Jim Corbett & the Dawn of Modern Boxing (diary entry)

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My teaching consultancy presented me with a new challenge: fight analysis. We are looking back at various fights to see what lessons we can learn from them. Asking where they would like to start they suggested as early back as possible. This was a challenge in its own right. However, the earliest filmed fights of boxing matches provide us with one of the sport’s greatest innovators and pioneers. “Gentleman” Jim Corbett had a reputation for fighting on the outside, using extensive footwork, further developing the jab as a defensive weapon and even for inventing the hook. Corbett fought in the last era of the London Prize Rules, drawing with Peter “Black Prince” Jackson after fighting for 61 rounds amongst many other remarkable fights. He eventually won the world championship from “The Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan in 1892 under the Queensbury Rules, the first time these rules had been applied in such a contest heralding the beggining of the gloved era of boxing.  He lost the title in 1897 to Bob Fitzsimmons and failed to regain it against James J Jefferies in 1900 and 1903.

We looked at three recorded films of Tunney in action. The first was the second ever filmed boxing bout, a specially created piece for the Edison Manufacturing Company for use in a Kinetoscope, a very early motion picture viewing device in 1894. Corbett fought in an exhibition against a virtual unknown called Peter Courtney, where we can see the world champion exhibiting the skills that made him unique. He toys with Courtney throughout the film by using his footwork on the outside. It’s also interesting to note that – much like Jack Johnson – although Corbett was known for his outside boxing skills, he was very adept at using the clinch. This is representative of their times. With the Queensbury Rules being first published in 1867 and only becoming mandatory for professional boxing matches in 1892, this meant there was over 20 years where professional boxers fought under both and hybrid versions of the London Prize Ring and Queensbury rules. The clinch might have been prohibited by the Queensbury Rules, but all the greatest fighters who first fought under them could clinch like experienced wrestlers. The first film also shows how the clinch is split up by the fighters rather than the referee. One of Corbett’s regular tactics was to punch as he posted off his opponent during the break.

The Fitzsimmons bout, which unfortunately is only available in fragments, mainly demonstrates Corbett’s ability. Although some have said that after Corbett dropped Fitzsimmons in round six that the latter renewed his efforts and took charge, others (including me) see Corbett dominating the fight. He literally moves circles around Fitzsimmons whose style is very reminscent of the previous era but with a quirky permanant pull back used to invite opponents forward. Both fighters were defensive by nature. However, a bad judgement by Corbett in the 14th round where he went on the offensive led to Fitzsimmons using what would be known as the “Fitzsimmons shift”. He slipped Corbett’s jab and switched to southpaw as he advanced on an angle and punched his opponent in the solar plexus. Corbett fell. He was completely conscious but felt paralysed by the punch and was unable to beat the count. It’s interesting that Fitzsimmons refused to give Corbett his rematch. Some speculated this was because he didn’t like Corbett who apparently insulted him on the one time they met prior to the bout and others supported the propaganda put forward by Corbett that the punch had been a fluke. Fitzsimmons had actually used the same technique in a controversial bout with Tom Sharkey under similar conditions one year previously. The bout, which was famously refereed by noneother than the famous lawman Wyatt Earp and was technically illegal in most states, saw Sharkey dominate Fitzsimmons until the eighth round. This was where Fitzsimmons dropped him but Sharkey called foul and, to the jeers of the crowd and the subsequent court case, Earp agreed. Regardless of these facts, two years after Fitzsimmons won the world title a training partner of Corbett, James J Jefferies, knocked Fitzsimmons out in round 11. After failing to win a wrestling match against Gus Ruhlin, Fitzsimmons had a rematch against Jefferies and apparently bludgeoned his heavier, taller and younger opponent in the early rounds before being knocked unconscious in the eighth.

