Gentleman Jim Corbett and the man he wouldn't fight

The most talked-about prize fight of 1893 in Kansas City was the anticipated bout between Jim Corbett and English champion James Mitchell. It would be Corbett’s first defense of the heavyweight boxing title since his defeat of John L. Sullivan at the Olympic Club in New Orleans the previous year in what is usually regarded as the first title match held under the Queensberry Rules. Unlike the bare-knuckle, last-man-standing fights of the past, the fighters wore gloves and fought three minute rounds with rests between.

John L. SullivanJohn L. Sullivan, who was in Kansas City in October to appear in a play at the Gillis opera house , predicted that Corbett and Mitchell would fight in Roby, Indiana, despite resistance of that state’s governor to the match: “I guess they will meet there sure. There is too big a kick being made by the gospel guys in Brooklyn,” he told a Star reporter, referring to opposition to staging the fight at Coney Island. The citizens, commented the New York Times on the same subject, “do not want to have any such gathering of the thieves, man killers, proudly exhibiting revolvers with notched butts, recording their murders; gamblers, and ‘pugs’ as New Orleans has witnessed at the fights which have been held there.”

Corbett, Sullivan said, had the better of his opponent in height and reach and should win: “The fight will be a long one. Both are wonderfully clever and shifty.” Whoever wins, Sullivan told a Journal  reporter, he would likely be challenged by Peter Jackson, a black Australian originally from Jamaica, whom Sullivan had refused to fight.

If Mitchell wins the Corbett fight, said Sullivan, he won’tPeter Jackson fight Jackson: “Mitchell is like I am…. He would not fight any one but a white man.” It would be different if Corbett wins: Corbett and Jackson had fought a 61 round match in 1891 which was declared no contest because both boxers were too exhausted to continue, so Corbett, said Sullivan, “will have to fight him. The black fellow can fight. I ain’t saying he can’t; but, I say, let them fight among themselves. But Corbett has fought him once, and if he wins he will have to fight Jackson, or give up his claims to the championship.”

Sullivan then “in highly ornamental language… expressed it as his most decided opinion that a white man who would meet a black man in the ring ought to get whipped, and whipped very badly.”

Jackson had been in Kansas City six months earlier, appearing as Uncle Tom in a stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also at the Gillis. The American Citizen  reported that the “colored people of the two Kansas Citys and suburban towns formed a considerable part” of the audience. Jackson’s manager told the Citizen reporter that the fighter in his role was none too happy to be “compelled to submit to a licking, be sold on the block and die in the last act every night.”  

As to the Corbett-Mitchell fight, Jackson’s manager also expected Corbett to win but suggested that Corbett had been avoiding a rematch with Jackson, who “should have had preference to Mitchell, since the Englishman “has no claim to the championship of any country and lays no claim to any such title,” while Jackson was the “undisputed champion of Australia and England…. Peter is badly handicapped,” continued the manager, “in the matter of getting on engagements for the world championship. His color is one point raised against him. Sullivan barred him on that account and now Corbett gives Mitchell the first call on the flimsy pretext that he has a personal insult to wipe out with Mitchell.” Unlike Sullivan, the manager believed that if Corbett did defeat Mitchell there would be “no telling” if he would be willing to take on Jackson.

Boxing had a contested status in the 1890s. While famous champions like Corbett, Sullivan, Jackson and lightweightSulllivan play poster champion Jack McAuliffe were regarded as the epitome of manliness and appeared before middle class Kansas City audiences in drawing room melodramas, the staging of fights was illegal in most states, including Missouri. Missouri’s law threatened anyone who challenged another to fight a prize fight or accepted such a challenge, or trained for such a fight, or assisted in a fight as “backer, umpire, second, surgeon or assistant” with a jail term of not less than two years.

While religious leaders inveighed against the sport, professional fights occurring in the few places that allowed or tolerated them were closely followed by the “sports” of Kansas City. The Times printed a blow-by-blow front-page report on a middleweight title fight in March in New Orleans between two Australians, Jim Hall and Robert Fitzsimmons, for a purse of $40,000. The fight was the “all absorbing topic of conversation among all classes,” said the Times, and a crowd gathered around the newspaper’s office at fight time to wait for bulletins, blocking the street “from curb to curb.”

Pool rooms in the West Bottoms were “jammed to the doors with enthusiastic lovers of pugilism and there were as many more outside struggling to get in. It looked as if the entire local sporting element was present and the crowds surged up and down the muddy sidewalks, hungry for private tips on the result.”

