On this day in 1900, on Coney Island, heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries knocked out former champion James J. Corbett in the 23rd round of a fight scheduled for 25 rounds. The bout is famous for the brilliant performance of the 34-year-old Corbett, who came within a thimble of regaining his old title and proved once and for all that he was a boxing master, and for the rugged tenacity with which Jeffries prevailed, despite taking a pasting most of the way. It was generally assumed that, had the bout gone the 25-round limit, Corbett would have been awarded the decision.
Only in his dismantling of John L. Sullivan in 1892 did Corbett rival the skill he displayed against Jeffries. He boxed, moved, and laced the champion about the eyes with slashing combinations. His footwork amazed ringside observers, as he avoided the ropes and the corners and often left Jeffries lunging.
The battle took place before 7,000 or so spectators, packed into a firetrap called the Coney Island Seaside Athletic Club. The crowd, almost all puffing cigarettes or cigars so that the ring was only dimly visible through the clouds of smoke, filled the aisles in violation of every fire ordinance. “How the crowd could be handled should a panic break out was a problem that did not seem in the least to bother the manager of the club,” the New York Times reported. “Their business was to get the crowd in; after that it was supposed to take its own chances.” Most fans cheered Corbett, giving him spirited ovations after many rounds. Jeffries remained stolid and unshakable, always in pursuit. Though he took a good drubbing, he threw the heavier punches. You could hammer Big Jeff all night, but you weren’t going to get him out of there. Twenty-five rounds is a long, long time to fight—twice the distance of today’s championship bouts—especially against someone like the tireless Jeffries.
The end seemed near in the 19th round, when the champion knocked Corbett down with a right to the ear. Yet Corbett rose quickly and resumed his sidestepping, blocking, and clever boxing. With just a few rounds to go, the former champ’s old title was within his grasp.
But sitting on his stool after the 22nd round, Corbett began thinking “about the banners I’d hang out” from the marquee of the theater where he was performing. (Corbett was a working actor for all his adult life.) He also heard the taunts from fans that he was a coward for evading the champion’s rushes and refusing to fight him, toe to toe. And so, as the story has it, he told his cornermen that he was ready to do some fighting. They pleaded with him not to.
Jeffries cornered him in the 23rd round and needed only one punch, a left hook (some accounts say that it was a right). Corbett went down, his head striking the canvas flooring heavily. He could not beat the referee’s count.
Corbett’s valiant performance in defeat--it was "the greatest fight of his ring career," the New York World said--did more for his popular standing than any of his victories, a familiar experience for athletes, then and now. His near-miss engendered a long line of former heavyweight champions who would try in vain to regain their lost titles: Bob Fitzsimmons, Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, and Jersey Joe Walcott, before Floyd Patterson became the first man to turn the trick in 1960.
Today's boxing fans remember the Ali-Frazier fights as the gold standard of competitive heavyweight excellence, but for earlier generations, the battle of Coney Island stood as one of the hallmark struggles. Writing about the fight in 1944—roughly the same distance in years from the event as the Ali-Frazier fights are from us now—the New York Times’s Arthur Daley wrote: “Even at this late date it seems worth a backward glance.” Unlike Daley, we can take our backward glances via YouTube—over and over again, if we wish. Most of us wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders from time to time whether we weren’t better off when our resources were confined to memory and imagination.