Steel City Bragging Rights

Former middleweight titlist Teddy Yarosz was embarrassed. It was June 1st, 1937 and Yarosz, not long ago one of boxing’s biggest stars, had made the 360-mile trip from his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Newark, New Jersey for a fight against Jersey’s Johnny Duca. Except there was no fight. Virtually no one turned out to Ollemar Field for the event. Staring at the empty stands around them, promoters cut their losses and called the show off just before the preliminary bouts were to get underway. 

Having lost his world championship in September of 1935 to Babe Risko due to an injured knee, Yarosz was hunting a match against Freddie Steele, who had taken the title from Risko. Teddy had put together seven straight major victories, including a non-title win over Risko, but something was wrong. Nobody outside of Pittsburgh seemed to care, and now even Pittsburghers were losing interest. His previous bout, against respected middleweight Lou Brouillard in Brouillard’s native Boston, had drawn less than three thousand dollars in total gate, a dismal sum considering the fighters involved. And now a match had been called off due to lack of interest. Winning was pointless if nobody noticed, but – even worse – Yarosz couldn’t win at all if his fights were cancelled.

During the long train ride home from Newark, Teddy and his manager Ray Foutts no doubt tried to make sense of  the public’s sudden disinterest. True, there was a Depression on, and people were tight with their money out of necessity, but the Depression had been a fact of life for years and it had never curbed Teddy’s drawing power before. The injured knee and his loss to Risko had some thinking he was damaged goods, but subsequent wins over the likes of Risko, Ken Overlin, Solly Krieger, and Brouillard had already proved them wrong. Teddy and Foutts both likely knew the real reason but were reluctant to admit it. Yarosz’s popularity woes were rooted in Pittsburgh, where an exciting youngster had stolen the spotlight. 

Thaddeus “Teddy” Yarosz.

Yarosz and Foutts had been reading the Pittsburgh newspaper reports of a scrawny Irish American named Billy Conn as he quickly usurped Yarosz’s spot as the Smoke City’s favorite fighter over the past few months. William David Conn had come fists-a-flailing out of Johnny Ray’s gym on Penn Avenue in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood three years before as a sixteen-year-old pro lightweight. He hadn’t bothered with an amateur career; he couldn’t afford to. Besides, he had already spent two years sequestered in the gym, learning his trade from Ray, once one of the best featherweights and lightweights in the country.

Of course, there was always more to learn, and young Conn studied his trade on the job. Ray matched him tough against more experienced men, and there were early losses to Pete Leone, Ray Eberle, Ralph Gizzy, and Teddy Movan, but the kid proved a quick study. Perhaps more encouraging to both Ray and Conn’s growing number of fans, was how courageous and smart he was in the ring. By October 1935, The Pittsburgh Press had singled Conn out as the local “youth most likely to become a star,” praising his punching power, boxing skills, and a coolness under fire beyond his years.

In addition to his prodigious ring talents, Conn had other selling points: boyish good looks, a shy yet streetwise charm, and a talent for self-deprecating quips. These endeared him to those who otherwise ignored boxing. He seemed invulnerable to the flattened nose and cauliflower ears of his co-workers, at least so far. Among his unblemished features were a strong jawline, mischievous grin, and sensitive eyes. His dark locks of unruly hair refused to conform to the slicked-down hairstyle popular in the day. The ladies liked the look of Billy Conn more than any fighter they had ever seen.   

By the waning days of 1936, nineteen-year-old Conn was a growing middleweight riding an eighteen-bout winning streak. On December 28th, he scored an upset win over future welterweight champion, and fellow Pittsburgher, Fritzie Zivic, a veteran of nearly seventy fights, and that showdown between hometown favorites brought out more than five thousand fans to the Duquesne Gardens. It was a ten-round thriller that saw a bloodied Conn overcome an early Zivic onslaught to turn the tables and walk away with a decision win. If he hadn’t been already, Billy Conn was now a star.

