originally published August 25, 2013

Given the relatively recent surge of interest in UFC and other grappling/kicking/semi-homoerotic-sweat-hugging mixed martial arts specials on pay-per-view, I suspect that the golden age of the golden gloves may have passed. I remember my dad pitching in with some friends to watch Mike Tyson fight Michael Spinks on pay-per-view – a fight that only gave viewers 91 seconds of their money’s worth. Boxing was king.

And in the movie world, it always has been. Sure, we’ve had our Karate Kid movies, as well as Bloodsport and a bunch of MMA movies that no one has seen (like Blizhiny Boy starring Gary Busey…anyone?), but if you want to watch a flick about two guys beating the crap out of each other, you’ll be watching a boxing movie. Some of them have been great, like Raging Bull, Rocky and even Marky Mark’s The Fighter. Others have been Rocky V.

Most people aren’t aware that it was the boxing movie genre that actually started up the medium of feature film. This sounds like the set-up to some gag about cats boxing, but in fact it’s true.

Enoch J. Rector was a part-time technician with the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company and a full-time boxing promoter. He was undoubtedly familiar with the 1894 box office hit Corbett and Courtney Before The Kinetograph, which captured six one-minute rounds between James J. Corbett and Peter Courtney. This was a staged match produced by William K.L. Dickson, one of the first real geniuses of cinema – it was fake, shot on Edison’s Black Maria soundstage, but it was also the perfect way to show off what film technology could do. Three years later, Enoch Rector wanted to capture the real thing.

Rector arranged for a $10,000 prize, and was able to lure a very disputed World Heavyweight Champion Bob Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett to the ring. Corbett – known as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett because fighters back then tended to embrace such quaint nicknames – was generally accepted as the actual heavyweight champ, so this fight actually had a lot at stake. Even without the proposed film, this was a major event in the 1897 sports pages.

The film was the first to be shot in widescreen, employing over 11,000 feet of film stock, the largest batch ever brought to a project. Promoter Dan Stuart even tried to shrink the ring size to 22 feet from 24 so that everything fit in frame. The film opened with a stirring introduction by former heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan, whom Corbett had beaten back in 1892. Sullivan and his manager, Billy Madden, prattled on for five minutes, introducing the referee and both boxers.

For the purposes of the film, while it was extraordinary that they captured this sports legend – Sullivan was after all the first officially recognized heavyweight champ ever – there was, of course, no sound. In fact, there were no intertitles, just five grainy minutes of Sullivan and Madden talking to the crowd. All fourteen 3-minute rounds were filmed, as well as the 1-minute cool-downs in between. The finished production was believed to be about 90-100 minutes in length, making this the first feature-length piece of cinema in history.

The fight was a spectacular affair, culminating in a solar plexus blow by Fitzsimmons which sent Corbett to the canvas, crawling out of frame as the ref declared Fitzsimmons to be the new champ. Among the reporters in the crowd was Wyatt Earp – yes, that Wyatt Earp – who fuelled the controversy in his New York World story about the fight, claiming that Fitzsimmons had landed an illegal blow to Corbett’s jaw after the knock-out blow and should thusly have been disqualified. The cameras kept rolling after the fight, tacking on ten minutes of the crowd storming the ring.

Call it a documentary or a prototype telecast, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was a huge hit. It premiered on May 22, just over two months after the actual fight, at the New York Academy Of Music. A running live commentary accompanied the film, which spectators treated like an actual sporting event occurring before their eyes. It proceeded to tour the country to rapt audiences. In fact, those audiences may be the most fascinating thing about the film, historically speaking.

Goofy publicity stills aside, women and boxing in the late 1800’s were not a mix. Though it may not have been inked into any law books at the time, women were essentially prohibited from attending boxing events. These were men wearing almost nothing, doing savage and violent things in the spotlight – no place for a gentle female. Keep in mind, prior to the Civil War it was not deemed appropriate for women to attend a Broadway show – audiences back then tended to be men and their prostitutes. But boxing? Even by the late 1890’s, that was still a man’s thing.

But movies weren’t. And while most accounts state that the majority of this film’s audiences was made up of men, women also showed up in impressive numbers, observing an activity that had always been shielded from them. It didn’t hurt that James Corbett already had a reputation as a matinee idol, having toured under a pseudonym in a play that was blatantly based somewhat upon his life and designed to showcase his image as a well-read, upper-class fighter.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, known for their rollicking wild parties and of course this photo…

…protested the film in a big way. They tried to get laws passed banning the film from being transported by mail, and begged local politicos to make it illegal to exhibit boxing films. For a while this was the second-most important item on their national agenda after the right to vote. Veriscope, the studio marketing the film, did their best to subvert these efforts by customizing their advertisements to attract women: they dubbed it a ‘sparring contest’ instead of a ‘prizefight’, and officially invited local ladies to each city’s performance.

Like any hit, the film soon had imitators. Siegmund Lubin put out a film called Reproduction of the Corbett and Fitzsimmons Fight, featuring two railroad workers recreating the match on a rooftop. Veriscope tried to sue, and audiences demanded their money back.

More than anything, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight opened up a massive wing of cinematic history, not only with its length and content, but also by the audiences it drew. This was low-brow cinema, bringing in the working-class who might not have otherwise spent the money to sit through the short snippets of what passed for movies back then. And though it would take almost a decade for someone to take the idea of a multi-reel feature length film into the fiction realm (1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, a 60-minute Australian bio-pic of bushranger Ned Kelly is considered the first such effort), there was no question the game had been changed.

Only snippets of the original film remain (I found about 19 minutes of it on Youtube), so we’ll never get to see this piece of history in its entirety.

Oh well. We’ve still got Raging Bull.

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