Corbett also fought Tom Sharkey and no footage was available to examine the former’s performance. This was their second meeting. The first time had been declared a draw after police interference in round four and was when Corbett was still world champion. Reports on their second meeting after Corbett’s loss to Fitzsimmons has it that an agreement had been made that the two would not punch in the clinch and would break cleanly. It appears that this didn’t work to the advantage Corbett was hoping as Sharkey engaged him in what some contemparies described as a wrestling match and manhandled him throughout before claiming a low blow. Matters got heated with Corbett’s corner getting involved and Sharkey throwing Corbett to the ground. Reports have the match being declared a draw when this chaos ended the bout, but it is is listed as a lost via disqualification for Corbett.

Despite his popularity, many were beginning to suspect that Corbett was no longer the fighter he had been.  Corbett’s only win after his loss to Fitzsimmons was his penultimate career match when he knocked out Kid McCoy, which many consider to have been a fix. Either side of this match Corbett fought Jefferies for the world heavyweight title. We didn’t have footage to review these matches, but the accounts are that Corbett trained so well and fought so well in the first match that it might have been his greatest moment. He was much lighter that Jefferies, he was also shorter and older, but he was on top form. This bout appears to have been the last time the public saw the greatness of Corbett, who kept out of harm’s way for 20 rounds of the 25 round bout. Jeffries corner apparently panicked at this point telling their man to get the knockout or lose the decision. This had been Corbett’s plan all along, to use his stamina to go the distance and score with punches. He done just that. Although the odds had been against him due to the fact that Jeffries had knocked out Fitzsimmons and Peter Jackson and outpointed Tom Sharkey twice, Corbett had apparently marked his opponent well and was on his way to a point victory.  Nothing changed until round 23 when an evasion from one of Jeffries’ hulking punches had Corbett bounce off the ropes straight into a short left to the jaw. After the dubious match with Kid McCoy, Corbett tried again with Jefferies – the betting odds were still against him but had improved since the last bout – but he clearly had left his finest days in their previous encounter. This time it was Jeffries who toyed with Corbett  for nine and a half rounds. Half way through round 10 in what was starting to look like a duplication of his demise at the hands of Fitzsimmons, Corbett was felled with a punch to the stomach. He got back up this time only receive another one and this time, as he struggled to beat the count, his seconds motioned for the referee to stop the fight. Corbett had gone to the mountain too many times and retired from boxing with 24 wins, 12 by knockout and only three losses on his record in an era where fights were rarely legal and often sporadic. He had been defeated by a boxer who had beaten everyone one and had yet to know defeat. Jeffries would fight and win one more time, officially retiring and relinquishing his title with 19 victories, 16 by knockout. However, the story would not be over for him and his next opponent will be the subject of next week’s lesson. This particular event was filmed and even featured Corbett meeting with Jeffries alongside his other old rival, John L Sullivan, who playfully sparred with him for a few seconds.

My client and I had one more piece of footage to watch of Corbett. Aged 59, he was filmed sparring, training and drilling techniques with a man who drew inspiration from him: the then current heavyweight champion of the world, Gene Tunney. The footage, which is clearly of much superior quality to the blurry Victorian moving pictures we had been watching, provided some great opportunities to review a few Corbett’s techniques. His use of a very extended jab is interesting as is his very peculiar uppercut and a trapping method in his clinch that can be found in Karate kata. There are comparisons with modern day MMA fighters like Dominic Cruz who is considered by most to have the greatest footwork in his sport. Gene Tunney is considered by many to be a hugely under-rated fighter, mainly because he dethroned the beloved Jack Dempsey and beat him again in a controversial rematch. Like Corbett, he was known for his outside fighting. However, unlike Corbett, this was not popular with the people who preferred many his well-known brawling opponents. However, it would be wrong to think he couldn’t fight on the inside either. At different points in his career he demonstrated that he could deliver some tremendous body shots. Looking at his profile there is no denying his intelligent ringcraft, clever outside boxing and a near unblemished record. He won 82 of his 88 fights, 49 by knockout, drawing four and losing only one. This loss occurred earlier in his career against Harry Greb who was really more Tunney’s nemesis than even Dempsey, comparable to the Ali and Frazier, Robinson and LaMotta, Duran and Leonard, and the Pacquiao and Marquez rivalries. Tunney avenged his single defeat by beating him twice, the first win being a very controversial one. They then drew and in the fifth and final fight being a decisive victory to Tunney.