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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Rumors of big boxing match had area buzzing

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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‘Gentleman Jim’ won long brawl aboard barge

In the spring of 1889, the area was buzzing with rumors about a local boxing match to be held between two of the Bay Area’s champions, Joe “Chrysanthemum” Choynski and “Gentleman Jim’ Corbett.

At the time, San Francisco was the epicenter of boxing in California.

Boxing slowly was undergoing a change in the United States, from the rough-and-tumble, brutal bare-knuckle brawls to professional boxing matches conducted under the Marques of Queensberry Rules which had been introduced in the 1860s.

Both Choynski, who lived from 1868 to 1943, and Corbett (1866-1933), grew up in San Francisco. They knew each other from childhood and challenged each other continually throughout their boxing careers.

Joseph Bartlett Choynski was the son of Polish Jewish immigrant parents. His father was the antiquarian bookman and publisher Isidor Choynski, who made sure that his son was well-versed in the classics. Joseph was educated at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart College. At 5-feet-10-inches tall, and weighing between 162 to 178 pounds, he was considered a light heavyweight who never hesitated to take on heavyweight fighters weighing more than 180 pounds.

He was known for his quick footwork, exceptional hitting skills and powerful punch, and a thoughtful and intelligent way to manipulate his opponent around the ring.

Corbett, nicknamed “Gentleman Jim”, also was a fast, intelligent fighter, with an innovative repertoire of hits and punches. One of his later biographers wrote that “he believed in hitting without being hit and moved gracefully about the ring, relying on the speed and accuracy of his hits to wear down opponents.”

He came from a middle class home, was college educated and, for a time, worked as a Nevada bank clerk. In 1889, he considered becoming a professional boxer, representing the San Francisco Olympic Club.

That same year, California, like most states, outlawed so-called “finish fights.” Thus, when Choynski challenged Corbett, both agreed to find a secret location outside of San Francisco to conduct their fight.

Their meeting was scheduled for May 30, 1889, in Marin County somewhere near Fairfax. Joe prepared for the fight in Sausalito, while Jim trained in San Rafael. With rumors swirling about the impending match, members of the police continually followed their every step in an effort to locate the secret location for the fight.

The close surveillance paid off on the day of the match. After only the fourth round of the match, local police intervened, shutting the fight down. The match was declared “No contest.” During the contest, Corbett suffered a broken right thumb.

A second match was scheduled to take place near Benicia on June 5. This time, the fight was to take place on a barge anchored in Southampton Bay, halfway between Solano and Contra Costa County.

A second grain barge at a different location was meant to confuse both the sheriffs and Benicia police.

On the day of the match, more than 100 spectators gathered early on the barge, waiting for the match to begin. Tugs, fishing boats and other vessels set out to bring another 300 sightseers from San Francisco’s Embarcadero. After a chaotic transfer, all crowded onto the barge.

Choynski’s second, Jack Dempsey, managed to have Choyn-ski’s gloves drop over the side into the water. Corbett, with his broken right thumb, insisted that gloves be used. He had brought his own professional three-ounce gloves. Somebody handed a seamed pair of driving gloves to Choynski.

It was a hot day, with little shade on the deck. Corbett only used his left hand. In the third round, he hit Choynski on the head, breaking two knuckles in his left hand. Despite his two incapacitated hands, he continued the fight, mainly operating from the defensive.

As he could no longer punch with a straight left hand, Corbett at one point began to arch his blows so that the side of his hands and his first knuckle connected, saving his broken knuckles. According to boxing history, at that moment he had invented the left hook.

Choynski’s seamed gloves left numerous welts on Corbett’s face and body. Both men bled freely, spattering the deck with gore. It was becoming increasingly slippery despite being strewn with sand.

By the 14th round, both men were weakened from the heat and their blood loss. Although hurt, groggy, and at times half passed out, both men fought on until in the 27th round. Then Corbett managed a hit on Choynski’s chin, “the whole chin,” he later remembered, “not caring whether I would smash every bone in that hand, because I meant it to be the final blow.”

His hit knocked Choynski out, ending the bloody fight. Both men were so exhausted that Corbett’s seconds had to tell him that the fight was over.

Despite this exhausting match, they met for the third time only six days later. After only four rounds, Corbett once again bested Choynski.

Both men continued their boxing careers. Although Choynski never won any of the major titles, he was recognized as a fast, thoughtful boxer with the hardest punch of any boxer of his generation.

Corbett went on to defeat the famous American heavyweight John L. Sullivan in 1892, thus becoming the first heavyweight champion of the world. Famed for his lightning fast footwork, he is considered one of the most influential boxers of all time, inventing a new, scientific approach to boxing.

He continued his career until his defeat in 1897 by the British boxer Bob Fitzsimmons. After a failed comeback, Corbett left boxing for a career in vaudeville, where he became well known as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.

While no photos are available in local collections, several images of both fighters can be found online.