Heavyweight champion boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett forever changed his sport's image as a brawling ground for hooligans, and legitimized it as a professional sport. Before Corbett won his championship bout in 1892, boxing was perceived as mainly a test of raw power. Corbett brought strategy to the game, beating his heavier, stronger opponent, John L. Sullivan, with skill and agility. That, combined with his penchant for elegant clothes, and his refined manner, earned him his nickname. As former featherweight boxing champion and commentator Barry McGuigan put it in his introduction to Patrick
Myler's book Gentleman Jim Corbett, "He wrote the original boxing textbook for the others to follow."
A Born Fighter
James Corbett was born to Irish immigrant parents in San Francisco, California in 1866. His parents were devout Catholics, and they envisioned a life in the priesthood for their son, who was named after his father's brother, a Catholic priest back in the old country. (Corbett's parents met a tragic end when, on August 16, 1898, Corbett's father, who had been in declining mental health for some time, murdered Corbett's mother with a revolver and then shot and killed himself in their home in San Francisco.).
Corbett's father supported his family, ten children in all, by running a livery stable. Corbett, in later years, would describe the street of his childhood home as a dirt track whose major businesses were saloons.
Corbett first realized his calling when he took on his parochial school bully. Although the bully was older and stronger than Corbett, Corbett began to get the better of him, instinctively stepping out of the way of his blows, and looking at one part of the other boy's body to distract him, while attacking another. Corbett later wrote in his autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd, that he would have won the fight if the bully had not sat on him to pin him down before pummeling him.
Both boys were expelled from their school for fighting, but the encounter was to have a lasting impression on the future boxer. He learned, among other things, that he could beat a bigger and stronger opponent by being light on his feet, and quick.
After their son was expelled from his next school, again for fighting, Corbett's parents finally had to admit that their boy was not a scholar. So, at the age of 14, Corbett was sent to work as a clerk for a local company. He did well at this job, and when the opportunity came to work for one of his father's customers, a banker, he jumped at the chance. Starting out as a messenger, he rose through the company ranks over the next six years to become a bank teller.
From Bank Teller to Professional Boxer
While working as a bank teller, Corbett practiced in amateur boxing matches, first with some of his fellow bank clerks on their lunch break, and then at scheduled matches at sporting establishments. Although a righthander, Corbett developed the power of his left punch, and many an opponent found his then-unusual left jab devastating.
The young boxer began his career in earnest when he joined San Francisco's Olympic Athletic Club. Initially, the coaches at the club steered the young Corbett into playing baseball, which he did until a serious hand injury forced him out of the game. He then returned to boxing. Under the tutelage of Olympic's boxing coach, Corbett soon became the club's middleweight champion, and by the time he turned 18, became the club's heavyweight champion.
At the top of his game as an amateur boxer, Corbett nevertheless still worked as a bank clerk, and he longed to make more money. During this time, when he was just 19 years old, in 1886, Corbett and Olive Lake eloped to Salt Lake City, Utah and were married. It was in Utah that Corbett fought his first bout as a professional. The heavyweight champion of Utah, Frank Smith, issued a challenge, and Corbett responded under the name of Jim Dillon, to avoid tipping off his family back in San Francisco that he was in Salt Lake City. Corbett won the match, earning a prize of $460 in the process—money that Corbett and his bride desperately needed to pay the rent.
After fighting another professional match in Evanston, Wyoming (accounts differ as to the results of that fight), Corbett returned to San Francisco, where he got a job as a clerk at an insurance company and moonlighted as a boxing instructor at the Olympic Athletic Club.
Corbett made his pro boxing debut near his hometown on May 30, 1889. This was when he and fighter Joe Choynski met for a "fight to the finish" This meant that the match would last until one of them could no longer go on, or until they both agreed to a draw. Promoters of the fight emphasized the combatants' ethnic differences (Choynski was Jewish), and local authorities forbade the fight on the grounds that it might start a riot. So Corbett and Choynski had to box unadvertised in a barn in remote Marin County. Nevertheless, word got around, and hundreds of spectators turned out to watch the fight.
