Nevada’s Fight of the Century, Part II

Nevada boxing promoters proclaimed it the “fight of the century.” The highly publicized 1897 bout between America’s heavyweight champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett from San Francisco and lanky, British-born but hailing from Australia, challenger Robert Fitzsimmons, promised to produce an economic boost to the Reno-Carson City communities.

052616-SierraStories_FitzimmonsPugilist Bob Fitzsimmons won the 1897 Carson City fight. | Courtesy Nevada Historical Society

On St. Patrick’s Day 1897, Bob Fitzsimmons jumped into the newly built ring in Carson City. Seconds later, the reigning world heavyweight champ, James Corbett, climbed through the ropes to join him. Both pugilists received a standing ovation from the crowd of several thousand fight fans. California-born and crowd favorite Corbett had a broad smile on his face as he shook the referee’s hand to much applause. The official timekeeper hushed the crowd by shouting, “While the contest for the world’s championship is taking place, please keep order; there are ladies present.”

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“The champ staggered and Fitzsimmons dropped him on the spot
with a hard right to the jaw.”

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The referee ordered the fighters to shake hands, but Fitzsimmons’ brother-in-law Julian prevented them from doing so, telling Corbett, “No, you refused once.” (Corbett had refused to shake Fitzsimmons’ hand when the two had met earlier while training near Carson City.)

While the two contestants waited in their respective corners, the anxious crowd inspected the recently constructed ring. The floor consisted of inch-thick pine boards, closely dovetailed together and sprinkled liberally with resin. The boards were unpadded and many fans openly speculated on the probability that the fighters would knock their heads on the hard surface.

Fight of the Century, Part I  

Editor’s Note: Part I is available at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

Fitzsimmons’ face was expressionless, but at the sound of the gong Corbett darted forward with a fearsome look of hatred on his face. As the two men circled, sizing each other up with quick feints and short jabs, Corbett assumed his customary “fighting grin” as he settled down to defend his championship.

In the first round, the fighters exchanged blows to the body and head, but Fitzsimmons held his own against the champ. Any time either man threw a punch, the crowd cheered with delight. In the second round, the pugilists grinned at each other in a friendly way. When Corbett landed two lefts on Fitzsimmons’s stomach, the crowd yelled, “Too low!” Corbett seemed to have the upper hand in the second, but apparently none of his punches landed hard.

For the next several rounds, the boxers traded blows, with neither man seeming to gain much of an advantage. The Californians in the audience were certainly on Corbett’s side. Every time their native son landed a punch, fans yelled, “Knock his head off! How do you like it, Bob?” Fitzsimmons kept glancing at his wife, who was standing on a chair at ringside. Her face was pale and she looked worried. Her husband’s tentative smile did not reassure her.

This prizefight, the first licensed and legally sanctioned boxing match in the U.S., followed the guidelines established by the Marquis of Queensbury. These rules, devised in 1891 to make the sport of boxing more humane, established three weight divisions, limited rounds to 3 minutes and made padded gloves mandatory. Until then, bare-knuckle boxing had been popular in Britain, the United States, South Africa and Australia.

In the fifth round, Corbett landed a hard blow to Fitzsimmons’ face, splitting the Australian’s lip. Blood splattered over the bare chests and shoulders of the fighters, inflaming the crowd to a fever pitch — only the barbed wire and heavy wooden barriers prevented a rush to ringside by fans stuck in the cheap seats.

At the end of the eighth round, Corbett’s punches drove Fitzsimmons to his knees for 8 seconds. Julian yelled from ringside, “Get up, Bob. Get up quick!” Though battered and covered with blood from forehead to waist, Fitzsimmons got to his feet. After a minute’s rest between bells, Fitzsimmons seemed to find renewed vigor and stepped forward to continue the desperate battle.

In the 10th round, Corbett continued to batter his opponent’s bloodied face. Fitzsimmons did minimal damage with infrequent body blows. When the gong ended the round, Corbett returned to his corner still without a mark on him.

In the 11th round, however, the battle grew hotter as Corbett became more frustrated that his numerous punches to Fitzsimmons’ head had not slowed his opponent down. In fact, as Corbett began to show fatigue, Fitzsimmons became stronger and started landing more punches. As the defending champion flagged, Mrs. Fitzsimmons yelled with delight every time her husband landed a blow.

In the 12th round, the crowd howled when Corbett missed an uppercut in a clinch. In the 13th, the champion continued to pummel his challenger. Incredibly, the Australian was willing to take the punishment in exchange for one good punch.

That punch came in the 14th round when Fitzsimmons landed a solid left shot to Corbett’s solar plexus. The champ staggered and Fitzsimmons dropped him on the spot with a hard right to the jaw. As the crowd roared, the referee slowly counted Corbett out and awarded the fight to Fitzsimmons.

That afternoon, the headline in the Reno Evening Gazette read, “Pompadour Jim’s Colors Lowered by the Australian.” Corbett’s dressing room was somber as his friends stopped by to console him. Helped to his room by his brothers Harry and Joe, the defeated champion sank into a chair and burst into tears.

“I can lick him, I know I can,” he sobbed. “I had a chance to put Fitzsimmons out once when I got him on his knees, but I waited to let him rest a bit and put him out with one blow. That’s where I made my mistake.”

Afterward, Fitzsimmons assured his fans that he had known all along he would beat the champ. “There was no time I was not sure of winning,” he said. “After the sixth round, I told my men that I was going to lick Corbett to a certainty. There is no sense in saying it was a chance blow. It was just the kind of a blow I was waiting for and when my chance came, I sent it home and won the fight.”

After Carson City, the two boxers had other championship bouts. In 1899, Fitzsimmons lost his title to Jim Jeffries, a former Corbett sparring partner. Fitzsimmons retired in 1905 and died 12 years later. Corbett fought Jeffries in 1900 and 1903 but could not regain the heavyweight title. Retiring after his second loss to Jeffries, Corbett died in 1933.

 

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com 

 

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.