Today, New York City’s Coney Island is little more than an eerie, rundown funfair. As the great post- World War Two era of American domination and wealth nears its finale and areas of the country slide into dilapidation, it has become symbolic of the end of empire. Grey and damp, its poignant melancholy evokes modern, urban decay. A night-time hideaway for alcoholics and junkies – how strange to think that it was once a hugely important centre for world boxing.
For a brief period at the turn of the last century, the Coney Island Athletic club was the equivalent of today’s MGM Grand in Las Vegas. During 1899 and 1900 it hosted a 3-part series of heavyweight title fights, featuring the now legendary ‘boilermaker’ James J Jeffries, a tough-guy champ of such reputation that many still rank him as one of the best heavyweights ever. Described as a barn-like building with a capacity of 10,000 and even a removable roof, it stood on what is now the car-park of the New York Aquarium.
All three of these heavyweight title nights were promoted by the showman William Aloysius Brady, a waistcoated Californian wisecracker who made his name and fortune in the theatre. They were times of economic boom and Brady was an exponent of the theory of accumulation through speculation. “The Lord is always good to the honest gambler” he would say. His three Coney Island boxing shows were among the first ever bouts to be filmed. Honours for that actually go to the famous Leonard v Cushing fight in 1894, recorded by Thomas Edison, although only a brief segment of that contest was committed to camera.
The second of Brady’s trilogy, Jeffries’ first defence against Tom Sharkey was, in fact, the first fight filmed in its entirety. However it is now seldom remembered that its predecessor, Jeffries’ victorious challenge against champion Bob Fitzsimmons, was also taped, just less successfully. Only two minutes of footage have survived. Today is that important battle’s anniversary and while both men remain famous figures in fistic folklore, it is neither’s most discussed or written-about clash.
All three of Brady’s fight films were produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and were shown afterwards as large-screen entertainment in variety theatres to ticket buying audiences. The recordings were also sold as a Mutoscopes, a kind of nickel-a-view peepshow with cards rotated by a handle that were popular in amusement parlours. In this way Brady can be considered a visionary. He saw in the emerging technology a way to bring his promotions to a far wider audience, while also turning a tidy profit. Fifty years before television would become a household normality, and seventy years before anyone would use the term, he was something of a ‘pay-per-view’ pioneer.
The champion that evening, known as ‘Ruby Red’ due to his freckles, was a 36 year old Cornish blacksmith who had migrated to New Zealand as a youngster. Outside the ring his reputation was for loose women, a fondness for alcohol and early hours carousing. As he emerged, slightly hungover from his nearby hotel, he found a waiting crowd of several thousand fans cheering and tossing their hats in the air.
Even now, Fitzsimmons is still something of a mythical figure in British sport. Eventually a 3-weight world champion, he was the only Brit until Lennox Lewis 94 years later to hold the world heavyweight title. Anyone who followed the careers of Lewis, Frank Bruno, Henry Cooper or other 20th century British heavyweights heard his name mentioned frequently.
The crowd followed Fitzsimmons on his short walk to the venue excitedly, slapping his back and wishing him well. He was hot favourite against the unheralded young challenger. Unfancied Jeffries was a former sparring partner of the ex-champ Jim Corbett, whom Fitzsimmons had stopped with a solar plexus punch two years before.
Yet history tells us that hubris has done for many a hero and Ruby Red, to his discredit, considered this fight to be enough of a formality to have spent the night before drinking and partying. Indeed, his lifestyle since winning the title had been more that of a celebrity than a prizefighter.
After beating Corbett he had defended once against Lew Joslin in June 1897, then spent 24 months completely inactive, choosing instead to capitalise on his name and fame by making public appearances and stage-turns. ‘An audience with the world’s heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons’ – people would pay good money for that. It was a far easier way to make a living than being punched in the face. He had also abandoned his former blacksmith work, which had hardened his body and given him such impressive back and arm strength.
It seems odd now that at the time Jeffries was so overlooked. He was hungry and fierce, naturally the far bigger man and twelve years younger. Known for his enormous power he was also boxing on home turf and had been training with renowned fight-coach Tommy Ryan.
All advantages were on his side. But public opinion hinged on the fact that Corbett had apparently swatted him around so comfortably in sparring. The prevailing mood even affected his own mind as Jeffries reportedly placed a $5000 bet on himself to lose, as a sort of insurance policy.
