Did A Boxing Match Give Birth To Pop Culture?
By: Sean Crose
After having been regarded as heavyweight champion of the world for about a full decade, John L Sullivan was still the man to beat in 1892. While it was true the guy hadn’t had a major fight for himself since 1889, Sullivan was still “the champ,” and, until bested, would remain “the champ” until he finally retired. No matter that he didn’t defend his title against black fighters. No matter that he didn’t defend his title against anyone at all for years on end. It was a different era, one where popular culture as we know it seems to have been on the cusp of being born. Sports icons, too, appear to have been a new development of the time.
And so, since Sullivan was basically the sole founding father of sports celebrities – and perhaps even all celebrities – the guy could pretty much do as he pleased until someone proved to be the better man in the ring. Yet boxing, like time, waits for no man, and there was no denying the fact that John L was now in his thirties and had led quite a hard, boozy life for himself on top of it. He had money. He had fame. He had influence. He undoubtedly still had power in his fists. Sullivan did not, however, have much time left in his reign as the dominant figure in the fight game. For up and coming fighter James J Corbett was calling.
The days of tough guys beating the hell out of each other with bare knuckles were over. The days of physical contests being held on barges away from the grasp of authorities were done, as well. In other words, the world that made Sullivan famous was fading away. To be sure, it was Sullivan himself who chose to fight under the Marquis of Queensbury rules when he agreed to face Corbett in September of that year. That meant the fight would go down in a ring, with three minute rounds and with both fighters wearing padded gloves.
What’s more, the bout would be held at night, in an indoor arena equipped with electronic lighting. Make no mistake about it, the Sullivan-Corbett bout may have rung in the dawn of modern American pop culture. Sport, spectacle and the latest in technological advancement were employed. To be sure, the lead up to the match was such a big deal that round by round updates were to be delivered to Times Square in New York City, so that the world could be kept up to snuff on the action in New Orleans, where the fight was to be held. America at the time was in the midst of a Presidential election. Guess what event, however, is said to have generated bigger headlines?
In truth, it’s hard to think of any other boxing match, or Super Bowl, or modern Olympic Games, or World Series that could match the significance of this single contest between two men from a looked down upon ethnic background. Yet Sullivan and Corbett, unalike accept for the fact that both were Americans of Irish stock who fought for a living, might well have ushered in a new era. Never mind the gamblers who placed money on the fight, masses of people were now keenly interested in a single event which had no direct bearing on their everyday lives. Attention was now being paid to something that didn’t directly involve politics, war, the overall state of the economy or scientific advancement. The times, quite simply, were changing.
As was the sport of boxing. Sullivan was a world class tough guy, but Corbett was a BOXER. More than anyone else, the San Francisco native drew the line between brawler and sportsman. Corbett’s style may not have made for good fighting, but it made for great boxing. Sullivan was essentially a fighter. Corbett was essentially a skilled boxer who employed a scientific and psychological approach to his craft in order to maximize the rules of the prize ring. Considering Sullivan’s age and lifestyle, the bout, for all intents and purposes, was over before it even began.
As Corbett went on to state in his autobiography, however, it was Sullivan, the bigger man with the meaner reputation, who was the betting favorite of the two. When the match finally began on the evening of September 7th, though, it soon became clear who the night belonged to. For Corbett employed footwork and timing to thoroughly frustrate his opponent for round after round. What’s more, when he unloaded on the famed champion, Sullivan felt it. Sure enough, in the 21st round, Corbett gave Sullivan everything he had. Sullivan went to the floor, the referee counted to ten…and an age was over. James J Corbett, who weighed less than one hundred eighty pounds, was now heavyweight champion of the world.
Corbett, ironically enough, was turned off by the crowd’s fickleness. The fans had started off being Sullivan’s supporters, Corbett later wrote. The fact that they were now cheering for the victor after Sullivan had been bested simply seemed tasteless to the newly crowned champ. It’s worth noting that Corbett also had the good grace to go on to write in his autobiography that the Sullivan he defeated in New Orleans was not the Sullivan of earlier times. As for Sullivan, he addressed the crowd after the fight to announce he was glad to have been bested by an American. For Sullivan, despite his flaws, was game enough to admit he’d been beaten, and grateful enough to give credit to the country that offered opportunity for men such as he and Corbett to find true success in. `
He may have been an alcoholic, a racist and a braggart, but Sullivan managed to leave the ring in good taste. It was, simply put, the man’s greatest moment.
Defeat brought out the best in him. As for Corbett, it was his moment in the sun. And, in more than one sense, it was boxing’s moment in the sun, as well. For a new type of athlete had arguably dragged boxing across the line from brawling to legitimate sport. And a quite popular one at that.
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