Real news. Real stories. Real voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by

Corbett vs. Fitzsimmons Fight

James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons before a match circa 1897
via Smithsonian American Art Museum
James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons before a match circa 1897.

Over the years, Nevada and especially Las Vegas became known for major boxing matches. Think of Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes or Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Marvin Hagler. But it all began one hundred and twenty-five winters ago.

In 1895, promoter Dan Stuart tried to put on a heavyweight championship fight. The defending champ was Gentleman Jim Corbett, the son of Irish immigrants to San Francisco. The challenger was Bob Fitzsimmons, known as Ruby Robert and The Freckled Wonder, a native of Cornwall in England. But many saw boxing as uncivilized. Progressives and religious groups objected to the bare-knuckle fighting and rounds lasting until someone went down. They weren’t mollified when the new Marquis of Queensbury rules added gloves and set three-minute rounds. Reformers did all they could to keep the fight from happening.

But Nevada’s economy had been depressed since the Comstock started going downhill in the late 1870s. Officials were ready to try anything. One legislator, Al Livingston, owned a Carson City bar and led the state fair and agricultural association. He and Stuart’s representatives lobbied his colleagues. It wasn’t a tough sell. The 1897 legislature passed it and on January 29, Governor Reinhold Sadler signed the bill legalizing prizefighting. The state required a thousand-dollar fee for what the law called “glove contests,” and both fighters would have to pass a physical.

You might not be surprised to know that Nevada didn’t get good press for this. The referee, a Chicago newspaperman. wrote that he was in Carson City because promoter Dan Stuart “quietly and diplomatically turned to the bankrupted commonwealth of Nevada, with a total population of less than 60,000 and a hopeless insolvency.” A favorite term was “Nevada’s Disgrace.” At the time, Nevada had legal gambling, but that didn’t get much notice. The decision to permit fighting might be seen as the beginning of Nevada accepting and allowing — even encouraging — what others objected to. For example, legal prostitution, easy divorce, and wide-open gambling.

Meanwhile, the two fighters trained near Carson City. Newspapers sent correspondents to cover the preparation and then the fight. For Nevada, it was a publicity bonanza at a time when there were no mining bonanzas. Every day, stories went across the country from Nevada. Nevadans mostly felt the worst publicity was no publicity.

Stuart scheduled the fight for March 17, befitting the Irish heritage of Corbett, the expected winner. In the fourteenth round, the unexpected happened. Fitzsimmons hit Corbett in the solar plexus. Corbett went down for the count. Fitzsimmons had won. Curtis had not. Ticket sales were well below expectations. But he made back his investment because three cameras made by Thomas Edison’s firm were nearby, and a man named Enoch Rector filmed the fight. It was shown in theaters around the country and may have made three quarters of a million dollars for the promoter, who did much better than the state that welcomed him. The fight didn’t make a lot of money for Nevada. But it was a beginning. As Richard Davies wrote in his history of Nevada boxing, The Main Event, this “created a business model that would conjoin boxing, mass media, and investors into a lucrative, if often shady, enterprise.” Nevada would be at the heart of it for decades to come.