Corbett, James John

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CORBETT, James John

(b. 1 September 1866 in San Francisco, California; d. 18 February 1933 in New York City), stylish boxer, renowned for his agility and scientific approach, who held the Heavyweight Champion of the World title from 1892 to 1897.

Corbett, one of twelve children, was the son of Irish immigrant parents. His father, Patrick Corbett, came from County Mayo, while his mother, Katherine McDonald Corbett, had her roots in Dublin. Corbett's father operated a livery stable in San Francisco while his mother raised their children, ten of whom lived to adulthood. As Corbett related in his memoirs, his family's home life was troubled. Corbett's father was prone to fits of depression; in August 1898 he shot his wife in the head as she lay sleeping before taking his own life as well.

Ambitious from an early age, Corbett disappointed his mother by refusing to study for the priesthood. Through his father, he found employment at the Nevada Bank in San Francisco, working his way up from messenger to assistant teller. During this time he began to cultivate the dapper, well-tailored look that would earn him the nickname "Gentleman Jim." His job at the bank did not distract him from his love of athletics. Corbett became an impressive sprinter and gymnast during his teenage years and considered pursuing professional baseball for a time. After taking boxing lessons from Walter Watson at San Francisco's Olympic Club, he decided to channel his abilities toward a career in the ring.

Corbett turned professional at age eighteen, gaining fame soon after by defeating Joe Choynski in a series of three bouts. His winning streak continued into 1890, when he won a four-round decision over Jake Kilrain. The following year, he fought Peter Jackson to a draw after a three-hour, sixty-one-round battle. By that time he had attained a nationwide reputation and acquired a manager, William A. Brady. Shamelessly aggressive in his promotion of Corbett, Brady would remain with the fighter for the rest of his career.

Corbett cultivated an image that emphasized his ring savvy and speed rather than sheer muscle. He championed a "scientific" approach to boxing, emphasizing thorough physical conditioning. His was dubbed "the dancing master" because of his quickness. "From the time I began to box I made up my mind that footwork was half the game," he said later in life. "If I could always keep away where the other fellow couldn't hit me, and jump in and hit him when he did not expect it, it was only a question of how long he could last in front of me."

It was only a matter of time before Corbett sent out a challenge to heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. After wearing the crown for ten years, Sullivan had become sluggish and complacent, his legendary brute strength diminished. Corbett warmed up to the task of dethroning Sullivan by sparring with him in a San Francisco exhibition in June 1891. Next, he challenged the champion to a real match, set for 7 September 1892 at the Olympic Club in New Orleans. Corbett slimmed down to 178 pounds for the fight and trained strenuously with Mike Donovan, a leading boxing coach. Meanwhile, Sullivan derided his opponent as a "young dude" and kept an indifferent training schedule.

Corbett exuded a flippant confidence as he met Sullivan in the ring, enraging the champion. It became evident early in the fight that the younger boxer's nimbleness, combined with a surprising punching force, put him in command of the contest.

Sullivan kept charging at Corbett but failed to land solid blows, while Corbett dodged and wove as he counterpunched with deadly accuracy. Bloodied but still standing, Sullivan held on until the twenty-first round, when he finally succumbed to a hard right to the jaw. The news that the mighty Sullivan had lost his title to the "young dude" made international headlines. In a gracious gesture, Corbett participated in a benefit sparring match with Sullivan at Madison Square Garden in New York City on 17 September to raise funds for the financially-strapped ex-champion.

In 1893 Corbett appeared in a touring stage show written in his honor. His fame helped draw crowds, though resentment from Sullivan partisans followed him as well. No one challenged him for the heavyweight title until British fighter Charley Mitchell met him in the ring on 25 January 1894 at the Jacksonville (Florida) Athletic Club. Corbett dispatched his opponent with a third-round knockout. On 17 September of that same year, his knockout victory over Peter Courtney became the first boxing match to be captured on film.

In the ring and on stage, Corbett carefully cultivated his image as a well-mannered professional athlete. His private life was more complicated, however. He married actress Olive Lake on 8 June 1886. They divorced on 2 August 1895. On 15 August 1895 he married Jessie Taylor, known as Vera Stanwood, of Omaha, Nebraska. He carried on a series of affairs, including one with actress Mae West. His relations with his second wife were stormy; at one point she publicly accused him of threatening to kill her. Despite such incidents, the couple remained married for thirty-eight years. Corbett had no children.

On 17 March 1897 Corbett defended his title against Bob "Ruby Robert" Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada. The British-born challenger knocked out Corbett in the fourteenth round with his trademark punch to the solar plexus. On 11 May 1900 Corbett fought to regain the heavyweight belt from James J. Jeffries, a former sparring partner who had defeated Fitzsimmons the previous year. At first, Corbett's quickness and craft seemed to dominate; finally, Jeffries's superior power prevailed, and Corbett fell in the twenty-third round. Corbett defeated "Kid" McCoy three months after this fight, and on 14 August 1903, he faced Jeffries in a rematch. This time it took only ten rounds for Jeffries to beat him. It proved to be Corbett's last fight.

After his final loss, Corbett remained on the periphery of the boxing world, helping to train Jeffries in his ill-advised bout with Jack Johnson in 1910. He remained in the public eye as a stage performer and (largely inaccurate) newspaper boxing tipster. In 1925 he told a somewhat sanitized version of his life in an autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd. He died of liver cancer at age sixty-six at his modest home in Queens, New York, on a street later renamed Corbett Road. He is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. His legend was revived by the film Gentleman Jim (1942) starring Errol Flynn. Corbett is remembered today as a technically gifted pugilist who helped to lift boxing out of its crude early period into a mainstream sport.

Corbett's autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd: The True Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Champion (1925), is entertaining but less than trustworthy, especially concerning his personal life. Nat Fleischer, "Gentleman Jim": The Story of James J. Corbett (1942), is also overly protective of the fighter's legend. Far better is Patrick Myler, Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend (1998), a balanced and unflinching portrait of its subject's strengths and flaws. A good secondary source is Michael T. Isenberg's John L. Sullivan and His America (1988), which analyzes the 1892 Sullivan-Corbett match in considerable detail.

Barry Alfonso