Cox's Corner

James J. Corbett, “Turning Point in Pugilism”

By: Monte Cox

Anyone can learn to lay a brick but it takes a master brick layer to turn a corner. James J. Corbett was a revolutionary boxing master who turned the corner in the sport of boxing from the rough and tumble days of the bare knuckle era into a modern sport of skill and finesse. “Gentleman” Jim was the first heavyweight boxer to win the championship of the world under Marquis of Queensbury rules. As a fighter Corbett was more than an innovator he was a rare boxing genius who was considered the greatest fighter of his time. After successfully defending his title against Charley Mitchell the Sept 10, 1894 National Police Gazette reported, “Corbett is still champion. He proves to be the greatest fighter of modern times.” Bob Burrill, author of Who’s Who in Boxing wrote “Corbett marked the turning point in ring history, replacing mauling sluggers with the new school of faster, scientific boxers.” Jim Corbett was a trailblazer who helped develop boxing into the sport of skill that we know today. There are three factors that made Corbett a great boxer and a revolutionary figure; his fleet footwork, the development of his left jab and hook and his understanding of ring psychology.

Before the arrival of Corbett onto the scene boxing was very much a sport that resembled no holds bared fighting more than it did modern boxing. “To be sure”, said Bob Fitzsimmons, who fought in both bare knuckle and gloved matches, “the rough and tumble boys were game.” But they were strangers to what he called “the leg qualities.” Corbett’s footwork was a revelation. His use of quick sidestepping, circling, maneuvering and defense demonstrated that one could hit without being hit in return.

Rex Lardner said of Corbett in The Legendary Champions, “No heavyweight ever approached him in the ability to ride with a punch (and so remove part of its sting); slip a punch; make his opponent lead before he was ready and then counter with piston like jabs; feint an opponent into committing a defensive maneuver and then attack the newly vulnerable area; or drift just out of reach of a punch a split second before it reached its intended target. No other heavyweight and few in the lighter weights ever approached his clever, gliding, instinctive footwork.”

Joe Donoghue, who had worked years earlier as Corbett’s trainer stated in Nat Fleischer’s book “Gentleman Jim” – The Story of James J. Corbett, “good left-hand performers were rather scarce, especially among the big fellows.” Donoghue recalled how the fighter had discovered that his left hand had less strength than his right. Corbett worked on his left in painstaking fashion shooting that hand into a cushion to improve his stamina and his accuracy and by practicing his technique in sparring sessions. In time Corbett would have a left jab unrivaled by anyone in the game.

Corbett is also credited with being the inventor of the left hook, one of the deadliest punches in boxing. According to legend it was during a match with his arch nemesis Joe Choynski that Corbett first used a hooking punch with his left hand. The two met on May 30, 1889 and the bout was broken up after four rounds by police but not before Jim suffered a broken right thumb. They met again a week later on June 5th this time fighting on a barge near Fairfax, Ca. where the bout could go on uninterrupted. They fought with 3 ounce gloves. In the third round Corbett using only his left hand broke two knuckles on that hand after landing a hard blow to the head. Now what was Corbett to do? Being a smart fighter and innovator Corbett began to arc his blows using the thumb side of his left hand so that his fore knuckle connected, saving his broken knuckles. At that moment he had invented the left hook. Incidentally Corbett won the bout on a 27th round knockout.

At the age of 59 Corbett sparred three rounds with heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Grantland Rice, one of the great sportswriters of the era saw the exhibition and wrote, “Tunney was on the defensive. Corbett was brilliant. He still had bewildering speed! He mixed up his punches better than practically any fighter I’ve ever seen.”

Tunney who spoke often with Corbett said Jim could talk better about boxing than any other man that he had ever known. Corbett was always talking about defensive boxing. Tunney stated, The Saturday Evening Post Magazine February 10, 1940, “He told me he used to draw diagrams of defensive boxing problems, charting the position of feet and the movements of footwork. He'd diagram his position in a corner of the ring, and his opponent's position, and sketch the way he would feint and side-step, eluding a rush. It was something like a dancer charting foot positions of a new dance--always a defensive dance with Gentleman Jim.”

Corbett made his reputation by fighting a grueling 61 round epic draw with the great Peter Jackson. The “Black Prince” as Jackson was known was considered by many as the best fighter in the world. At 6’1” 210 pounds Jackson was considered a magnificent specimen of fighting prowess. The reigning champion John L. Sullivan refused to fight Jackson by drawing the “color line” saying, “I have never fought a Negro and I never shall.” Corbett had no such reservations. The betting was 5-1 on Jackson. The two met on May 21, 1891 at San Francisco, Ca.

