by Bobby Mac
March 17, 1897
I really never got why Hollywood and the rest of the assorted cinema and boxing worlds have never accorded proper respect for the Great, Great, Great, Grandpappy of modern filmed spectacle, the 1897 Heavyweight Title Shootout at The Race Track Arena, Carson City, Nevada with young champion James J. Corbett going against the grizzled veteran champ, Bob Fitzsimmons.
This was “The Fight” long before trifling embellishments such as Century or Millennium needed to be tacked on for distinguishing marketing purpose. It was only the 3rd ever heavyweight championship defense held under those wildly popular new fangled rules drawn up by the Marquis of Queensbury, so public interest was immense.
Noted university professors with boxing experience re-enacted telegraphed round by round descriptions on theatrical stages before rapt crowds. After the dustup was settled, the public got the shocker of their lives months later that changed everything, Thomas Edison’s first ever release of his film of “The Fight.”
The Fight begot all the subsequent cinematic blockbusters that followed and became the lucrative boxing industry prototype for subsequent filmed matches as a supplement to live gate and print media sales. This decades before “Closed Circuit” and “PPV” would be developed. The Fight became a huge theatric hit after it’s debut at the Academy of Music in New York City, May 22nd.
Requested bookings quickly exceeded Edison’s fledgling Veriscope Company capacity, so by fall near a dozen new companies had been formed with territorial distribution rights. They toured the US with improved film footage and newly upgraded Veriscope projectors to show The Fight in big cities and small towns.
New companies were also formed overseas so The Fight could be distributed and seen in Great Britain and Europe, making it the first big international film. Previous cinematographic releases had been novelty “shorts” of only a few minutes or even a few seconds duration, mostly of everyday street scenes or historical re-enactments.
It wasn’t until 1903 release of The Great Train Robbery that box revenues could approach those generated by the real life action and drama of Bob Fitzsimmons and James Corbett’s ringmanship on that sunny 1897 March day.
My goodness, The Fight predated the concept of movie theaters by a decade for a reference point. Without The Fight, the development of movies, movie audiences, and movie theaters would have been much slower to less acclaim.
The Fight was the blue print for the ballyhooed Ali/Frazier Fight of the Century much later that featured two modern era Hall of Fame quality stars with competing claims to the greatest prize in sports, The Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Gentleman Jim was unmarked, undefeated, and played the young, handsome, fleet footed, fast handed, loose lipped dandy full of braggadocio to the battle hardened, quiet, hard working slugger of Ruby Robert 73 yrs before Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier ever became an item.
The Fight had actually been scheduled to be filmed in the fall of 1895 Dallas, Texas before fainthearted Texas legislators passed a law outlawing boxing. The month before, Corbett and Fitz had hooked up badly in a Philadelphia hotel while on the exhibition circuit and bad blood boiled over, giving impetus to the showdown in Texas. The cancellation setback turned out to be quite fortunate for all involved parties and boxing given the primitive state of cinematography that was still in experimental development.
So, with the Dallas fight cancelled, early in 1896, Thomas Edison cinematographer guru, Enoch J. Rector, found himself following Ruby Robert and Peter Maher on through Langtry, Texas, picked up and guided by the legendary frontier judge Roy Bean who wanted to put Langtry on the map with a title fight. The party crossed over to a tiny sand spit smack dab in the middle of the mighty Rio Grande. That’s Rio Bravo for you Mexican aficionados.
Bird’s Eye View of No Man’s Land, Rio Grande
The cagey Judge Bean had matched them on an international no man’s territorial boundary where the Mexican and American law enforcement held each other at bay in what surely had to have been boxing’s first Mexican standoff.
Peter Maher was one of a plethora of turn of the century great fighters that have been forgotten by the passage of time.
Maher was the Irish middleweight and heavyweight champ before immigrating to America in the big Irish wave that swept over US shores. Maher had freshly defeated another forgotten fighter, Aussie Steve O’Donnell, for a dimly remembered claim to the world heavyweight title.