Jim CorbettJim Corbett was in Kansas City at the time of the Fitzsimmons fight, acting at the Grand theatre in a play, “Gentleman Jack,” written expressly for him. The play’s “crowning climax” reported the Kansas City Times, was a prize fight in a reproduction of the New Orleans club where Corbett had defeated Sullivan. Of the Fitzsimmons fight, Corbett commented, “I don’t like a hair on Fitzsimmons’ head and had $200 on Hall … but I believe in giving every man his due. It simply means that Fitz is the best man of his weight, and the man who licks him has got to come from the heavy weights.”

Corbett volunteered Jackson and others, but not himself, for the task of taking on Fitzsimmons. The New York Times suggested that Corbett also wanted to avoid getting in the ring with Mitchell: “So long as he can hold his position as a newspaper fighter – a position which has brought him into contempt even among the contemptible class in which he shines – probably Mr. Corbett will always be found wanting to fight at a place where the other man cannot meet him.” Corbett did eventually fight Fitzsimmons, losing to him in a 14 round bout in 1897. The entire fight was filmed and shown in theatres as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight. It was the longest film ever released to that time. 

The New York Times’ disapproving view of Corbett and his ilk was not shared by Kansas City’s “sports,” who enjoyed illegal local amateur fights held in secretive places as much as professional fights in other cities. In February, two fighters and their seconds were arrested for having a prize fight before a crowd in a cellar on Riverview Avenue. The police court was crowded with “members of the sporting fraternity” as the fighters were fined $50 and locked up in default of payment. The fighters “consider their arrest as a joke,” reported the Kansas City Times, “and pass their time by singing and sparring in the cell.”

A few days later a fight for a purse of $25 and a share of gate receipts was held between “two colored pugilists, well known among the ‘sports,’” in a cellar under a barber shop at the corner of Fourteenth and Pennsylvania.  Noting that two police stood across the street sunning themselves while sixty spectators made their way into the barber shop, the Journal gave a fairly detailed, round by round account of the illegal match. It ran six rounds, ending with an uppercut which dropped one fighter “like a piece of lead.” The “sports” filed out of the cellar while the policemen across the way “did not realize that the law had been violated under their very eyes.”

Some local fights were between rival regional, ethnic or occupational groups. A fight in an abandoned barn in the notorious Toad-a-Loup district on the Kaw River at the state line pitted a fireman for the Missouri Pacific Line against a switchman named Slusher, from St. Louis. The spectators were said to consist about equally of railroad firemen and switchmen. The fight went for forty-three rounds, ending with Ridley, the firemen, falling outside the ropes and being counted out. The firemen, said the Times report, were dissatisfied with the result of the fight  and planning a rematch.

An April fight between Andy Dupont, the “Packing House Giant,” and Con Tobin, known as “Avoirdupois” for his 250 pound bulk, went only fifteen rounds because Tobin ran out of steam early. He looked, said the Journal, “like the before-taking fellow in an anti-fat advertisement.” Some 500 “sports” were at the fight at McLean’s hall in Armourdale; they were disappointed by Tobin’s performance, wondering whether he “was really knocked out or whether he was just too tired to get up.”

Amateur fights were often a disappointment for the “sports,” since they were often staged by trumped up “athletic clubs” for money, with no title at stake. The Journal reported on a fight attended by “about 400 ‘dead games’” who “suffered all sorts of inconveniences yesterday to see Jim Davis, of Wisconsin, whip Mike Delougherty, of Kansas City…. The fight was as tiresome an affair of the kind as was ever ‘pulled off’ anywhere.” 

The law in Kansas City, Kansas, permitted “scientific boxing” under the sponsorship of athletic clubs. Fights were put on three or four times a week but the athletic clubs were not necessarily reputable, the bouts poor when they were not fixed: charges of “split purses and ‘fake fights’ are constantly made,” reported the Journal, The April fight between Davis and Delougherty was a case in point: “There was not enough real fighting done in the forty-three rounds to make two exciting rounds,” the Journal reported, and “a large part of the crowd was overjoyed to see the mill come to some sort of an end.”

Scientific Glove ContestPerhaps because of such disappointing performances, crowds thinned; only a handful turned out for a sparring exhibition at Turner Hall on Fifth Street in Kansas City, Kansas in August between the Daly brothers of St. Louis. According to the Journal, one of the brothers “’roasted’ the fighters who are in Kansas City and the management of the fights here, and said that a fighter who came here in earnest, willing to fight and with money to back himself, stood no chance.”

