The Heavyweight Title Fight That Was Also The First Full Length Motion Picture
By: Sean Crose
James J Corbett ruled supreme after besting John L Sullivan in 1892 in order to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Indeed, Corbett did not come across as a run of the mill boxer. Or at least he didn’t WANT to come across that way. Here, after all, was a pro fighter who went by the name of “Gentleman Jim,” and who had a reputation for using slickness and smarts to defeat opponents. No doubt, some felt Corbett gave his profession some legitimacy, as he came across as a sportsman as opposed to a brawler. Image is far from everything, though, and Corbett was champion for a reason – namely, that he was a top level ring tactician.
Footwork, timing, well placed jabs, defensive prowess, these were all things that led Corbett to rise above the pack when it came to boxing. And, unlike Sullivan, the man he had bested, Corbett didn’t seem intent on abusing himself by drinking all the way to the edge of the abyss. Here, in a sense, was a consummate professional. Yet Corbett was more than just temperate and skilled. The guy was tough as nails when the situation called for it. When Corbett had faced Peter Jackson, for instance, he had to become brutally aggressive in order to pull out a draw from the jaws of defeat.
In other words, there was more to Corbett than just the glistening image he presented to the world. No doubt, however, that Bob Fitzimmons was aware of the real threat Corbett presented in the ring. Like Corbett and Sullivan before him, Fitzimmons – himself a product of England and New Zealand – was of Irish stock. According to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Fitzimmons also worked as a blacksmith and carriage painter. The man made his name, however, as a boxer.
After making his presence felt in Australia, Fitzimmons came to the States, where he eventually won the middleweight championship. He defended his middleweight crown a single time before setting his sights on the biggest prize of all – the heavyweight championship, currently in the possession of Gentleman Jim. A date was settled for the two men to meet in the ring: March 17th, 1897, Saint Patrick’s Day. The bout would be held outdoors, in Carson City, Nevada. The referee would be none other than the legendary Western gunfighter Bat Masterson. And if that weren’t enough, the bout would be recorded as a motion picture.
Movies were a new phenomenon at the time, to be sure. In fact, feature length motion pictures as we know them today had yet to make their entrance into popular culture. That, however, was all about to change, for the complete film recording of Corbett-Fitzimmons would later be shown throughout the nation to fans and the curious alike. For the first time in history, people who weren’t at a sporting event live and in person could see that event as it had happened – albeit in crude black and white. What’s more, the public would find itself being presented with moving pictures that ran on for more than a brief amount of time. A new age was about to dawn.
In spite of all the big name and high tech accompaniment, however Fitzimmon’s bold dash at glory may have come across like a fool’s dream in the lead up to the bout. Fitzimmons was over thirty when he stepped into the ring with Corbett.
What’s more, he weighed over fifteen pounds less than the champion – who himself was a very small heavyweight. No matter. The lean man with the red hair and a thunderous punch was nothing if not determined. According to Robert H Davis, Fitzimmons trained hard, extremely hard – in camp, focusing particularly on roadwork. His endurance would not be an issue.
As for Corbett, the man arguably still knew the value of holding a mental edge over his opponent. Shortly before the fight, both he and Fitzimmons, along with their respective camps, met on a road near Fitzimmons’ training facility. As Davis tells it, both men went to shake hands, only for Corbett to pull his hand away. It was a small matter, true, but fights can be settled on such small matters. Corbett had now lodged himself inside Fitzimmons’ head thanks to perhaps a slight bit of mastery that ultimately shouldn’t have mattered in the least.
Once the two men met in the ring for the fight, however, it was Fitzimmons who refused to shake hands with Corbett.
Mental chess, it seemed, could be played by two. Besides, who knew whether or not Corbett would snatch his hand away again?
Soon, however, all petty matters vanished into the Nevada air as the two men engaged each other in the bout. Corbett, as always, was incredibly slick and extremely hard to hit. Fitzimmons, however, was in phenomenal shape. What’s more, Davis claims Fitzimmons came around to feeling Corbett couldn’t hurt him.
Still, he couldn’t land hard on the lauded Gentleman Jim, either. Corbett, it appeared, was simply too advanced a fighter for the scrappy challenger. Late in the thirteenth round, however, Fitzimmons was said to have landed effectively to Corbett’s body. What’s more, Corbett looked to be genuinely impacted by the punishment.
It wasn’t until the fourteenth round, however, that Corbett learned just exactly how hard the determined Fitzimmons could wallop. The recorded footage of the battle says it all.
Corbett appears to attempt to angle to Fitzimmons’ left. Fitzimmons then goes to Corbett’s body. And Corbett goes down. The champion stumbles a bit, then gamely tries to get up, but the body shot is too damaging. Masterson counts…then the fight is stopped. Fitzimmons, that most unlikely of candidates, is the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Corbett desperately wanted a rematch with Fitzimmons, but the fight never happened.
Corbett would, however, get another chance at glory down the road. As for the Fitzimmons fight, the remaining footage says it all (fortunately, the ending of the bout is still available), and has said it all in the hundred plus years since the fight actually occurred.