Corbett vs. Fitzsimmons: The Fight of the Century

james j. corbett14.03.07 - By Sam Gregory: On St. Patrick’s Day March 17, 1897 in Carson City, Nevada heavyweight champion of the world James J. Corbett lost the heavyweight title to Bob Fitzsimmons in what came to be known as “The Fight of the Century.”

Jim Corbett was the reigning heavyweight champion having won the title in 1892 from John L. Sullivan at “The Battle of New Orleans.” Corbett was considered the first heavyweight champion of the “Queensberry Era” rules of boxing. The end of the bare-knuckle brawling days, it marked a turning point for the sport of boxing. One of the rules stated heavyweight fighters must wear gloves in a championship bout.

Not only was this fight considered a classic by boxing standards, in 1897 it also exceeded all expectations for a financial endeavor of any kind.

In “The Fight of the Century” Fitzsimmons earned a purse of $15,000, took Corbett’s stake money of $10,000 and pocketed $13,000 from the Edison Picture Company which filmed the event. The total expenditure brought by this fight was, for 1897, the staggering amount of $2,700,000. Of that money, $1,300,000 was paid to telegraph companies for ticker and special wire service for newspaper and private dispatches. Betting on the bout had been equally colossal. One bookmaker from San Francisco had to employ four Pinkerton detectives to guard two bags of gold worth $150,000 which had to be paid out the day after the fight.

The heavyweight fight that took place that spring day in Carson City is still to this day considered a true ring classic. A battle between two of the greatest most prestigious prize fighters of all time was one that boxing fans will never forget.

Before coming to the U.S. in the spring of 1890, Bob Fitzsimmons fought as a professional in Australia for seven years leaving that country as a middleweight champion. By January of 1891 Fitz fought and knocked out “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. He defended that title just once before setting his sites on the heavyweight title held by Jim Corbett.

When the two finally did meet in March of 1897, 30 year old Jim Corbett was in his fifth year as the reigning heavyweight champion. He outweighed 34 year old Fitzsimmons by sixteen pounds.

As the two men made their way from their dressing rooms down the tunnel to the ring a roar from the crowd could already be heard. In center ring John L. Sullivan and Nevada’s Governor Sadler were introduced to the crowd. Earlier, Tom Sharkey had clambered into the ring and challenged the winner for $5,000 a side, $500 of which had already been deposited.

The weights of the two fighters were announced as 167 lbs. for Fitzsimmons, 183 lbs. for Corbett.

Gloves having been tied on both men referee George Siler ordered “Shake hands, gents.”

Corbett went over to Fitzsimmons corner to oblige but was ignored.

The bell sounded and the battle for world supremacy began.

Early punches were exchanged with caution though Fitzsimmons suffered a dislocated thumb from one of the first punches of the first round.

The pace of the fight picked up in the second round with Corbett landing a few solid punches to Fitzsimmons head. According to ring experts at the time Fitzsimmons disliked punches to his head and Corbett was determined to exploit that belief.

Corbett continued landing left jabs and over hand rights to the head that were clearly wearing his opponent down; by the forth round Jim was ahead on the scorecards.

(That’s according to the press and many of the ringside observer’s.)

When I personally watched a tape of the fight Corbett looked to be throwing and landing more punches.

Both men were showing fatigue, sweating profusely and breathing hard as the high altitude began taking its toll early on in the fighters.

Even though Fitzsimmons had been on the receiving end of the power shots landed, he drew first blood with a punch landed directly on Corbett’s mouth.

As the fight progressed to the fifth and sixth rounds Fitzsimmons became more aggressive fighting at a more up-close faster pace. In that rally Fitz landed several hard punches to Corbett’s head; in a fast comeback Gentleman Jim landed a combination to Fitzsimmons face drawing blood from his upper lip and nose.

By the sixth round the fight turned into what most ringside observers described as a bar-room brawl. Both men were throwing wild punches that usually failed to connect doing a lot of clinching and wrestling in the center of the ring.

By this time blood was spurting from Fitzsimmons’ nose covering his body and gloves with blood. The arms and gloves of Corbett were also splattered with blood. Two more shots to the face from Corbett snapped Fitzsimmons head back and had him chocking on his own blood. Corbett landed another right cross to Fitzsimmons jaw that dropped him to his knees.

Referee George Siler began counting, to slow as Corbett complained and Fitzsimmons took full advantage of every second with the crowd going wild thinking the fight was over. Fitzsimmons was up at the count of nine and battled his way through the rest of the round.

Through the next few rounds Corbett was still ahead in the fight but began throwing and landing punches with less frequency. Corbett became more and more careless as the fight continued. Fitzsimmons landed a punch to Jim’s shoulder that sent him into the ropes; with that Fitz followed up with a hard right to the jaw staggering the champion.

Fitzsimmons took control of the fight becoming the aggressor through the tenth, eleventh and twelfth rounds.

In the thirteenth round Fitzsimmons landed a short, sharp punch to the mouth of Corbett sending one his gold teeth flying to the canvas and ricocheting to ringside.

It was Corbett that regained control of the fight in the fourteenth round with several left jabs to Fitzsimmons already damaged nose.

Than from a clinch, Corbett telegraphed another jab which is what Fitz had been waiting for from the beginning. It was at that point when Fitzsimmons saw a clean opening to Corbett’s stomach; Fitz brought his right foot forward and simultaneously threw a thundering power left uppercut landing in Corbett’s solar plexus. It’s what has become known as boxing’s most famous single punch that landed with a resounding thump; the “bolo punch”

With eyes bugging out, Corbett grasped at the ropes feverishly as he sank to the floor while being counted out by the ref. The fight was over. The crowd erupted and in spite of a threat from the Nevada police and Pinkerton detectives that any man would be shot that crossed the ropes, the huge crowd swarmed into the ring.

That St Patrick’s Day in Carson City history was made and a new heavyweight champion was crowned.

Article posted on 14.03.2007

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