The boxers went five rounds before the sheriff showed up to stop the proceedings. Corbett and Choynski met for a rematch a week later, this time on a barge north of San Francisco Bay, safely out of the jurisdiction of local police. The fight lasted a punishing 28 rounds. The deck of the barge grew slick with the combatant's blood, and sawdust had to be laid down so that they wouldn't slip in it. Corbett at last won the fight with a knock-out punch. Corbett himself was so dazed that he had to be told that he had won the fight.
Rise of a Champion
Now firmly established as a professional boxer, Corbett was able to quit his job at the insurance company and devote himself full time to boxing. After fighting in matches in the San Francisco area and in Portland, Oregon, his fame spread to New Orleans, where he met the challenge of New Yorker Jake Kilrain, who had previously fought England's champion to a draw in 106 rounds. After Corbett won the match against Kilrain, word of Corbett's victory spread to New York, where he was courted by boxing promoters there. His career was assured after he defeated Dominick McCaffrey at Brooklyn's Casino Rink in April, 1890.
Returning in triumph to San Francisco, Corbett took up his old job as coach at the Olympic Athletic Club and fought often in exhibition matches. He also began a parallel career that was to carry him into his later years; in 1890, he was cast in his first play, in a small role alongside the famous actor Maurice Barrymore. Corbett found acting a natural extension of his desire to be in the spotlight as a boxer, and he eagerly pursued other acting opportunities, eventually becoming a stage and screen celebrity.
Corbett now had his sights on the world championship, and his first step in that direction came with his bout against Peter Jackson. Jackson was Australia's champion, and the reigning world champion, John L. Sullivan, had refused to fight with him because Jackson was black. Corbett, however, fought him for 61 rounds in San Francisco on May 21, 1891. The fight was ended only after both combatants were too tired and battered to swing effectually at each other, and the match was declared to be a "no contest." The fight lasted about four hours, and supporters of Jackson, who was favored to win by 2 to 1 odds, were shocked. Corbett became a challenger Sullivan could not refuse.
After his fight with Jackson, Corbett took on a new manager, William A. Brady, who saw Corbett's boxing successes merely as a prelude to his acting career, and began booking him in plays in New York City. One play, Gentleman Jack, was written specially for Corbett by Charles T. Vincent, and featured the future champion in the lead role. Advertising posters for the play promoted Corbett as the boxing champion of the world, before his bout with Sullivan.
The gamble did pay off before the play opened, however, and Corbett become heavyweight champion of the world on September 7, 1892 when he defeated John L. Sullivan in New Orleans. Corbett was the first world heavyweight champion under Marquis of Queensberry Rules. These rules insisted on the use of boxing gloves; before these were enacted, boxing matches were commonly fought with bare fists.
