Nevada has had a long relationship with legal prizefighting, which can be traced to the heavyweight bout between two men, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Robert “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons in Carson City in 1897.
That first legal bout was the result of a number of serendipitous factors that all came together to make it happen. When talk of a prizefight began to pick up momentum in 1895-96, the biggest problem was that boxing was illegal in the U.S.
At the same time, the state of Nevada was experiencing a crushing economic depression. The mining and ranching industries were collapsing and the state needed a new source of potential revenue.
Against that backdrop, Nevada approved legal “glove contests” in January 1897 and almost immediately promotor Dan Stuart, who had pushed for passage of the law, announced plans for a heavyweight bout in Carson City on March 17, 1897—St. Patrick’s Day.
The fight represented a number of “firsts.” It was Nevada’s first legal prizefight. It was also the first prizefight ever recorded on film for later viewing in movie theaters. It was also the first prizefight using the then-new Queensberry rules requiring boxers to wear five-ounce padded gloves and for rounds to be held to three minutes, separated by a minute of rest.
Once he had the go-ahead for his bout, Stuart erected a 17,000-seat wooden amphitheater on the corner of Musser and Pratt streets in Carson City. At the time, the city had a population of less than 3,000.
While Nevada had decided to legalize prizefighting, the sport was still vilified throughout most of the country. Newspapers began referring to the action as “Nevada’s Disgrace” and religious leaders condemned the state for its loose morals, which also included toleration of casino-style gambling and brothels.
As for the fighters, Corbett set up a training camp at Shaw’s Springs (now known as the Carson Hot Springs), while Fitzsimmons trained at a place called Cook’s Ranch, located about three miles from town.
Stuart hoped that the popular Corbett, born in San Francisco, would draw a good number of his Bay Area supporters to the fight. Fitzsimmons, who hailed from New Zealand, was less well-known but had a far more extensive fight record. Goosing expectations was the fact that Corbett and Fitzsimmons genuinely did not like each other.
On the day of the fight, it became clear that the arena was far bigger than the paid crowd of some four to six thousand who paid to watch the bout.
Despite its less-than-anticipated size, the crowd was enthusiastic, according to newspaper accounts of the fight, with most supporting Corbett, the former title-holder.
The reports indicate that Corbett appeared to be the victor in the early rounds, using his technical skills to mark Fitzsimmons face with several cuts. In the sixth round, Corbett landed an uppercut to Fitzsimmons’ jaw followed by right hand to his nose, which caused him to stagger.
Fitzsimmons, however, managed to remain standing through the rest of the round and a tiring Corbett failed to follow up in the next round.
The two traded blows during the next seven rounds, with the fatigued Corbett having little power behind his punches, and Fitzsimmons waiting for the right opportunity to strike. It came in the 14th round, when Corbett raised his gloves to protect his face, after being hit on the neck, and Fitzsimmons followed with a strong punch to Corbett’s body, just under his heart.
Known as the “solar plexus punch,” the blow caused Corbett to crumple into the ropes and let out a loud moan. Fitzsimmons landed a second punch to Corbett’s stomach and the former champ fell to his knees.
According to historian Richard O. Davies, in his excellent book, “The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip,” Corbett was so immobilized, he could barely breathe, that he couldn’t rise to his feet and the referee counted him out.
While Corbett’s supporters were disappointed about the outcome, the event, despite the smaller crowd, signaled that legal boxing had a future in the Silver State.