From Bank Teller To Professional Boxer
While working as a bank teller, Corbett practiced in amateur boxing matches, first with some of his fellow bank clerks on their lunch break, and then at scheduled matches at sporting establishments. Although a righthander, Corbett developed the power of his left punch, and many an opponent found his then-unusual left jab devastating.
The young boxer began his career in earnest when he joined San Francisco's Olympic Athletic Club. Initially, the coaches at the club steered the young Corbett into playing baseball, which he did until a serious hand injury forced him out of the game. He then returned to boxing. Under the tutelage of Olympic's boxing coach, Corbett soon became the club's middleweight champion, and by the time he turned 18, became the club's heavyweight champion.
At the top of his game as an amateur boxer, Corbett nevertheless still worked as a bank clerk, and he longed to make more money. During this time, when he was just 19 years old, in 1886, Corbett and Olive Lake eloped to Salt Lake City, Utah and were married. It was in Utah that Corbett fought his first bout as a professional. The heavyweight champion of Utah, Frank Smith, issued a challenge, and Corbett responded under the name of Jim Dillon, to avoid tipping off his family back in San Francisco that he was in Salt Lake City. Corbett won the match, earning a prize of $460 in the process—money that Corbett and his bride desperately needed to pay the rent.
After fighting another professional match in Evanston, Wyoming (accounts differ as to the results of that fight), Corbett returned to San Francisco, where he got a job as a clerk at an insurance company and moonlighted as a boxing instructor at the Olympic Athletic Club.
Corbett made his pro boxing debut near his hometown on May 30, 1889. This was when he and fighter Joe Choynski met for a "fight to the finish" This meant that the match would last until one of them could no longer go on, or until they both agreed to a draw. Promoters of the fight emphasized the combatants' ethnic differences (Choynski was Jewish), and local authorities forbade the fight on the grounds that it might start a riot. So Corbett and Choynski had to box unadvertised in a barn in remote Marin County. Nevertheless, word got around, and hundreds of spectators turned out to watch the fight.
The boxers went five rounds before the sheriff showed up to stop the proceedings. Corbett and Choynski met for a rematch a week later, this time on a barge north of San Francisco Bay, safely out of the jurisdiction of local police. The fight lasted a punishing 28 rounds. The deck of the barge grew slick with the combatant's blood, and sawdust had to be laid down so that they wouldn't slip in it. Corbett at last won the fight with a knock-out punch. Corbett himself was so dazed that he had to be told that he had won the fight.