|1866||Born September 1, in San Francisco, California|
|1884||Becomes amateur boxing champion of San Francisco's Olympic Athletic Club|
|1886||Marries first wife, Olive Lake|
|1886||Wins first professional bout, against Utah heavyweight champion Frank Smith|
|1889||Makes pro boxing debut in San Francisco, in a bout with Joe Choynski|
|1890||Makes East Coast boxing debut in a fight with Dominick McCaffrey in Brooklyn|
|1890||Makes acting debut, in Camille, at San Francisco's Baldwin Theatre|
|1892||Defeats John L. Sullivan to become heavyweight champion of the world, the first under modern boxing rules|
|1892||Opens the play Gentleman Jack, commissioned especially for him as its star, in Elizabeth, New Jersey|
|1894||Successfully defends his title in a bout with Charley Mitchell|
|1896||Divorces Olive, marries Vera Stanwood|
|1897||Loses title to Bob Fitzsimmons in a fight that was filmed, creating the first known feature-length film|
|1898||Corbett's father shoots Corbett's mother to death, kills himself with the same gun|
|1900||Fights James J. Jeffries in an attempt to regain the heavyweight title, loses in a knockout in the 23rd round|
|1903||Fights Jeffries again for the championship, loses in 10 rounds|
|1933||Dies in Bayside, New York, of liver cancer|
Awards and Accomplishments
|Corbett fought 19 professional bouts over his career, winning 11 (seven by knockout) and losing four (three by knockout).|
|1884||Heavyweight champion, Olympic Athletic Club, San Francisco|
|1892||World heavyweight champion|
|1894||World heavyweight champion (retains title)|
|1980||Inducted into World Boxing Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted into International Boxing Hall of Fame|
Corbett had had an opportunity to size up his opponent first-hand at an exhibition bout in San Francisco, during which both boxers sparred in full evening dress, at Sullivan's insistence. The combatants fought half-heartedly, but Corbett had an excellent chance to take the measure of the man he would later battle for the title of world heavyweight champion.
The fateful day arrived in New Orleans with thousands of spectators from all over the country crowded into the newly-completed Olympic Club. Reporters from around the world covered the fight, and 50 Western Union telegraph operators sat ringside to deliver blow-by-blow accounts. Sullivan was favored to win with 4-to-1 odds, and even Corbett's manager bet some money on Sullivan "just in case."
He need not have worried. Corbett successfully evaded most of Sullivan's blows in the first two rounds, and scored a devastating hit to Sullivan's face in the third, breaking his nose. Although Sullivan was larger and stronger than Corbett, Corbett wore his opponent down, dancing around him, and dashing in to place well-aimed blows before Sullivan could react. Corbett wore out his opponent over 21 rounds, finally finishing him off with a knockout when Sullivan was too tired and beaten to put up much of a fight.
An International Sensation
Corbett was celebrated around the world, and especially in his hometown of San Francisco, and immediately began to cash in; his stage career took off when Gentleman Jack opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and from there toured the country. Corbett held his own on the stage, regularly selling out houses. Exhibition matches and even product endorsements followed, making Corbett and his manager, now equal partners in the firm of Corbett and Brady, wealthy men. Corbett had by now moved with his wife to the New York City area, where they owned more than one home.
But in order to keep the money flowing, Corbett was obliged, sooner or later, to defend his championship title; it was, after all, his major draw. Corbett got his first chance to defend his title when he was challenged by Englishman Charley Mitchell. On January 25, 1894, in Jacksonville, Florida, Corbett knocked Mitchell out in three rounds.
More exhibition matches and stage appearances followed through the 1890s, including a European tour of Gentleman Jack. In the mid-1890s, Corbett left his wife, and married his mistress, Vera Stanwood. Not long after, Corbett had to accept a challenge of his heavyweight title from Bob Fitzsimmons, the reigning middleweight champion of the world. After unsuccessful attempts to stage the fight in Texas and, later, Arkansas (the governors in both states refused to allow boxing on moral grounds), the combatants finally squared off in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897.
Loses His Title in the World's First Feature Film
The Fitzsimmons fight was filmed by pioneering film director Enoch J. Rector, who captured the entire bout with three separate cameras. The event was staged in a specially erected ring just for the occasion, and it took place during daylight hours to accommodate the movie cameras. Since the fight lasted more than 90 minutes, Rector created the first known feature-length film in the process of filming the fight.
Corbett got the better of his challenger for six rounds, bloodying his face, and neatly avoiding the worst that Fitzsimmons could dish out. In the sixth round, Corbett knocked Fitzsimmons down for a nine-count, very nearly winning the match. But Fitzsimmons rallied, finally wearing the champion down with body blows, and scoring a knockdown in the 14th round with a devastating blow to Corbett's solar plexus. Fitzsimmons rejected all future challenges by Corbett, and so Corbett was not able to attempt to regain his title until after Fitzsimmons lost the title to James J. Jeffries.
