Boxing: Images of the 100 years' war: Boxing's Queensberry Rules were introduced 100 years ago on Monday. Ken Jones reflects on a century of heroes and villainy

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The Independent Online
AS IT does for them all it passed swiftly for John L Sullivan, the crushing victories, cheers like thunder, and the dark devil's wine of fame. On 7 September 1892, outclassed by James J Corbett in the first gloved contest for the heavyweight championship to be held under Queensberry Rules, he collapsed and was counted out in the 21st round.

Until this point the title had been fought for with bare fists, the bouts lasting until one of the men was unable to continue. The new ordinance favoured a fixed number of rounds, and demanded that a floored fighter regain his feet within 10 seconds, otherwise he was 'knocked out of time'.

Few had imagined it possible that even in decline, the Great John L, the original American sporting hero, would succumb to a suave former bank clerk from San Francisco who had dared to propose that there was more to boxing than a legacy of brute force.

Corbett's historic victory at the Century Club in New Orleans, witnessed by many people who had journeyed for more than a week, and willingly paid dollars 100 (by today's values pounds 2,000) for a ringside seat, carried fist fighting into the modern era.

In a new book, Champions of the Ring, The Life and Times of Boxing's Heavyweight Heroes, Gerald Suster writes, 'Everyone expected Sullivan to win. Myth had it that he was unbeatable. Gentleman Jim Corbett was said to be merely a 'Fancy Dan'. Few paid much attention to the testimony of Dominic McCaffrey, who'd fought both men with gloves. McCaffrey had found Corbett's revolutionary techniques to be quite beyond his experience. Contrary to everyone else convinced of Sullivan's imminent victory, McCaffrey picked Corbett, declaring, 'He'll lick the big fellow as easy as breaking sticks.' '

But if Corbett transformed boxing, laying down adroit proficiencies that would be taken up and improved upon, it was Sullivan who raised the heavyweight championship above every prize in sport.

As Suster states, 'No one hitherto possessed Sullivan's charisma. Even England's best, during the golden age of the prize-ring, had always deferred humbly to the moneyed and the mighty: Sullivan as champion gave way to no man.'

The boxer's career begins with his own imagination. It is to take the world that has been thrust upon him and from it to create a world beyond, more enticing and promising.

For Sullivan, promise sprang from the speed and power of blows that made him invincible in bar room brawls. As numerous deluded antagonists discovered, 'I can lick any sonofabitch in the house,' was no idle boast.

Corbett, really a tall light-heavyweight who had just 19 professional contests, lost the championship after one successful defence when Bob Fitzsimmons, the only British-born holder, knocked him out after 14 rounds on 14 March 1897 in Carson City, Nevada.

From Fitzsimmons the title passed to James J Jeffries, who would be tempted out of retirement to oppose Jack Johnson in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, the coup that established Tex Rickard as the most important promotional figure in the sport.

As the title indicates, in Crown of Thorns, another book that celebrates 100 years of heavyweight boxing, Norman Giller and Neil Duncanson, concentrate on the notion that the championship carries a curse.

The truth is that in their commitment to the one sport that should never be referred to as a game, all boxers are cursed. It is a foolish but understandable error to think one can gain entry into their world by meeting them. It exists only in their minds.

Because the world seen though Jack Dempsey's eyes was harsh and oblivious to the aspirations of poor men he smashed his way to fame, gaining a reputation that survives to this day.

Dempsey, promoted by Rickard and managed by Doc Kearns, became a hero of the Roaring Twenties, so popular at all levels of society in the United States that five his contests drew more that dollars 1m at the gate.

The reaction to Dempsey's defeats by Gene Tunney in 1926 and 1927 was not unusual, merely echoing the effect of Sullivan's failure to blast through Corbett's defences more than 30 years earlier. An idol had fallen and Tunney, intelligent, well-read, whose son would be elected to the US Senate, was never forgiven. Contrary to the belief that professional boxing is a graveyard of stunted lives, Dempsey and Tunney died millionaires.

The Thirties saw the coming of Joe Louis, considered by many to be the most complete heavyweight champion in history. The title had been placed beyond the advantage of black fighters since Johnson's day, but Louis had the dignity to rise above discrimination and invest boxing with a new glamour. Alistair Cooke wrote of him, 'It took several years, and a run of inevitable victories, and wide familiarity with Joe in the ring and on the newsreels, for Americans to learn a special respect for this quiet, beautiful, mannerly youth, who never thought of himself as anybody's god, who never played his colour up or down, kept his mind on his work, stepped scrupulously aside when an opponent stumbled: and who, when it was all over, said such embarrassing things over the radio that they had to whisk the mike away from him to the loser, who could usually be expected to say the cliches that were expected of him.'

Of course, Cooke could not forsee the awful results of financial imperatives that forced Louis to fight on past his time, leaving him a forlorn, barely audible figure in a wheelchair, glad handing visitors to a casino in Las Vegas.

Rocky Marciano, a throwback to the days of Dempsey and Sullivan, looked indestructible when winning all his 49 professional contests, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, but lost his life in an air crash.

Then came Muhammad Ali, first as Cassius Clay, whipping the ogre Sonny Liston, proclaiming himself the Greatest, turning the sport on its head with a unique style that ignored tenets every trainer held sacrosanct.

Ali treads carefully now, each step a measure of the bleakness that has invaded his mind, but for almost two decades, from the moment he dethroned Liston to that miserable night in the Bahamas when the last rites were read over the most remarkable career of all, Ali held a gaping world in his spell.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Ali was, and probably still is, one of the most famous men on earth and even people who never miss an opportunity to boast that they are utterly uninformed about sport were in awe of his talent for the most basic of physical contests.

The fighters move on but the stories remain. The story now is that the best heavyweight of his time languishes in gaol. Evander Holyfield is the champion but who would bet against Mike Tyson?

(Photographs omitted)

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