In the opening session Jackson swarmed all over Corbett. Jackson tried to knock Corbett out right in the first round. Corbett had never had to move so quickly to escape his opponents blows before. He ducked, danced, clinched and tried to keep Jackson at bay with quick jabs but was only partially successful at doing so. Jackson pressed the fight in the early rounds. In the 16th a hard right to the body by Jackson hurt Corbett. Then Corbett began to counter Jackson with his own jabs to the body. Corbett used his left shoulder to press against Jackson on the inside to keep from getting nailed by Jackson’s powerful uppercuts. Corbett also began countering Jackson’s uppercut with snapping left hooks. In the 28th round a flurry of punches had Jackson in trouble, but by the 30th round both men began to wind down and tire. The bout then became one of endurance and it was eventually called due to exhaustion on the parts of both men and declared a draw. One thing was for certain, the only fighter who was going to get better at this point was Corbett.

Corbett was a firm believer in ring psychology, that one should never show fear and put all doubt in the opponent. In his bout with Peter Jackson the black man had a superstition regarding that he always enter the ring last. Corbett refused. The two finally agreed to enter at the same time. Corbett ducked in his head like he was going to climb into the ring and so Jackson climbed in, and then Corbett ducked out and entered the ring last to upset his opponent. A well known and true story is when Sullivan and Corbett had went night clubbing together some time prior to Corbett's fight with Peter Jackson. In each bar Sullivan would announce how he could lick any man in the house. Corbett finally tired of the tirade and stood up to Sullivan and so much as told him to shut up. After that Sullivan became more respectful towards Corbett. It is, says Corbett, “one of the most important things to get over in a fight: the short-ender should always try and convince his opponent that he himself hasn’t lost heart and feels sure he will be the victor.”

The death knell was sounded on an era when Corbett laid on Sullivan a sound boxing lesson when he won the heavyweight title. Corbett easily frustrated the bullish rushes of Sullivan with speed, maneuverability, fast jabbing and quick counter punching. Corbett made Sullivan look like a wild swinging Neanderthal as he literally boxed circles around Sullivan. By the fifth round a right hand had bloodied Sullivan’s nose. Corbett’s jabs kept Sullivan off balance and continually speared his face, while an occasional right hand to the body wore him down further. By the 14th Sullivan was offering little resistance. In the 21st round a right hand to the jaw knocked the once mighty John L. out for the count. Boxing had turned the corner from the old bare knuckle brawling days of “the raw uns” to the new age of scientific boxing.

Corbett lost the title on an upset to the freakish hitter Bob Fitzsimmons when caught by the now famous “solar plexus punch,” but not before Corbett gave Bob a thorough boxing lesson along the way. Corbett’s left jab befuddled Fitz in the early rounds of the fight. The film footage that exists also shows Corbett landing some pretty good body shots on several occasions. Corbett bloodied Fitz’s mouth, dropped him in the 6th round for a short count and dominated him with speed, mobility and clever out boxing. Fitzsimmons was not the boxer that Corbett was but he had his own bag full of tricks. Corbett had been pulling himself out of range of Fitz’s right hand all night. Suddenly Fitz feinted with his right and then let go with his left to the body. Corbett went down paralyzed. His wits were about him but he was unable to move. That was how Corbett lost the heavyweight title.

Jim desperately wanted a rematch because he knew he had clearly dominated Fitzsimmons up to that point. Corbett told Robert, “That was a lucky punch. You’ll have to fight me again.” To which Fitzsimmons replied, “I will never fight you again.” And he never did. It seems Fitz knew that he was really no match for Corbett in the boxing department.

Corbett did get another shot at the heavyweight title to Fitzsimmons eventual conqueror Jim Jeffries. Corbett completely outclassed Jeffries. He was amazing that night, boxing with superb skill, frustrating Big Jeff and making him look like an amateur. For twenty-three rounds Corbett shelled the boilermaker with an array of clever punches and movement while pitching a virtual shutout. He had the fight won; only two more rounds to go and he'd have the championship back again. Corbett was already reading the headlines of his victory when Jeff caught him coming off the ropes with a big left hook that flattened him.

There is no question that James J. Corbett was a peerless ring general who took the art of boxing to the next level. The great light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran was a favorite of Corbett and Jim used to go see all of his fights. Loughran in an interview with Peter Heller said that Corbett told him he used to dream of doing the things that he saw Loughran do in the ring but never had the chance to do them. When Loughran questioned Jim about what he meant, Corbett explained that he use to work in the gym on the things that he saw Loughran perform in his fights but because he had so few actual fights he never had the chance to do them. Loughran who at the time had about 175 fights understood what he meant. Corbett enjoyed watching Tommy because he could appreciate what he was doing while most of the audience had no idea. Loughran said, “I would be using footwork or stepping in and out, and the one thing the fighter wouldn’t realize was that I was inching in and I would hit him and he wouldn’t know how it was done. But Corbett could see that watching from the audience, but the other people, not even the seconds, didn’t know.” There are some fighters that are difficult to appreciate unless one really understands all the subtleties of boxing, Tommy Loughran was like that, and Joe Louis although different in style is another. If not for Jim Corbett there may never have been a Tommy Loughran, Joe Louis or modern boxing as we know it.