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Champions I have Known By Rob Snell

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The Montana Standard 4 November 1928

By Robert Edgren

Champions I Have Known.

It gives a writer on sports a little perspective when he can look back to such champions an John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. These three were prizefighters. The term "prizefighters" has practically gone out of use, except by reformers, trying to give the gentle art of boxing a severe verbal jolt. It has gone out of use because there are no prizefighters now, and here haven't been any for many years.

John L. Sullivan, Corbett and Fitz all started as prizefighters. Sullivan indeed as a prizefighter. All began with bare fist fights, to a finish, winner take all. They fought in me woods, the sand dunes, on barges, under cover of barns or out in rain or snow or sleet. Mostly they fought because they were filled with an ambition to prove that they were better men than the other fellows who liked fighting. They didn't say that the winner was the better boxer; they just said "the best man won." It was supposed to be a great test of manhood, to go out and fight until the loser was counted out.

Winner Take All.

Up to the time of the Fitzsimmons-Corbett championship fight at Carson, Nevada, in 1897, champions practically always fought winner take all. That made it a prizefight. Usually here wasn't much money at stake. Sullivan and Corbett fought for a purse of $25.000, winner take all, and or a side stake put up by their backers.

Corbett and Fitzsimmons fought or a purse of $15.000. Imagine any modern fighter "risking his championship" for small change like that. But fighters weren't afraid to risk something in the old days. They weren't business men. They were just fighters and proud of it. I knew John L. Sullivan for many years, and often talked over his famous fights with him, saw him in many exhibitions, but never saw him in a real fight. John's active fighting days were before my time, but remember vividly the early evening in Red Bluff, a small town in California, when I first heard of the sport of prizefighting and awakened an interest that has never waned.

With several other small boys I joined a crowd standing outside the telegraph office. There was an electric tension in the air. Men were talking about the great fight between Sullivan and Kilrain, somewhere in the woods down in Mississippi. A couple of hours passed. Then the telegraph operator suddenly raised his window, stuck his head out and yelled; "Sullivan wins." Men threw their hats into the air" and yelled for Sullivan, and all the small boys ran around yelling, "Sullivan wins." It seemed something very glorious and important.

And Sullivan was a great champion. If a Sullivan appeared today he'd go through our heavies like a brick through a showcase. John L. first became famous as the Boston Strong Boy. He wanted to become a baseball player and did play on a local team, but Professor Mike Donovan,

middleweight champion, came along and challenged any young fellow in Boston to set-to with him at a benefit.

fighters in those days made so little money that they had to give themselves benefits now and then. Sullivan set-to with Mike,who was a great boxer and an experienced fighter. Mike told John he'd go easy, so John needn't be afraid of being hurt.

John L. Gets Start.

Sullivan had the deepest voice I ever heard. When he was annoyed he fairly roared. He roared at Donovan: "You'll be lucky if I don't break your neck." So Donovan thought he'd better give the rough youngster a lesson in politeness. He punched John, and John swung his right arm like a ball bat, hit Mike on the shoulder blades as he ducked and knocked Mike down so hard Mike's nose was broken by impact with the floor. Mike told John he'd better quit baseball and become a fighter, told him he would lick any man in the world and become champion.

Sullivan took the advice. He won fights and made a local reputation, then went to New York and knocked out John Flood, "the Bulls Head Terror", In eight rounds, at midnight on a barge in the Hudson river. Sullivan went up fast after that. He knocked out Paddy Ryan for the world's championship and a $5,000 side stake, London Prize Ring Rules, bare knuckles to a finish. He knocked out Jake Kilrain for $10.000, a side, in 75 rounds, London Prize Ring style when only a knockdown or a fall terminated a round. Sullivan beat a lot of other men, and John's backers took him on a tour of America, meeting all comers with a forfeit of $400 to any man he failed to knock out in four rounds. He didn't have to pay anyone but Tug Wilson, who stayed four and was still fighting.

Sullivan was a heavy drinker. He made money fast and threw it over a thousand bars. He never trained. You'll notice in all the old photos of John L. that he was pretty fat around the waist for a fighter. But he didn't need much condition. He had all other fighters buffaloed, the way Bobby Jones has the golfers now.

