Corbett Nearly Reclaimed The Crown

13.07.05 – by MIKE DUNN: When Jim Corbett was an ex-champion, he had the great fortune of being well-acquainted with the manager of the man who became heavyweight champ in 1899, burly Jim Jeffries of California. Bill Brady was Jeffries’ manager of record. The same Brady had been Corbett’s manager when Corbett had beaten John L. Sullivan by a knockout in the 21st round to win the title in September of 1892.

Corbett had been doing fine in retirement, making a nice living on the stage as an actor and, for a time, as the owner of a saloon on Broadway. But Corbett was restless. He was only 33 years old, young and healthy. He wanted to return to the ring and he wanted to win back the heavyweight title.

In March of 1897, Corbett had lost the crown to Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nevada, succumbing to a single blow to the solar plexus by Fitz in the 14th round. Corbett, embarrassed and enraged by the defeat, immediately demanded a rematch. Fitz, who had been treated disdainfully by Corbett and didn’t like him, had no inclination to grant one..

His demands unheeded, Corbett retired for a time, but came back late the following year. The comeback fight against pugnacious Tom Sharkey in November of 1898 proved disastrous, however, when Corbett was disqualified for low blows in the ninth round. Corbett had been getting the worst of it from Sharkey up to that point. Now it appeared that the man known affectionately as Gentleman Jim was out of the picture for good.

Fitz finally defended the title in June of 1899, more than two years after the victory over Corbett. When he climbed into the ring at Brooklyn’s Coney Island Athletic Club, it was against the raw, powerful Jeffries. The fight lasted 11 rounds before Jeff’s youth and superior strength prevailed.

Now Jeff was champ and Corbett saw his opportunity. He went to Brady to plead for another shot at the crown. Brady put Corbett off, believing that Jeff might hurt him. Corbett was nothing if not persistent, though, and Brady eventually acquiesced to his former fighter’s request. Corbett, the ex-champ, would challenge Jeffries on May 11, 1900, at the same Coney Island venue where Jeff had beaten Fitzsimmons. The established distance was 25 rounds.

The problem was that no one thought Corbett had a chance. The only live betting was on how long Corbett would last against the powerful new champion.

Corbett added fuel to the fire when he sent one of his friends to ask referee Charley White not to allow Jeffries to maul in the clinches. Corbett contended that Jeffries’ physical mauling inside had worn down Fitzsimmons and opened the door for Jeffries to knock him out. Corbett didn’t intend to allow the same thing to happen to him.

After giving his OK for the fight, Brady didn’t take kindly to Corbett’s course of action. “Let Corbett stop trying to teach the referee his business,” Brady retorted. “Jeffries never has sought an edge and never will.”

Corbett coolly responded, “Jeffries is going to find out that he’ll have to fight my fight.”

Even those sparks between the rival camps didn’t do much to help the gate, however. The public expected a mismatch and on fight night, little more than half of the seats were taken at the large indoor arena.

It didn’t matter much to Corbett. He had his eye on the prize and nothing else mattered. He had trained long and hard, working with Gus Ruhlin to develop a style that would be effective against Jeffrie’s vaunted crouch. Corbett believed firmly that he would leave that night with the title in hand.

The 6-foot-1 Corbett weighed 188 pounds, just four pounds more than when he had defended against Fitzsimmons. He was in tremendous physical condition. The powerful 6-2 Jeffries weighed 218 pounds, the heaviest of his career. Was this an indication that he, too, thought Corbett was in over his head. Against Fitzsimmons, Jeff had tipped the scale at 206. Would the heavier weight affect the champ’s stamina if the fight lasted the full 25 rounds?

For the Fitzsimmons fight, Jeffries had developed a strategy of crouching to his right and holding his left straight out. It worked beautifully.

Now it was time for the tables to be turned on Jeff. Corbett had developed a strategy of his own while working with Ruhlin in the gym. Corbett would jab with his left at the crouching Ruhlin, then move quickly to his side and out of harm’s way before Ruhlin could counter. Like the strategy employed by Jeff against Fitzsimmons, the tactic employed by Corbett against Jeffries worked to perfection.

Corbett began to find the range right away with his stinging left jabs. Jeff would advance, only to be frustrated like a bull chasing a matador. This pattern continued round after round, Corbett controlling the action with his superior ring generalship. Corbett was older than the 25-year-old champion, but he was much nimbler.

Corbett virtually shut out the champion through the first 10 rounds. Jeffries just couldn’t land a clean blow.

The challenger’s jabbing and moving continued to frustrate Jeffries through the 11th and 12th rounds. In the 13th round, Jeffries finally cornered Corbett and landed his first telling blows of the fight. Corbett shook it off, though, and soon maneuvered away from the corner.

Corbett was slowing down, but it didn’t keep him from continuing to dominate the slower champion in the 14th, 15th and 16th rounds. In the 14th, a straight left by Corbett stunned the champ.

The tide began to turn in the 17th, however. Jeffries’ pure brute strength and tenacity was finally wearing down the challenger. Corbett’s legs weren’t able to carry him safely out of harm’s way as in the earlier frames. Now it was Jeffries who was controlling the action, forcing the fight.

Jeffries was raining clubbing blows on Corbett inside. Though few of them landed cleanly, they were taking a gradual toll. In the 19th round, Jeff got home with a right and Corbett went down briefly.

Now it was a matter of Corbett lasting through 25 rounds. If he was able to, his early lead would almost certainly be enough to win the decision and regain the heavyweight championship.

Jeffries, his face badly bruised and swelling, plodded unrelentingly after the challenger in the 20th through the 22nd round. Corbett was weary but he was still on his feet.

Here is the account of the fateful 23rd round from the Durango Democrat newspaper: “The finishing blow came suddenly and was a startling surprise. Corbett had been making a wonderful battle. His defense was absolutely perfect, and while he was lacking in strength, he had more than held his own and stood an excellent chance of winning the fight had it gone the limit. He had not been badly punished and had managed to mark his man severely. The winning punch was a short left to the jaw. Corbett dropped like weight and was clear out. Jeffries showed his ability to take punishment at any distance and hard. He was clearly outboxed and at times was made to look like a novice. The crowd, which numbered fully eight thousand, was with Corbett and his defeat fell upon a silent crowd. There were cheers for him when he revived and left the ring, and he was generally given more consideration than the victor. Corbett is still a factor in pugilistic fame. He has regained much of his old time form. The battle was clean and it is doubtful if there was a single infraction of the rules.”

Jeffries’ crudeness had been exposed by a master boxer. If the fight had been over 15 rounds or even 20, there is no doubt who the winner would have been. But the fight was for 25 rounds and, in the end, that made the difference. It is a credit to the tenacious Jeffries that he still had enough left in his arsenal to take Corbett out with one left in the 23rd round.

When Bill Brady made the match with Corbett, this certainly wasn’t what he envisioned. It wasn’t Corbett who had taken the beating, as Brady thought. Instead, it was Jeffries. The great consolation for Brady was the outcome. His fighter looked like the loser, but his fighter was the one who had his hand raised at the end.

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