Billy Conn

Conn’s quick rise to fame and consistent success put him on Teddy Yarosz’s radar, and Yarosz and Foutts were ringside for Billy’s next match, a non-title affair against the man who had taken Teddy’s title, Babe Risko of Syracuse, New York. Some accused Ray of rushing Conn, that he was sending the teenager to his destruction against a sturdy battler of Risko’s caliber. On Thursday, March 11, 1937, the youngster once against weathered early aggression from his opponent to score the upset win. By the end of the fight, Conn was doing what he pleased with the bloodied and discouraged ex-champion.

Over the course of those ten rounds, Teddy Yarosz watched stone-faced from ringside as Conn turned him into Pittsburgh’s second most popular middleweight. The Pittsburgh sportswriters emptied out their thesauruses in praising Billy. To them, he symbolized everything good in a boxer, from his fighting heart and skills, to his smile and polite demeanor. A few years earlier, Teddy had read similar ravings about himself from the same writers.

“It’s only natural that all the glory, big dough, and the hurrahs went to Teddy Yarosz,” James Miller wrote in the Sun-Telegraph back in 1933, after Yarosz had dealt a comprehensive beating to Baltimore’s Vince Dundee before a crowd of fifteen thousand in Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dundee had been recognized as the uncrowned champion of the world before Yarosz embarrassed him. Yarosz did it again a year later to win the actual championship against Dundee in an event that broke Pittsburgh box-office records.

But Teddy had been the darling of the Pittsburgh fight crowd long before he took the crown. Born of Polish stock in the city’s North Side but raised in Monaca, Pennsylvania, Thaddeus “Teddy” Yarosz followed two of his brothers into the ring to feed their fatherless family. Unlike Conn, he had a decorated amateur career while working at an Aliquippa steel mill before he turned pro at eighteen years old in 1929 and went undefeated in his first fifty-six pro-outings. 

Teddy Yarosz and Vince Dundee
Yarosz defeated Vince Dundee for the world title.

Pittsburghers who recalled the glory days when men like Frank Klaus, Harry Greb, and the Chip brothers dominated the middleweight division embraced their new hero wholeheartedly and Yarosz repaid their respect by fighting anyone, regardless of size, race, or the payday, and he almost always won. His fighting style was alternately described as dull by some observers and thrilling by others. All agreed he was not a heavy hitter, but it did not seem to matter at the box office. Then, as now, the city had a large Polish-American population, and they turned out by the thousands to rattle the walls of the Meyers Bowl, Motor Square Garden, Hickey Park, Northside Arena, and Forbes Field and cheer Yarosz on to glory.

After Teddy’s rise, the Pittsburgh fight scene reignited with the youthful fire of men like the Zivic brothers, John Henry Lewis, Honeyboy Jones, Jackie Wilson, Teddy Movan, and others. But Yarosz burned brighter than all the others during the mid-1930s. In fact, this bonafide working class hero was the biggest boxing draw the city had ever known. That is, until Billy Conn.

“AND NOW – IT’S CONN AND YAROSZ – MAYBE,” read the Pittsburgh Press headline the day after Conn’s trouncing of Babe Risko. Seven weeks after, on May 3rd, Billy took a ten round decision over none other than Vince Dundee, the man Yarosz had beaten for the title three years earlier. That fight drew thousands to the Duquesne Gardens just one month before Yarosz’s abortive embarrassment in Newark. As if to rub salt in Yarosz’s wounded pride, Dundee told the Post-Gazette that Yarosz was no threat to Conn. “There isn’t room for both Yarosz and Conn in Pittsburgh,” declared the editor of the Press. Sides were being chosen, and Yarosz and Foutts did not like its effect on their bank accounts.

