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Born on October 8th, 1917…. Billy Conn, The Pittsburgh Kid

Miguel Iturrate

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Former Light Heavyweight World Champion Billy Conn was born on October 8th, 1917 in East Liberty, Pennsylvania.

In his youth, Billy Conn met a Pittsburgh boxer named Johnny Ray, a celebrated Lightweight from the Pittsburgh area that had fought professionally from 1913 to 1924. Ray had also been a sparring partner for the legendary Harry Greb, and it was Ray who would guide Conn’s career as his manager in the professional ranks. Author Paul Kennedy described Ray, whose real name is Howard Pitler, as a father figure for Conn, and they would stay together throughout Conn’s professional career.

Conn would not have an amateur career, jumping directly into the pro ranks, Conn fought his first fights in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in the area around Pittsburgh, which was seen as a boxing hotbed. Conn cut his teeth in the early going, as he posted a known record of 8-6 in his early career, learning the craft of boxing in the ring. There are conflicting reports as to Conn’s actual debut though it came in June or July of 1934, when Conn was sixteen.

After the rocky start, Conn would have his fight game along enough to peel off 27 wins in a row, many against men with a great deal more experience than he had. In December of 1936, he faced Fritzie Zivic, another young fighter from Pittsburgh who would go on to a hall of fame career, and win. He would follow that win by defeating veterans Babe Risko (63-17-10 record at the time) and Vince Dundee (117-17-14 at the time). He would follow that with wins over Young Corbett III and Teddy Yarosz later in 1937, so Conn had firmly established himself as an up and comer by the time he was 20 years old.

By the start 1939, Conn had made enough noise in boxing circles to get a match as the main event at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of boxing. On January 6th, Conn faced then Middleweight Champion Fred Apostoli, in a match the AP described “as wild-and-wooly a 10 round punch party as MSG’s fistic arena has seen in years”. Conn got the nod with the judges. On February 10th, Conn was asked to do it again, and he would, defeating Apostoli a second time, this one over 15 rounds.

Conn would go on to headline MSG five times that year. In a July 13th match against Melio Bettina, Conn won the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. He defended the belt in a re-match and then retained it by winning a pair of fights against the dangerous Gus Lesnevich.

Bob Pastor, Al McCoy, Lee Savold, Buddy Knox. Conn was facing and defeating many of the top names in several weight classes. In 1941, he vacated the Light Heavyweight title to compete at Heavyweight, and on June 18th, 1941, he challenged Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis at the Polo Grounds in New York City.

Louis, a legendary champion who was at the peak of his title reign in the early 1940’s, would later describe the first Billy Conn match as his toughest bout. For 13 rounds, Conn out-boxed Louis. Despite giving up nearly 30 lbs in the fight, Conn was able to stagger Louis in the 12th round. In the 13th, Conn came out looking for the kill, but it was Louis who closed out the fight with two right hands. Conn was KO’d while ahead on two of the three judges cards, but he had fought what would be his most memorable fight.

Conn kept right on fighting, and after defeating Tony Zale over 12 rounds at MSG in February of 1942, Conn would join the United States war effort, and he would be away from boxing for four years. Upon his return, he was still a popular draw, and he had the attention of the country’s boxing fans, but the 4 years away from the ring affected his sharpness. In those 4 years away,Billy Conn had lost a little something of his magic.

On June 19th, 1946 Billy Conn would return to boxing for a return fight with Joe Louis that would air on the National Broadcast Network (NBC). After 4 years away from competing, Conn fell short, getting KO’d in the 8th round in New York’s Yankee Stadium in front of over 45,000 spectators. Conn fought just twice more after that, winning both bouts, before retiring for good.

Conn retired with a known record of 64 wins, 11 losses and 1 draw. Conn’s record is defined by the quality of his competition, as he fought many of the most experienced and decorated fighters of his era and came out on top. He was recognized as the Light heavyweight Champion of the World from 1939 to 1941, and he has been inducted into every version of boxing hall of fame out there, including going into the Canastota, New York International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, with the inaugural class.

Throughout his career, Conn was always known as a ‘baby-face’, and he is reported to have turned down several offers to head to Hollywood and make films, both during his career and after, but Conn turned down the chances. In 1941, at the peak of his boxing career, he did star in a film called ‘The Pittsburgh Kid’ where he played himself. Legendary World Champion Henry Armstrong and hall of fame referee Arthur Donovan made cameo appearances.

Sometime in his retirement, Conn moved his family to Las Vegas where he was working with the casinos, but he moved back to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood near Pittsburgh. where he lived the rest of his life with his wife Mary Louise. Billy Conn, ‘The Pittsburgh Kid’ passed away in Pittsburgh on May 29th, 1993 at the age of 75. As of 2007, Mary Louise was still living in Squirrel Hill.

Billy Conn would have been 98 years old today. Happy Birthday, Billy.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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