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The Boilermaker vs. the Gentleman: A look Back at The Last Heavyweight Title Fight In Brooklyn

Nearly 116 years will have passed in between heavyweight title bouts in Brooklyn. As a preview for Saturday's bout between Wilder and Spizka, we look at the 1900 fight between James Jeffries and James Corbett.

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Jan 15 2016, 6:20pm

Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

"Referee Charley White said: There was never a squarer nor fairer ring contest," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 12, 1900.

On Saturday night, Brooklyn will host its first heavyweight title fight since James "The Boilermaker" Jeffries took on his former sparring partner James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett on May 12, 1900. And while it's cool to have a bout-for-the-belt-at-Barclay's in the borough that brought the fight game Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, there is no way the match between undefeated WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and Polish challenger Artur Szpilka will live up to its 116-year-old predecessor. The old-time Coney Island tilt was considered the bout of the year, featuring boxing's first brainy practitioner and an early all-time great with a left like a sledgehammer. Besides, even if Wilder and Szpilka go nuts, they can only go twelve rounds. Jeffries and Corbett almost went the distance in their scheduled twenty-five-round brouhaha.

The Backstory

"In speaking of the battle to-night, Jeffries said: "I dislike crowing about defeating Corbett, but I really think I am going to make him look like a cheap boxer. I have prepared myself carefully for this battle and when I step into the ring at Coney Island I will demonstrate to Mr. Corbett's satisfaction that what he said about me was all 'con' talk. I am so confident of victory that my manager, William A. Brady, has already booked me to show for two weeks, giving boxing exhibitions and umpiring ball games, so I am pretty sure that the championship will remain in the Jeffries camp for some time to come," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11, 1900.

Familiarity supposedly breeds contempt, but in Jeffries' case, it was more of an irritation. He'd known, and liked, his competition for a while—the 'con' to which he refers is fellow Californian Corbett's pre-fight claim that he'd knocked Jeffries out back when they were sparring partners in Nevada. It's a dubious assertion, but one that highlights exactly what the fight meant to each man. From 1891-96, Corbett had gone 10-0 with three draws and a couple of no contests, including one stopped in the 61st round. His run included a knockout of the legendary John L. Sullivan in 1892, but he'd lost twice coming into the Jeffries fight and needed to convince the world he was a worthy opponent. Whereas the hard-and-then-harder-hitting Jeffries was in the middle of stellar career that would see him retire (the first time) at 19-0 and win one of the top ten greatest heavyweight fights in history according to respected boxing historian Monte Cox.

James Corbett was considered one of the best boxers of his era. Photo via Wikimedia commons

Originally scheduled for September, the Jeffries-Corbett fight was moved up because come autumn of 1900, boxing was going to be outlawed in New York. Governor Theodore Roosevelt—himself a former boxer at Harvard who had been an outspoken fan of the "manly sport"—had called for the repeal of the Horton Law, which legalized the sport in 1896. It passed the state senate 26-to-22 on a partisan basis, with all but one Republican joining Teddy's crusade. There wasn't one specific reason, but the refrain never changes: corruption, money, power (Roosevelt was eyeing the White House) and of course, violence. In 1899, there were three Manhattan club fight fatalities to go along with generally shady tactics. According to Prizefighting by Arne K. Lang, a riot ensued after a Gotham boxer soaked his gloves in mustard oil, temporarily blinding his opponent and the referee.

Shutting down the fight game in the Empire State was a big deal. At the turn of the 20th-century, nearly five-percent of America's seventy-six-million citizens lived in New York City, so it's where boxing promoters found their biggest crowds, and thus, paydays. Once the Lewis Law went into effect at the end of August, boxing would only be allowed on a club membership basis, which meant prize-fights were now criminal activities. (Lewis would subsequently be repealed by the Frawley Act in 1911.)

