Porter Ashe, Aimée Crocker’s first husband, was known to some as the man who discovered World Heavyweight Boxing Champion James Corbett. Known as “Gentleman Jim” because he wore his hair in a full-grown pompadour, dressed smartly and used excellent grammar, Corbett is called the “Father of Modern Boxing” for his scientific approach and innovations in technique. Ashe was riding one day along a bridle-path when he overtook Corbett in running gear. He said that he was a boxer and was training in hopes of getting a fight with the formidable Joe Choynski. To meet the terms of the purse he needed $1,000. Ashe never saw a youngster so sure of himself and put up the money. Prizefighting was felonious in May of 1889 when the big fight took place. At that time, most matches were bare-knuckle with no rules, no weight divisions, no round limits, no referees. It was a sideshow type sport that was illegal in many areas of the country. The Choynski/ Corbett fight started in an old barn but was interrupted by the police. It was then moved to a barge near Sausalito five days later. With blistered feet, a dislocated thumb on one hand, his other hand broken, and under a blindingly bright and hot sun, Corbett found a way to outlast his rival, demonstrating his mettle and paying his dues as a true fighter. Choynski was knocked down in 27 rounds.
Ashe bet on Corbett in his early years, helping him to become the mold of fistic form, often visiting him at his training quarters for pep talks, and, no doubt, financial backing. Ashe was also known to entertain the boys at their Florida camp. Porter was thought to be the living image of the distinguished thespian, Maurice Barrymore, and could sing anything from the “Toreador” solo in Carmen to “Take a Day Off, Mary Ann” in excellent style with his rich baritone voice.
The introduction of the Marquis of Queensberry rules improved the status of professional boxing by regulating the participants’ behavior and dampening the potential barbarism of the ring. At the same time, the boxing clubs that formed the foundation of the sport standardized the various weight classes. Boxing was making a transition to a legitimate, money-making form of sport.
Jim Corbett represented the new age of boxing. He had learned his craft not on the street but from a coach. He had attended college and worked as a bank clerk before turning to the sport. He began his career in 1886 and had fought all of his matches wearing gloves and under Queensberry rules.
On September 7, 1892 Corbett fought reigning World Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan. The two men met in New Orleans at the Olympic Club. The Sullivan-Corbett fight marks a watershed for professional boxing as the sport moved out of the shadows of criminality into the realm of acceptable public entertainment. A crowd of over 10,000 men—and a few women—jammed the arena. Sullivan weighed in at 212 lbs.—25 lbs. heavier than his challenger. The betting was heavy. Two thousand miles away and connected by telegraph, beacon lights atop New York City’s Pulitzer Building alerted the fans below as to which fighter was winning—red for Sullivan, white for Corbett.
Gentleman Jim wrote about his victory in a book Roar of the Crowd in 1925:
When we came up for the twenty-first round it looked as if the fight would last ten or fifteen rounds longer. Right away I went up to him, feinted with my left and hit him with a left-hand hook alongside the jaw pretty hard, and I saw his eyes roll. . . . Summoning all the reserve force I had left I let my guns go, right and left, with all the dynamite Nature had given me, and Sullivan stood dazed and rocking. So I set myself for an instant, put just ‘a little more’ in a right and hit him alongside the jaw. And he fell helpless on the ground, on his stomach, and rolled over on his back! The referee, his seconds and mine picked him up and put him in his corner; and the audience went wild.
Both Corbett and Ashe helped make San Francisco the fight capital of American for more than a decade. Corbett was a spokesman for the sport, and a celebrity to the world at large. Unlike his predecessors, he understood that, first and foremost, he was an entertainer and he parleyed his fame into other ways of earning a living. He appeared regularly in vaudeville shows, theater plays, and in boxing exhibitions.
Corbett’s autobiography The Roar of the Crowd is an entertaining first-person account of the pugilist’s glories. Over 90 years later, the book remains relevant and informative, allowing a glimpse into the idiosyncrasies of professional boxing from a time when the sport, while still illegal in many jurisdictions, was truly part of the fabric of social life. It would be made into a film in 1942 starring Errol Flynn as Gentleman Jim. The Warner Brother’s classic film is a fascinating look at the early days of boxing as a outlaw sport, with some exciting and realistic fight sequences, well-staged and highly effective.
The thirty-three-year-old Flynn was indeed an experienced boxer who had fought in matches in his youth. He trained for the film with the former junior-welterweight champion Mushy Callahan with whom Flynn was already in the habit of sparring. Nonetheless, Flynn’s chain-smoking and drinking had caught up with him…. Raoul Walsh, who already had the reputation of a no-nonsense director who sometimes like to rush through his films, pushed Flynn through his paces. Flynn collapsed during one of the boxing sequences and was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital. He was diagnosed as having experienced a mild heart attack. He was then flown to Baltimore and admitted to the Johns Hopkins University Hospital where physicians conducted a thorough physical examination. Their assessment was grim.
Errol Flynn as Gentleman Jim Corbett
Of course, this news was kept from the public. Though the film bears no trace of the toll taken by its making, Walsh infuses it with as much sharp and streetwise energy as went into Corbett’s life and convincingly recreates San Francisco circa 1887. The movie’s love story—Corbett’s protracted, intermittent, and turbulent courtship of the heiress Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith)—plays out like a 27-round, bare-knuckle verbal boxing match.
The supporting cast includes Jack Carson, Alan Hale, William Frawley, Minor Watson, and John Loder. Cousin Harry Crocker has a cameo playing Uncle Charles Crocker.
The 1942 film was an international hit
James “Gentlemen Jim” Corbett fought Peter Courtney in 6 one-minute rounds at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio. This small piece of Round 1 is all that remains and is the oldest surviving footage of a sport being filmed.