World Heavyweight Champion: 1892-1897
James J. Corbett secured his place in boxing history by becoming the first world heavyweight champion under Marquis of Queensberry rules. Perhaps more importantly, he assured himself a place in the pantheon of boxing greats by elevating pugilism from the preserve of the bar-room brawler to a ‘noble art’ founded on science. Corbett’s analytical approach to the sport led him to appreciate that technique was as important as brute strength, and superior ringcraft could compensate for lack of inches, pounds and power.
Corbett was born in San Francisco on 1 September 1866, of Irish-American stock. His talent for boxing manifested itself early, schoolboy skirmishes causing him to be expelled from two schools. He started work as a bank clerk, but he was bitten by the fight bug and yearned for a career in the ring. It was his white-collar background, impeccable manners and immaculate dress sense that earned him the soubriquet ‘Gentleman Jim’. In fact, there were many instances of anything but gentlemanly conduct. Corbett’s two wives had to put up with his serial womanising. He was also a racist, a trait which came to the fore when Jack Johnson became champion in 1908.
Left hook is born
It was in one of Corbett’s early professional fights, in May 1889, that he is credited with inventing the left hook. The left jab was a favourite weapon in his armoury, but on this occasion – a bruising, attritional encounter with Joe Choynski – Corbett injured his hand. He improvised by throwing the punch in an arc and striking with the inside of the glove. In protecting his fingers Corbett showed off the left hook for the first time. However, it was a raking left to Choynski’s chin which ended the contest, in the 27th round.
Corbett’s battle with Australia’s foremost prizefighter, Peter Jackson, two years later made the Choynski bout seem a sprint in comparison. This epic contest, held at the famous California Athletic Club on 21 May 1891, lasted 61 gruelling rounds. Jackson, nicknamed ‘The Black Prince’, was a formidable fighter. American heavyweights, including the reigning champion John L. Sullivan, had avoided climbing into the ring with the man widely regarded as the black heavyweight champion of the world. Corbett needed all his celebrated fleetness of foot to keep out of range of Jackson’s murderous right hand. The Australian did eventually connect with some mighty blows, which made Corbett wince. Gentleman Jim also came close to winning. A flurry of punches in the 28th round saw Jackson out on his feet, only for the bell to come to his rescue. Finally, more than four hours after the two men stepped into the ring, the referee declared a no-contest. By that time, Corbett and Jackson had slowed to a walk and could barely lift their arms.
The Corbett-Jackson fight has gone down as one of the greatest in the sport’s history. For the two protagonists, however, the aftermath was very different. Corbett enjoyed international acclaim and an enhanced reputation. More importantly, the fight was a springboard which earned him a tilt at Sullivan’s world crown the following year. Jackson, whom Corbett later described as the greatest fighter he’d ever seen, was less fortunate. He died from tuberculosis nine years later, disillusioned and penniless.
Sparring in evening dress
Corbett first stepped into the ring with Sullivan barely a month after the Jackson fight. It was an exhibition match, however, the two men sparring for four rounds in full evening dress. On 7 September the following year, the two met in New Orleans, this time for real, with the world title at stake.
The Boston Strong Boy was almost 34 when he met Gentleman Jim, and had been champion for 10 years. He was undoubtedly past his prime, and a tendency to overindulge in food and booze didn’t exactly help to keep him in peak condition. Indeed, he preferred to make good money by appearing on stage. He lived quite well off his fearsome reputation and world title, and didn’t want to risk losing his crown. He delayed meeting Corbett for some time, but eventually the lure of a $10,000 winner-take-all fight proved irresistible.
Despite the fact that a fair amount of Sullivan’s 2121b bulk was excess fat, he was nevertheless a strong favourite to put Corbett away. What followed was a masterclass from the challenger as he took boxing into a new dimension. He easily evaded Sullivan’s big swinging punches, then picked the champion off at will with incisive, stinging jabs. Sullivan fought gamely for 20 rounds, though he cut a sorry figure by that time. The end came in round 21, when Corbett caught his man with a right which put him down for the count.
Cashing in on title
Among those who witnessed the birth of the new era was world middleweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons, who lost little time in throwing down the gauntlet to Gentleman Jim. Like Sullivan in the latter years of his reign, Corbett was in no hurry to rush into a defence of his crown. First he wanted to cash in on his title. He too turned to the stage, and later appeared in a number of films. Apart from a lucrative income from acting, Corbett was also among the first sportsmen to boost his earnings through endorsements.
Over the next four years, Corbett fought a number of exhibition bouts, but defended his title only once, a brutal demolition of Englishman Charley Mitchell. He then considered retiring from the sport, even going so far as to nominate the man he believed should succeed him, Ireland’s Peter Maher. He had no authority to make such a decision, and Fitzsimmons undermined it even further by dispatching Maher inside a round. Gentleman Jim had little choice now but to accept Fitzsimmons’s challenge.
The fight took place in Carson City, on 17 March 1897. Apart from the title, there was a $15,000 purse at stake, with a $5,000 side bet. It was a winner-take-all deal.
Corbett sunk by ‘solar plexus’ punch
Bob Fitzsimmons on his way to winning the world title from ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett in Carson City, 1897. Ruby Robert’s famous ‘solar plexus’ punch ended Corbett’s 5-year reign.
Born: San Francisco, California, USA September 1, 1866
Died: February 18, 1933
Height: 6’ I1/2’
Won 11 (7 Kos), Lost 4, Drawn 2