Nevada champions the first legal U.S. prizefight
The highly touted 1897 bout between Americas reigning heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, and lanky Australian challenger, Robert Fitzsimmons, promised to bring much needed money to the Reno and Carson City economies. Both communities were suffering from a two-decade long mining depression entrenched on Virginia Citys Comstock Lode. This nationally advertised fight between these two very popular pugilists promised to bring thousands of boxing fans to Western Nevada, and the economic boost of tourist money was the driving force behind the Nevada Assemblys January 1897 decision to legalize prizefighting. The decision came at a cost, however, since the controversial fight drew attention to Nevadas other unique sin solutions (such as legalized prostitution, gambling, sale of liquor, and by the 1930s, easy divorce) that the state legislature implemented for economic reasons. The prizefight had nearly been aborted when Texas authorities, and then California officials rejected the fight at the last minute on legal grounds. In response, Nevada quickly passed legislation legalizing boxing, but with a few restrictions; gloves could not be less than four ounces, no alcohol sales, and no fights on Sundays. Immediately, boosters from Reno, Carson City and Virginia City were bidding feverishly for the match. Virginia City businessmen reportedly raised $10,000 to host the extravaganza, but there were worries that the fighters could not train and perform at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet. In addition, Virginia and Truckee Railroad officials said Pullman sleepers could not negotiate the tunnels west of Gold Hill and ultimately Carson City earned the privilege to host the bout. The match was scheduled for the afternoon of March 17, 1897 Saint Patricks Day. Since the promoters intended to film this championship fight, utilizing the primitive Verascope movie technology of the day, the bout was scheduled for anytime between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., depending on when the sunlight was best for the cameras. (This was the first on-site location film ever shot in Nevada and the beginning of a lucrative business for the Silver State. Today Nevada is the most popular U.S. movie location site, bringing in millions of dollars in annual revenues.) The month of March along the Sierras eastern slope can be downright wintry, but the promoters of the fight wouldnt wait. Only if the weather did not cooperate and clouds ruined the natural lighting needed to film the match, would the fight would be postponed. At first the odds for success looked bleak. On March 16, the day before the fight, a journalist for the Reno Evening Gazette wrote, This morning was dark and gloomy and there was a heavy snow storm up in the mountains all day, and the clouds hang heavy over the valley. That night, the weather was bitterly cold, the sky overcast, with snow flurries in the air. Nevada citizens who opposed the new legislation legalizing prizefighting in their state quietly enjoyed the inclement weather and the possibility of a canceled match. But at dawn on fight day, a reporter at the Carson City Morning Appeal noted that while the air was cool and sharp, there was not a cloud to be seen anywhere. There was a noticeable moderation in the temperature and it could readily be predicted that when the sun was a few hours higher, the day would be perfection. The luck of the Irish had held. The sun would shine on this Saint Pattys Day. The Southern Pacific Railroad had scheduled extra trains out of San Francisco for the thousands of fight fans traveling to Reno, but all trains were running late due to a nasty snowstorm in the mountains. Airlines and Interstate highways did not exist in 1897, so spectators heading to this championship fight first bought tickets for a ride on Southern Pacifics transcontinental railroad to Reno. From there they transferred to the Virginia and Truckee Railroad line south to Carson City. Popular pugilist and reigning champ, James J. Corbett, had been born in San Francisco in 1862, and therefore attracted a large crowd of supporters from California. Corbett had won the heavyweight championship in 1892 from famed fighter John L. Sullivan, who had held the title for 12 years, decisively defeating him in 21 rounds. The public called Corbett Pompadour Jim because of his dandified ways; Corbett preferred to call himself Gentleman Jim. In those days, many boxers made a living not from fights, but as actors, and Corbett had starred in a play called Gentleman Jack in 1894. Boxing purists were disappointed that the handsome Corbett was a boxing artist, not a man of power and brawn like John L. Sullivan, but knockout victories by Corbett in 1894 and 1895 resolved any questions about his right to hold the title. Challenger Robert Fitzsimmons had been born in Cornwall, England, in 1862, but he was a resident of Australia at the time he fought Corbett. While Corbett may have been considered a Fancy Dan, Fitzsimmons was described as a fighting machine on stilts. He was knock-kneed, tall, skinny, and balding. However, Fitzsimmons was known as a master of ring strategy, using quick maneuvers, shifty footwork, and feigns of grogginess to set up rivals for a knockout. Corbett and Fitzsimmons had signed contracts for the fight with the winner receiving $15,000 and the proceeds of side bets worth $5,000 to $10,000. The loser would get $9,000. The boxers and entourage set up their training camps in February. Corbett chose Shaws Hot Springs, now known as Carson Hot Springs, while Fitzsimmons selected Cooks Grove, three miles east of town. Family and friends surrounded each fighter, all swearing their man would win. Daily news bulletins flashed to every city in the country putting Carson City in the national spotlight. Journalists swarmed in from every media market in the U.S. and abroad. Veteran lawman Bat Masterson, covering the fight for the New York Post, was joined in the crowd by ex-champ John L. Sullivan and the noted boxing Marine Tom Sharkey (both there to challenge the winner), as well as famed gunmen Wyatt Earp and Luke Short. The March 17, 1897, prizefight between Californian Gentleman Jim Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons was the first licensed, sanctioned fight ever held in the United States. The highly publicized battle drew thousands of spectators to Carson City, but not all were boxing fans. Legendary Gold Hill newspaperman Alf Doten observed that the crowd was thick with pugs, gamblers, newspaper reporters, scrubs, and prostitutes in plenty. Dozens of detectives staked out the railroad depots at both Reno and Carson City, searching for pickpockets and confidence men. Vendors walked the streets hawking sundry souvenirs such as miniature boxing gloves and plaster casts of Corbetts fists. When word spread a Kansas senator had just stepped off a Virginia andamp; Truckee Railroad carriage, an editor on the Carson City Appeal wrote, This shows to what a pinnacle of national importance the fight has climbed when so distinguished a man as senator of the United States attends. Ironically, the fight almost never happened. Boxing was illegal in the United States and Europe during the late 19th century, and no state could host the match. But in 1897, Nevada was in the midst of an economic depression and politicians decided that legalized prize fighting would attract much-needed revenue for the Silver States coffers. Despite a strong tide of dissent by many Nevada residents, many of them female, the State Senate narrowly passed the bill by a 9 to 6 vote. The law was then sent to Governor Sadler, who signed it on January 28, 1897, just in time to host the March bout. Reigning heavyweight champ James J. Corbett was heavily favored, the odds running 10 to six against Fitzsimmons. Californians and Easterners attending the fight considered Corbett a dandified boxing artist but supported their champ fiercely. Locals in Carson City, however, soon discovered that Corbett was aloof and haughty, and not at all the Gentleman Jim he called himself. By contrast, Australian Robert Fitzsimmons was friendly and easygoing, and by fight day locals favored him over Corbett. Stay tuned for part two of Fight of the Century in the Tuesday, April 1 edition of the Sierra Sun. 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 email@example.com
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