Three days after Conn’s win, Yarosz “speeded home over Lou Brouillard,” as Regis M. Welsh of The Pittsburgh Press put it. He outboxed Brouillard, yet another former titleholder, and sent him through the ropes in the tenth to take a majority decision in Boston, but the gate was disappointing. By then, Yarosz had already verbally agreed to a June showdown against Conn. Conn agreed as well, and then snuck in a hard-fought, and debatable, victory over power-punching contender Oscar Rankins on May 27th.

 “A little more than a year ago, Teddy Yarosz was tagged as a ‘hopeless cripple’ with a stiff right knee, his middleweight crown gone and his future curtained by despair,” reported the Associated Press after Teddy’s win over Brouillard. “Today, victor in a fight that few men even have attempted, he’s back as a foremost challenger to the title he once held.”

A large part of the credit for Yarosz’s successful comeback belonged with Ray Arcel, the sought-after trainer from New York’s legendary Stillman’s Gym. After Teddy tore a knee tendon and shattered his kneecap in a fight in 1935, the Mayo brothers (founders of the Mayo Clinic) performed surgery but told their patient to stay away from the ring for good. None too happy with that prognosis, Ray Foutts brought his meal ticket to Arcel, who introduced the fighter to a regimen that would today be called physical therapy. It started with the briefest walks, then longer ones. 

After a surgeon pronounced Yarosz fit for combat, Arcel served in Teddy’s corner for the title fight with Risko, and the knee fell apart again, costing Yarosz the championship. Months later, a new surgeon operated, and Yarosz was back at Stillman’s wearing a knee brace and pleading with Arcel to give it another go. “I’ve got to fight,” he insisted. “There’s nobody at home earning money, and there are six of us with my mother. I’m our best shot.” Arcel gave in, and the physical therapy resumed, albeit with a different approach. Relying on old boxing trainer know-how, Arcel used a combination of applied heat, massage, and weights to rehabilitate the leg. It was a long road back after an eight-month layoff, but seven consecutive wins followed, culminating with the Brouillard victory. 

Teddy Yarosz and Ray Arcel
Yarosz with trainer Ray Arcel.

Conn may have had youth and healthy legs on his side, but Yarosz had the edge in experience with eight wins over world champions on his record. The Ring rated Yarosz the number one contender for Freddie Steele’s world title and Conn number four. Thus a likely shot at Steele plus the middleweight championship of Pennsylvania were on the line in the first Conn vs Yarosz clash, but perhaps more importantly, Pittsburgh bragging rights were at stake. Would Yarosz recover the right to carry the city’s hopes and dreams on his muscular shoulders, or had the young and crafty Conn stolen off with them for good? Lester Beiderman of the Press observed that the sentiments of the hometown fight fans were split fifty-fifty.

By June 4th, the papers were reporting that the much-anticipated matchup was official. Promoter Elwood Rigby had signed both boxers for a twelve round set-to at Forbes Field on June 30th with Teddy getting thirty percent of the gate and Billy twenty-five. Arcel sequestered Yarosz in the famous Madame Bey’s training camp in Summit, New Jersey for the month, while Conn kept closer to home, preparing at Eagle’s Rest in Millvale, Pennsylvania. His trainer and manager, Johnny Ray, oversaw the camp by messages sent from his bed in Mercy Hospital. He had been in and out of the facility since collapsing before Billy’s fight with Babe Risko.

Throughout Wednesday, June 30th, the day of the clash, promoter Rigby held his breath as he looked up at the skies, which seemed pregnant with rainwater and ready to deliver. Like all ballparks, Forbes Field lacked a roof, and his investment in the most talked-about local fight in years looked like it might be washed away. The hours of anxiety proved unwarranted. Much to his relief, the clouds held their water. 

Though the possibility of rain kept out-of-towners from bothering with the drive to Pittsburgh, locals turned out in droves. Published accounts of the crowd size ranged from 13,874 to 14,522; it didn’t break the local record as expected, but it was impressive. Gate calculations ranged from $26,178.94 to $28,083.62.  Local celebrities and politicians crammed into the ringside seats “thicker than warts on a pickle,” reported Jess Carver of the Sun-Telegraph. Dave Miller, manager of world middleweight Freddie Steele, sat among them, scouting a potential challenger for Steele’s belt.