Not all fights in Kansas City, Kansas, were of poor quality, however. In October a “Scientific Glove Contest”McLean-McAnany Hall between Jimmie Davis, “Champion of Wisconsin,” and Jack Everhart, “Champion of the South,” was staged by the Armourdale Athletic Club at McLean and McAnany’s Hall in Kansas City, Kansas.  The Journal reported that about 600 people witnessed the fight – probably all male, since women were not allowed to attend. “It has been some time since a more likely fighter than Everhart has been seen about Kansas City,” wrote the paper, as the Wisconsin champion was steadily worn down over twenty-seven rounds. In the twenty-eighth he was knocked down five times before being counted out.

Meanwhile the main event of the year, between Corbett and Mitchell, was still awaited.  Roby, Indiana, the venue predicted by Sullivan, had fallen through, the state’s governor having ordered out the militia to arrest officers of the athletic club sponsoring the match. Writing to the New York Times in January, Rev. Clarence Greeley, head of the International Law and Order League  -- a principal opponent of prize-fights --  recounted the peregrinations of the fight’s locale from Minnesota to Indiana to New York to Louisiana, and finally to Florida, for a fight scheduled in Jacksonville on January 25, 1894, sponsored by the Duval County Athletic Club for a purse of $25,000. Other reports said the purse was $20,000.

In Florida, Greeley wrote, there was a general prohibition on fighting with “tolerably severe maximum penalties,” but no minimum penalties. Therefore, he deduced, the pugilists are “depending on a lax public sentiment and the connivance of public officers to let them off with a nominal punishment, or none at all.”

Some Florida officials opposed the fight, including the governor, who called out the state militia in an effort to prevent it, and the mayor of Jacksonville, who said the promoters’ calling it a “scientific glove contest” was only a ruse: “a prize-fight, although cloaked under the name of ‘scientific glove contest’ will not be tolerated … if there be any legal method of preventing it.” But the Jackson city council approved the fight over the mayor’s veto, a councilman pointing out that it would “bring into the state money, which, God knows, we need."

The “sports,” of course, wanted the fight to take place, including dignitaries identified by newspapers as “Bat Masterson, gunslinger,” and Professor C.R. Ramsey, “inventor and patentee of Ramsey's new and improved punching bag. Preparations went ahead, with railroads scheduling chartered trains from Kansas City and elsewhere. The venue was moved a final time, to private land, a court decision holding that the state could not invade private land to prevent it. Mitchell’s militia had to stand aside.

Corbett-Mitchell fight announcementThe fight, when it occurred in January, was an anticlimax, going only three rounds and though the fighters wore gloves, it was far from the genteel, “scientific” contest the “sports” promised. A wire service article in Kansas City, Kansas’ American Citizen said that Corbett entered the ring “with something akin to murder in his heart” against the man “who had so uniformly abused and insulted him.”

In the second round Corbett floored Mitchell, then “lost his head,” in the paper’s words, and struck his opponent while he was still sitting. The newspaper report suggested Mitchell had invited a foul by falling over on his side and sitting, but pioneer sports reporter Sandy Griswold wrote a blistering attack on Corbett’s behavior in the Omaha World Herald:

[It] was one of the foulest and dirtiest prize fights in the annals of the ring, and instead of being undefeated champion today Jim Corbett should be cringing under the sting and disgrace of ignominious defeat, and Charley Mitchell should be trotting about with a crown of laurel leaves resting on his brow. The fight was a go-as-you-please, free-for-all after the first round and in the second after having knocked the Briton to the floor with the smash of his wrist across the bridge of the nose, Corbett not only once but repeatedly fouled his adversary . . . . Referee Kelly stood by like a big cigar sign, and while Corbett's seconds were frantically attempting to keep him from killing Mitchell while he was down, he did little else but flourish his arms and bellow 'break away.'

Mitchell came out for the third round “with his nostrils dilating and his regular teeth set on a mass of coagulated blood, which must have found its way upward from the fearful crashes that had been sent in to the heart.” He was driven to the floor three times and counted out the third.

Gentleman Jim Corbett never did fight Peter Jackson, whom he later called “one of the two greatest heavyweights of all time,” the other being Jim Jeffries. Jackson, said Corbett, could defeat any fighter he had ever seen.

February 22, 2013