History of Performance Analysis: Boxing – The Gentleman’s Game

By Duncan Ritchie

02-July-2020 on News

16 minute read

We tend to think of sports analysis as being a fairly new phenomenon, especially since specialist software like Nacsport has only become widely prevalent in the last decade or so.

 

But the fact is that analysis has been around in some form or another since the beginning of competitive sport. In football, analysis came to fruition in the 1960s, but it started in boxing much earlier. With that in mind, today we’re going to take a look at another remarkable story which encapsulates many of the things we take for granted today.

 

We’re looking at sports analysis in boxing and a historic fight which signified the end of the bare-knuckle bruiser and the dawn of the more calculated, scientific sport we know today.

 

This story also includes what may be the first ever use of heatmaps in sport and, unbelievably, one of the first times sport was ever committed to film.

 

This is a hell of story, so strap yourselves in a let me take you back to the year 1892…

You've heard of the Rumble in the Jungle. You've heard of the Thrilla in Manilla. Holyfield vs Tyson? Gatti vs Ward? Mayweather vs Pacquiao? Leonard vs Hearn? All great fights, classics in their own right.

 

But here's one bout you may not have heard of...Corbett vs Sullivan. And yet this fight is steeped in the history of boxing. It signals a sea-change between bare-knuckle fighting and Queensbury Rules and introduces us to many concepts we take for granted today in the world of performance analysis.

 

So, let's take a closer look at this boxing classic.

 

In the Blue Corner – “The Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan

 

 

“The Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan (1858 – 1918)

 

Representing the old guard, we introduce John L. Sullivan, regarded by most as the last great pugilist of the bare-knuckle era.

 

In fact, on July 8th, 1889, Sullivan was crowned the last ever World Heavyweight Champion under the London Prize Ring Rules which governed the sport at this point. He beat another bare-knuckle battler, Jake Kilrain in the 75th (seventy-fifth!) round, to lift the belt. Apparently, nobody expected him to win after he vomited in the 44th round!

 

 

One of the only known images of Sullivan (left) vs Kilrain

 

This was a different era indeed. Fights usually consisted of two fighters squaring up in the middle of the ring and taking big swings at each other. There was very little technique and training was almost non-existent. In fact, Sullivan could often be found warming up for a fight in a bar next to the venue. It was a tough game for tougher men.

 

But Sullivan’s reign as the king of the ring was, even then, coming to an end. The world of boxing was being transformed by a new set of rules, the Queensbury Rules, which still largely govern the sport today. Fighters were forced into gloves and the sport was generally made safer and more reputable.

 

Sullivan continued as the de facto heavy-weight champion under these new rules well into the 1890s but, by then, there was a new breed of fighter on the way who were as concerned about training and technique as they were about being able to take a punch.

 

So, let’s meet the challenger and the vanguard of this new era…

 

In the Red Corner – “Gentleman” Jim Corbett

 

 

“Gentleman” James Corbett (1866 – 1933)

 

Often touted as “the Father of Modern Boxing”, Jim Corbett was a college educated actor who totally and permanently changed the face of boxing. He was one of the first to thoroughly analyse an opponent before a fight and favoured technique and rigorous training to brute force.

 

He could also be described as the first “sex-symbol” of modern sport as the popularity of boxing soared during his era, especially amongst young women

 

That’s not to say the man couldn’t take a punch. In fact, he earned his reputation, and the opportunity to face Sullivan, in a 61 round fight against Peter “the Black Prince” Jackson which ended in a no contest as both men were too exhausted to continue.

 

 

Promo shot for Corbett vs Jackson (1891)

 

After this fight, Corbett became something of a celebrity boxing circles and the “tenacious underdog” was guaranteed a shot at the championship belt. And so, the stage was set…

 

On the 7th of September, 1892, in a purpose-built 10,000 seat arena in New Orleans, Corbett would take on Sullivan for the World Heavy-Weight Championship belt and a winner-takes-all purse of $25,000 (equivalent of a little over $700,000 in today’s money).

 

 

Newspaper illustration promoting Corbett vs Sullivan

 

Boxing Analysis and Training Techniques

 

So, how did Corbett prepare for his fight? Why is he regarded as the Father of Modern Boxing?

 

Obviously, in 1892, there was no video analysis. In fact, there was barely any video, the medium of film having been invented by Edison and Dickson with the release of their Kinetoscope in the same year (we’ll talk more about the first use of film in boxing later in the article).

 

It was also next to impossible for Corbett to attend one of Sullivan’s fights, this being in an era when boxing was outlawed in many states and countries throughout the world and professional bouts were few and far between.

 

 

Poster for Sullivan vs Kilrain but professional fights were rare

 

So, what did Corbett do?

 

Well, his approach was twofold. Firstly, he gathered as much data about his opponent as he could by talking to people who had seen Sullivan fight. He even went so far as to hire “Professor” Mike Donovan, a pro-fighter who had actually faced Sullivan earlier in his career, as a sparring partner. Donovan was able to emulate Sullivan’s boxing style, giving Corbett valuable insight into his opponent and how he could be successfully countered.

 

Secondly, Corbett actually got the chance to participate in a four round exhibition fight with Sullivan the year before the title bout. This was an impromptu sparring session on stage at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco on the 26th of June, 1891. Whilst by no means a serious fight (both men participated whilst wearing top hats and tails!), this opportunity, nevertheless, gave Corbett the chance to see Sullivan’s fighting style up close and personal.

