Illuminations: James J. Corbett, Gentleman Jim
By: J. Michael Finn
James John Corbett was born to Irish immigrant parents in San Francisco, California on September 1, 1866. His father, Patrick Corbett, immigrated to San Francisco from Ballinrobe, County Mayo in 1854. Patrick supported his family of ten children by running a livery stable. James Corbett described the street of his childhood home as a dirt track whose major businesses were saloons.
Corbett’s parents hoped for a life in the priesthood for their son, who was named after his father’s brother, a Catholic priest in County Mayo. However, after James was twice expelled from school for fighting, Corbett’s parents had to admit that Jim was not destined for the priesthood.
At the age of 14, Corbett found work as a clerk for a local company. He did well at this job. He then found a job with a banker who was one of his father’s customers. Starting out as a messenger, he rose through the ranks over the next six years to become a bank teller.
While working as a bank teller, Corbett practiced boxing in amateur matches at night. Although a right-hander, Corbett developed a powerful left punch. It is claimed that he invented the left hook. The young boxer began his boxing career when he joined the Olympic Athletic Club.
Under the guidance of their coach, he soon became the club’s middleweight champion, and at the age of 18, he was the club’s heavyweight champion. He was a Golden Gloves Champion and also won seven Silver Championship Cups in amateur boxing.
At the age of 20, Corbett began his professional career in Salt Lake City.
He won his first professional match in 1886, earning a prize of $460.
After winning another bout in Utah, Corbett returned to San Francisco, where he worked for an insurance company.
In San Francisco, a match was planned between Corbett and Joe Choynski in 1889, but the local police stopped it. So, they had to fight unadvertised in a barn in remote Marin County. They went five rounds before the sheriff stopped the fight (boxing was illegal in most states).
A week later they fought on a barge north of San Francisco Bay, out of the jurisdiction of local police. The fight lasted 28 rounds. Corbett won the fight with a knock-out. Corbett was so dazed by the contest that he had to be told that he had won the fight.
Corbett became known as “Gentleman Jim” because he was always elegantly dressed and well-mannered. Now firmly established as a professional boxer, he quit his job at the insurance company to devote full time to boxing. His fame spread to New Orleans, where he fought New York boxer Jake Kilrain, who had just defeated England’s champion after an astonishing 106 round fight. He then defeated Dominick McCaffrey at Brooklyn’s Casino Rink in April 1890.
“Gentleman Jim” was the first fighter to develop the “science” of boxing. In the ring, he combined the use of footwork and punches to defeat his opponents, instead of relying on just brute force. He studied his opponents before a match to find their weaknesses and then devised a plan on how best to defeat them.
Returning in triumph to San Francisco, Corbett added a new career. In 1890, he was cast in his first play, in a small role alongside the famous actor Maurice Barrymore. Corbett found acting an extension of his desire to be in the spotlight and pursued other acting opportunities. He eventually became a stage celebrity on the west coast.
In 1892, Corbett hired a new manager, William Brady. He began booking Corbett in plays in New York City. One play, Gentleman Jack, written by Charles T. Vincent, was written specially for Corbett and featured Corbett in the lead role as a boxer. Advertising posters for the play promoted Corbett as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, much to the dismay of the person who actually was the heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan.
Sullivan had been avoiding a fight with Corbett, but he could not pass up the opportunity to prove the posters wrong. The fight was scheduled for September 7, 1892 in New Orleans. Sullivan was older and stronger and was favored to win with 4-to-1 odds. Even Corbett’s manager had placed a bet on Sullivan “just in case.”
During the fight, Corbett successfully evaded most of Sullivan’s blows in the first two rounds, and scored a devastating hit to Sullivan’s face, breaking his nose. Corbett wore his opponent down by dancing around him, and then dashing in to place well-aimed blows before Sullivan could react. The fight lasted 21 rounds, and Corbett finally finished him off with a knockout when Sullivan was too tired to put up much of a fight.
The Sullivan-Corbett fight was the first world heavyweight champion fight to be fought under Marquis of Queensberry Rules. These rules required the use of padded boxing gloves. Before these rules were adopted, matches were fought with bare knuckles.
The champion defended his new title very rarely. He treasured his title and viewed it as the ultimate promotional tool for his two main sources of income, theatrical performances and boxing exhibitions.
In 1893 he began a national tour with the play “Gentleman Jack,” which included Ohio. On January 1, 1893, he performed in Columbus to record crowds. In November 1893, Corbett fought John Donaldson in Cleveland in an exhibition bout designed to promote the play.
After defending his title in several bouts, in 1897 Corbett accepted a title challenge from Bob Fitzsimmons, the reigning middleweight champion of the world. They squared off in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897.
The fight started well for Corbett. By the sixth round it had become a barroom brawl, with both fighters swinging furiously. Corbett threw a swift right to the jaw and Fitzsimmons went down for a nine-count. By the twelfth round, Fitzsimmons had taken control.
In the thirteenth round Fitzsimmons hit Corbett with a sharp jab that sent one of Corbett’s gold teeth flying into ringside seats. Fitzsimmons shot a right to the heart and a left that landed with paralyzing force to Corbett’s solar plexus. Corbett was down and was counted out. Bob Fitzsimmons had won the title. The fight was filmed, which became the first feature-length movie. You can watch most of the silent film today on the internet.
Corbett made one final attempt in regain the heavyweight title, fighting James J. Jeffries in 1903, at the age of 37, but he lost this match in the tenth round. He vowed then to retire from boxing and devote himself full time to his acting career on the stage and in the movies. In 1925 he wrote his autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd.
Corbett, who fundamentally changed the sport of boxing, spent his final years with his wife Vera in Bayside, New York, where he died on February 18, 1933 of liver cancer. He had no children. Corbett is quoted as saying: “You become a champion by fighting one more round. When things are tough, you fight one more round.”
The movie Gentleman Jim was released in 1942 by Warner Brothers and starred Errol Flynn in the title role as James J. Corbett. It was based on Corbett’s autobiography and was focused mainly on the John L. Sullivan fight. It is considered by some critics to be one of the best boxing films ever made.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].