- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

LAS VEGAS Roy Jones Jr. is attempting to add his name to history, a kind of which has not been made since an Englishman named Bob beat a Gentleman named Jim in 1897 surrounded by a cast of Wild West characters.
Jones faces World Boxing Association heavyweight champion John Ruiz at Thomas & Mack Center here on Saturday night. If Jones wins, he will become the first former middleweight champion to win the heavyweight belt since "Ruby" Robert Fitzsimmons knocked out "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in the 14th round on St. Patrick's Day in 1897 in the first sanctioned prize fight in Nevada.
That fight was staged in an outdoor stadium in Carson City with the involvement of notorious Texas Judge Roy Bean, gunfighter Bat Masterson working security and legendary lawman Wyatt Earp sitting ringside. It also caused a stir across the nation.
"Nevada was one of the few states that legalized boxing at the time," author and boxing historian Bert Sugar said. "Boxing was always running away from the constabulary before that, taking trains to secret locations for fights. This was a very big fight."
Light heavyweight champions have attempted to capture the heavyweight title, with very little success. Washington's Bob Foster faced heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in November 1970 and was knocked out in two rounds.
Pittsburgh's Billy Conn made an infamous attempt against Joe Louis in June 1941. Conn was winning the fight, outboxing the Brown Bomber. But Conn chose to try to take Louis out in the 13th round and got knocked out.
Michael Spinks became the first light heavyweight champion to make the immediate jump to heavyweight title holder when he won a close decision over Larry Holmes in September 1985, and he retained the title in a rematch with Holmes in April 1986.
But Jones' path is more difficult because he began as a middleweight champion. Jones, the reigning undisputed light heavyweight champion, won the middleweight title in Washington when he defeated Bernard Hopkins on the undercard of the Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson heavyweight title fight at RFK Stadium in May 1993. He then moved up to win the super middleweight title at 168 pounds and then the light heavyweight belts at 175 pounds.
Jones is expected to weigh about 190 pounds for Saturday's fight. Ruiz likely will outweigh him by 30 or 35 pounds. If Jones wins, he will have outdone Fitzsimmons at least in beating the bigger man.
There was hardly as much difference in weight when Fitzsimmons defeated Corbett Fitzsimmons weighed 172 pounds, and Corbett came in at 184 but the drama surrounding their fight dwarfed that of Saturday night's Jones-Ruiz fight.
It was such a big event that it became the first film ever made in Nevada: The Edison Picture Company paid $13,000 for the rights to film the fight. The bout was billed the "Fight of the Century," and press reports claimed that $2.7million was spent on the fight nationwide a huge amount at the time.
Telegraph companies paid a reported $1.3million for wire and newspaper services, and betting on the fight was also believed to be well into the millions of dollars.
"There was a lot of interest in this fight," Sugar said. "Corbett had beaten John L. Sullivan and was considered the first recognized world heavyweight champion."
Corbett became a popular sports figure not just for his boxing skills, but for his style outside of the ring as well.
"He was a dapper guy," boxing historian Hank Kaplan said. "He was a little different from your typical roughnecks in boxing. He was a former bank clerk who had become heavyweight champion. He had a personality, and show business was as important then as it is now."
Fitzsimmons was born in England he was the last British fighter to hold the heavyweight title until current champ Lennox Lewis and his family moved to New Zealand when he was 12 years old. He worked as a blacksmith, developing the upper-body strength that would make him one of the toughest men in Australia. He eventually came to the United States to make his mark in the boxing world.
Fitzsimmons won the middleweight title by beating champion Jack Dempsey no, not the heavyweight champion in New Orleans in 1892. He defended the title once before moving up to take on the heavyweight division (there was no light heavyweight division at the time).
"Fitzsimmons was described by John L. Sullivan as a fighting machine on stilts," said Sugar, referring to the contrast between Fitzsimmons'spindly legs and his broad shoulders. "He had been chasing Corbett for some time, and Corbett didn't want to fight him."
There had been talk for several years of Fitzsimmons taking on Corbett, and in 1896, a match between the two was set up in Dallas.
Fitzsimmons made his training camp in Corpus Christi. According to one account, Fitzsimmons kept a pet lion Mike Tyson would keep a pet tiger 100 years later. The lion reportedly was allowed to roam free, though it was killed a year later after getting tangled with some electric wires in Chicago an accident in which Fitzsimmons also was injured.
However, the state of Texas considered boxing to be a "barbaric" sport, and Gov. J.G. Culberson called a special session of the legislature to outlaw prizefighting. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight was canceled.
The fight was promoted by a political opponent of Culberson's, Dan Stuart. Stuart teamed up with Judge Bean, who was known as the "Law West of the Pecos." Later that same year, Stuart and Bean promoted a Fitzsimmons fight against heavyweight Peter Maher, just across the border from Langtry in Mexico. The governor sent Texas Rangers to stop the fight, but it took place and Fitzsimmons knocked Maher out in two minutes.
Fitzsimmons' next fight was in December against Sailor Tom Sharkey in San Francisco. Earp served as the referee, surrendering his Colt .45 before he entered the ring.
Earp's presence created a furor. Fitzsimmons' manager believed that he was in the tank for Sharkey, and the outcome seemed to support his suspicions: Fitzsimmons appeared to knock Sharkey out in the eighth round, but Earp declared it a low blow.
Fitzsimmons filed a lawsuit to reclaim his share of the purse. Earp was called to testify and, though his decision was upheld by the court, his reputation as a boxing referee became a source of ridicule in the press. It was widely speculated that Earp had a large sum of money bet on Sharkey.
Four months later, Fitzsimmons, at 34, finally got the 30-year-old heavyweight champion Corbett in the ring and Earp was there at ringside in Carson City, though this time just as a spectator.
Earp's friend Masterson had been hired as security for the fight. Like Earp, Masterson was a lawman: He was deputy marshal in Dodge City, Kan., and famously helped Earp defend Tombstone, Ariz. He at times earned a living as a gambler and managed gambling houses in Colorado. Masterson also was involved in boxing at various stages of his life as a manager, referee and a sportswriter (he would later write for the New York Sun).
The fight was a brutal battle.
Corbett had won the heavyweight title in 1892 by knocking out the legendary Sullivan in the 21st round, but he had fought only once officially since. Nevertheless, he put a bloody beating on Fitzsimmons. But in the 14th round, Fitzsimmons landed a powerful blow near Corbett's heart, and the champion went down. The blow that was recorded as the "solar plexus punch."
"It took the air right out of Corbett," Kaplan said.
Nearly two years later, Fitzsimmons faced a much bigger opponent in Jim Jeffries, the 218-pound former sparring partner of Corbett, on Coney Island. Before the fight, Fitzsimmons was asked about his chances against Jeffries.
"The bigger they come, the harder they fall," Fitzsimmons said, coining a phrase that would become famous.
But it was Fitzsimmons who fell: Jeffries stopped him in the 11th round. Fitzsimmons also lost the rematch, quitting in the eighth round because of broken knuckles he suffered trying to knock out Jeffries.
Fitzsimmons continued fighting in shows and exhibitions he won the light heavyweight championship at 41 until he was 51 years old. He spent his remaining years touring with a vaudeville group and as an evangelist until his death in 1917.
Fitzsimmons claimed he fought more than 350 bouts in his career, but, like many fighters of his time, most of them were exhibitions. Boxing records show that he ended his career with a 74-8-3 record, with 30 no-decisions. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Saturday night's fight between Jones and Ruiz is the biggest fight in the heavyweight division since Lewis fought Tyson last May. But as far as measuring up to the last time a middleweight champion rose to the heavyweight crown, it is a lightweight event.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide