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The Man Who Hated Jack Johnson
Gentleman Jim Corbett by Patrick Myler

The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend

Foreword by Barry McGuigan

1998, Robson, London, 243 pages

To begin with, former lightweight champion Barry McGuigan wrote a nice foreword that was marred by his adherence to the common modern prejudice that old-time boxers were not as advanced as today’s. Yes, today our men are bigger and stronger, though not as tough. But to think that the old-timers could not punch effectively is absurd. We can settle this discussion with a look at the cover of the book.

The background is a well-known photo of Corbett versus Fitzsimmons, in which both are doing things with their arms unknown to modern boxers, and not consisting of the modern guard or a clearly identifiable punch in progress. However, as a man who has fought with small gloves [as these men did] eight times, and with bare-knuckles [as these men began their careers] seven times, I can tell you that these fighters were going about the business of attacking and protecting their poorly protected hands.

Of course, our current fighters do stand taller than these men, with their feet on their shoulders as it were, and do possess a more advanced skill set. But if you were looking for MMA or self-defense boxing advice, you would do better to speak with the ghost of Jim Corbett [no gentleman to be sure] than Barry McGguigan or any other modern boxing champion. If you come to boxing from a martial arts perspective, you will find the innovations that Corbett used to save his hands from shattering in the ring, and even to continue the fight after they broke, very instructive.

As a social commentary this book exposes enough of the prizefighting culture and societal ills of the time to put Corbett’s career in context. Like most biographers, including James LaFond, the author falls short of taking his subject to task for his flaws; in this case virulent racism, wife-beating, and poor sportsmanship. Corbett was a good hater, and was such a rabid racist that he became little more than a red-faced caricature of himself; a mere footnote in the storied career of Jack Johnson.

Jim Corbett though, had a tumultuous and sorrow-filled life, and despite all of his flaws finally managed to finish his life as good as his nickname; a compassionate old man who worried about hurting people’s feelings and promoted amateur sports.

Corbett is best known for his victory over John L. Sullivan [another drunken Irish brute] in the first gloved heavyweight championship bout in 1892. To give you a taste of the qualities that author Patrick Myler brings center stage from the life of this pivotal boxing champion, here is a quote from page 62, quoted from Corbett’s own autobiography, “I should have felt proud and dazed, but the only thing I could think of, right after the knockout [in the 21st round], was Sullivan lying there on the floor. I was actually disgusted with the crowd and it left a lasting impression on me…I realized that some day, too, they would turn from me when I was in Sullivan’s shoes lying there on the floor.”

This book and the story of Corbett have a lot to tell us about not just boxing, but human complexity and the joys and sorrows of the athletes that are the object of our fickle fascination.

The Punishing Art

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