One of the true legends of boxing, James 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett beat John L. Sullivan to win the world heavyweight title in 1892 before later becoming a noted vaudeville and film actor. eir sport 2, Mon, March 8th 9.30pm
James J. Corbett has a special place in boxing history. Lauded by many as the ‘father of modern boxing’, he fought at a time that saw the end of the brutal bare-knuckle contest and the beginning of a new sport centred on skill and style – not to mention gloves and rules!
But ‘Gentleman Jim’, as he was known because of his dapper appearance and easy manner, did more than usher in a new era inside the ring - he also gave the sport the aura of class and respectability that it needed to succeed.
His appeal went far beyond the traditional fight fan, stretching even into the drawing rooms and parlours of the middle classes. His reputation was sealed forever when Errol Flynn played him in a 1942 biopic (also called ‘Gentleman Jim’).
The son of an Irish immigrants who moved from Kilmainham in Dublin and Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo to San Francisco where he was born in 1866, Corbett forged his reputation as a bare-knuckle prizefighter before becoming ‘the man who beat the man’ on September 7th 1892 when he knocked out the mighty John L. Sullivan in New Orleans to claim the World Heavyweight title.
The fight was headline news around the world and made Corbett a celebrity overnight. His dancing style, quick jabs and feints were in direct contrast to the old brute force style which had served Sullivan so well. He didn’t hit you hard, but he did hit you often – it was the beginning of a new ‘scientific’ age in boxing.
Strangely enough, boxing took something of a back seat in Corbett’s life once he became champion. He only defended his title twice in almost five years, the second time unsuccessfully when he lost to Cornish fighter Bob Fitzsimons in Carson City, Nevada on St Patrick’s Day 1897.
Instead, He spent much of the time engaged in vaudeville and theatre as he tried to establish himself on the showbiz circuit. It may seem like an odd turn of events now, but wasn’t that unusual back in the day. Potential fight earnings paled in comparison to what could be made by personal appearances and one-man shows and, anyway, he loved the glamour and publicity that came with it.
Return to Ireland
Corbett toured extensively with his one-man show during those years and even included a visit to Ireland and his ancestral home in Ballinrobe on his itinerary in 1894. He would return for a second time in 1909 when he topped the bill at the Theatre Royal for a week-long stint telling "true and humorous stories of his travels and experiences". Both times crowds lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the man who was arguably among the most famous people on the planet at the time.
Corbett tried twice to regain his heavyweight crown, but was beaten on both occasions by new champion Jim Jeffries, the last time in 1903 when he was 37. The skill and the spark were still there, but the stamina was gone and Jeffries, nine years younger than his illustrious opponent, was able to pick him off at will.
Afterwards he settled in Queens, New York and focused full time on showbiz and media where he continued to be in demand right up until his death from liver cancer in 1933. He remained a national and international celebrity, with successive boxing champions seeking advice and photo opportunities in equal measure, and counted the likes of Mark Twain, PG Wodehouse, John Ford and Lionel Barrymore among his friends and admirers.
His funeral was attended by many well-known sportsmen, actors, politicians, journalists and businessmen, with traffic marshals required to manage the sheer scale of numbers who came to pay their respects.
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