- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

It was called the “Fight of the Century” — the 19th century.

It was the first heavyweight title bout to be filmed.

And when it was over, the champion lay on the canvas clutching his midsection in moaning misery while his conqueror, who should have been fighting as a middleweight, pranced about the ring and thousands cheered in Carson City, Nev.

The date was March 17, 1897, a very bad St. Patrick’s Day for Irishman James J. Corbett, who lost the title he had gained by upsetting the mighty John L. Sullivan five years earlier. Corbett was felled in the 14th round by challenger Bob Fitzsimmons with a devastating blow to the midsection that went down in boxing lore as the “solar plexus punch.”

The midday bout was viewed by a huge throng in Carson City, which retained vestiges of the wild, woolly and doomed Old West. As spectators entered the outdoor arena, legendary lawman Bat Masterson and several associates removed firearms from those who were spied packing heat.

The best prizefights match boxer and slugger. College-educated “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, whose sophisticated style helped escort the sport from its bare-knuckled beginnings to modern times, was regarded as a master technician in the ring.

Fitzsimmons, who was of Irish descent but was raised in England and New Zealand, was a brawler with daunting offensive skills — a middleweight who hit like a heavyweight and then some. Four years earlier, he had knocked out seven 200-pound opponents in one night, doing it in a total of just 19 rounds.

Corbett, with a 16-pound weight advantage over the 167-pound Fitzsimmons, dominated the early rounds as he bloodied the challenger’s nose and knocked him down in the sixth. But the remarkably durable Fitz rallied strongly in the 10th and began to take command.

As he walked through the crowd before the fight, Fitzsimmons bent down and kissed his wife, Rose. In return, she shouted some timely advice to him between the 13th and 14th rounds: “Hit him in the slats [ribs], Bob! Hit him in the slats!”

Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!

Apparently Corbett did not like the fight game much. His 13-year career included just 19 bouts, and he defended his title just once in five years before losing to Fitzsimmons. After their fight, he entered the ring only four more times. Two of those appearances brought knockouts in title fights by Jim Jeffries, who won the championship by flattening Fitzsimmons in 1899.

By contrast, Fitzsimmons was a fighting machine. His career stretched from 1883 to 1914, and he was 51 when he finally hung up the gloves. All told, he had 62 official bouts — and probably hundreds of exhibitions. Later he traveled about the country as both a vaudeville performer and an evangelist, two occupations that bore certain similarities in the early years of the 20th century.

Nat Fleischer, legendary editor and publisher of The Ring magazine, once rated Fitzsimmons as the third-best heavyweight of all time, an unlikely distinction considering his size. Yet there is little doubt that “Ruby Robert” was one of the most fearsome punchers of his distant era.

“He knows all the vulnerable spots of the human anatomy as well as the most erudite surgeon in the business and has a greater variety of effective blows than any [other] fighter who ever lived,” ring historian Sandy Griswold wrote in a 1904 issue of the Police Gazette.

Joe Gans, a great lightweight champion in the early years of the 20th century, put it this way: “I consider Bob Fitzsimmons one of the greatest exponents of straight hitting the prize ring has ever known. When Fitz delivered a blow, he carried the whole weight of his body with it.”

Too bad Fitzsimmons was so small (he also held the middleweight and light-heavyweight titles at various times). If he had weighed, say, 200 pounds, his name might rank alongside those of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali at the top of the heavyweight pantheon.

Fitzsimmons died of pneumonia in Chicago at age 54 in 1917, just three years after his last fight. Corbett, who spent his later years acting in low-budget films and minstrel shows, was 66 when he expired in Bayside, N.Y., in 1933. Nine years later, Errol Flynn played the title role in a Hollywood biopic called, fittingly enough, “Gentleman Jim.”

Although few fans remember Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons 111 years after they met on St. Paddy’s Day, they are members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. And they belong.

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