Fight of the Century | SierraSun.com

Fight of the Century

Mark McLaughlin

Just before noon on March 17, 1897, Australian boxer, Robert Fitzsimmons, jumped into the ring in Carson City, Nev. Seconds later, the reigning world heavyweight champion, James Corbett, climbed through the ropes to join him. Both pugilists received a standing ovation from the crowd of 6,000 fight fans. California-born and crowd favorite Corbett had a broad smile on his face as he shook referee Silers hand. The cheering and cat-calls continued until one minute before 12 oclock, when the official timekeeper, Billy Madden, hushed the crowd by shouting, While the contest for the worlds championship is taking place please keep order; there are ladies present.

The boxers were introduced amid great fanfare with Corbett getting the loudest applause. Fitzsimmons then removed his pink and blue dressing gown, revealing dark blue trunks with a belt covered with small American flags. Corbett wore a red, white and blue belt with a green buckle. His trunks were green (in honor of Saint Patricks Day) and he wore white socks rolled down over the top of his shoes. The referee then 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 while training near Carson City.) While the two contestants went to 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. At 12:06 p.m. the two men stepped to the center of the ring. 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 stomach, the crowd yelled Too low! Corbett seemed to have the upper hand in the second, but apparently none of his punches landed very 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 Corbetts 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 husbands tentative smile did not reassure her. (This fight, 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 three minutes, and made padded gloves mandatory. Until then, bare-knuckle boxing had been very popular in Britain, the United States, South Africa and Australia.)

In the fifth round, Corbett landed a hard blow to Fitzsimmons face, splitting the Australians lip. The blood soon spattered over the bare chests and shoulders of the fighters, inflaming the crowd to a fevered pitch, and only the barbed wire and heavy wooden barriers prevented a rush to ringside by the fanatical fans in the cheap seats. At the end of the eighth round, Corbetts punches drove Fitzsimmons to his knees for eight 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 minutes rest between bells, Fitzsimmons seemed to find renewed vigor, and stepped forward to continue the desperate battle.

In the 10th, Corbett continued to batter his opponents bloodied face. Fitzsimmons did minimal damage with infrequent body blows. When the gong ended the tenth, Corbett returned to his corner still without a mark on him. In the 11th round, however, the battle grew hotter as Corbett became frustrated that his numerous punches to Fitzsimmons head had not slowed his opponent down. In fact, as Corbett began to show fatigue, Fitzsimmons got 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. It seemed 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 to Corbetts solar plexus. The champ staggered, and then Fitzsimmons dropped him 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 Jims Colors Lowered by the Australian. Corbetts 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. Thats where I made my mistake. Afterward, Fitzsimmons assured his fans 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 their Carson City fight, 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. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, “The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm,” “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2,” and “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly” are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com