Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The boxing match between Jim Corbett and Charley Mitchell was more than a fight between two men. It was a battle between local citizens and the governor of Florida. It also pitted a sheriff against an athletic club. The match almost sparked a battle between Florida and Georgia! Most of the conflict took place before the match even got started. The story began in September 1892, when James J. Corbett won the U.S. heavyweight championship. Corbett beat John L. Sullivan in a 21-round-fight. Now Corbett aimed to be zvorld champ. To win the title, he had to beat English champion Charley Mitchell. But where to hold the fight? New York City was the obvious place. But legal problems came up. Corbett and Mitchell looked for a new city. An athletic club in Jacksonville, Florida, finally offered to host the world championship fight. A special arena would be built for the occasion. And, for the first time, the boxers would follow the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. These rules represented an effort by the boxing world to clean up its image. In the 1890s, boxing had a bad reputation as a brutal sport. Men would pound each other for as many as 75 rounds—or more. The Queensberry Rules made boxing more civilized. For one thing, the boxers were required to wear gloves. But some people weren’t convinced. They still thought that boxing was a disreputable sport. One of these critics was the governor of Florida, Henry Mitchell. He felt the fight would attract criminals. “They’d come to watch two fighters hammer each other until one is pounded into insensibility,” he said. Governor Mitchell vowed that the fight would never take place in his state. He ordered Sheriff Napoleon Bonapart Broward to see that it didn’t. Governor Mitchell also tried to stop the fighters from traveling by train to Jacksonville. He asked the railroads to stop running for 48 hours. But the railroads refused to comply. So Mitchell threatened to call up the state militia. There were rumors that the fight would be moved. Some said it would be held in Waycross, Georgia. The governor of Georgia, W.J. Norton, was also determined to keep the boxers and their low-life fans away. He sent 300 extra rifles to the state militia in Waycross. As it turned out, W.J. Norton didn’t have anything to worry about. All the trouble stayed in Florida. Governor Mitchell was still against the match. Along with two companies of armed militiaman, he marched into downtown Jacksonville. But Jacksonville had a lot of boxing fans. Reports say that the governor and the militiamen were greeted with boos and hisses. Rocks and sandbags were thrown at them. The athletic club struck back against the governor. It went to court—and won. The judge further ruled that Sheriff Napoleon Bonapart Broward could not prevent the fight. Governor Mitchell was finally forced to back down. On January 25, 1894, the fight took place. Tickets were priced at $25 and $10—a lot of money in those days. But the place was packed with 2,500 people. Among them were 300 sportswriters from around the world. Sheriff Broward refused to join the crowd. Instead, he waited outside, expecting trouble. It wasn’t an exciting fight. Corbett knocked out Mitchell in the third round. He won not only the world heavyweight championship, but a prize of $20,000. But as Corbett and Mitchell left the arena, Sheriff Broward arrested them on charges of assault and battery! The charges were later dismissed, and the Englishman, Mitchell, disappeared from the boxing scene. Three years later, Corbett lost his title—but he wasn’t washed up. Like many other athletes of the 1890s, he immediately went on to another career: show business. And as for Sheriff Napoleon Bonapart Broward, he went on to be elected the next governor of Florida.


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