Affectionate yet evenhanded biography of the fighter known as “The Pittsburgh Kid.”
Light-heavyweight-turned-heavyweight Billy Conn was a workingman’s boxer. In his prime, he took the ring so often that his fights were frequently referred to as “the bum of the month club.” A handsome, charismatic showman, Conn was tough inside the ring, but when the gloves came off, he was a family man devoted to his mother and his wife. He was so beloved by fans that after his 1941 title-fight loss to Joe Louis, he starred in a semi-autobiographical film called, naturally, The Pittsburgh Kid. Sports author O’Toole (Smiling Irish Eyes: Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004, etc.) makes canny use of relatively limited resources to deliver a solid nonfiction narrative with sharp dialogue. Aided by access to Conn’s surviving family, the author does a masterful job of getting inside the boxer’s head. There’s no denying that the interior of that head isn’t quite as fascinating as those of Jake LaMotta or James J. Braddock, nor does Conn’s story have the cinematic punch of Raging Bull or Cinderella Man. But O’Toole makes a relatively normal life sing with his obvious passion for his subject, his meticulous research and his ability to empathize with Conn, his family and the colorful characters who inhabited the boxer’s literal and metaphorical corner.
A welcome addition to the boxing-literature canon.