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The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight


Films of championship bouts promised to generate the greatest financial rewards. Following the success of THE CORBETT-COURTNEY FIGHT , the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company sought a similar subject for its large-capacity peephole kinetoscopes but encountered many obstacles. Samuel Tilden, Jr., and Enoch Rector arranged with fight promoter Dan Stuart to film a heavyweight bout between Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons in Texas. The Edison factory even constructed new, wide-format cameras to photograph the event. When Texas chief justice James M. Hunt ruled on 17 September 1895 that no law in that state prohibited pugilistic exhibitions, Stuart’s plans seemed almost certain to reach fruition. A few weeks later, however, the governor requested and the Texas legislature enacted a bill that outlawed prizefighting. 4 Subsequent attempts to stage the bout in Arkansas likewise ended in disappointment.

By November, Stuart was trying to hold the fight in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. When Corbett announced that he had retired and turned his championship over to Pete Maher, Fitzsimmons angrily accepted the new matchup against Maher. On 21 February 1896, two hundred dedicated boxing aficionados took a train from El Paso to Langtry, Texas, tramped through a half mile of deep sand mixed with mud, crossed a pontoon bridge, and eventually reached a crude ring. The heavily overcast sky precluded cinematography, but delay was impossible lest the authorities disrupt the proceedings. Maher, still recovering from an eye infection, was routed in one minute and thirty-three seconds. Rector then offered a five-thousand-dollar purse for the two to fight for the kinetograph on the following day, but Fitzsimmons demanded ten thousand dollars and 50 percent of the profits. His price was too high, and the match failed to materialize. 5 After six months of almost continual preparation and expense, the kinetoscope group still lacked a fresh subject to place in its peephole machines.

Projection came before further boxing matches could be arranged. Finally, on 4 January 1897, Robert Fitzsimmons and James Corbett signed an agreement to fight for a ten-thousand-dollar purse offered by Dan Stuart. The kinetoscope figured prominently in the negotiations. Fitzsimmons demanded and eventually received an equal share of the revenues, 15 percent of the profits going to each of the fighters. 6 Stuart’s task was to find a place to hold the prizefight legally: only then could he attract a large number of ringside spectators and sufficient press to publicize the bout, and only then would it be possible to organize the filming. While all states forbade prizefighting, they did not prohibit the exhibition of prizefight films. Thus the participants planned to make money not from the fight itself but from the films. Motion pictures suddenly made boxing a profitable sport per se. Previously, fighters like John L. Sullivan and James Corbett had made their living on the stage—by giving exhibitions and appearing in plays. The heavyweight championship had turned these boxers into celebrities, but fighting had not in itself been enormously profitable. Motion pictures changed this.

Stuart convinced Nevada officials that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight would help the state’s struggling economy. Despite protests from state governors and religious leaders, prizefighting was legalized on 26 January. Stuart selected Carson City as the site and 17 March as the date. Corbett, then appearing in A Naval Cadet, disbanded his theatrical company in Kansas City on 6 February and headed west to train for the bout. Meanwhile, Enoch Rector built new cameras especially for the event. These used a 2 3 / 16 -inch-gauge film stock with a wide-screen format ideally suited for photographing a boxing ring. 7

The reaction from Protestant groups and moralistic legislators was predictably angry. Congressman William F. Aldrich, at the request of the Reverend Wilbur F. Crafts of the National Reform League, submitted a bill providing that “no picture or description of any prize fight or encounter of pugilists or any proposal or record of betting on the same shall be transmitted by the mails of the United States or by inter-state commerce, whether in a newspaper or telegram.” 8 Clergy gave countless well-publicized sermons attacking this form of amusement. In a typical sermon, “Nevada’s Shame and Disgrace,” the Reverend Levi Gilbert of the First Methodist Church of Cleveland declared:

This state, this deserted mining camp, revives brutality by an exhibition that must make its Indians and Chinamen wonder at Christianity. Corbett is called a gentleman, yet acted like an infuriated animal in his last fight. He is dissipated as is John Sullivan, who clubs his wife, and both of these are shining lights of the theater, and Christian people are lampooned for non-attendance.

Such exhibitions promote criminality by feeding the bestial in man. They debauch the public ideal. Such men sell their bodies for merchandise as surely as the harlots of the street. They show pluck, yes, but no better than the bulldog or the tiger ( New Haven Register , 9 March 1897, p. 12).

Yet even those newspapers that condemned the bout devoted large amounts of space to its preparations as the fight became a national event. Gunfighter Wyatt Earp was a special reporter for the New York World. Bat Masterson attended. And, as the Boston Herald announced in a front-page headline, “The Kinetoscope will Dominate Wholly the Arrangements for the Holding of the Battle.” The battery of cameras, grouped together in a wooden shed, were given the best seats in the house while paying customers were forced to look into the sun. Stuart arranged for several lesser bouts so that the big fight could be postponed and the spectators placated, if the day was cloudy. On the night before the battle, Stuart even had the ring cut down from the regulation twenty-four feet square to twenty-two feet so the cameras would be certain to capture all the action. Only in this last instance was he unsuccessful, for the referee noticed the difference and insisted that the original size be restored. 9

As the fight unfolded, round-by-round descriptions were telegraphed to the nation’s theaters and read from the stage. In large cities, it was reenacted by experts—at Proctor’s Pleasure Palace, for example, in a simultaneous exhibition billed as “a purely scientific illustration of the blows and ring tactics used at Carson,” Fitzsimmons was played by Professor Mike Donovan, the New York Athletic Club’s boxing instructor, while the role of Corbett was assumed by Professor Alfred Austin, an ex-middleweight champion of England. In Massachusetts, legislators left a debate on a women’s-suffrage bill to follow its progress. For once, the bout went off as scheduled, and Fitzsimmons defeated Corbett with a blow to the heart in the fourteenth round. The fray equaled everyone’s highest expectations. “I consider that I have witnessed today the greatest fight with gloves that was ever held in this or any other country,” declared Wyatt Earp. 10 But some spectators claimed that Fitzsimmons fouled his opponent with a smashing blow to the jaw as Corbett collapsed from the jab to the heart. If the punch had been late, partisans argued that Fitzsimmons should have lost. Many were anxious to see the films and judge the timing of the blow for themselves.

While the New Haven Evening Register believed that legality would tear the veil of romance from prizefighting and leave it “exposed in all its hideousness and depravity,” most opponents of pugilism rejected a laissez-faire approach. Bills to prohibit the exhibition of fight films were introduced in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, as well as other state legislatures, although in most instances they were defeated. Probably to reduce similar efforts, Rector announced that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons negatives had been ruined and that no exhibitions would take place. In some cases Dan Stuart’s generous distribution of funds to lawmakers may have made a significant difference. In Massachusetts, the legislative calendar was drawing to a close and introduction of new bills needed approval by four-fifths of the legislature. This did not happen, for many of the legislators were themselves anxious to see the films. Only in Iowa and perhaps a few other states was the exhibition of fight films banned. A few localities, such as Pueblo, Colorado, also prohibited them. 11

THE CORBETT-FITZSIMMONS FIGHT , shown by the Veriscope Company, had its debut on 22 May 1897 at the Academy of Music in New York City. Developing and printing the films as well as building the necessary apparatus for projection had taken over two months. The opening was heavily promoted, particularly by the New York

World which published a two-page spread showing drawings of the fight derived from key frames of the films. According to this pro-Corbett perspective, the term “veriscope” or “truth-viewer” was appropriate because it emphasized one of the selling points of the pictures: the camera recorded the foul that had eluded the referee. In the words of the World , it illustrated “a triumph of science over the poor, imperfect instrument, the human eye, and proves that the veriscope camera is far superior.” Spectators could judge for themselves whether or not Fitzsimmons had fouled Corbett. The average man did not have to accept the authoritative word of the referee or the sportswriter but could reach his own conclusions. But were the World ’s drawings faithful to the film? “I do not believe there is single picture in the veriscope that will substantiate those published in The World,” replied Fitzsimmons. “Those purporting to be scenes from the fight are manufactured.” 12

The war of fists had become a war of words, and the Academy of Music was jammed on opening night. The program lasted for approximately a hundred minutes and was one of the first full-length performances devoted exclusively to motion pictures. The projected images, according to the New York Tribune, “were larger than any that have been seen hitherto, but the flickering and vibration were most troublesome to the view and extremely trying to the eyes.” Nonetheless, for the first time in almost everyone’s experience, they could see a regulation championship fight, if not live, then recorded mechanically. Theater seats became seats at ringside as patrons saw this ritualized sport unfold from a single camera perspective in realistic time. As was to become the custom when exhibiting fight films, an expert stood to the side of the screen and offered a running commentary: the sports announcer had arrived.

In the sixth round, when Fitzsimmons was brought low for a few seconds, the crowd became so much excited that the lecturer who was explaining incidents had to give it up and let the spectators understand the rather complicated situation the best they could. He managed to get in just a word of explanation when it was nearly over.