Throughout 1900, a boxing bonanza occurred in New York. Everyone was trying to make their nut before the spigot got turned off. Even Corbett went against the grain, getting into the ring more than once. Typically "Gentlemen Jim," who had a thriving theatrical career, only saw fit to fight every couple of years. Prior to fighting Jeffries, Corbett had followed suit and laid low for quite some time; his last fight being a disqualification loss to Tom Sharkey in 1898.

Corbett had no choice but to get himself in tip-top shape to fight the champion Jeffries, who was nine years younger and had some 20-30 pounds on him. Weight was self-reported in those days, so the discrepancy isn't hard-and-fast, but reports have Corbett at the least 200 to Jeffries' 220 pounds. And the 6-foot-2 Jeffries was notoriously tough. Legend has it, he got his nickname "Boilermaker" after beating up an arrogant boxer who had shown up at his place of work—a boiler plant—and threatened to fight every man in town. At that time Jeffries had never boxed before.

(A quick BoxRec anecdote: "A lover of hunting, Jeffries once killed a large deer and carried it on his shoulders nine miles to camp without stopping to rest. Friends who accompanied him had difficulty keeping up with him on the jaunt home.")

Famed promoter Tex Rickard said Jeffries, "was the hardest hitter I ever saw and that includes Jack Dempsey." Jeffries, however, was more than just a lumbering ogre-type fighter. Plodding for sure, but strong as an ox with incredible stamina, he was a great athlete who ran the 100 meters in eleven seconds and could high jump 5'10." Even in the ring, Jeffries was an innovator, utilizing a crouch stance to deliver his left-handed wallop.

It was a tall order for the 6-foot-1 Corbett, who did have one advantage to exploit against Jeffries. His brain. Corbett was the first to turn the sport from a streetfight into the art-science-hybrid stick-and-move game we know today. He isn't called the "Father of Modern Boxing" for nothing.

"Corbett was dedicated to recapturing his youth, to get back to the fast, slick fighter he'd been, and outclass Jeffries," says Adam Pollack, an Iowa City-based attorney who has penned biographies of both Corbett and Jeffries through his company Win by KO Publications. "It was a classic clash of styles like Ali-Foreman, a beautiful brilliant boxer against a slow methodical fighter with one of the hardest punches the sport has ever known."

To win back his title in the fight of the year, Corbett was going to have to out-run, out-dance, out-move, out-maneuver, and out-smart the champ.

Damn if he didn't almost pull it off.

The Underdog

"Had the battle ended last the men stood from the fifth to the sixteenth or eighteenth round Corbett would have been entitled to the decision on points for he punched and stabbed Jeffries in the face until the champion's countenance looked like a raw hamburger steak, not getting a mark in return save some bruises on the shoulders," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 12, 1900.

Some 8,000 spectators poured into Coney Island's Seaside Athletic Club to watch Corbett take on Jeffries, the 3-to-1 favorite. Tickets prices ranged from $5-to-$25—amazingly, the same amount of scratch almost gets you into Wilder v. Szpilka—and the purse was estimated at $50,000. It was to be paid out in a split of 75-25, 60-40, or maybe dead even.

"Promoters had a big incentive to under-report how much fights made thanks to all the politicians and gamblers who had to be paid off," says Pollack, a former trainer who now referees fights in Iowa. "I'd take any financial figures from back then with a massive grain of salt. Even today, really."

The windows were opened for a nice ocean breeze as the fighters walked through the estimated crowd of 8,000 for the 10 p.m. bout. Each man showed off their contrasting styles by the way they entered the ring. Corbett wore a blue sweater and trousers, Jeffries an open bathrobe to show off his god-like physique. The Times declared, "It looked like a battle between a gladiator and a gorilla." Boxing being boxing, the match was briefly held up as the fighters waited for referee Charley White, who wanted his $500 up front. He got it. The fight was on.