Ring announcer Ray Eberle had dressed to the nines for the Pittsburgh sporting event of the year but was embarrassed to discover that Rigby had forgotten to have the P.A. system set up. Making do as best he could, Eberle took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and summoned all his dignity to introduce the fighters anyway: “In the far corner, wearing black trunks with red trimming, the Pride of Monaca, Teddy Yarosz. In this corner, wearing purple trunks, from East Liberty, Billy Conn.”

Both fighters weighed in at 161 pounds, a single pound over the middleweight limit. Sturdy and experienced Teddy Yarosz, a week past his twenty-seventh birthday, stood five feet, ten inches tall. Thin and youthful Billy Conn, still a few months short of his twentieth birthday, stood six foot, one and a half inches tall. Yarosz was the betting favorite.

Yarosz vs Conn
Conn skips rope in a public workout; Johnny Ray at left.

The fight was the proverbial “barn burner,” and afterwards the fans stopped just short of burning down Forbes Field. Yarosz came out so aggressive at the start, that it was all Billy could do to backpedal, defend, and offer up a feeble jab in return. Teddy expertly worked his way in behind a stiff jab, beating Billy to the punch again and again. Trapping Conn on the ropes at the end of round one, he unleashed his right cross and left hook, snapping Billy’s head back with frightening force. In round two, Yarosz began mixing in body punches, and by round three Conn appeared confused and helpless, as though someone had plucked some scrawny teen who didn’t know a boxing glove from a number two pencil out of the crowd and placed him in the ring with a ferocious adult champion. Teddy appeared set to score an early stoppage.

Surviving into round four allowed Conn’s nerves to settle and his confidence to climb. Meanwhile, Yarosz slowed down enough to be caught with a solid left hook that instantly stopped his assault. Suddenly, the ex-champ from Monaca was holding on for dear life. He managed a brief rally at the end, but the round belonged to the kid from East Liberty. Another hard shot from Conn, this time a right, seemed to ruin Yarosz all over again in the fifth, sending him skidding backwards. For every single hard shot Conn landed to the head, there were multiple rib-bruising left hooks to Yarosz’s mid-section. Teddy stayed on his feet, but by the end of the sixth round, it was clear the fight’s momentum had completely reversed.

Between rounds, Billy returned to his corner and spoke to Johnny Ray, who had ignored doctors’ orders by working the corner. “I’m as strong as a bull, but he’s holding me and I can’t hit him,” he complained. “Gee, I wish I could tear him apart.”

The seventh saw brave fighting from both local heroes. His confidence soaring now, Conn landed another powerful left that rattled his foe, but Yarosz stood his ground this time. He connected with multiple straight rights beneath Billy’s heart and then switched to the head, whipping across his own slashing left hooks, though he endured a vicious body attack in return.

From there on out, Yarosz resolved to box. As Conn came in tossing leather, Yarosz tried to time him with his left jab and a right cross to the jaw. They landed often, but Conn seemed unphased, continuing to press the action. Yarosz called on all his veteran’s guile to keep the younger man turning, not wanting him to get set to deliver another hard shot. When Billy got close, Teddy smartly tied him up.

In his corner after the eighth, a nervous Conn caught the eye of a ringside reporter and shouted at him, “How’m I doing?” Knowing Billy lost the first quarter of the fight, the writer advised Conn to step on the gas. The teenager did just that in the next frame, unleashing a two-fisted offensive to the older man’s gut. A gassed Yarosz responded with holding, wrestling, and mauling tactics.

