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.
More Boxing History
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.
More Boxing History
Sixty One Rounds Of Combat: Jackson Versus Corbett
By: Sean Crose
Heavyweight champion John L Sullivan was racist. Or afraid. Or perhaps both. Whatever the reason, the famous (or notorious) Boston Strong Boy refused to trade punches with a black fighter. Thus, the infamous “color line” was drawn. Black fighters could be good, even great, but they could never expect a crack at the biggest star in boxing (and perhaps the world) due to the color of their skin. Never mind the “microagressions” that overly gentle souls gripe about endlessly today. Sullivan had, in spite of whatever fine qualities he held (and yes, he held them), put forth a cruel obstacle for any black fighter willing and able to offer up a challenge.
It wasn’t fair. In fact, it was inexcusable. Still, it might have been more than simple racism that prodded Sullivan to employ his own version of “blacks need not apply.” For, by refusing to face a black man in the ring, Sullivan enabled himself to avoid one Peter Jackson without looking like a coward to the general public. Just who was Peter Jackson? Well, along with Sullivan and Jim Corbett (much more on him later), Jackson was indeed one of the top fighters of his day. Could the man have trounced John L in the ring? Who knows? It would have been some kind of fight, however.
Being black, though, Australia’s Jackson could never hope to be champion of the world by besting Sullivan. That didn’t mean Jackson would just evaporate into the vapor, though. The man dominated foes across the globe, earning himself a reputation of note. Besides, not every white fighter was so unwilling to meet the man Sullivan was able to avoid. Indeed, a young white pug from San Francisco proved more than willing to face Jackson in the ring – for a lot of prestige and money, as well. For while James J Corbett was, like Sullivan, of Irish stock, he was a completely different person than the heavyweight champ.
To begin, Corbett represented a new kind of fighter – an actual, dyed in the wool, contemporary boxer, who jabbed, moved, used footwork and essentially viewed his trade as a sport rather than as a lucrative saloon brawl. To be sure, it was said Corbett had never fought outside a ring in his life. What’s more, Corbett was upwardly mobile. He may have been seen as a lowly “Paddy” as the Irish were derogatorily called, but Corbett had high ambitions. He was not, to be sure, eager to present himself as an unseemly roughneck. To the contrary. Hence Corbett’s nickname, “Gentleman Jim.”
As for Sullivan, he had gone the easy route since besting Jake Kilrain in their brutal 1889 battle, and was well into his extended hiatus by 1891. Jackson and Corbett, however, gave the world the chance to witness two top fighters face off in high fashion. For the two men agreed to fight on May 21st of that year in Corbett’s home town of San Francisco. This was by far the most notable bout of both men’s careers up to that point and the winner would inarguably be considered worthy of Sullivan – whether Sullivan decided to face the challenge or not.
And so, on that late spring evening, Corbett and Jackson met in combat at the California Athletic Club to do battle. According to a piece in the “Salem Daily News” the following day, Jackson looked to be a bit bigger than Corbett, but both men appeared to be in terrific shape. Indeed, the paper reported that both men, Corbett and Jackson, were received warmly by the crowd that evening (apparently race didn’t prevent the crowd that night from respecting a top athlete). To be sure, it was also stated that Jackson was the betting favorite walking into the ring.
And indeed, Jackson was reportedly able to take control early on and was able to maintain it for a while. Corbett’s new, advanced style was so far proving to be futile against the experienced, skilled Aussie. Still, even though the fight employed gloves as opposed to bare knuckles, there was no modern time frame for the contest to be engaged within. In other words, things weren’t going to stop at the end of ten, twelve or fifteen rounds. And so the match went on. And on. And on. Then, in the twenty-fifth (that’s right, the twenty-fifth) round, Corbett reportedly engaged in an onslaught that seems to have been somewhat similar to the slick Ray Leonard’s desperate late fight rally against the dominant Thomas Hearns close to one hundred years later.
For the “Salem Daily News” reported that, although Corbett didn’t finish his man, he unloaded with body shots that kept Jackson from being aggressive afterward. Indeed, Jackson ended up with his ribs being broken that evening. Yet Corbett also reportedly busted at least one hand in the fight, a fact that eventually contributed to the fight grinding to a standstill. The brutal truth slowly became clear: both Jackson and Corbett were no longer able to effectively defeat one another. They both continued on gamely, but neither man could emerge victorious.
In the end, the fight was stopped after the 61st round, with neither man officially winning. For neither man was able to continue, the Salem Daily News claimed. What’s more, both fighters made it clear that they were willing to cease competing. Common sense may have saved each man from further physical damage, but it ended up hurting their wallets, as the significant fight purse was withheld. On top of that, none of the bettors were able to cash in on the affair. Many ended up being disappointed, true, but the right decision had clearly been made. When men such as Jackson and Corbett admitted they could no longer fight, there was no point in arguing the fact.
Sullivan may not have seen the bout, but there was little doubt he knew of it. Indeed, even though Jackson and Corbett hadn’t fought for Sullivan’s title, Sullivan’s days as champion were numbered. A new era was about to arrive, and that era didn’t include the famous Boston brawler.