Unfortunately, for old-time boxing aficionados, the new motion picture technology of the day was not used for the Corbett-Jeffries bout. It had been used in 1899 when Jeffries beat Tom Sharkey for the championship in the same venue, but the powerful lights were so hot in that fight—up to 100-degrees—that the champ barred movie cameras from his next bout. However, there was one noteworthy technological advancement to come from the fight. According to historian Joe Zentner, Chicago boxer and theater owner Jack Root charged admission for fans to get updates throughout the fight via telegraph. Thus, making it "the first Pay Per View (more accurately, the first Pay Per Hear) boxing contest."

Surprised at the spry condition of the underdog, the crowd got behind the rejuvenated Corbett early and stayed with him for most of the fight. From the outset, Gentlemen Jim's strategy of out-boxing the champ was effective. He darted in-and-out, took his shots when he could, and clinched when he had to—a move referee White had claimed would not be allowed. Corbett's pugilistic game plan was working, but he would soon face Jeffries' fists of granite.

Still, in the ninth, it almost didn't matter that Corbett's blows didn't pack the same jolt. He came out throwing a barrage of left jabs to Jeffries' face. He then staggered the Boilermaker with a right to the jaw, and followed it up with another right that made Jeffries groggy. But the champ stood his ground, and didn't fall. It was probably Corbett's best chance at knocking Jeffries out. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it: "the one and only round that Corbett made his blows tell... But Mr. Jeffries recovered like a lion at bay."

Corbett was winning the first third of the fight, but there was a long way to go. The tide wouldn't turn until the Jeffries team was overhauled in the middle of the fight.

The Boilermaker, here training with former champ Samuel Berger, had feared fists of granite (say in old timey boxing voice). Photo via Wikimedia commons

The Champion

"Jeffries forced him to the ropes by purely superior brute strength, and, as Corbett tried to slip away, Jeffries landed his gloved fist, with the power of a pile driver behind it flush on the point of the jaw and Corbett went down like a felled ox," New York Times, May, 12, 1900.

Throughout the fight, Corbett landed more clean punches. On appearances, it was no contest. Corbett first drew blood when he struck Jeffries' lip in the tenth. Ever the showman, Corbett played it to the hilt, howling, laughing, and clapping. He was winning the age old boxer-puncher row, but yep, there was still fifteen rounds to go.

"Up to this point Jeffries hadn't really been the aggressor and did some chasing, but he was a smart fighter," says Pollack. "It's likely he knew Corbett couldn't keep it up for the entire bout, so he was biding his time until he could deliver his blows."

William Brady, Jeffries' manager, did not care for his fighter's strategy. He made the extremely unusual executive decision to boot trainer Tommy Ryan sometime between rounds 15-19. There is no official record of what took place, but it's believed Ryan had instructed Jeffries to box with Corbett instead of bringing the thunder. As the crowd chanted Corbett's name mid-fight, Jeffries looked flustered, missed on a couple of haymakers, and was playing into Corbett's hands.

The boat shifted after Ryan disappeared. As the fight went on, Jeffries rushed Corbett "like a mad bull," knocking him down in the 19th with a shot to the ear. It didn't do much damage as Corbett popped right back up, but it was indicative of where the fight was going. Corbett continued to move, weave, duck, and side-step—his dancing around eventually incurred the crowd's wrath—but he was getting tired and the champ was now landing more punches. At the end of the 22nd, the Times noted that Jeffries was strong while "Corbett seemed to be weakening."

He'd never know what was about to hit him.

The Boilermaker

"The knockout came unexpectedly. It was the result of constant boring tactics. Jeffries had tried for twenty-two rounds to get In just such a blow, and had missed his man time and time again. But with bulldog tenacity and perseverance, the champion finally succeeded, and when Corbett got this blow he was put to sleep beyond any question of doubt. It was the old story of the magnificent boxer meeting a rugged, muscular heavy hitter, capable of taking all kinds of punishment in order to get a decisive smash," Los Angeles Herald, May 13, 1900.

