Marion Conner, An Appreciation
by Bobby Franklin
I first met Marion Conner in 1965. I was a ten year old boy, and my father had taken me to some sort of sporting show. At the time I was a very shy kid, but for some reason loved to watch boxing on TV. When my father asked me if I would like to meet a real boxer in person, though a bit nervous, I jumped at the chance. He brought me over to this very handsome fellow with the friendliest smile. It was such a thrill for me to meet Marion Conner, and he made me feel like his friend. We squared off for a photo, and I never forgot that moment and the really nice person who made me feel so important.
About two years later I would attend my first professional boxing card. It was on December 18, 1967. My father brought me to the Boston Garden where we were seated a couple of rows behind former Governor Foster Furcolo. As I sat there I got to see my old friend Marion Conner step into the ring with the number one heavyweight contender Joe Frazier. I now had a personal connection right into that ring, and I was so proud of how my friend handled himself. Outweighed by thirty pounds and in with one of the all time greats, Marion did not give an inch. He was not an opponent. He was in there to win and go on to become world champion.
Unfortunately, he had run into one of boxing’s greatest fighting machines. Not only had Marion been decked, but the referee went down as well. When you look at a picture taken right after the fight you can see the disappointment etched in Marion’s face. He had come to win and felt he had let everyone down. Well, he hadn’t let me down. He showed this now 12 year old what courage and determination was all about. To me he was a winner and a champion, and I was proud of him.
Forty-five years later I would meet Marion Conner once again when he came to Boston to receive the Ring 4 Warrior Award. We got to have another picture taken, and you can still see that wonderful smile on his face. We got to talk about his boxing career and how it still pains him that he never became a world champion. How thrilled he was to have met such greats as Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, and Jersey Joe Walcott. His time living in Roxbury and training at the New Garden Gym, a gym I would later work out at as I tried my hand at a boxing career. His friendship with Larry Carney and how much he respected Larry.
When I asked him about his fighting style he told me he was an aggressive body puncher with a very strong good left hook to the head, who wore his opponents down. As an amateur he had competed as a southpaw and was then turned around when he became a pro. In his first fight with Tom McNeeley, Marion credits a part of that win to the fact that he switched to lefty midway through the bout. Boxing scribe Mike Marley remembers the bout that way as well.
One thing that surprised me is when Marion relayed to me the fact his handlers told him to trade left hooks with Joe Frazier. I don’t think that was very wise advice. I believe Marion’s best chance would have been to use his speed and a sneak right hand.
Up until his fight with Greatest Crawford, Marion had a very respectful record of 30 fights, 23 wins, 6 losses, and 1 draw. On November 16, 1966, he met rugged Greatest Crawford of Brooklyn, NY at the Canton Memorial Auditorium. Crawford who was 26 years old was knocked out in the ninth round and was taken to a hospital after efforts to revive him failed. He underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain but succumbed to the injury on November 17, 1966. The tragedy of that night took the fire out of Marion. Emma Conner tells me he was never the same after that fight. He would now let up when he had an opponent hurt. In his rematch with Herschel Jacobs, Marion had Jacobs cut but then backed off out of fear of hurting him. His post Crawford record of 7-17-1 shows just what an effect the sad outcome of that fight had on him.
During his career Marion Conner fought many of the top names in an era when boxing was still a sport with many great fighters. Look at his record and along with Joe Frazier you will see many familiar names. Henry Hank, Herschel Jacobs, Tom McNeeley, Jimmy Dupree, Levan Roundtree, Mark Tessman, Billy Tisdale, Billy Douglas, and Ronnie Harris to name just a few. It is also something to note that Joe Frazier had 37 bouts against 30 different opponents. Only two of them were light heavyweights, one being Bob Foster and the other Marion Conner. Quite an exclusive club to be in.
Today Marion is living in East Canton, Ohio with his lovely wife Emma. I had been trying to locate Marion for a number of years, and not long ago my good friend Tom Marino gave me a call and said he had found him. I was then put in touch with his wonderful Daughter Vivian who lives in South Carolina. I told her Mickey Finn and the folks at Ring 4 wanted to send Marion an award to show him how much he was loved and remembered in Boston. Well, when Emma and Marion heard about it they said they wanted to come out for the banquet. Along with Marion’s sister Evelyn and nephew Lamont, the Conner clan made the long drive from Ohio. It was a thrill to have them all here and we were all so pleased to be able to spend time with them. Emma is the best and Marion is lucky to have such a woman standing with him.
It has been a long time since that ten year old boy first met the boxer with the warm smile, but he is still the man I remember so well from that day. Marion should have no regrets about not winning a world title because he is a World Champion in the truest sense of the word. You can see that by his smile and by the smiles he gets in response to it. He never gave up and has come out a winner.
Bobby Franklin is past president of Ring 4 and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).