O’Donnell, who was also of Irish extraction, had came to America to fight black contenders Frank Craig and Old Chocolate George Godfrey back to back, and then on to the great Jake Kilrain twice among others and had been undefeated in his American debut.
Apparently in a pique of hysteria over the cancelled Fitz defense, the overly dramatic Corbett had announced his retirement and bestowed his title on the winner that Maher promptly claimed via a neat one minute first round KO of the overwhelmed O’Donnell.
Somehow, Bob Fitzsimmons managed to stay in the Edison contact loop and finagled a title challenge against the new heavyweight claimant, Maher, whom he had knocked out in New Orleans some 4 years previous.
Now, with Enoch Rector impossibly set up with his bulky Edison Veriscope on a here today, adios mañana pile of sand in the middle of a river of legend all set to film the first ever championship boxing match between the champion Peter Maher and challenger Bob Fitzsimmons, the Irishman against the Cornishman with history poised in the making………and then………
…….and then fickle Mother Nature put the drizzle on filming.
Not that it mattered much since in the time it took for a gentleman to light a fine cigar, poor Maher became his own 1 minute victim of the early exit via the murderous punching Fitz. Alas, boxing’s first championship KO highlight reel was lost to a common twist of fate, so we are left to imagine which punch Ruby Robert selected from his vast arsenal.
Rector pulled up sandy stakes and salvaged his ill fated Texas misadventure with the filming of a bull fight up the river in Juarez, Mexico, before returning to Thomas Edison’s legendary Black Mariah Studio for further brainstorming and development.
Championship fights were too few and far apart back in the unsanctioned outlaw days of boxing, not to mention financially out of reach for the average American who followed most of boxing by way of newspaper coverage or attending local bouts. Exhibitions came to fill a needed gap across America. They were steady, legal work that the boxers could supplement irregular fight schedules, and the best boxers could travel now to gain bigger exposure.
Exhibitions also provided cover for the genuine matches since one could substitute for the other as needed depending upon the presence or absence of law enforcement.
Gentleman Jim and Ruby Robert were the lionized ring legends of the day who toured the country to appear in countless exhibitions and plays in between their official dustups. In short, they were their own traveling mints, making silly money at every stop which is how they became to be wooed by the bullish industrial icon and inventor, the no nonsense deaf-genius otherwise known as The Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison didn’t need Hollywood and Q-ratings to tell him Corbett and Fitzsimmons could establish public interest in his newest development. No sir, these were self made men of considerable swagger, intuitive action, and reach who conquered their moment in time like few before or since.
Luckily, in a rare, prescient moment in boxing history, both Corbett and Fitzsimmons agreed to the filmed fight for a $10,000 guarantee and 15% share of the profits for each thanks the reconciliation of an era promoter named Dan Stuart. Of course the old problem that caused the first cancellation still remained, the venue.
No problem once Nevada entered into the mix. With a smooth talker like Dan Stuart painting visions of well heeled hordes of spectators flooding the state with heavily laden pockets, Nevada officials gave back what the Texas Legislature had taken away by passing a law legalizing prize fighting.
Carson City, Nevada was chosen for parity after Fitzsimmons had been infamously disqualified by referee Wyatt Earp in his last fight against popular California Irishman, Sailor Tom Sharkey.
Not sure what it was with all those great Irishmen running amuck in boxing back then. Something in the whiskey they drank I guess.
But what about the fighting of The Fight you might ask?
The fighting was in essence a reprisal of the plot line of the best selling novel of the day, Ben Hur, with two bitterly competitive rivals going at it mano a mano to the bitter end minus the stuntmen, swords, chariots, horses and Jesus. Instead, The Fight featured the presence of legendary lawmen and gunslingers Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson who oversaw operations to insure a fair shake.
Bat Masterson was the dapper timekeeper captured forever on film in his famous bowler hat tending the ring bell. Wyatt Earp showed his hand again by riding shotgun for James J with “associates” he had assembled for this moment. Fitz had secured his own guns to oversee his interests, so needless to say, everyone was fare thee well hardwared for a fair contest, lending quite a bit of prefight tension in the air.