Gentleman Jim, released in 1942 by Warner Brothers, starred Errol Flynn in the title role. Based on Corbett's autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd, it was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Corbett's championship victory over John L. Sullivan. It was said that of the more than 60 films made by Flynn, this one was his favorite.
Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film portrayed Corbett as a devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky fighter who never lost his nerve or confidence in his own abilities. It also evoked the rough-and-tumble San Francisco of the late 1800s.
Memorable scenes included an enactment of the Corbett-Choynski barge fight, and, of course, the climatic fight for the title with Sullivan. Sullivan was played by Ward Bond, who had been an accomplished boxer in college. The filmmakers took some artistic license in adding a fictitious scene in which Sullivan hands over his championship belt to Corbett, telling him that it was time for him (Sullivan) to make way for a new breed of fighter.
Flynn was a good choice to play Corbett, since he was about the same height and weight as the famous boxer, and had been something of an amateur boxer himself. The film star found the role extremely taxing however; a heart condition rendered him unable to shoot fight scenes for more than a minute at a time. But fight trainer Mushy Callahan, charged with getting Flynn in shape for the movie, found Flynn a quick study. Primary among his tasks was to train Flynn to make extensive use of his left punch, the way Corbett did.
Gentleman Jim opened to strong reviews, and was a box office success. Boxing great Mike Tyson later said that the film was the best boxing movie he had ever seen.
Out with a Bang
Corbett and Jeffries fought at Coney Island, New York, on May 11, 1900. Many observers agreed that this fight was Corbett's finest, and a brilliant demonstration of "scientific" boxing over brute power. Jeffries was bigger, stronger, and nine years younger, but Corbett got the better of him for 22 rounds, consistently avoiding his opponent's boilermakers, and dancing in for quick jabs that soon bloodied his face. Clearly far ahead in points, Corbett had only to last the required 25 rounds to regain his championship title, but it was not to be. Jeffries finally managed to land one of his powerful blows, knocking Corbett out cold.
Corbett made one more attempt to regain the title from Jeffries three years later, at the age of 37, but he lost this match in the tenth round, and afterwards vowed to retire from boxing and devote himself full time to his acting career. Thereafter, he appeared regularly on Broadway, in theatrical tours around the United States and Europe, and in films as a popular box office draw. Corbett spent his final years with his wife Vera in Bayside, New York, where he died on February 18, 1933 of liver cancer. He had no children.
Credited with being the first to bring strategy, dexterity, and analytical thought to his sport, Corbett forever changed the nature of boxing. Often elegantly dressed and always well-mannered, Corbett attracted many new fans to boxing, including women. He brought a sense of refinement to a sport that had been seen simply as a contest between brutes. Such twentieth-century boxing greats as Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano , and Mike Tyson all followed in Corbett's footsteps.
Myler, Patrick. Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend. London: Robson Books Ltd., 1989.
Mee, Bob. "Book Review: Shadows Behind a Boxing Legend: Gentleman Jim Corbett by Patrick Myler." Independent (January 17, 1999).
"Biography—Jim Corbett." HickokSports.com. http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/corbettj.shtml (October 4, 2002).
"Gentleman Jim (1942)." Internet Movie Database. http://us.imdb.com/Title?0034778 (October 7, 2002).
"James J. Corbett." International Boxing Hall of Fame. http://www.ibhof.com/corbett.htm (September 27, 2002).
"James J. Corbett." Internet Movie Database. http://us.imdb.com/Name?Corbett,%20James%20J. (October 4, 2002).
"The Marquis of Queensberry Rules." HickokSports.com.http://www.hickoksports.com/history/marqrule.shtml (October 4, 2002).
"The Plot Summary for Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight." Internet Movie Database. http://us.imdb.com/Plot?0000147 (October 4, 2002).
Sketch by Michael Belfiore