Things got ugly in the tenth. Between rounds, Yarosz summoned all his remaining energy and let it loose at the bell in hopes of ambushing Conn. He rocketed out of his corner and lunged with an uppercut that started near the floor, but he was overanxious and the desperate blow missed its mark. Had it landed, figured Chester L. Smith of the Pittsburgh Press, it “might have pulled the string.” The pair engaged in toe-to-toe warfare, but Conn clearly got the better of the action. The wilting Yarosz finally retreated but found no shelter on the outside from Conn’s fast one-two combinations. Water spilled in Conn’s corner caused Yarosz to slip to his knee but he rose without injury.

Just as the bell sounded, Conn drew a warning from referee Al Grayber for rabbit punching his opponent in the clinches. Conn held out a glove to Yarosz to apologize but received a punch on the jaw in return. Incensed, Conn attacked and had to be pulled off Yarosz by the referee, who escorted him to his corner. 

Yarosz vs Conn
Yarosz down after a slip in round ten.

Conn continued his aggression at the start of round eleven but walked right into a series of unexpected lefts and rights from the Pride of Monaca. When the flurry ended, Conn assumed the Yarosz rally ended with it. He was wrong. Pressing forward, Billy was again caught off guard by a series of combinations from his re-energized foe and this time it was Conn’s turn to slip to the canvas in his own slippery corner. At the end of the round, Yarosz had his man trapped on the ropes, where he caught him with two crashing right hands to punctuate his best round since at least the third.

Yarosz’s second wind in rounds ten and eleven swayed a large section of the crowd in his favor. Conn, the betting underdog, had seemed the initial crowd favorite at the start, but the sentiments of many turned to Yarosz as the end drew near. As the fighters stood toe-to-toe and traded punishment in the final three rounds, the warfare of cheers between partisans of both fighters played out in the open-air ballpark.

Reports are muddled as to the action of the crucial twelfth and final round, but it appears Conn closed the show better than did Yarosz. “Conn did the forcing throughout the last round, with Yarosz, obviously tired, weaving and bobbing and spending much time in clinches,” said Harry Keck in the Sun-Telegraph. “They were in a wild melee at the finish,” reported Regis M. Welsh of the Press. Chester L. Smith, also of the Press, felt “They are too anxious to be good in the twelfth, which is a sloppy round, but Billy wins it.”

Judge George MacBeth scored the fight for Yarosz by a margin of five rounds. Judge Alvin Williams scored it for Conn by a margin of two. And referee Grayber cast the deciding vote for Conn by a margin of two rounds, giving Billy Conn the split decision. The crowd was none too happy. As Harvey Boyle of the Post-Gazette described the scene:

“The crowd resented the split vote… and pelted the ring [afterward] with pillows and newspapers. The deluge of pillows was so heavy that the Al Quaill vs John Duca fight had to be stopped momentarily while the ring was cleared. Some of the wilder eyed-fans went to the extreme of tossing chairs, with the result that a hundred of these were broken, while people sitting [at ringside] miraculously escaped injury.”

Teddy and Billy shake hands after their first brutal battle.

Writing for the Press, Regis M. Welsh summed up the night: “The flinging of flying leather has ceased – but the melody of it, the memory of it, and the ill feeling engendered by it will likely last as long as anyone who saw it continues to talk about it…. Never will two kids fight harder; never will two fighters try more earnestly to put the verdict beyond the pale of argument – and never will a crowd remain more divided in its opinion. It was a grand exhibition by two kids with the will to win. To mark its termination by the rowdyism of showering pillows in their disappointment only went to emphasize the bitter partisan rivalry.”

Despite the crowd’s reaction, Welsh felt that Conn deserved a narrow victory while Regis M. Smith felt Yarosz deserved the nod. Harvey Boyle and Harry Keck refrained from giving their opinions. Naturally, Conn and Ray agreed with the verdict and Yarosz and Foutts thought it stunk. 

“Teddy’s punches lacked steam,” a smiling Conn told reporters afterward, “and although I was hit with several solid blows, I never was hurt. He’s a hard fellow to fight. Going into the last part of the fight, I knew I was ahead. I started slowly, but I caught on quickly… Yarosz held me a lot, too.”