Although the fight seemed to be pretty familiar to most of the persons present, the final blow of Fitzsimmons was unexpected, and few, if any, were prepared to say afterwards that they saw it. Corbett was seen suddenly to go down on one knee and crawl away, while the house rang with shouts of “Where’s the foul? Where’s the foul?” Corbett’s attempt to get at Fitzsimmons after the fight was over was shown with great clearness, and was one of the most interesting incidents of the exhibition. At the end there were loud requests for the last round to be shown over again, but the operators seemed to think that they had done enough ( New York Tribune ,23 May 1897, p. 8).

While the single-camera perspective (perhaps with some jump cuts as one camera stopped and the next began) encouraged a sense of theatrical space, and indeed, the whole event had been engineered as a display for the camera, the presentational elements of THE CORBETT-FITZSIMMONS FIGHT were most evident in the use of a commentator beside the screen. The details and significant moments that would one day be brought out by close-ups were now emphasized by the narration.

The veriscope played at the 2,100-seat Academy of Music for just over five weeks and then moved to Brooklyn for two more. It opened a four-week stand in Boston on 31 May and one of nine weeks in Chicago on 6 June. According to the Chicago Tribune , the attraction drew “immense audiences at the Grand Opera House both at the evening and daily matinees, and the receipts for this reproduction have broken all records of the theater since its existence.” Admission ranged from twenty-five cents for a gallery seat to one dollar in the orchestra. Generally, there were breaks of three to five minutes every fourth round while the operator changed reels of film on his single projector. In Boston, at least, these intermissions were considered a desirable means of saving the spectators’ eyes. Efforts were quickly undertaken to solve some of the exhibition’s technical problems: improvements were made in the printing and developing as new prints replaced the first positives, and the projecting machines may have also been modified. Additional openings soon followed: Buffalo for four weeks on 7 June, Philadelphia for three weeks on 26 June, and Pittsburgh for two weeks on 3 July. 13 A West Coast company opened in San Francisco on 13 July for three weeks and then moved up to Portland. Also widely exhibited overseas, the veriscope opened in London on 27 September.

The program was seen by enormous numbers of Americans, not only in large cities but smaller towns. Distribution was frequently handled by sales of territory on a states rights basis. By fall, approximately eleven companies were touring the United States with THE CORBETT-FITZSIMMONS FIGHT , usually performing in crowded theaters. The program also returned to many cities. For its two-week Boston reengagement in April 1898, admission was lower, the technical quality had improved, and 1,400 feet of film showing the ring after the fight had been added. This program sparked interest in the Bob Fitzsimmons Vaudeville Company, which played immediately afterward at the same theater. A Veriscope and Vaudeville Company toured other major cities for one-week stands during the 1897-1898 season. In remote parts of the country, veriscope exhibitions continued to be given, albeit with decreasing frequency and attendance, until 1900. With profits said to exceed $120,000 (apparently after the fighters received their percentages), Rector was forced to sue Dan Stuart for an accounting and his share of the proceeds. 14

Although men of sporting blood were the veriscope’s intended audience, the fight films drew from an unexpectedly broad cross section of the population. Many attendees had never previously seen a boxing match of any kind. Not only members of New York’s four hundred families (who symbolized refined culture) but members of “the fairer sex” visited the Academy of Music. In Boston, women were reported to form “a considerable portion of the audience,” and according to at least one source, women constituted fully 60 percent of Chicago’s patronage. In many other cities and towns, a similar pattern emerged. To male reporters, it was a puzzle. Perhaps the absence of noise, blood, and the sounds of distress made the fight acceptable to women’s more refined sensibilities, the Boston Herald suggested, or perhaps many of them attended “with the expectation of being shocked and horrified.” Today other explanations seem more credible. By attending, women asserted their independence and loosened a code of conduct that narrowly circumscribed their public sphere. Many middle-class women took this opportunity to see a part of the male world from which they were normally excluded. The theaters housing the veriscope were those that women regularly visited, and many of the “fairer sex” felt free to go on their own, at least to the matinees. Suddenly they had access to the forbidden and could peruse the semi-naked, perfectly trained bodies of the male contestants. For women of the leisure class, the Herald noted, it had “become quite the proper thing to drop in and see a round or two of the pictures.” 15

The fact that THE CORBETT-FITZSIMMONS FIGHT was an “illustration” of a fight rather than a fight itself made the attraction not only legally but socially acceptable viewing material. The moralistic, conservative Protestant groups who condemned the sport as barbaric were at least temporarily routed, defeated by proponents of popular culture who had managed to win over or neutralize the cultural elites as well. Opponents of pugilism were put on the defensive. Fighting was legalized in New York State, at least for a time, and several championship bouts would be fought there in the late 1890s. Although the death of a fighter later set back the cause of legal boxing in New York, never again did championship fighters lack an American location where they could hold a contest.

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