most important aspect though; Louis did knock out Conn. It just seemed in my memory that the fight was nearly over before it started.  I must have been so excited listening to the fight that I didnít think to soap up until it was over, so, in my memory, the fight seemed a lot shorter than it actually was although it only lasted half as long as it would have if it had gone the full 15 rounds.

Philco radio photo reprinted with permission of Phil Nelson,

June 2006