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LIGHTS, CAMERA, AND ACTION!

A review of Samuel Hawley’s The Fight That Started the Movies

By Roger Zotti

Samuel Hawley’s latest book, the aptly titled The Fight that Started the Movies: The World Heavyweight Championship, The Birth of Cinema and the First Feature Length Film, will please boxing fans, history buffs, and lovers of a strong narrative.

The fight, the one that made film history, was between world heavyweight champion James J. Corbett, conqueror of John L. Sullivan, and British-born challenger Bob Fitzsimmons, boxing’s first three division world champion. A fight to the finish, it took place in the early afternoon of March 3, 1897; the venue, the outdoor Race Track Arena at Carson City, Nevada.  

Entertaining, informative, and meticulously researched, the book is “the story of how boxing played a key role in the invention of the movies in the 1890s,” Hawley says. “It tells parallel stories of the rise of boxers James. J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons and the early development of motion picture technology, culminating in the filming of [their title bout]], which was recorded in its entirety and shown across the country as the world’s first feature-length film.

“As a writer of history,” Hawley adds, “I enjoy the challenge of bringing events and people from the past to life, of making history as engaging as a novel. I wrote The Fight That Started the Movies because the story had all the ingredients for that kind of book. On the conceptual level, there’s the intriguing idea that boxing is closely tied up in the invention of the movies.”

The book “offers the reader a glimpse into how a handful of fighters and inventors and dreamers, all chasing their personal ambitions, combined to create the movies. I think it’s good to remind ourselves of how our ancestors lived, of what they did, of what they created and accomplished with just their own ingenuity, effort, and guts.”

My favorite chapters deal with the fight, and before the action began Corbett, the bigger man, probably fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than Fitzsimmons, entered the ring, writes Hawley, “wearing a grayish brown bathrobe, hair parted in the middle and slicked down, face creased with a smile.”  (Corbett was later immortalized in Gentleman Jim, one of his nicknames. In one of his best performances, Error Flynn portrayed Corbett.) Fitzsimmons was attired in a “’fearfully spotted bathrobe, which no visitor at ringside will ever forget.’”

          Cinema technician Enoch J. Rector filmed the fight inside a Veriscope where, Hawley explains, “Rector and his assistants . . . would have to work together like a machine. For that was what the Veriscope was, a machine—a huge, three lens camera with its human operators, its flesh-and-blood motor, sealed inside.”

Confident of a victory in three rounds, Fitzsimmons was quoted as saying: “’I don’t know why, but I feel pretty confident it will be over by then.’”  Corbett, the betting favorite, predicted he’d win in seven rounds.

Round one: A stinging jab from Corbett lands on Fitzsimmons’ face, the first of many he’d sample. Also, in this round Fitzsimmons breaks his thumb— which will cause him considerable pain throughout the fight. (Corbett has a hard head!) Round two: The warriors clinch and Corbett smiles “over his shoulder at his father and brothers at ringside.” They break and Corbett lands a punch to Fitzsimmons’ mouth. “The blow drove his lower lip into his teeth, tearing the skin. He was not wearing a protective mouth guard,” Hawley writes. “It had not yet been invented.”

In round three Corbett continues dominating Fitzsimmons, his reflexes superior to the smaller man’s, his punches faster. Round four finds Fitzsimmons’ nose “thoroughly mashed . . . his gums were torn, his lower lip split open.” Though Fitzsimmons has landed several good punches during the fight, they haven’t hurt Corbett, and “the realization that he could take the blacksmith’s dreaded hammer blows filled [him] with pride.”

At ringside is Fitzsimmons’ wife Rose, and her shouts of encouragement,” Hawley says, “gave him a feeling of grim determination, the thought flashing through his mind: ‘It shall never be the lot of that woman to be the wife of a defeated husband.’” A hard shot to the mouth brings him back to reality.

In round six a hard punch from Corbett lands “under Fitzsimmons’ right ear,” and he drops to one knee. “Corbett, almost wild to end it, hung over him, ready to smash him down the moment he tried to rise,” but referee George Siler doesn’t begin counting until Corbett moves away “from his downed opponent as required by the rules.” At the count of eight Fitzsimmons is back on his feet.

Is Fitzsimmons’ finished? Is there a chance Corbett will become overconfident and perhaps careless? Nothing is certain in this fight, especially this fight, except that at this juncture, as one of the champion’s corner men tells him, “[Fitzsimmons] can recover like no man.”

In rounds eight and nine, Fitzsimmons is becoming stronger and more offensive, “as if the earlier knockdown had done him good,” Hawley writes. In round ten, though still a battered fighter,  for “‘There were blood drops trickling down every part of [Fitzsimmons’] body . . . but there he stood, aggressive and smiling . . . his eyes twinkling in the sunlight as he watched for Corbett to come on,’” is the way a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle described the challenger.

By round twelve the fight has changed. Fitzsimmons knows it; Corbett does, too. Maybe the heavyweight champion has expended too much energy from the opening round, from all the punches he has thrown at Fitzsimmons, from hitting him so often. (He might’ve underrated Fitzsimmons’ durability.) Maybe backing off for a few rounds, regrouping, would’ve helped him regain his strength, because his breathing is labored.

As for Fitzsimmons, at this point he’s swinging wildly, but, Hawley writes, “They were likely a trick to lull Jim into being careless . . .”

During a clinch in round thirteen, Fitzsimmons tells Corbett, “‘I’m going to knock you out.’” Corbett doesn’t respond, and in the next round, to slip Fitzsimmons’ right hand punch, the visibly fatigued Corbett “jerked his head back and momentarily exposed his midsection,” long enough for Fitzsimmons to drive “his left into the pit of Corbett’s stomach—a solid left, a sledgehammer left, a finishing left with his full body weight behind it.”

Corbett is on the canvas. He isn’t unconscious. But he can’t catch his breath. Referee Siler begins counting. At ten, Corbett still isn’t on his feet.

The fight is over. Bob Fitzsimmons is the new world heavyweight champion!

After his crew helps him to his feet, Corbett, nearly hysterical, refuses to admit defeat and tries to attack Fitzsimmons, but the former champion’s “seconds . . . seized their man and [pull] him back.”

          Rector now had “twenty-one thousand six hundred feet of exposed film. Just over four miles,” Hawley writes. He and his crew had “filmed in duplicate an entire prizefight . . . all fourteen rounds of action together with the pre-fight preliminaries and the confusion and excitement that followed the knockout . . . He had not missed a moment. The whole thing had lasted an hour and a quarter.”

Corbett was never the same after the loss. He was stopped three times in four fights, retiring in 1903. After his come-from-behind victory to become heavyweight champion, Fitzsimmons had twenty fights, losing five. He retired in 1914.

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Samuel Hawley’s book, “The Fight that Started the Movies,” along with the others he has written, is available on amazon.com.

A regular contributor to “The IBRO Journal,” Roger Zotti is the author of “Friday Night World” and “The Proper Pugilist.” Currently he’s working on a book of essays about sports and people (real and imaginary). Reach him at rogerzotti@aol.com to say only nice things about him and his books.