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Greatest Fights; James J Corbett vs. John L Sullivan

Updated on May 22, 2014

Gentleman Jim Corbett

Greatest Fights;Boxing History

Long before the Ultimate Fighting Championship there was boxing; and fans waited with anticipation to see who the next Heavyweight Boxing Champion would be.

As a child I was very energetic, my parents could hardly control me and they rarely tried. However, one summer we were visiting friends who did not have children and lived in a very sophisticated nice home; this meant that I was not allowed to do gymnastics in the house. I ended up wondering round the house trying to find something to do and ended up flipping through a large book with lots of pictures about history out of total boredom.

Suddenly, I came across a photo of a handsome man, who in my 8 year old opinion, was the ultimate handsome, charming gentleman. It read, Gentleman Jim Corbett under the photo. This got my curiosity and I wondered who Gentleman Jim was, he looked so likable, with a easy smile, and fine tailored clothes. I continued to read the caption under the photo that read, "The First Title Fight." and other words like "knockout" and "rounds" kind of hit me at the same time. This beautiful and distinguished looking man was in a fight? I looked at the photo next to Gentleman Corbett to find a fat mean looking man posing with his fists up that read, John L Sullivan, a villainous name, I thought, and was immediately saddened by the vision of this nasty, tough looking man fighting, and presumably beating Gentleman Jim in a fight. The rest of the paragraph read something like, Gentleman Jim Corbett knocked out John L Sullivan in 21 rounds to become the first heavy weight boxing champion. James J Corbett beat the villainous monster, John L Sullivan! I was hooked on boxing history from that moment on.

John L Sullivan

The Boston Strong Boy
The Boston Strong Boy

Battle of New Orleans 1892

It was called "The Battle of New Orleans". On September 7, 1892, bare knuckle champion John L Sullivan, who had never lost a bout, put on the gloves to fight James J Corbett, and the winner would be crowned heavyweight champion of the world. It would be Gentleman Jim Corbett against the Boston Strong Boy. Mr. Sullivan was 35 pounds heavier than Corbett and was considered to be the crowd favorite.

Sullivan charged Gentleman, only to find himself reeling from the barrage of jabs and uppercuts his fast and agile opponent delivered. Corbett represented the "new" scientific fighting style that was to become modern boxing, and Sullivan represented the old brawler style. In 1892 the fights did not have a set number of rounds, it was a fight to the finish. By the 21st round the former bare knuckle brawler, John L Sullivan was groggy and beaten, and after landing a tremendous left Sullivan was knocked out. When Mr. Sullivan was able to get back to his feet he announced to the crowd, "if I had to lose I am glad I lose to an American."

Corbett, 1897
Corbett, 1897

Gentleman Jim's Story Lives On

James J. Corbett lived from 1866-1933, and in that time he appeared on the musical stage, and in silent movies, often playing himself, or the strong man hero of the film. He also performed sparring sessions for the movie cameras to demonstrate his scientific boxing style.

As Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, he successfully defened his title only once before losing to Bob Fitzismmons. It must be noted that boxing was not entirely legal at the time, and was very dangerous with no regulations, therefore, fights were announced quietly, and underground sketchers would draw images for the morning newspapers. The fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons was the first Heavyweight Championsip fight that was filmed.

In 1942 Errol flynn played Corbett in a movie titled Gentleman Jim. Flynn was the perfect actor to play the tall, dark boxer, he exuded sophistication, arrogance, and beauty, just as one imagines Corbet to be.

Bob Fitzsimmons

Corbett vs. Fitszimmons

James J. Corbett did not hold the title for very long. In Carson City Nevada, the year of 1897 Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Corbett. It was not an easy victory for Fitzsimmons. Corbett displayed superior boxing skills, and thorougly out boxed Bob in the early rounds, even knowking Fitz down in the 6th round. Corbett was cocky and somehow Fitz landed a lucky punch. It was to be nicknamed "the solar plexus punch" because Corbett went down holding his mid section and was temporarily paralyzed. Corbett wanted a rematch and reminded Bob, "you caught me with a lucky punch", to which Fitzsimmons responded, "I will never fight you again." Bob Fitzsimmons was true to his word.

Ever since Corbett upset the brawling Sullivan the question that old timers love to argue about is, who has the biggest advantage, the boxers or the sluggers?

The debate continued for decades, while half of the boxing fans favored the big brawny sluggers and the other half put their cash on the fancy footed boxers.


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      Ghost32 6 years ago

      Skarlet: Glad you qualified, i.e. "ALMOST never a great puncher...." As in the case of Ingemar Johansson when he knocked Floyd Patterson colder'n a mackerel.

      Of course (as I'm sure you well know), Floyd evened things up when he thoroughly thumped the Swede & got his title back in 1960. But he was definitely dethroned for a while there!

      Voted Up and More.

    • Skarlet profile image

      Skarlet 6 years ago from California

      Thank you David. I do have some unusual interests. I can still talk historical boxing endlessly. I am sure that your grandfather is right about Sullivan winning the fight if it had ended earlier. A long fight favors the "boxers" over the "punchers". As I have grown up, I can appreciate john L Sullivan too. Although, think most men liked him better because he was the 1800's version of Dempsey, Foreman, or even Louis. Boxing fans love discussing whether the modern boxers could beat the old champs. I actually like watching Jersey Joe Walcott vs. Joe Louis, the fight where Walcott actually won, but Louis got the decision. I think a clever boxer like Walcott is what it would take to beat Louis in his prime. If you look at the history of the great punchers, you will see that it is almost never a great puncher who dethrones the champ, but someone who can outbox them. Hey! I feel another hub coming on!

    • Writer David profile image

      Writer David 6 years ago from Mobile, AL

      Skarlett, you impress me more and more! What a great hub! Ironically, my grandfather was a great boxing fan. This Sullivan-Corbett fight took place 10 years before he was born. He was a big John L Sullivan fan though. He stated if the fight would have gone 15 rounds (which was the norm when he was alive), Sullivan would have won. We'll never know. But, he said the best fighter he ever saw was Joe Louis. He liked Marciano. Marciano caught Louis at the end of his career. My grandfather went to his grave believing Joe Louis in his prime would have knocked out Marciano. I don't know about that. We'll never know again. I really enjoyed this hub. I am so glad to be following you!