Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Down for the count

Corbett vs. Mitchell (This inaccurate painting shows the two pugilists with bare knuckles in their championship match. Actually, they wore gloves under the recently adopted Marquess of Queensberry rules.)

Down for the count
by Robert A. Waters

The morning of January 25, 1894 broke in Jacksonville, Florida with thunderous claps of lightning and a heavy downpour. Not exactly what the members of the Duval Athletic Club had hoped for. At two-thirty that afternoon, a heavyweight title fight was scheduled. Because of the political overtones, the whole civilized world would be watching.

“Uncivilized.” The catch-phrase rang from newspaper to newspaper as editors and politicians and the intelligentsia lined up against the public in a fight to the finish. Boxing, the high-hats grumbled, is not civilized. In addition to violence, it breeds gambling and liquor. (At the time, even popular sports such as football and baseball were frowned on by many elites.)

Members of the Duval Athletic Club countered. Boxing is a sport, they contended, a “scientific glove contest.” In fact, the Marquess of Queensberry rules had been adopted a few years earlier, doing away with the brutal bare-knuckles bouts of the past. Now each fighter was required to wear five-inch boxing gloves and could no longer foul an opponent or strike him while he was down. Californian Corbett had recently defeated the venerable John L. Sullivan in a bout that lasted 26 rounds. Now he was matched against English heavyweight champ Charles Mitchell.

The Duval Athletic Club was supported by local businesses and the general public. In fact, when two militias--the Ocala Rifles and the Gates City Rifle Company of Sanford--were called in to quell an anticipated riot, they were roundly booed and pelted with eggs.

Despite the political uproar, the fight moved inexorably closer. Corbett set up training camp in nearby Mayport while Mitchell worked out in St. Augustine. Both fighters remained detached from the furor.

As soon as the match had been announced, a horrified Florida state legislature had passed a law outlawing “prizefighting, pugilistic exhibitions and kindred offenses.” The day before the match, however, the statute was struck down as unconstitutional. But that didn’t keep newspapers such as the New York Times from touting the law as a model for other states to follow.

Despite the driving rain, large crowds began to arrive at the gate. The Athletic Club charged $ 25.00 a head, and ended up with nearly two thousand paying customers.

At two-thirty that afternoon, the fighters stepped into the ring. While receiving instructions from the referee, the British fighter began to curse and scream at the champ. This caused great excitement--frenzied spectators cheered and hissed as tension throbbed in the throng.

Corbett was not intimidated by the tactics of his opponent. Near the end of the second round, the champ landed a series of punches that sent Mitchell reeling. The stunned fighter dropped to the canvas just before the bell sounded.

Early in the third round, Corbett continued his assault. He again knocked his opponent down, but Mitchell rose at the count of nine. Finally, a vicious right hand sent the Englishman down for the last time. When he was unable to get up, the victorious Corbett raised his gloves in victory.

State and county officials were enraged by the success of the match. Instead of accepting their loss graciously, the powers-that-be prevailed on Duval County Sheriff Napoleon Broward to arrest the two combatants. Both were charged with assault. The fighters quickly posted bail and left Jacksonville. But not before Gentleman Jim Corbett collected his $ 20,000 winner-takes-all purse plus an extra ten grand in bets he’d placed on himself.

In February, Corbett was hauled back to Jacksonville to stand trial for his part in the match. Once again, fight fans lined the streets leading to the courthouse. Within hours, the pugilist was once again victorious. He was acquitted.

Mitchell was never tried. After Corbett’s second victory in Jacksonville, all charges against the Englishman were dropped.

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