“Billy is a good boy,” consented Yarosz, “but I was certain I beat him. If we meet again, and I would be glad to do so, I am sure I would be able to make it so decisive the officials wouldn’t rule against me…. I wasn’t in trouble at any time.” 

Yarosz on the cover of The Ring in 1933.

They would indeed meet again. Twice. The second time was at the Duquesne Gardens exactly three months later. Apparently wanting to give the fighters more time to settle matters, organizers scheduled this one for fifteen rounds. It started off like an exact replay of the first, with Yarosz terrorizing a seemingly befuddled Conn in the early stages and Conn later coming on. This time, though, Conn did not assert clear dominance until round eleven. By the end of the fifteenth, the battered Yarosz was out on his feet. He waited to hear the final bell to let himself collapse in a heap and was unresponsive as Conn was once again announced the split-decision winner. With the crowd uncharacteristically silent, Teddy did not get up for fifteen minutes and required assistance to get to his dressing room.

By the time they met for the third time ten months later, Yarosz was considered by most to be washed up, having lost five of his last eight bouts. But his rivalry with Conn had turned personal and bitter. The rough tactics, jealousy, and controversy that had accompanied their prior bouts soured the mutual respect into resentment, leaving only hatred. Meanwhile, Yarosz, dissatisfied with the deal Foutts had gotten him, cut his manager loose.

The trilogy ended where it began, in Forbes Field, with 10,850 looking on. The mutual disdain between the fighters produced a foul-filled travesty, a free-for-all of rabbit punches, low blows, eye gouging, and fighting after the bell. But Yarosz surprised all by getting the better of the sporadic clean fighting, outboxing the bigger, younger man not just in the early rounds but throughout the twelve-round length. When Conn tried to retaliate, the wily veteran simply tied him up. The tactic frustrated the notoriously hot-tempered Conn, who was never able to recover himself enough to mount his usual comeback. It didn’t help that the wise Johnny Ray was not there to calm him down; Ray was in the hospital again. Yarosz won the third and final battle by unanimous decision. 

Though Yarosz and Conn never fought in the ring again, both remained world class ringmen for years to come. The aging Yarosz showed remarkable resilience in fighting on until 1942, picking up victories over Oscar Rankins, Ken Overlin, Archie Moore, Al Gainer, and Lloyd Marshall along the way. Even so, he never got another title shot before retiring at age thirty-one with a record of 106-18-3. In later life, he worked in the steel mills and owned a popular bar. Thaddeus Yarosz passed away on March 29, 1974 from cancer at age sixty-four in a medical facility not far from his Monaca home. He was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006 but is sadly unknown to most living Pittsburgh sports fans. 

Conn battling Joe Louis in 1941.

Despite never getting a definitive win over his hometown rival, nor a shot at Freddie Steele’s middleweight honors, Billy Conn clearly surpassed Yarosz for popularity in his native Pittsburgh. One of the most skilled and most admired boxers of his generation, he secured the light heavyweight championship of the world with a win over Melio Bettina in 1939. He never lost that crown in the ring; after three successful defenses, he then invaded the heavyweight division and became the outstanding contender for Joe Louis’s crown. By then, he was already the most popular fighter Pittsburgh would ever produce. Conn’s brave performance in New York’s Polo Grounds against Louis on June 18, 1941 secured him an immortal’s place in boxing lore, even though he lost the match. 

At the peak of his popularity, Conn even starred in a feature film very loosely based on his own life, The Pittsburgh Kid. He served his country in the Army during World War II, and then retired from the ring in 1948 at age thirty-one with a record of 63-11-1. A sports icon in Pittsburgh for the rest of his life, Conn lived long enough to attend his own induction as part of the inaugural class at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He passed away on May 29, 1993 at age of seventy-five in Pittsburgh.         — Kenneth Bridgham  

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