Corbett was King of a New Era
JAMES J. CORBETT was the antithesis of John L. Sullivan. During the late 19th century, the popularity of boxing rose in this country simply because of Sullivan. He was a hard drinking, brawling, bare-knuckle bully who enthralled the public with his ability to knock out opponents.
Corbett was an educated man who practiced the science of boxing.
Corbett came from a middle-class background, attended college and worked as a bank clerk. He learned how to box in the sparring clubs of the West Coast. Sullivan, and many others of that time, learned how to fight on the streets. The majority of Corbett's fights were gloved bouts under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. He earned nicknames like Handsome Jim, Pompadour Jim and finally, Gentleman Jim.
SULLIVAN, WHOSE parents immigrated from Ireland to Boston sometime around 1850, became Bare Knuckle Heavyweight champion in 1882 with a ninth-round knockout of Paddy Ryan. He laid claim to the Marquess of Queensberry Heavyweight title with a six-round decision over Dominick McCaffrey in 1885. However, most of his fights were of the bare-knuckle variety, having engaged in memorable battles with the likes of Charlie Mitchell and Jake Kilrain.
During that era, boxing was illegal in many places. While public sparring matches or exhibitions were tolerated, fighters who wished to engage in real contests were often relegated to wooded areas or floating barges to escape the police. In 1890, New Orleans passed legislation that legalized boxing as long as it was held under the Queensberry Rules. It meant that the fighters wore gloves, fought for three-minute rounds and were given a one-minute rest between the rounds. It also stated that a 10-count determined a knockout.
Such legislation paved the way for the Corbett-Sullivan contest. It would be the first heavyweight title fight in history during which the participants wore gloves.
The buildup to the fight began in 1891 when Sullivan was criticized for not defending his title. The Boston Strongboy took up acting and toured the world in the stage production of Honest Hearts, Willing Hands. Although he engaged in several exhibitions, he would not participate in a real fight from July of 1889 until meeting Corbett in September of 1892.
TIRED OF listening to his detractors, Sullivan said he would fight any contender for a winner-take-all purse of $25,000 plus a side bet of $10,000 each. The winner would walk away with $45,000. But it meant that in order to meet Sullivan, the challenger had to at least come up with $10,000. Corbett and his manager William A. Brady quickly raised the money and requested a shot at the crown.
Corbett clearly earned his shot at Sullivan. He defeated top heavyweights such as Kilrain, Joe Choynski and drew with Australian Peter Jackson in a rugged four-hour, 61-round fight.
Fighting Sullivan was not entirely new to Corbett. The pair staged an exhibition at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco on June 26, 1891. Sullivan was in town during a theatrical tour and the two agreed to spar after a brief backstage meeting. Oddly enough, Sullivan insisted that they spar in formal evening attire, which they did.
With Sullivan and Corbett officially signed for the fight, The Olympic Club in New Orleans built a new arena that was wired with electricity. The promoters promised three days of championship boxing, an event that became known as the Carnival of Champions. On September 5, 1892, lightweight champion Jack MacAuliffe retained his title with a fifth-round knockout of Billy Myer. On September 6, featherweight champion George Dixon knocked out Jack Skelly in eight rounds to retain his title.
THE MAIN event between Sullivan and Corbett took place on September 7, 1892. Tickets were scaled from $5 to $15 and the 10,000 fans who packed the arena accounted for the largest crowd to witness a fight at that time. Sullivan, a 4-1 favorite, weighed in at 212 pounds. Corbett scaled 187. The champion was 33 years old, the challenger had turned 26 only six days before the fight.
MacAuliffe appeared in Sullivan's corner for the contest, but Corbett had a much more valuable asset in professor Mike Donovan. Donovan, once a top middleweight and a firm believer in the science of boxing, had twice fought Sullivan and educated Corbett on many of the champion's tactics and tendencies.
The first significant round of the fight was the third. Sullivan spent the first two rounds rushing the challenger as Corbett nimbly sidestepped the champion. In the third, a Corbett left broke Sullivan's nose and the champion bled profusely for the remainder of the round.
In the seventh round, at the urging of Donovan, Corbett shifted his attack to the body and began to bury lefts and rights in Sullivan's midsection. By the 14th round, Corbett was easily landing punches and Sullivan wasn't offering much in return.
THE MATCH was hardly competitive. Corbett boxed beautifully, dancing around the ring, sidestepping Sullivan's irate rushes and peppering him with counters.
In the 21st round, with Sullivan tiring badly, Corbett unleashed a series of punches that staggered the champion. Sullivan, bleeding and battered, retreated to a corner and grabbed hold of the top rope. Too tired to hold his hands up, a right hand dropped Sullivan to his knees. Sullivan managed to rise, but a crushing left-right combination pitched Sullivan forward on his face and chest. Finally he was counted out.
The fight was over and new a era had begun.
After Sullivan gathered himself, he stood on the ring apron and announced to the crowd: "Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have nothing at all to say. All I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often -- and if I had to get licked I'm glad I was licked by an American. I remain your warm and personal friend, John L. Sullivan."