Jim Corbett was the first man from the San Francisco Bay Area to win the world heavy weight championship. But most importantly, he became the first to win the title under the Queensberry Rules, a set of rules which have governed the modern era of professional boxing. Despite having only fought 35 bouts, Corbett left an indelible mark on the sport of boxing, giving it a less barbaric taste and introducing the world to science and strategy behind boxing. Often regarded as the “Father of Modern Boxing”, Jim Corbett set the standard for modern fighters with his scientific approach to the sport. This is his story.
James John “Gentleman Jim” Corbett was born on September 1, 1866 in San Francisco, California. His brother, Joe, became a major league pitcher for the Washington Senators, Baltimore Orioles and the Saint Louis Cardinals. After graduating from Sacred Heart High School it has been rumored, but never verified, that he had a college education and was working as a bank clerk before turning to prize fighting. At the time, boxing was largely a bare knuckled affair and lasted as many rounds as 75. It was much more barbaric than the sweet science it is known for today.
The Game Changer
Jim Corbett entered the world of boxing in 1884 where he defeated Joe Choynski in San Francisco. Subsequent victories over Billy Keneally, Professor John Donaldson, Dave Eisemann, William T. Welch and Frank Smith brought him an early rise to prominence. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Gentleman Jim” because he dressed handsomely and used excellent grammar, a rare quality for pugilists of the day. He also earned the reputation as one of the hardest working prizefighters of the day, spending hours upon hours preparing for his next fight and studying his opponent’s tendencies. This quality was rare for a fighter in those days but would quickly become the standard for all aspiring champions.
Through the first six years of his career, Jim Corbett fought all but one of his bouts on the West Coast. That changed in 1890 when he traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana to fight Jake Kilrain, one of the era’s best bare knuckle fighters. After defeating Kilrain by points in six rounds, Gentleman Jim quickly became known as the face of the new era of boxing. In the following two years, Corbett defeated boxers such as Dominick McCaffrey, Ed Kinney and John McCann to earn the opportunity to face John L. Sullivan, the last bare knuckle boxer to hold the heavyweight championship of the world.
A Historic Victory
Since the sport began in 1743, it had been ruled by a set of rules developed by Jack Broughton who is regarded as the father of English boxing. In 1838, Broughton’s original rules were superseded by the London Prize Ring Rules which further developed the basics of the sport. In those rules, a knockdown ended a round, the rest period between rounds was just 30-seconds with an additional eight seconds to get to the center of the ring for the next round; head butting, eye gouging, hitting below the waist and kicking were all banned. At the forefront of the sport’s first major set of rules was the allowance of bare knuckle fighting. While those rules were critical to the development of prizefighting, it was still very much more barbaric than it is today and it quickly became vital that new rules needed to be implemented for the sport to stand the test of time.
In 1867, John Graham Chambers of the Amateur Athletic Club and John Sholto Douglas made a set of rules which forever changed the sport. With Douglas being the ninth marquess of Queensberry, he lent his name to the new guidelines. The new rules required that contestants wear padded gloves, a round consisted of three minutes with a minute of rest in between rounds, wrestling was illegal and any fighter who went down had to get up within 10 seconds unassisted. In those days, Gentleman Jim Corbett was the face of the new rules while John L. Sullivan was the face of the old rules.
On September 7, 1892 in New Orleans, Jim Corbett faced off against John L. Sullivan for the Heavy Weight Championship of the World. It was a clash of style but with the match being governed the Queensberry Rules, Gentleman Jim had the edge. However, Sullivan was not one to go down lightly and fought hard for 21 rounds.
With a crowd of over 10,000 men crammed into Olympic Arena, history was fought before the masses. While Corbett was playing under rules more familiar to himself, he was still outweighed by 25 pounds. From the very beginning, Sullivan pulled no punches and gave Gentleman Jim everything he had.
Early in the first round, Sullivan backed Corbett into a corner where Gentleman Jim noticed Sullivan preparing to give him a right-hand hook. Knowing Sullivan’s tell (tapping his thigh with his left hand), Corbett sidestepped out of the corner before the devastating blow could be landed. Over and over again, Corbett allowed Sullivan to back him into a corner and each time he sidestepped the devastating swings. It was quickly becoming apparent to everyone involved that the new way of boxing was the way of the future as Sullivan slowly became more and more beleaguered as the rounds went by. Finally, in the 21st round, Gentleman Jim Corbett knocked out John L. Sullivan to win the heavyweight championship of the world. The new way had won and prizefighting would never be the same again.
After defeating John L. Sullivan for the world championship, Jim Corbett defended his title twice in the next four years. Beginning in 1897, Corbett began a long slump which would ultimately end his career. At the Race Track Arena in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897, Jim Corbett faced off against England’s Bob Fitzsimmons, losing in 14 rounds. However, his loss versus Fitzsimmons was not a complete loss as a documentary film crew filmed the fight which was then aired from San Francisco all the way to London. As a result, Corbett became a sex symbol for a female audience who were basically barred from attending a boxing match during that era. Not only did Gentleman Jim Corbett gain more than a few additional admirers, but boxing gained a lot more attention.
After losing to Tom Sharkey more than a year later, it appeared that his best days were behind him. However, Jim Corbett was given another chance at again obtaining the world heavyweight title when he fought Jim Jeffries on May 11, 1900 in Coney Island, New York. In a hard fought bought, Corbett was leading in points but was knocked out in the 23rd round.
Three months later, Corbett faced off against Kid McCoy in Madison Square Garden, defeating McCoy in five rounds. Corbett was given one last chance to again obtain the world heavyweight title against Jim Jeffries on August 14, 1903. Fighting in his hometown of San Francisco, Corbett fought with pride at Mechanic’s Pavilion, but lost in 10 rounds and retired after the bout, having won 24 and lost four fights.
After retiring as a prizefighter, Jim Corbett dove fulltime into an acting career which would span for three decades. He starred in such films such as Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894), Actor’s Fund Field Day (1910), The Man from the Golden West (1913), The Burglar and the Lady (1914), The Other Girl (1916), The Prince of Avenue A (1920), Broadway After Dark (1924), Happy Days (1929) and At the Round Table (1930). He also performed in a minstrel show with Cornelius J. O’Brien, one of the better known vaudeville performers of the day. Jim Corbett passed away from liver cancer on February 18, 1933 at the age of 66. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.