Book review: Shadows behind a ring legend

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For most of this century, the casual boxing reader has had access only to censored versions of the life of the world heavyweight champion James J Corbett.

Corbett, whose finest hour was a 21st-round knockout of John L Sullivan in New Orleans in 1892, wrote a hugely influential autobiography named Roar Of The Crowd, published in 1926, and again by the Sportsman's Book Club in 1953 with a foreword by John Arlott. As so many sporting tales of those days were, it was an unashamed whitewash. Corbett's friend, the venerable boxing writer Nat Fleischer, further polished the legend in 1943 with Gentleman Jim, which is a brief, uncritical guide.

Yet those who have read around the subject have long been aware that behind the sophisticated, charming mask was a remote, aloof, even disdainfully pompous and conceited man. Accordingly, it was high time another attempt was made to examine Corbett's life, and Patrick Myler's effort (Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind A Boxing Legend. Robson Books pounds 17.95) is impressive.

Myler acknowledges Corbett's greatness in the ring - he had a thoughtful, scientific style that contrasted greatly with the brawling techniques that were prevalent at the time - but has also dug far enough beneath the surface, discovering one or two fairly unpleasant skeletons. For example, Corbett's first marriage ended in divorce with his exposure as a cheat and adulterer, while he was still heavyweight champion of the world. His relationship with his second wife, Vera, whom he eulogised in Roar Of The Crowd, was tumultuous.

Before she met Corbett, she had been married briefly, and then been variously described as notorious, extravagant and morally weak. One Wisconsin newspaper went so far as to state grimly that she "graduated from the married state into a life of shame". Her life as Mrs Corbett no doubt had wonderful attractions, and the marriage did survive 38 years, but in its early stages was far from the "thoroughly happy union" lionised by Fleischer. At one point they were close to divorce and Vera set off a scandal by claiming her husband had taken part in a fixed fight. She also exposed his bullying streak, saying he held a lighted cigar against her face and threatened to kill her. "Shortly after we married," she said, "I discovered his love was shallow and knew that I was married to a human brute."

Myler records soberly the tragic death of Corbett's Irish immigrant parents, who had raised their family of 12 children and moved on to middle age when Patrick Corbett shot his wife Catherine and then turned the gun on himself.

Yet beyond the turmoil, James J Corbett was a brilliant boxer who changed his sport for the better. Gene Tunney, the world heavyweight champion of the late 1920s, sparred with him and was astonished at his knowledge. Myler deals expertly with Gentleman Jim's fighting exploits, hunting out his full record, ironing out some historical discrepancies, and analysing his intricate business relationship with his long-time manager William Brady.

Corbett lost his world title to the British-born Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897 and retired in 1903 after his second attempt to regain it from the hulking James J Jefferies. He spent years treading the boards as a ham actor and became one of the worst newspaper boxing tipsters of his day, eventually dying with dignity of cancer in 1933, aged 66.

In short, Myler's is the book on Corbett that has been long overdue.