James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.  Image is in the public domain.
"Gentleman Jim" Corbett
I’ve been working through the various models of masculinity on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the Exposition’s most popular entertainments (alongside the first Ferris wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Rough Riders, and movable sidewalks) was a daily boxing demonstration by heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett used multiple venues –the ring, the stage, the press, film– in his attempt to use popular science to make the strong male body signify as genteel.

James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett was born in San Francisco in 1866. Expelled at age 16 from Sacred Heart College in San Francisco on account of a fight with a fellow student, he nevertheless used his brief enrollment in college as a platform on which to build his gentlemanly persona. He spent his late teens and early twenties boxing in California, where, as in most states, prizefighting was illegal.

In September 1892 Corbett’s most famous fight, a twenty-one round match with John L. Sullivan, popularized the Marquis of Queensbury’s boxing rules, which cemented his reputation as a gentleman of the ring. Sullivan had acquired his championship while bare-knuckle boxing in keeping with the 1853 London Prize Ring rules. Queensbury first proposed the set of rules that would replace the London Prize Ring Rules in 1867, but they weren’t adopted in the United States or England until the closing decade of the century. The Queensbury rules relied on dress and style to make the sport seem less like brawling. Under the new rules, boxers could not engage in wrestling or bear hugs, nor could they box without gloves or in bare feet.

Corbett’s win was set in classed terms: the educated “Gentleman Jim” had defeated the working-class Sullivan. The class distinction between the two men was merely part of their promotional pageantry. Like Corbett, Sullivan was the child of Irish immigrants and had only attended school until he was 15 years old. Despite their similarities, the two men presented themselves to press quite differently. The press feigned indignation over Sullivan’s brawling and boozing. Corbett’s private life, in contrast, was above reproach. The papers focused on his boxing, not as thinly disguised bar fight, but as a profession. As one paper put it, Corbett’s speed and “unaggressive tactics” inside the ropes made him popular as “the most scientific and agile heavy-weight pugilist ever seen in the ring.”
Corbett and Sullivan performed classed masculinity on the stage as well as in the ring. Both men had combined their success as boxers with performances in vaudeville shows and comic operas. In Corbett’s case, the vaudeville stage gave him a venue to publicly taunt Sullivan into a match. Following the championship fight he toured with a purpose-written play Gentleman Jack. In the play, a comedy written especially for Corbett, the pugilist starred as Jack Royden, a struggling young boxer. The play was popular both in the United States and in England.

The pleasure of watching prizefighting was perpetually at odds with the notion that boxing could be genteel. In 1894 the Edison Company offered Corbett $5000 to film a match with Peter Courtney. The film was, of course, heavily publicized so that the Edison Company could recover the cost of filming it. The film’s popularity caught the attention of the government and was the subject to a grand-jury investigation in which Edison claimed to have had no knowledge of the fight. The film was so popular that when Gentleman Jack was remounted in 1894, it was rewritten to include a reenactment of the last scene of the Corbett-Courtney fight.

Corbett, who held the title of heavyweight champions until 1897, attempted to augment his prestige through the invocation of science. The father of what he called “scientific boxing,” he earned a second nickname, Scientific Jim. Scientific boxing merely consisted of more dancing and dodging about than was common in the ring at the time. The recourse to the term “science” was a rhetorical move rather than a distinct fight strategy. In his biography, Corbett refers to scientific boxing as though it were a weapon. He describes pummeling one opponent “with all the science [he] possessed” (262). In his account of “the most scientific fight ever fought” science is reduced to no more than a “mental strategy,” and yet his articulation of his method as scientific was effective enough that he managed to expand it into a monograph, Scientific Boxing, in 1912 (296).

Dates, places, events; moves, gear, togs… I’ve got them down. I’m really trying to move beyond the the sartorial economy, to think about the way men’s bodies (in motion, and at rest) were made to signify across different media. Next stop (or non-stop)? Cycling? Dancing? Hiking?

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2 thoughts on “Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring

  1. This is really interesting–I saw a great talk at NVSA in Princeton last spring about the rhetoric of boxing in the Oscar Wilde trials. Perhaps this could be the next stop? Though the hiking sounds good too.

  2. That sounds like an excellent stop. Queensbury seems to pop up everywhere – I keep expecting to find him lurking under my kitchen sink in the morning.

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