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Sullivan, the legend, battled Corbett, of boxing's new breed

"Gentleman Jim"
vs. John L. Sullivan
changed boxing forever


On September 7th 1892 a heavyweight championship bout was held that changed the course of boxing forever.  The fight marked the end of one era in boxing and the beginning of a new one.  The fight between John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett was the first official heavyweight championship bout to be fought under the newly instated Marquis of Queensberry rules. According to The Police Gazette, “the introduction of the Marquis of Queensberry rules ‘improved the status of professional boxing by regulating the participants behavior and dampening the potential barbarism of the ring. At the same time, the boxing clubs that formed the foundation of the sport standardized the various weight classes. Boxing was making a transition to be a legitimate, money making form of sport.” 

Since boxing hadn’t become a legal sport at the time of this event, there were still bare-knuckle bouts recorded throughout the world during the Queensberry era. However, in America and the U.K. the Queensberry rules had become the way championship fights were fought, wearing gloves. After the Queensberry era started at this event, the sport of boxing would never be the same.

This bout was the crowning of the new heavyweight champion of the world, “Gentlemen Jim” Corbett. It also marked the end of the “Bare-knuckle” era and the beginning of “The Queensberry” era, the era that stated heavyweight fighters must wear gloves in a championship bout. This was also the last heavyweight championship bout John L. Sullivan would ever fight.

John L. Sullivan was a larger than life legend of his time. He won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1882 and successfully defended it for 10 years. Sullivan was the last of the bare knuckle brawlers who fought without gloves in marathon matches that sometimes lasted for as many as 75 rounds. Even though John L. fought at a time when boxing was illegal in most states in the U.S. his matches attracted thousands of fans.

Jim Corbett represented the new age of boxing. Corbett learned to box at the Olympic Club in San Francisco   and was taught by an instructor instead of learning to fight in the street like so many before and after him. Corbett was a professional man; he worked as a bank clerk before turning pro as a boxer. Corbett fought his first professional fight in 1886 and fought all the matches wearing gloves. Because he was a very well groomed man, dressed smartly and used excellent grammar when he spoke he became known as “Gentlemen Jim.”

A crowd of over 10,000 men and a few women filled the arena in New Orleans. Sullivan outweighed Corbett by 34 pounds. The betting on the bout was heavy.  Over two thousand miles away and connected by telegraph, beacon lights on top of the Pulitzer building in New York City alerted fans on the street as to which contestant was winning; red for Sullivan and white for Corbett. Sometime later Corbett published a book describing how the events of the fight unfolded that night. This is how it reads:

“Now, I knew that the most dangerous thing I could do was to let Sullivan work me into a corner when I was a little dazed or tired, so I made up my mind that I would let him do this while I was still fresh. Then I could find out what he intended doing when he got me there.  In a fight, you know, when a man has you where he wants you, he is going to deliver the best goods he has.”

Corbett went on in his book describing how he knocked out “The Boston Strong Boy” with relative ease wearing 5oz gloves in 21 rounds, one hour and twenty minutes.

The headline in the Police Gazette read, “The title passed from America’s most popular gladiator to the lithe, handsome youth, the ‘California Dandy’ whose fistic prowess flowered to full bloom on the sun-kissed slopes of California. Coincident with the crashing of the premier pugilistic idol from his pedestal, that the bout definitely set the seal of public approval  of the use of gloves in heavyweight championship contests as opposed to the bare-knuckles and rough  mauling of the London prize ring.”                                  

Other headlines throughout the country including The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Sullivan appeared overweight and slowed down by age and fast living. His old traditional slugging methods were doomed to defeat when matched with the much younger, faster Corbett.” The press continued, “The young, active, and brainy Corbett stepped jauntily around the massive hulk of what had once been a great fighting man.”

Under the Police Gazette headlines that read, “Science Replaces Force” it was written, “James J Corbett lifted boxing out of the barroom slough, the evil influences of its habitués, and started it towards the moral revolution.”

James J Corbett was given credit by the press throughout the U.S. for this revolution in boxing history. He had become popularized not only as the man who revolutionized the new style of boxing but for winning the support of a better class of patrons for the sport. He created the link between the “beer swilling gamblers” and high society that included the Hollywood elite and politicians that all turned out to see Corbett and his well taught, educated style of boxing.             

The actual set of rules was titled “Marquis of Queensberry” rules. The event completely dominated headlines across the country. It was written in the Police Gazette, “The game was destined henceforth to rise to recognized respectability as a means of entertainment for all classes of both sexes, ultimately to attain the commercial ratings which culminated in the establishment of the 20-million dollar gate.”     

Richard K. Fox, editor and publisher of the Police Gazette made some bitter enemies with “Old school” boxers and fans alike. Fox popularized the custom of presenting championship boxing belts to division winning boxers. Sullivan and his fans not only looked at this as supporting many of John L’s foes but saw the whole idea as a catastrophe.  The heavyweight championship bout between John L. Sullivan and James J Corbett that introduced the world to the Marquis of Queensberry rules was to Sullivan and his fans as “Waterloo was to the French.”        

Marquis of Queensberry Rules

1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24-foot ring, or as near that size as practicable.
2. No wrestling or hugging allowed.
3. The rounds to be of three minutes' duration, and one minute's time between rounds.
4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, 10 seconds to be allowed him to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the 10 seconds allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.
5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so that the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
9. Should a glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee's satisfaction.
10. A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
11. No shoes or boots with springs allowed.
12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by revised rules of the London Prize Ring.




More columns
by Sam Gregory:

Graziano & Zale are forever linked by trilogy

Pep vs. Saddler: A rivalry that kept getting better

Cinderella Man Braddock stun Baer and the boxing world

Classy and cocky, an undersized Conn was KO'd by a desperate Louis

Stylish Loughran evolved into Hall of Fame light heavyweight

Fitzsimmons-Corbett, the original 'Fight of the Century'


CLICK HERE to contact Sam Gregory






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Sam Gregory has been a professional boxing writer since 2002 for publications such as BoxingTalk.com, Boxing Digest, EastsideBoxing.com The Cyberboxing Zone, StraightJab.com, boxingnews24.com and TheSweetScience.com. He has covered numerous fights and has interviewed some of the biggest names in the sport.

As a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, Gregory specializes in boxing history, and contributes regularly to that organization's quarterly publication. He is the author of numerous biographical articles about legendary fighters, classic match-ups, memorable boxing trilogies and other subjects.

CLICK HERE to contact Sam Gregory


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