Both men enter the ring in their robes, pacing about as officials and seconds dicker over last minute setup and instructions. Then the first glimmer of recognition occurs as both fighters are made aware of the presence of the camera and thereby the audience, so they stride over for a look see. Sunny Corbett smiles supremely as he starts to preen a bit whereas the deadly Fitz blinks and then glares into this new intrusion into his world and both go to their corners.
Corbett is the bigger man moving around the ring like an agile big cat, coming in and out of range with a blizzard of feints, flurries, and grapples that never allow Fitzsimmons to get set long enough to get his punches off. Fitz is applying steady pressure, trying to walk his man down and feint a counterpunch, but Corbett is just too fast of hand and foot and too strong and starts to wear the old man down.
Finally, the 6th round, and they trade heavily near a corner with Fitzsimmons being wobbled and having to grab Corbett on his way down. Corbett seems flummoxed by this development, no doubt made aware of the guns of Fitz’s corner, so he pleads to the referee, George Siler, as Fitzsimmons lets go.
Grabbing the ropes, Fitz straightens himself while on one knee to which Corbett leaps in to pummel him, so Fitz wisely holds his position on his knee. He feints another rise, and then comes up quickly and the fight resumes.
Perhaps Corbett was discouraged that he had let his golden opportunity slip away, or perhaps he thought he had the fight wrapped up and grew careless in his confidence. Some say he had gotten too far into the finer dissipations of great champions preceding him, fine wine, food, and women, but whatever the reason, the old man started to slowly reel him in and walk him down by increments.
Then in a quicksilver flash of the first filmed phantom punch, Ruby Robert shot a left hook to the body and Gentleman Jim dropped like a common sack of potatoes, writhing in paralysis!
The Fitzsimmons punching techniques were hotly contested in his day, but the boxing experts concluded it was a legal punch and assigned it a new, scientific name, the solar plexus punch.
Corbett tried to drag himself to the ropes for assistance, but he was too deep in the count. Whatever claim James J Corbett had on the Heavyweight Title of the World transferred to Bob Fitzsimmons in that fateful 14th round.
It was the same punch Fitz had knocked out Sailor Tom Sharkey with in California that Wyatt Earp had disqualified him for. Fitz had sued to impound those stakes, but the presiding judge ruled that prizefighting was illegal and he had no authority. This time Fitz had dueling guns in his corner to offset the favoritism for the champion, so the lions share along with the championship belt was his to keep.
And, fair play, even Corbett’s main man, Wyatt Earp declared, “I consider that I have witnessed today the greatest fight with gloves that was ever held in this or any other country.” Gentleman Jim was not so easily placated though, going after Fitzsimmons when he recovered, his bad blood still boiling over.
The reported profits from the film were an astounding $120,000 after Corbett and Fitzsimmons’ share of the revenues had been settled.
Corbett lobbied heavily for a rematch, but Fitz, perhaps remembering the cancellation and all the profane insults he and his wife had endured trying to get Corbett into the ring, would have none of it. Instead he embarked on a series of exhibitions and plays as Champion for two years that were guaranteed purses with less danger of being filled with bullet holes.
Viewers with sharp eyes and curious natures however recalled a Mountain of a Man in Corbett’s corner that sterling day. That Man, dwarfing all around him, was none other than the soon to be great, another James J out of the Corbett stable of fighters, James J. Jeffries.
Two years later, Jim Jeffries would brutally pound the belt off the heroic Fitzsimmons in a classic Big Man against little man matchup the old man was never destined to win, but oh what a hellacious battle he put up.
Jeffries would go on to rule his era with an iron fist, but he and subsequent champions, the boxing fraternity, and the visual media, all owe an incalculable debt to those men playing their parts to perfection in bringing us the first filmed classic, James J. Corbett vs Bob Fitzsimmons.