Wisconsin's original iron man
Frankie Conley was the toughest, most durable Iron Man in the history of Wisconsin sports.
Conley was just over 5 feet tall and weighed 116 pounds, but when it came to sheer, terrifying indomitability he cast a longer shadow than Clay Matthews standing on Ray Nitschke's shoulders.
Born 120 years ago Oct. 4, Conley was a physical phenomenon if not a genuine freak of nature who was recognized as the bantamweight boxing champion of the world after he knocked out Monte Attell in 42 rounds on Feb. 22, 1910. Forty-two rounds.
Their fight was scheduled for 45 rounds. Today, world championship fights are limited to 12 rounds, which was a mere gym workout for the Kenosha boxer who once famously declared that 45 round fights were "the only true test of a man's boxing and fighting ability."
Born in Italy, Francesco Conte came to Kenosha with his family when he was a boy. The story goes that grateful classmates rechristened him Frankie Conley after he whipped a bully twice his size in a schoolyard brawl. Conley was only 14 when he started boxing professionally, and by his own count participated in more than 500 bouts.
In every one of them he fought the way he knew best, charging at the other guy with his head down, endlessly winging punches and taking punishment that would have felled anybody else.
Conley's victory over Attell in Los Angeles was overshadowed by another long-distance match that same day between Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast near San Francisco. Wolgast, whose career started in Milwaukee, won the lightweight title with a 44th round knockout over Nelson. Today both Wolgast and Nelson are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame thanks to their ability and willingness to eat voluminous leather and still outlast their opponents in desperate battles of attrition.
But they had nothing on Conley, as Wolgast found out when he fought the Kenosha man in Milwaukee in 1907. "Wolgast gave him an awful beating around the stomach," reported the Milwaukee Sentinel, "but (Conley) just smiled and came in for more."
"The walloping he took would have put away most men in his class," said The Milwaukee Journal's account of the fight. "However, Conley kept coming all the time, and in the eighth round managed to drop Wolgast with a right hook."
Wolgast got the decision, but in a "hair-raising" rematch a month later they fought to a draw. "Conley showed that he can take a world of punishment," said The Journal, "and as soon as he gains a little more ring experience is going to be a very dangerous man for boys in his class."
Wolgast would later name Conley as the toughest man he ever fought. Monte Attell would second that motion. When Conley was done with him, Attell's "left eye was entirely closed and badly disfigured, his mouth and nose were bleeding, his lips swollen and bruised," according to a newspaper account. After 42 rounds, the new champ didn't have a mark on him.
Unfortunately, Conley's fondness for 45-round fights wasn't shared by many other boxers. He lost his bantamweight title a year later to Johnny Coulon by decision after 20 rounds in New Orleans.
By then, Conley was having trouble making the 116-pound bantamweight limit. "I starved myself for eight days before that fight," he remembered later. "All I ate was toast and tea. I was so weak I couldn't hold anything in my stomach."
Even so, said a wire service report of the fight, "Conley was game to the finish, and the 6,000 people about the ringside all were willing to concede that had the battle been over the marathon route of 45 rounds, Conley would have been returned a victor."
One of the craftiest boxers of that era and later also an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Coulon again beat Conley in a 20 round fight in 1912.
"Coulon landed five blows to Conley's one, but did not seem to possess the strength of his opponent," said The New York Times. "Conley's face was cut in a half dozen places, and both eyes were nearly closed."
Like Wolgast, Coulon later said that nobody he fought was tougher than Conley, and he gave cringe-worthy testament to Conley's ability to take all the punishment he could deal out.
"Conley tried butting me," recalled Coulon. "I had a tooth longer than the others, and as sharp as a tiger's fang. I must've made 20 holes in Conley's head before he quit butting."
When future 130-pound champion Johnny Dundee scored a 19-round technical knockout over Conley later that year, sitting ringside was heavyweight contender Jim Flynn. "That little fellow," he said of Conley after the fight, "took a beating that would have sent a heavyweight to the hospital. He's the gamest kid in the world."
In 1907, Milwaukee Journal sports columnist "Brownie" wrote, "That Conley kid from Kenosha may not know much about (boxing), but he can certainly put away a lot of punishment." So could Ad Wolgast and Battling Nelson, who both ended up in mental institutions from the effects of the punches they took in the ring.
Mostly forgotten today even in his home state, Iron Man Frankie Conley at least had all his marbles till the day he died, Aug. 21, 1952. "If I had to do it all over again," he said in his last interview, "I'd be a boxer. I saved some money. I own property and enjoy life."
A super-human ability to take a beating may not be the highest qualification for sports immortality, but the absence of the state's first world boxing champion from the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame makes you wonder if the experts in charge of admission have taken one too many themselves.
Zounds! Battling Nelson was the bee's knees and fierce as a Congo Bengal. Huzzah for the sweet science
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