Corbett, James J. (1866-1933)

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Corbett, James J. (1866-1933)

Professional prizefighting in the nineteenth century was a semi-legal, bare-fisted fight to the finish, often featuring more wrestling than punching. As the twentieth century approached, changes were made, ostensibly to legitimize "boxing" as credible athletic competition. On September 7, 1892, in New Orleans, the first Heavyweight championship match contested under the relatively new Marquess of Queensberry rules took place. These new rules stipulated three minute rounds with one minute rest periods and the use of five-ounce gloves, worn to protect the combatant's hands. A relic from the bare-knuckle age by the name of John L. Sullivan—"The Boston Strongboy"—was the reigning champion. Sullivan personified nineteenth-century America: rugged, racist individualism. He triumphed in brutal contests of stamina and strength despite his heavy drinking; he sauntered into saloons boasting "I can lick any man in the house!" and he drew the color line, refusing to fight leading black contender Peter Jackson. Sullivan's challenger, a fellow Irish-American pugilist named James J. Corbett, seemed to personify the direction in which boxing was moving, perhaps as a reflection of American society. "Gentleman Jim," as Corbett would come to be known, both for his style of dress outside the ring and his fighting style inside it, was born on September 1, 1866 in San Francisco, California. The son of a livery stable owner, he graduated high school but always found himself fighting, first in the streets and then eventually at the San Francisco Olympic Club. Where Sullivan was an east coast, blue-collar roughneck, Corbett was a west coast, white-collar scientific boxer, who was employed as a bank teller when he began his professional prizefighting career.

Corbett had earned his title shot with a win against an old bare-knuckle nemesis of Sullivan's, Jake Kilrain—with two wins against contender Joe Choynski (who would go on to defeat the great Jack Johnson); and with a 61 round draw with the same Peter Jackson whom Sullivan refused to fight. Gentleman Jim toured the country, fighting from San Francisco to Brooklyn, all the while clamoring for a match with the feared and beloved reigning champ. He got his chance in New Orleans, where after 21 rounds Jim Corbett's new-age science prevailed over John L. Sullivan's old-world machismo. In what boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar nearly a century later called "the most important round in boxing history," the smaller, faster, fitter Corbett claimed the heavyweight throne with a shattering knockout. Modern boxing was born with this fight, as speed, conditioning, and technique triumphed over brute force. Corbett, and especially the Corbett-Sullivan fight, epitomized the evolution of the fight game from a foul-plagued virtual free-for-all to a more organized contest of fists and wit. In a Darwinian twist, after the rules were changed, Corbett-like fighters, who previously had not been as successful as their larger and more powerful Sullivan-like counterparts, were now better adapted for success in boxing.

After his title winning effort, Corbett followed a path similar to John L. Sullivan's. Cashing in on his newfound fame, Corbett toured in theater and vaudeville. By the time he defended his title against Bob Fitzsimmons, Corbett had fought only once in the five years since the Sullivan bout. Gentleman Jim lost his title to Fitzsimmons, suffering a 14th round knockout. He made two attempts to regain the crown, both against the big and powerful James J. Jeffries. In both fights, Corbett's "science" seemed at first to be carrying the day, but the younger, fresher, Jeffries eventually caught up with the old boxing master, winning with knockout's in the twenty-third round of their first fight and the tenth round of the rematch. With all of the changes in boxing epitomized by Corbett's defeat of Sullivan, there was one aspect of the sport that no rule change could alter, one that remains constant to this day: father time beats all comers.

—Max Kellerman

Further Reading:

Corbett, James J. My Life and Fights. London, John Ousley, 1910.

——. The Roar of the Crowd. London and New York, Knickerbocker Press, 1925.

Heyn, Ernest V., ed. Twelve More Sport Immortals. New York, Bartholomew House, 1951.