Billy Muldoon, now boxing commissioner in New York, was the only man Sullivan respected; the only man who could make John train. Billy drove him to it with a baseball bat. Wild Living Beat Him. ' Sullivan's crash came through years of reckless living. Nine years after he won the championship, grown fat and careless of condition, he boxed a four-round exhibition with a young Olympic club boxing Instructor in San Francisco, Jim Corbett. He didn't lay a glove on Jim. A little over a year later Sullivan let Corbett have a match, at New Orleans. He was so

disdainful of the "dancing master" that he didn't train at all—just went out into the woods and sat on a log when he was supposed to be doing roadwork. And Corbett leaped and ran and kept Sullivan plunging until old John lost his wind and his legs gave out, after which Jim punched

him groggy. Then Corbett knocked Sullivan flat in the twenty-first round, and John was too tired to get up.

Corbett was a fighter of an entirely different type. He began fighting bare fist finish fights in the sand hills around San Francisco. March 17th. 1897, Corbett fought Bob Fitzsimmons, the middleweight champion, at Carson, for a $15,000 purse, put up by Dan Stuart, and the world's championship. It was a finish fight, winner take all, the last finish fight for a world's heavyweight title. There was romance in those days. Sent to cover the event for my paper, I joined Corbett's camp and boxed with him for five weeks during the training, turn and turn about with Jim Jeffries and Jim's brother Joe and Billy Woods. I think I landed one solid punch on Jim in that five weeks. I thought then, that he was a boxing marvel, and although I've watched thousands of fighters since then I still rate Corbett as the neatest, although not the most dangerous, of them all.

Knocked out by Bob Fitzsimmons in the fourteenth round, Corbett made his one really great fight when he was no longer champion. That was when he fought Jim Jeffries for the title at Coney Island, training ten months with grim determination; and danced and jabbed and shot over

jarring rights until he was knocked cold by the very much annoyed Jeffries in the 23rd round.

Fitz Was Greatest.

Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest fighter I've ever seen, I think he was the best for his weight in all ring history. Bob was a physical freak. Six feet tall, with broad shoulders and large chest, long arms, a blacksmith's forearm and hands, narrow hips and skinny legs, he weighed only 147 ½ pounds when he knocked out Jack Dempsey, the Nonpareil, for the world's middleweight championship.

Fitz weighed only 156 ½ when he knocked out. Jim Corbett for the heavyweight championship. Corbett weighed 183. He won the light heavyweight title from George Gardner at 175 pounds, and that was when he had been fighting 23 years. He fought his last fight, after a glorious career including hundreds of battles, against Knockout Sweeney in 1914 making a record of 34 years in the ring. Bob was then 51 .

Fitzsimmons had amazing physical power and combined with it a cunning and resourceful mind and endless courage. In later fights, when he broke his hands on Jeffries and Gardner, he fought with the broken hands, concealing the Injury until the fights were over. He lost the heavyweight

title to Jim Jeffries, in a furious 11 rounds at Coney Island. Fitz was dropped flat on his back a jab in the second round. Realizing the young giant's power then, Fitz attacked with relentless fury until he was finally beaten down. He tried to beat Jeffries three years later, hammered the giant to a pulp in eight rounds, but was knocked out again.

When I asked Bob about the fight afterward he said: "I 'ad im torn to pieces" when my 'ands broke up, but inside 'e was as good as ever. I was trying to use the two knuckles I 'ad left on 'is body, when 'e started a straight left for my chin and dropped it with a stiff arm into my stomach.

Only Jeffries could use a punch like Ant. He's the strongest man I ever saw, 'is arm is like an iron beam.

That punch paralyzed me. My arms dropped and I tried to fall down, but my legs were paralyzed and I couldn't move. So I knew it was over. I got a little breath and I said to 'im: You've got me, Jim. Finish it.' So 'e 'it me on the chin and dropped me. Jeff is the finest man I ever saw in my life. I know now I never could beat 'im. Too big and strong."

That was Bob Fitzsimmons, a great fighter and a sportsman. He became Jeffries' closest friend after that second fight. He held no grudge because he'd been beaten- he lived near Fitz at Bensonhurst and for a couple of years boxed with him very often. We were close friends, too. That didn't save me from stopping many a punch that Fitz might have used to win a fight. He was a rough bird with the gloves on. Stalling along and slipping in a neat little unexpected punch was a great joke. The only joke he enjoyed more was when I happened to slip a fast one over on him.

Talking about Bob's punching power, here's a funny one: Bob clipped me neatly on the chin one day while training for the second Jeffries' fight. The jar of that little hook went right down from my jaw through neck and spine and leg, and sprained my right ankle.

I've only seen that effect twice in fights. Jim Barry swung on Sam Langford's jaw and sprained' Sam's right ankle, and Jack Dempsey hit Bill Brennan on the jaw and broke Bill's right leg. But that last was a little different. Bill broke his leg by twisting it under him as he fell

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