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Newsflash: Boxing Stopped Being “A Real Fight” In 1892. It Became Something Better.

By: Sean Crose

In September of 1892, a 175 pound San Franciscan named James J Corbett stepped inside a ring in New Orleans to battle the toughest of the tough guys – the 200-plus pound heavyweight champion of the world, John L. Sullivan. Many fans today would love Sullivan. He was loud and arrogant and kicked ass. In his previous fight he had gone almost eighty rounds against the insanely determined Jake Kilrain in one hundred degree heat. A ringside doctor pretty much forced Kilrain’s corner to stop the fight. There was a reason Sullivan was undefeated – the guy was a pure fighter, someone who could take it.

Corbett, on the other hand, was a new breed of athlete, one who had never been in a street fight, who had worked in a bank, and who had practiced things like moving well with his feet year after year. With the nickname of “Gentleman Jim,” Corbett must have seemed like raw steak for hard case Sullivan. How surprised fans must have been that night in 1892 then, when Corbett gave Sullivan the lesson of a lifetime. Simply put, Sullivan couldn’t hit his man due to Corbett’s slick movements. Suffice to say, in the 21st round, Corbett knocked Sullivan down and out.

Sullivan had become famous as a bare knuckle powerhouse, one who employed wrestling as well as punching while practicing his trade. Corbett, on the other hand, was something new – a true boxer – someone who avoided taking punishment while focusing on things such as speed and accuracy. Suffice to say, Corbett was the future, Sullivan a relic of a bygone era. In other words, after that night in September of 1892, boxing arguably ceased being a fight and started being an actual sport. There was no doubt Sullivan would have crushed Corbett in a saloon braw – but that sort of thing no longer mattered.

Today, of course, things are different. Mixed martial arts is extremely and justly popular for its celebration of toughness. Not only is mixed martial arts as close as a sport can get to a real fight, it employs actual skill and real professionalism. Make no mistake about it, mixed martial arts is a legitimate sport. It’s also rightly referred to as fighting, for it’s grinding, frequently awe inspiring stuff.

Perhaps that’s why fans celebrated when former UFC great Nate Diaz locked Jake Paul in his grip Saturday night in Dallas. The bold move was thrilling and funny for many – but it didn’t win Diaz the contest. That’s because Diaz was in a boxing ring rather than an octagon and was being soundly outclassed by his brash young opponent. As Paul stated later: “Tough in this sport doesn’t work.”

Although Sullivan would likely be more beloved than Corbett today, there’s no denying Corbett dominated Sullivan in the ring that long ago night. That’s just boxing for you. And as much as I like mixed martial arts – and I certainly do – it’s the specificity of boxing that helps make it – in my humble opinion – the greatest of sports. George Foreman would have likely beaten Muhammad Ali senseless in a parking lot. The same likely goes for Marvin Hagler and Ray Leonard. Those fights weren’t really fights, though. They were boxing matches. And they’ll be remembered for as long as people talk about sports. Rightfully so.

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