There was a time when the most famous athlete in the world was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. It wasn’t that long ago that any sports fan would be very familiar with Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey or Jack Johnson. It wasn’t that long ago when Ron Howard put out an inspirational movie about James Braddock; Heavyweight Champion of the World in the late 1930s. Most years a Heavyweight Championship Fight was the highlight of a sporting year. Dempsey vs Tunney, Braddock vs Baer, Louis vs Schmeling, Ali vs Frazier were events familiar to sports fans throughout the 20th century history. The sporting world has changed, hardly anyone could name the current Heavyweight Champion (Anthony Joshua of Great Britain). But let’s go back to the fight that started it, maybe the most important Heavyweight Championship bout ever staged.
John L. Sullivan was born to Irish immigrants in Boston in 1858. Known as the “Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan’s early career was froth with controversy. Fighting bare-knuckle most of the time, under the London Prize Ring Rules, he took on all comers. His total fights and record are shrouded in controversy, but Sullivan insisted he was undefeated. At the time no formal boxing titles existed. Many claim Sullivan became the champ in 1883 when he went on a coast to coast tour, fighting under the modern day Queensberry Rules (mandating gloves, standard size ring, rounds of three minutes with one minute time between rounds among the new rules). Sullivan knocked out eleven challengers and many regarded him as the World Champion. It wasn’t until July 8th, 1889 that the title of undisputed Heavyweight Champion was thrust on John L. Sullivan. This is when Sullivan defeated Jake Kilrain in the last Bare-Knuckle Championship fight when Kilrain failed to answer the bell for the 76th round. So in 1892 Sullivan had reigned as Heavyweight Champion for somewhere between three and ten years. He was the most famous athlete in the world.
James J. Corbett was also the son of Irish immigrants, but his path to the famous fight was much different from Sullivan. He was born in San Francisco, graduated from high school and also attended college. Before entering the ring he tried his hand at acting, performing in a variety of theatres. Known as the father of modern boxing, Corbett used an intellectual approach to boxing. He studied opponents and used guile instead of brute force to subdue opponents. He was a boxing instructor at an athletic club in San Francisco, so good technique was his primary weapon. This set up quite a contrast when Sullivan agreed to risk his title against the man known as “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.
The two met on July 9th, 1892 in New Orleans before an overflow crowd of more than 10,000. Early on the crowd was very disappointed in the challenger. The Champion was aggressive, but Corbett would not mix it up. Sullivan would stalk him into a corner and Corbett would flee back into the center of the ring. The crowd began to boo “Gentleman” Jim, started calling him “Sprinter”. For two rounds Corbett didn’t throw a punch. He spent his time dodging the giant man’s punches, studying him, deciding the best way counter his enormous strength; “From the beginning of the round Sullivan was aggressive. He wanted to eat me up right away. He came straight at me and I backed and backed, finally into a corner. While I was there I observed him setting himself up for a right-handed swing. I sidestepped out of the corner and was back in the middle of the ring again, Sullivan hot after me into all four corners. I allowed him to back me into all four corners, and he thought he was engineering all this. But I had learned what I wanted to know. He had shown his hand to me.”
Going into the third round the crowd was very restless, wondering if the younger man was really afraid of the champion. The answer came suddenly in the third round. Sullivan lunged at Corbett, but this time instead of moving away. “Gentleman” Jim countered with a devastating left right combination. Sullivan was temporarily stunned, but then continued his pursuit, swinging wildly. Again Corbett responded with a brutal left that broke the ageing champions nose. With blood running from his nose, Sullivan continued to stalk his prey, but to no avail. He was too slow and clumsy. Corbett kept delivering brutal jabs and combinations.
For all intents and purpose the fight was over after the third round. The proud champion continued bravely, but could not land a punch, while Corbett continued to hit Sullivan at will. A battered Sullivan held on until the 21st round. A minute and a half into the round Corbett delivered a vicious combination that staggered Sullivan, who reached for the ropes for support. Steadying himself, he again faced Corbett, who engineered another left hook which dropped the now former champion for the last time. For the first time in 10 years John L. Sullivan was not Heavyweight Champion of the World. James J. Corbett was.
This was the first of what the future would call a “Heavyweight Championship Fight”. Corbett was immediately recognized as the undisputed “Heavyweight Champion of the World”. He would hold the title until March of 1897 when he was knocked out by Bob Fitzsimmons in the 14th round in Carson City, Nevada. He would live until 1933, spanning the reign of 12 other heavyweight champions. He would run a boxing academy in San Francisco, and would be welcomed in all the right places. In 1942 Hollywood produced a movie about his life, starring Errol Flynn, called “Gentleman Jim”.
Sullivan’s future was not so glamorous. The Corbett fight was Sullivans last bout (his only loss). Unlike his opponent John L. did not live a healthy life. He indulged in food and drink, became extremely obese and died of heart disease in 1918 at age 59. The irony of it all is that today John L. Sullivan is much more famous than “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. Many consider Sullivan the greatest athlete of the 19th century, nobody thinks that about Corbett. But their fight held in July of 1892 just may be the most important sporting event in history. It mesmerized a nation, and put boxing on the map.
Due to corruption and greed, boxing today has hit a historical low. Let’s hope stories like these can revise the once great sport and put it back into the prominence of days gone by.