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Early boxing films in South Africa

Possibly the first boxing films to be shown in South Africa were in the early 1890s and boxing fans were lucky enough to watch the world heavyweight championship battle between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons.

The fight took place in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897. Corbett, considered the favourite, had won the title from John L Sullivan when he knocked him out in the 21st round on September 7, 1892 in what was considered a huge upset at the time the favourite.

Corbett was making the second defence of his heavyweight crown against Fitzsimmons, the balding English-born New Zealander, who was a genuine middleweight challenging for the heavyweight crown. After having the challenger bleeding and down in the sixth round it looked like the champion would come away a winner.

However, with Rose, the challenger’s wife, shouting: "Hit him in the slats, Bob" he listened to her advice and, in the 14th round, he did it.

The New York Times described the dramatic finish: “Drawing back his left, he brought it up with terrible force, the forearm rigid and at right angles to the upper arm. With the full force of his wonderful driving muscles brought into play, the Australian fairly ripped the blow into Corbett's stomach at a point just under his heart. Corbett was lifted clean of his feet and, as he pitched forward, Fitzsimmons shot his right up and around, catching Corbett on the jaw and accelerating his downward fall.”

The knockout punch earned its place in boxing folklore as the "solar plexus punch". Bob Davis, reporting for the New York Journal, heard a San Francisco physician, John W. Gardner, discussing the punch with a medical colleague and jotted down the description. The solar plexus is a network of radiating nerves at the pit of the stomach and a heavy punch to that area affects muscular movement and breathing.

Davis, knowing that the new punch made good copy, cabled his story and other newsmen picked up his angle. The punch was really nothing new and had been used by bare-knuckle fighters who called this vulnerable area "the mark".

It is interesting to note that the New York Times referred to Fitzsimmons as an Australian. However, he was born in Helston, Cornwall and then immigrated to New Zealand with his parents at an early age. Possibly where the confusion came in was that Fitzsimmons started his professional career in Sydney, Australia in 1883 before having his first fight in America in May 1890.

Fitzsimmons, who became the second champion under the Queensberry rules, also became the first champion to have his winning of the title recorded on a movie camera.

The filming of the Corbett v Fitzsimmons fight was one of the milestones in motion picture history. The screening lasted nearly two hours and more than 3 kilometres of film was used to cover all the preliminary contests and the fourteen rounds of the heavyweight championship fight.

This film, with its jerky action, was the first boxing film to be shown in South Africa.

In those early pioneering days of the film industry in South Africa films were shown by entrepreneurs with clumsy-looking projectors as people flocked to see the "animated picture". Quite often people became upset when the projectors or films broke and they would smash up the halls.

Two showmen named Cooke and Welty, with the full film of the Fitzsimmons v Corbett fight, convinced Johannesburg impresario Bonamici to show the fight to South African boxing fans.

The first screening of the film was at the Old Amphitheatre in Simmonds Street, Johannesburg and was a success as the local newspapers hailed the film as a minor miracle and people flocked to see the film of the fight.

The admission prices were rather high for the day but this did not deter the fans queuing up for seats to see the two-hour long show.

There was full coverage before the fight, showing the crowd and the two boxers entering the ring and chatting with their seconds before the fight began.

There was no sound but entrepreneurs made a lot of money with the film, not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

This was the first film of a championship match, but not the first film of a boxing match. Edison filmed an exhibition match between James J Corbett and Peter Courtney in 1894.

The fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher on February 21, 1896 on the border between Texas and Mexico would have been the first actual contest to be filmed, but when the promoters refused to give Fitzsimmons a share in the project he knocked out Maher within a few seconds of the first round to ensure that the film would be worthless.

Soon afterwards another boxing film was released in South Africa showing Thomas "Pedlar" Palmer, the British fighter who claimed the world bantamweight title in September 1899 after knocking out Terry McGovern in the first round, going through his paces showing off various ring techniques.

Even though there were purported to be more than one hundred copies of the Fitzsimmons-Corbett fight in circulation around the world, it was thought that the film had not survived until Jim Jacobs, a film collector in New York, found a copy on nitrate film.

Somehow Jacobs managed to have the film restored and this was converted to video tape and seen by many fight fans around the world.

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