 

 

Corbett sparred with Sullivan in formal attire

 

After the exhibition fight, Corbett was convinced that he had the beating of Sullivan.

 

Thus, armed with all the data he needed and alongside a vigorous training regime to compliment his tactical analysis and game plan, the day of the fight arrived…

 

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

 

All boxing fans will be familiar with the Rumble in the Jungle. Arguably the most famous boxing match in the history of the sport. Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman, a fight in which Ali realised he was outgunned by the larger, stronger Foreman and let his opponent tire himself out in the hot, humid Zaire evening by sitting back against the ropes and allowing Foreman to land body shot after body shot, absorbing the punishment. By the eighth round, Foreman’s tank was empty, allowing Ali to revert to his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” style and put Foreman down permanently.

 

 

Ali vs Foreman: The Rumble in the Jungle

 

A historic fight but these were more or less the exact tactics that Gentleman Jim employed against John L. Sullivan…a good 80 years before “the Greatest” did the same.

 

Realising that he could never beat Sullivan in a straight stand up fight, Corbett danced around his opponent, occasionally throwing out a glancing head or body shot and let his opponent chase him around the ring. Corbett even manged to break his opponent’s nose in the third round with his sporadic punches, the most significant blow of the match up to that point.

 

Every now and then he would allow himself to be herded into the corner where Sullivan would unleash a barrage of body blows which were more tiring to himself than damaging to his opponent. Corbett would then dodge out of the corner and continue dancing around his opponent.

 

In the seventh round, urged on by Mike Donovan in his corner, Corbett started to offer a more attacking style of boxing, landing flurries of hooks and jabs. By all accounts, the fight was basically over in the 14th round, with Sullivan too tired to keep his defences up, let alone retaliate. Nevertheless, the tough as nail Strong Boy somehow hung on until the 21st round when a vicious left-right combo from Corbett knocked the champion to the canvass whereupon he was duly counted out.

 

 

Newspaper report on the day after the fight

 

Ever the Gentleman, Corbett assisted the referee in carrying Sullivan back to his corner and, after getting his breath back, Sullivan showed true sportsmanship by standing on the apron and proclaiming to the crowd, "Gentlemen, gentlemen, I have nothing at all to say. All I have to say is that I came into the ring once too often -- and if I had to get licked I'm glad I was licked by an American.” He never fought professionally again.

 

As for Jim Corbett, his hand was lifted aloft and he was crowned the new Heavy-Weight Champion of the world and a new era of boxing was ushered in, one more concerned with techniques and game-plans than the raw power of old.

 

The First Heatmap?

 

This historic fight also has a couple more surprises to throw up.

 

Whilst heatmaps are commonplace in modern sport with applications like Nacsport’s Enhanced Graphic Descriptor tool being capable of generating them automatically, back in 1892, the weren’t so common. In fact, during the Sullivan vs Corbett fight, we have one of the first ever recorded uses of heatmaps.

 

 

Heatmaps are common features of modern sports analysis

 

Professor James Connor, a boxing instructor at the Buffalo Athletic Club, sat ringside on the night with two tailor’s dummies which would represent Corbett and Sullivan. Whenever a punch was landed, he would mark the exact anatomical position on the relevant dummy with an “X”. When a significant blow was landed, one that staggered or downed an opponent, he would mark it with a “+”. And thus, one of the first ever recorded of heatmaps in sport was born.

 

Connor would go on to publish a paper on the fight called Registered Hits which is now regarded as the best historical document of the bout. Primitive his methods may have been, but also very effective.

 

 

“Registered Hits” by Professor James Connor

 

The First Boxing Video?

 

After defeating Sullivan, Corbett only successfully defended his title twice before losing it to Britain’s Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897. After a few more fights, in which he never regained the glory of previous years, Gentleman Jim retired from boxing near the start of the new millennium.

 

However, one other significant point in his career came in 1894 when a film of him sparring with Peter Courtney was recorded and released in public cinemas. This marked the first time boxing had been committed to celluloid and proved that Corbett was a true pioneer in every sense of the word.

 

This footage still survives and, below, you can check out these amazing athletes performing more than 120 years after the fact.

 

 

 

 

The Father of Modern Boxing

 

James Corbett died of cancer in 1933, aged 66 years of age. After boxing, he continued to act on stage and in the occasional film. He also wrote and released his autobiography, The Roar of the Crowd: The True Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Champion which was made into the film Gentleman Jim in 1942 film starring Errol Flynn. Corbett was one of the first fighters to be posthumously inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame when it opened in 1954.

 

 

A very rare copy of “The Roar of the Crowd” by James Corbett

 

So, that’s the story of Gentleman Jim Corbett, another innovator in the field of sports analysis without whom boxing may not be the respected sport that it is today.

 

 

Gentleman Jim, an innovator and pioneer

 

Of course, in 1892 there were no computers as we know them today and software such as Nacsport would have been viewed as science-fiction. But in the modern world, we are lucky enough to have this type of tool at our disposal. So, if you are interested in boxing video analysis and would like to see how Nacsport could be used to analyse fights in a simple and intuitive manner, download the demo here or get in contact with us at info@nacsport.com for more information.

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