Jackson vs. Corbett: The Birth of the Sweet Science

By Daniel Attias on February 3, 2014
Jackson vs. Corbett: The Birth of the Sweet Science
Such a thing was seen as an affront to the pride that was a part of fighting men everywhere.

“Now two clever men really do not inflict half the punishment upon each other that the spectators and the public at large believe…”

Boxing in the 19th century was a sport that was tactically archaic compared to its 20th century successor. The “sweet science” wasn’t what too many would call “sweet” around the birth of the gloved era. Fights were a torrid and messy affair and all sorts of wild punches were a frequent aspect of most fights during this time.

“Gentleman” Jim Corbett was one of the sports earliest “scientific” fighters and ushered in a new era of boxing. His ability to avoid his opponent’s blows, feint his way inside and use his feet to win fights was something that most fighters had not seen the likes of.

Corbett is seen as one of the forefathers of modern boxing. He learnt his craft from Walter Watson at San Francisco’s Olympic Club and his middle-class upbringing surely played a part in his “style” of fighting, which was measured and cerebral, something that was new to a sport where most fighters were mostly known for their toughness.

Corbett’s career started with a win over Frank Smith in 1886 and whilst he was never to have a prolific career in terms of the number of fights he had, his mark on the sport of boxing is indelible.

Peter Jackson was the grandson of a freed slave and was born in The West Indies before travelling to Australia as a young boy. He would learn to fight whilst living in Sydney, Australia under the tutelage of Larry Foley, who had fought the legendary Jem Mace on numerous occasions.

He would have his first fight in 1882 and his career was one that could be, arguably, despite the fact that he never got his chance to fight for the world’s title, considered greater than the short career of Corbett.

Jackson was also a fighter who was well ahead of his time when it came to his “scientific” methods of fighting. His “piston like” jab was a weapon many an opponent would come to know all too well as Jackson was more than happy to use his reach advantage in the ring.

Jackson and Corbett’s paths would be forever linked when they fought on the 21st of May in 1891.

The fight itself was a gruelling 61 rounds and one that many contemporary sources claimed to be a less than stellar affair.

Sydney’s Referee, thanks to a letter from a correspondent at the fight, described it as such in its headline to the fight report on June 24, 1891:

“Sixty two rounds of the tamest fighting ever shown by big men.”

Whilst the headline was far from flattering, the writer went on to praise the cleverness of the fighters whilst showing obvious disdain for their lack of vim, a sure sign of the times, which called for all-out brawling as boxing’s main virtue.

“As a display of really clever boxing it has never been surpassed, while as a sample of fighting, such as is looked for among men claiming championship honors, it was a disappointment of the deepest dye. Corbett is a ringster of consummate skill, but his cleverness lies in the avoiding of blows more than in the delivery of them. Sydney-ites don’t require to be told that the man who can keep Jackson’s left hand out of his face must needs to be clever, and Corbett ducked from Peter’s loads in as pretty a fashion as anyone versed in boxing would desire to see.”

Such a description of boxing wouldn’t be out of place if part of a write-up on a boxer such as Floyd Mayweather, who is seen as a modern-day master of defensive tactics, but in 1891 such a thing was seen as an affront to the pride that was a part of fighting men everywhere.

Another aspect of the fight that points to it being a serious indication of the changing tides of pugilism was seen in The Los Angeles Herald on May 22, 1891 when the fitness of the fighters was explained in detail.

“The condition of the men was all that could be desired. They had trained hard and carefully, and it was the opinion of all who saw them that neither of the men had ever before been in better form.”

It was not uncommon for men to train for fights in the late 19th century but rarely were their men of the ilk of Corbett and to a lesser extent Jackson when it came to fitness and preparation for a contest.

Corbett’s training regimes for his bouts were legendary and ahead of his time. Such training is something that to this day is the staple of prizefighters everywhere. Rarely do we see a fighter on today’s big stage win a bout if he is without the proper preparation.

The result of the fight, along with the length is more a testament to each fighter’s ability to not get hit than any contest of “toughness” and the fight is one that paved the way for boxers to become smarter in the way in which they conducted their business in the ring. Fighting to one’s strengths has become a vital component of modern boxing and something that both these men had played a big part in introducing to the sport.

Jackson, in an article entitled, “Peter Jackson’s Views, The Champion Pugilist on Boxing,” best sums up the change in the fight game when it appeared in the Sydney Evening News on August 26, 1893, more than two years after the first fight and at a time when Jackson had attempted on many occasions to gain a rematch with the now champion Corbett.