Early in the 23rd-round, Corbett caught Jeffries twice in the face, sending blood spurting to the canvas. It was Corbett's final shot at the title he so desperately wanted. The champ rushed the challenger to the ropes and delivered a couple to the body.

Then came the hammer, Jeffries' powerful left to the jaw just under the chin. Some in the building say it was a hook, others an uppercut. One thing is for certain. Gentleman Jim met the Boilermaker.

Corbett's head hit the ropes, he sank to a sitting position, his eyes rolled back, and he went down. Lights out.

Corbett's manager George Considine actually ran along the ring outside of the ropes, splashing water on his fallen man in a vain revival attempt. Jeffries shoved Considine back, but his efforts wouldn't have made any difference. White gave the ten count. Corbett didn't move. His team dragged him to the corner and revived him with smelling salts. Dazed and confused, Corbett asked to continue the fight. He was crushed, loudly crying out, when he learned he was finished. In the words of the Daily Eagle, Corbett was the recipient of "a clean, decisive, and well-earned knockout."

Corbett trained hard for the Jeffries fight. It was not enough. Photo via Wikimedia commons.

The Aftermath

"Coney Island was the most important place on the map thirteen years ago today, for It was on May 11,1900, that Jim Jeffries and Jim Corbett settled their argument at that place. The champion put the soporific kibosh on the pompadoured ex-champion in the twenty-third round," Sacramento Union, May 11, 1913.

Corbett may have been kayo'ed to Queens, but in vailance, the loser won the day. His stock was never higher—the loss to Jeffries arguably his best fight. The fans cheered him mightily as he left the ring. After the bout, Jeffries credited Corbett with giving him the fight of his life, calling his former sparring partner "a revelation." And while Corbett was unscarred, Jeffries had his lips cut, his nose smashed deeper into his face, and his eyes were battered black-and-blue.

Jeffries would go on to defend his title six more times, including a rematch in San Francisco against his old sparring partner. This time Jeffries dominated Corbett. The fight was stopped in the tenth-of-twenty-rounds when prodigal trainer Tommy Ryan threw a palm leaf into the ring in surrender. Undefeated, Jeffries retired at 29, only to be coaxed out to fight Jack Johnson. At the age of 35, the newly-christened "Great White Hope" had to lose more than a third of his 330-pound frame just to get in fighting shape, and he was no contest for the first black heavyweight champion.

The ass-whupping Jeffries took from Johnson has unfortunately overshadowed his fine career. He lived out the rest of his days in Burbank as a promoter and trainer at "Jeffries Barn." The wooden structure was moved to Orange County amusement park Knott's Berry Farm in 1954, the year after Jeffries passed away at 77. During the summer, the Boilermaker's barn hosts banquets at the Wilderness Dance Hall, and it just wrapped up serving as Santa's Christmas Cabin.

Corbett himself would win the final New York City bout just before the deadline. On August 8, 1900, he KO'ed Kid McCoy in the fifth at Madison Square Garden in a fight generally thought to have been fixed.

Corbett would hang 'em up after the second Jeffries fight with a record of 11-4 with three draws. He returned to acting, appearing in silents, serials, and talkies, including Happy Days, a full-length minstrel show. He died in in 1933 at age 66. Corbett's biggest box office success would come posthumously. In 1942, beloved movie star Errol Flynn played the "Father of Modern Boxing" in Gentleman Jim.

Both men are members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Brooklyn boxing fans are hoping Wilder and Szpilka will honor the borough's legacy established all-those-years-ago by Corbett and Jeffries. Pollack isn't holding out much hope.

"I like Wilder, he has good pace and footwork, he's in great shape, and good defensive skill, even if I suspect he has a weak chin. But to be the man, you have to beat the man, and Wilder didn't do that," says Pollack. "He didn't beat Wladimir Klitschko, Tyson Fury did. Wlider is a paper champion and he's not fighting a top guy in Szpilka. Wilder's going to demolish him. This isn't a good heavyweight fight, Brooklyn deserves better."