Rise Of A Champion
Now firmly established as a professional boxer, Corbett was able to quit his job at the insurance company and devote himself full time to boxing. After fighting in matches in the San Francisco area and in Portland, Oregon, his fame spread to New Orleans, where he met the challenge of New Yorker Jake Kilrain, who had previously fought England's champion to a draw in 106 rounds. After Corbett won the match against Kilrain, word of Corbett's victory spread to New York, where he was courted by boxing promoters there. His career was assured after he defeated Dominick McCaffrey at Brooklyn's Casino Rink in April, 1890.
Returning in triumph to San Francisco, Corbett took up his old job as coach at the Olympic Athletic Club and fought often in exhibition matches. He also began a parallel career that was to carry him into his later years; in 1890, he was cast in his first play, in a small role alongside the famous actor Maurice Barrymore. Corbett found acting a natural extension of his desire to be in the spotlight as a boxer, and he eagerly pursued other acting opportunities, eventually becoming a stage and screen celebrity.
Corbett now had his sights on the world championship, and his first step in that direction came with his bout against Peter Jackson. Jackson was Australia's champion, and the reigning world champion, John L. Sullivan, had refused to fight with him because Jackson was black. Corbett, however, fought him for 61 rounds in San Francisco on May 21, 1891. The fight was ended only after both combatants were too tired and battered to swing effectually at each other, and the match was declared to be a "no contest." The fight lasted about four hours, and supporters of Jackson, who was favored to win by 2 to 1 odds, were shocked. Corbett became a challenger Sullivan could not refuse.
After his fight with Jackson, Corbett took on a new manager, William A. Brady, who saw Corbett's boxing successes merely as a prelude to his acting career, and began booking him in plays in New York City. One play, Gentleman Jack, was written specially for Corbett by Charles T. Vincent, and featured the future champion in the lead role. Advertising posters for the play promoted Corbett as the boxing champion of the world, before his bout with Sullivan.
The gamble did pay off before the play opened, however, and Corbett become heavyweight champion of the world on September 7, 1892 when he defeated John L. Sullivan in New Orleans. Corbett was the first world heavyweight champion under Marquis of Queensberry Rules. These rules insisted on the use of boxing gloves; before these were enacted, boxing matches were commonly fought with bare fists.
Corbett had had an opportunity to size up his opponent first-hand at an exhibition bout in San Francisco, during which both boxers sparred in full evening dress, at Sullivan's insistence. The combatants fought half-heartedly, but Corbett had an excellent chance to take the measure of the man he would later battle for the title of world heavyweight champion.
The fateful day arrived in New Orleans with thousands of spectators from all over the country crowded into the newly-completed Olympic Club. Reporters from around the world covered the fight, and 50 Western Union telegraph operators sat ringside to deliver blow-by-blow accounts. Sullivan was favored to win with 4-to-1 odds, and even Corbett's manager bet some money on Sullivan "just in case."
He need not have worried. Corbett successfully evaded most of Sullivan's blows in the first two rounds, and scored a devastating hit to Sullivan's face in the third, breaking his nose. Although Sullivan was larger and stronger than Corbett, Corbett wore his opponent down, dancing around him, and dashing in to place well-aimed blows before Sullivan could react. Corbett wore out his opponent over 21 rounds, finally finishing him off with a knockout when Sullivan was too tired and beaten to put up much of a fight.
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