Barrel chested and barrel waisted too, if the photographic evidence is to be believed, the boilermaker was a full blown heavyweight at 6ft1 and 205 pounds, a very large man by the standards of the time. Fitzsimmons, in today’s terms was a small super-middle, weighing an official 165. He had previously been world middleweight champion.
It may be an apocryphal tale but legend has it that the champion’s confidence evaporated when Jeffries met him backstage before the fight and bear-hugged him. “He nearly broke my spine.” Fitzsimmons is alleged to have said. The sheer size and strength of the young challenger was formidable.
Stories always become greater through repeated retelling and there are many boxing books scribed by earnest nostalgists in which contests of this era are colourfully sketched out. Descriptions tend to be overwrought and hyperbolic. All punches are thunderous, the action non-stop. Yet the only footage of the fight that survives does not bear out such fantasy. Probably containing a scene from the second round, although it could also be from the tenth, it shows two awkward stylists circling, pawing the air, before Jeffries finally floors Fitzsimmons with a leaping left hook.
It’s almost sacreligious in boxing writing to say this sort of thing but that brief evidence suggests neither man was a master in terms of technique. Clearly tough guys, from a different time, perhaps comparisons are pointless. But an explosive, young Tyson, an untouchable Ali, even a towering Klitschko? It is very difficult to imagine either of them lasting long with champs from the modern era.
The story of the fight is that Fitzsimmons was put down once in the second and twice in the tenth. He came out bravely for round eleven but had clearly not recovered, whereupon Jeffries set about him and knocked him cold with another left hook. Ten minutes passed before Fitzsimmons regained his senses well enough to get to his feet and leave the ring.
The bout marked a turning point for both fighters and for boxing itself. Jeffries became the main man and celebrity, the new fistic darling of America, carrying pugilism’s torch into the 20th century. His name was known all over and he was regarded by many as the world’s true champion for at least 6 years after he retired. He boxed a rematch with Fitzsimmons 3 years later, in which he needed three fewer rounds to batter the smaller man into submission.
After the second hammering, Ruby Red wisely stopped fighting men who were forty pounds heavier than him and dropped down into the newly created light-heavyweight division. There he captured a third world title and boxed on until he was 51. A true fight-game tragi-hero, his last contest came in 1914 and he breathed his last only 3 years later. His famous penchant for drink, dice and whores saw him die broke and miserable from pneumonia in Chicago. Records were scattily maintained in those days but he himself claimed to have had over 350 contests. Nat Fleischer of Ring magazine (now deceased) generously once named him the 3rd greatest heavyweight of all time. Good going for a man who weighed less than Carl Froch.
Jeffries on the other hand went on to retain the title for a further 5 years, retiring in 1904. He made an ill-advised comeback in 1910 to try to dethrone the dominant and controversial black champion Jack Johnson, suffered a savage beating over fifteen one-sided rounds and retired again for good. He then became a trainer and promoter of fighters on his alfalfa farm in California, his legacy surviving for many years.
Many future greats, such as his conqueror Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney identified him as the top man. “He was the greatest heavyweight of them all” said former champ, Corbett. “He would have beaten Dempsey and Louis on the same night” said Tom Sharkey, years later. As heavyweight boxing moved into the era of Schmeling, Sharkey and eventually Joe Louis, Jeffries’ name was still frequently brought up by those with rose-tinted glasses. Such judgements are always speculative and can still be heard today. Would Ali beat Klitschko? How about Mayweather v Sugar Ray? The debates can run and run.
After Jeffries’ retirement, William Brady moved away from the fight business and focused on making movies, where he became one of American cinema’s earliest key figures. The experience he gained from filming and marketing boxing matches was invaluable and he was involved in the making of at least 65 movies between 1915 and 1919. He also continued producing stage plays and gave James Jeffries parts in several of them.
The brief, haunting, two-minute clip we have of Fitzsimmons v Jeffries is truly a thing to treasure. A lens-view glimpse of the faces of ghosts, it allows us to observe and draw our own conclusions, like any rare, clear sight of the past. Recorded 116 years ago today, it reminds us how much boxing, society and the world have changed and yet also stayed the same.