1892: A gentleman, a brawler and the New Orleans fight that reinvented boxing
Sporting Life magazine called it “the greatest carnival in the history of pugilism.” The National Police Gazette, one of the country’s leading boxing chronicles, asserted that “the whole civilized world will await the result with interest.” Such descriptions of the Sept. 7, 1892, heavyweight title fight between legendary brawler John L. Sullivan and fleet-footed challenger “Gentleman” Jim Corbett at the esteemed Olympic Club in the Bywater were hardly hyperbolic. The bout — staring at “9 p.m. sharp,” according to an ad in The Times-Picayune — not only shined a global spotlight on New Orleans and its rich, law-flaunting fight scene, but it also marked what historians consider the beginning of the modern boxing era.
The Sullivan-Corbett fight dragged boxing out of the shadows and into the sporting mainstream. The sport has since celebrated dizzying highs and humbling lows. Today, it teeters on the verge of irrelevance thanks to the swift rise of mixed martial arts. New Orleans’ importance to the boxing world has likewise waxed and waned, but over the last few years the local boxing scene seems to be brightening, with spunky young fighters training in neighborhood gyms like the New Orleans Boxing Club, Le Boxeur and the Friday Night Fights Gym.
- The lean, shifty Corbett completely dominated the aging Sullivan, who arrived out of shape and couldn’t keep up with the challenger. Using almost-scientific precision and headiness, Corbett ran circles around the battered, bleeding, quickly-tiring ring legend for 20 rounds and finished the job in the 21st.
- Before the Sullivan-Corbett clash, boxing had largely been a bare-knuckle, brutal affair that sometimes bordered on free-for-all — a fact that made it illegal in most of the country, including the Crescent City. But after Corbett’s easy victory, the sport gained a measure of respectability by adopting the Marquess de Queensberry rules, which required gloves, instituted the 10-second knockout count and strict regulations for length of rounds.
- The clash couldn’t have featured a starker dichotomy in fighting style. The brawny, Boston-born Irishman Sullivan was a hard-partying and braggadocios street fighter and the country’s first athletic superstar. The smaller Corbett, meanwhile, was a compact, middle-class collegian from California, a sophisticated, dapper, teetotaling bank clerk who learned pugilism in formal clubs and gyms and who rose through the heavyweight ranks with gloved fists and studious approach to the sport.
- Although journalists of the day were prone to hyperbole, by all accounts the audience jammed in the arena went bananas as the bout wore on. Stated the Chicago Tribune: “At the finish the men acted like the inmates of an insane asylum when the building was on fire. They howled like maniacs, smashing hats, tearing each other’s coats and shirts, and yelling until their voices gave completely out. Then they rushed to the street and the nearest barroom.”
- Total gate receipts were $125,000, which included a $70,000 haul for the Olympic Club and a cool $25,000 for Corbett, who chose to receive his check at the offices of the Times-Picayune, which one writer dubbed “Corbett’s favorite paper.”
- After the bout, Corbett celebrated his win by greeting and admiring crowd of 2,000 fans at a local gymnasium. Sullivan, meanwhile, reportedly went on an epic bender.
- Presiding over the bout was referee “Professor” John Duffy, a local trainer, gym owner/manager and “gymnastics” coach who had gained a reputation as a fair fight official and New Orleans athletic dean, of sorts.
- The big Sept. 7 match was preceded by two other title fights at lower weights, completing what was truly a three-day “carnival of champions.” On Sept. 5, a crowd of 6,000 witnessed Jack McAuliffe’s 15th-round knockout of Billy Myer to secure the world lightweight crown and a $10,000 purse. The following day saw African-American champ George Dixon clobber plucky youngster Jack Skelly in a one-sided bout for the featherweight crown that ended when Dixon dropped Skelly in the eighth round.
- Chartered in 1883, the Olympic Club was located on Royal Street in a block bordered by Clouet, Chartres and Montegut streets. The gymnasium usually boasted an arena with a capacity of 3,500, but for the big fisticuffs the grandstand was reportedly enlarged to 10,000. (Some contemporary reports claimed it was smaller.) The expanded arena was then wired with electricity to power the six floodlights that illuminated the fight. With a lengthy history of hosting orderly, lucrative bouts, the Olympic had gained a national reputation was a well-run, honorable business that, according to the Police Gazette, “has already done much to rescue pugilism from the roughs and toughs, who formerly controlled it, and the bad repute into which it had fallen.”
New Orleans’ prominence as a boxing town is hard to overstate. For years, it was very much the center of the fighting universe, from the 1870 match between Jem Mace and Tom Allen, considered the first heavyweight prize fight; to the game-changing Corbett-Sullivan fight; to the 1978 title bout between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks; to the headline-making “no mas” fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran in 1980. While the popularity of “the sweet science” has waned, dedicated fans recognize the importance of New Orleans in the sport’s history. “As New Orleans continues to recover and prosper, we can be proud of so many aspects of the city’s rich history, including our role in the sport of boxing,” local author S. Derby Gisclair wrote in a 2013 issue of New Orleans Magazine. “I am reminded of it every time I think about my grandfather or when I thumb through my collection of boxing and baseball cards from the late 19th- and early 20th-century, not with a sense of melancholy, but with genuine hope for more than nostalgia.”