“I want to say in conclusion that boxing contests now governed by club rules are not brutal. A man perfectly trained and in the best possible health, with a physique as rugged as a rock, seldom, if ever, nowadays suffers long lasting injuries from the result of a bruising battle in the ring.”

He went on to say that the tactics and craftsmanship we see all too often in modern boxing had become a mainstay in the sport, even as early as the late 1800s.

“With the development of fistic science the cruelty of the sport has passed away. Now two clever men really do not inflict half the punishment upon each other that the spectators and the public at large believe. The force of many a blow which lands is broken by its recipient shifting his head or body when he perceives that the blow cannot be avoided.”

Such a statement on the lessening brutality and increasing shrewdness of fighters, whilst not shared by all in the sport, is a real insight into the mind of a prizefighter such as Jackson.

This kind of “softening” of punches is something that is common in modern-day boxing and the style of fighting that both Jackson and Corbett displayed in their epic battle is to be remembered for its impact on the ever changing methods of boxing in the early gloved era.

Corbett and Jackson went on to fight only a handful of times after their fight in 1891 and whilst Corbett won the heavyweight world title his reign was short-lived. Jackson would never again get the chance to fight “Gentleman” Jim and with many of the world’s best boxers happy to draw the color line he would never get his chance to be called the world’s best, but like Corbett his style would be lauded as forever changing to the landscape that was professional prize fighting in the late 1800s.

The “sweet science” had been born and to this day it’s still considered to be one of the most important virtues that boxing has seen thanks to these two old-timers who brought about boxing’s scientific revolution.

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  1. Lindy Lindell 03:39pm, 08/17/2015

    Daniel, I’m wondering what you know about the Corbett-Jackson rematch, which was scheduled for Strawberry Island in Lake St. Clair, 6 1/2 miles east of Mt. Clemens, MI.  Obviously, this fight did not happen, but why not?

  2. andrew 03:07pm, 08/15/2015

    What was the result of the fight?

  3. Daniel Attias 03:22am, 02/06/2014

    Thanks Mike, Ill be sure to check it out. I have to say Im intrigued.

  4. Mike Silver 09:30pm, 02/05/2014

    Daniel, the answer to that question is answered in detail (all 229 pages) in my book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science”. You will find all you need to know and exactly where I stand and how I and others rate Mayweather (pages 156-164). Amazon is now selling it at discount. If you really want to learn more about this sport I urge you to read it. An entire world of information and knowledge will be at your fingertips.

  5. Mike Casey 08:38am, 02/05/2014

    Agreed, Mike!

  6. Daniel Attias 10:25pm, 02/04/2014

    Interesting, so when would you say that the science of boxing reached its zenith?

    Do you not feel that a boxer like Floyd Mayweather is as good a practitioner of the sweet science as those who went before him?



  7. Mike Silver 10:18pm, 02/04/2014

    Daniel, I was referring to boxing skills that have regressed. But now that you mention it, the fighters attitude towards their opponents also leaves a lot to be desired. I see disrespect and too much idiotic trash talk. Fighters used to embrace and show respect to each other when a bout ended. Now they rarely shake hands. But that is a reflection of our crass society today.

  8. Daniel Attias 09:57pm, 02/04/2014

    Mike Silver, do you mean that the boxers’ skills have regressed or their attitude towards their opponents?

  9. Mike Silver 05:45pm, 02/04/2014

    The above Jackson quote “With the development of fistic science the cruelty of the sport has passed away…” and wherein Jackson also describes fighters avoiding punishment by riding with a punch is telling.  The quote in “The Referee” magazine describing the cleverness of Corbett in avoiding damage and the great jab of Jackson is also revealing. Boxing had just emerged from the brutal bare-knuckle period. What this excellent article confirms is that boxing today has gone full circle. We have gone backwards as 95 per cent of the boxers today have returned to the “cruelty”, pure aggression and lack of defensive technique of the bare-knuckle bruisers of Sullivan’s prime. No other sport has ever regressed as badly as professional boxing. In boxing terms we have returned to the stone age. Most fights today would be more at home in the Roman Coliseum than the Madison Square Garden of Rickard or Jacobs’ day.

  10. Mike Casey 07:02am, 02/04/2014

    Good article, Daniel. Joe Choynski had the highest regard for Peter Jackson. Asked what made him so great, Choynski replied: “Oh, everything. The way he boxed and punched and picked off blows in the air. In my opinion, he was the perfect prize fighter. I respected Jeffries as a great warhorse, but Jackson was vastly superior to Jeff in every department, save for brute strength. There is no question that he would have slaughtered Jeffries and knocked him out somewhere over a 25-round distance.”