Fighting’s Kinder, Gentler Era
With twenty-five thousand dollars and the heavyweight championship at stake, John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett met for twenty-one rounds at the Olympic Club in New Orleans on September 7. The New Orleans police had agreed to sanction the bout only if the contestants observed the Marquis of Queensberry Rules and wore big, civilizing gloves, making it the first title fight of boxing’s gloved era. Each round was to last three minutes under the adopted system, instead of ending whenever a fighter was thrown down, and grappling, made more difficult by the gloves, was outlawed. Boxing had always been notorious and popular; now it could be legal too.
Sullivan had made his early reputation as a road fighter by shouting “I can lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house!” as a salutation when entering saloons. But since claiming the title, he had done nothing more strenuous than drink and tour in his own stage show for several years, offering to defend his belt against anyone who could raise a prohibitive ten thousand dollars. Corbett found the money among some local sportsmen and forced a match. He was a smoothie by boxing standards, a departure from the bareknuckle challengers Sullivan had grappled with in earlier illegal bouts staged on barges or in fields. Though the crowd at the Olympic Club booed him for his elusive tactics, Corbett successfully infuriated and tired Sullivan over twenty-one rounds. The gloves, though satisfying the police, served mainly to protect the fighters’ hands; Sullivan’s nose was broken early on.
At the end, when the fat, old champion had been helped to his stool by his sinewy challenger, who had just dropped him to the floor, the Great John L. was the first to observe that an era had passed. Only three years earlier he had fought “seventy-five red rounds with Jake Kilrain,” according to the poet Vachel Lindsay, in the last championship bare-knuckle encounter. “Gentlemen,” Sullivan announced wearily to his fans, “it’s the old story. I fought once too often. But I’m glad it was an American who beat me and that the championship stays in this country.”