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The Boxing Biographies Newsletter

Volume 2- No 5            10th February 2008


When Corbett Thrashed Sullivan


I will never challenge Sullivan” this remark was made by James J. Corbett to a party of friends in Chicago just before Christmas, 1891. Corbett had come East with the idea of making a theatrical engagement and at the time had not fully determined to enter pugilism as a career; He had been talking of his encounter in the previous May with Peter Jackson-a battle that, in spite of the No ''contest" decision, had Stamped Corbett as a fighter far above the ordinary caliber

 Since then some have been heard to say that Corbett won his reputation from none but old and decrepit men. yet it should be remembered that it was after his fight with Corbett that Peter Jackson went to England and from Frank Slavin won the most sensational fight of his entire career.

When he entered the ring with Corbett. Jackson, the greatest of all negro pugilists, had a bad ankle, But Corbett also suffered-under a severe handicap He had been ill and was ill when he entered the ring. More than once during the fight he received medical treatment. Yet had he not been restrained it is certain he would have knocked out Jackson.

"Billy" Delaney, the foxiest ring general that ever developed a pugilist, knew that a draw with Jackson was sufficient glory for Corbett. In whose corner he was and he refused to permit his principal, even when Jackson was so leg weary that he could hardly stand, to take chances in an exchange of heavy blows.

Corbett always liked John L. Sullivan and to this day speaks of him as one of the World's greatest pugilists a harder hitter, in Corbett’s opinion, than either Fitzsimmons or Jeffries. Continuing his conversation with his friends in Chicago  the young pugilist .said

"Yes, 1 think 1 can beat Sullivan, but if he waits for me to challenge him he can retain the championship for life Should he lose the title I will be an immediate Challenger. The only way to bring Sullivan and me together is to persuade him to make the first move, If he does that he will find me ready and waiting for him

This conversation, considerably emphasized and much distorted was repeated to Sullivan, and finally brought forth the sweeping challenge to the world that Is here quoted. An attempt had been made to sidetrack Sullivan and to regard him as a retired champion. this injured his theatrical business and his pride. It should be said for Sullivan that he far Underestimated  Corbett's powers. He regarded him as a clever boy without ability to put force behind his blows.

"Corbett can't punch a bole through a pound' of butter” was one of Sullivan’s favorite remarks.

James Corbett had flashed across the pugilistic horizon like a meteor. Though in California he was regarded as the greatest of all amateurs little was known of him in the East until he met Jake Kilrain in six rounds in New Orleans. Kilrain had been whipped by the mighty Sullivan after a tremendous battle. The idea of an unknown beating him was considered absurd. Yet Corbett stepped into the ring and from the first sound of the bell made Kilrain look like a novice. He went through six rounds without a mark on him, while Kilrain crawled through the ropes cut and bleeding as the result of a score of bruising blows.

Corbett was ever a student of pugilism. From his earliest encounters as a schoolboy he made every fight answer the purpose of a lesson. He was always ready to put on the gloves with amateur or professional. When he found a man with a blow that was new to him Corbett made a study of the blow, improved upon  it and appropriated it to his own use, So it happened that when Sullivan visited San Francisco Corbett eagerly accepted the suggestion that he and the champion should appear in a mimic bout at the Grand Opera House.

The two men appeared before a tremendous crowd. Instead of wearing ring costumes the two pugilists were in evening dress. Not a hard blow was struck and not an attempt was made by either to break the agreement. Yet it was a tryout of the champion and for the benefit of Corbett.

There are those who have said that Corbett was filed with fear when he went to New Orleans for the meeting with Sullivan. Such a statement is utterly erroneous. The youngster was filled with confidence. He had his battle planned in his mind and it is a fact that he won the fight just as he had planned, forcing Sullivan to the final count one round earlier than he expected.

Trained On The Cars

In the baggage car attached to the train which Corbett took to New Orleans a gymnasium had been fitted up. There Corbett continued his training as he sped through the country, and just as the train entered New Orleans he authorized a friend who was with him to wager $3,000 on his chances at the prevailing odds .

Corbett’s confidence, however was as nothing with that of the champion. Sullivan did not believe the man lived who could stand before his tremendous rushes. He had prepared for the battle at  Canoe Place Inn, Long Island , established under Royal grant in the second decade of the18th century and now frequented by automobile parties touring through Long Island. He took of many Pounds of surplus weight, yet went to New Orleans carrying a girth that made his friends shake their heads and long for the Sullivan of five years earlier.

Corbett did his training at Asbury Park with Delaney at the head of affairs. He gave himself  most careful preparation spending all his wakeful hours in the open air. Odds of 4 to 1 against Corbett were freely offered when the two men pushed their way through the great throng of the Olympic Club. Even at those almost prohibitive figures Sullivan money was urgent and plentiful, while the backers of Corbett were shy. Of all the thousands of men who packed the club house that evening Corbett unquestionably was the one alone absolutely confident of his own victory.

John L Sullivan  was the originator of the fighting face. In his hundreds of ring contests he had frightened his opponents by the ferocity of his appearance. More than one fight had been won by him before a blow had been struck. Yet Sullivan was puzzled by the demeanor of Corbett while the preliminaries of the battle were being arranged in the ring. In Sullivans corner were  Jack McAuliffe, premier lightweight of all time, Joe Lannon, Phil Casey and Charlie Johnson. Behind Corbett were Billy Delaney, Mike Donavon, Jim Daly and Joohn Donaldson.

Corbett stopped and joked with his seconds after crawling through the ropes and then stepped jauntily over to Sullivan paying not the slightest heed to the heavy scowl that darkened the champions visage. He gripped his opponents huge fist, gave it a hearty squeeze and told Sullivan he was glad to see him. Then he went prancing away jumping from one foot to another like a schoolgirl – he was testing the floor of the ring to find any possible weakness that might be developed. His coolness was a revelation even to his most intimate friends. The experience was new to John L. and it may have had the effect Corbett desired upon the title holder.