The Great Fight at the Aquarium

Source: ‘The Great Fight at the Aquarium’, The Era, 2 October 1897, p. 18

Text: The “sensation” at the Westminster Aquarium on Monday last was a splendid cinématographe exhibition representing the fight for $50,000 between “Bob” Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett. For some time before the commencement of the exhibition the pay-places of the Aquarium Theatre were besieged by hundreds of eager, pushing people, ready to pay their guinea or their five shillings for admission. When, at last, the audience was seated, Mr Ben Nathan gave them a few necessary and valuable pieces of information. It did not – as it turned out – prove difficult to distinguish the tall figure of Corbett from the “stocky” shape of Fitzsimmons, but it was as well to know that the plump gentleman with his coat off, who hovered near the combatants, and occasionally drew them apart, was the referee, and that a personage in a soft hat, who took it off and waved it a few moments before the conclusion of each round, did so as a signal to Corbett. The great fight, it will be remembered, was fought in fourteen rounds, and took three years in arranging, having been stopped in Florida, where a special law was passed forbidding it. The same was done in Texas. The Government of Arkansas called out the military and stopped the preparations, and the Senate of the United States Congress obtained the signature of the President to prohibit the conflict, thus stopping the contest in all the territories and neutral districts in the United States. The fight ultimately took place in Carson City, in the Nevada States, in the presence of 6,000 people, many of whom paid £10 a-head to see it, others further incurring upwards of £50 expenses a-head in travelling many hundreds of miles to witness it. The films used measured over two miles in length. Upon these were photographed upwards of 165,000 moving living pictures. Spectators with sharp eyes found on Monday that every line of the competitors’ faces was clearly traceable, and that Corbett’s awful look of despairing agony at his defeat was marvellously reproduced. After the fight was finished the beaten combatant, on his partial recovery, became frantic, broke away from his seconds, and rushed about after his conqueror, striking blindly right and left, his seconds having finally to carry him by force from the ring. This finale was truly depicted in the show at the Aquarium, which is said to have cost in obtaining and in production upwards of £5,000. The exhibition at the Aquarium supplies the spectator with much novel information. One’s imaginations of a prize-fight are completely corrected. Instead of the savage and repulsive butchery, the mighty blows, and the liberal supply of “gore” which fancy depicts, the unscientific spectator sees an agreeable display of skill and activity. The knowing ones, however, well realised on Monday the terrible force with which Fitzsimmons “countered” Corbett’s blows; and, frequently, some unusually spirited “rally” evoked a hearty round of applause. The exhibition, which lasted an hour and a half, was judiciously curtailed by the omission of some of the intervals between the rounds; and excitement was intense when Corbett, who appeared to have been already overmatched by Fitzsimmons’s strength and experience, fell to the ground after receiving the now almost historical blow on the heart, which, by “knocking him out of time,” concluded the combat. “The fight for $50,000” is one of the biggest things ever secured by the energetic and indefatigable Mr Ritchie for his establishment. As an achievement of “animated photography” this representation of the Fitzsimmons and Corbett fight is remarkable for the elaborate manner in which the incidents of the combat are represented. First, the men are seen walking about the ring in their long overcoats. After certain preliminary delays, Corbett advances towards Fitzsimmons and offers his hand, which Fitzsimmons appears to refuse to take, or, all events, not to accept cordially. At first the non-sporting spectator will be puzzled by the frequent recurrence of embracements between the combatants; but this is explained by the necessity of parting them whenever they become locked, and the dread of each pugilist lest the other should get in a quick blow at the moment of separation. This fear is the reason of the extreme caution with which the pair come apart. As the fight proceeds there is more boxing which can be appreciated by the ordinary spectator; though, as most of the hitting is done at half-length, there are few of those sensational “slogging” blows which we read about in accounts of the old-fashioned prize-fights. Only once is Fitzsimmons’s face disfigured by his blood; and towards the close both men appear to suffer more from exhaustion than from actual punishment. Of course the scene to which we have alluded, when Corbett falls on the stage something in the attitude of the “Dying Gladiator,” and his subsequent attempts to get at his rival after the referee has declared time to be “up,” are specially sensational. A large number of the sporting fraternity were present in the Aquarium Theatre on Monday; and they showed by their remarks that they fully appreciated both the marvellous fidelity of the reproduction and the skilful tactics of the combatants. The importance attached to the fight in pugilistic circles, the discussions to which it gave rise, and the deep interest which it excited on both sides of the Atlantic fully account for the eagerness to witness the cinematographic wonder which was shown on Monday night. It supplies, in fact, all the scientific interest of a prize-fight without any of the disgusting or brutal accessories which we are accustomed to associate with such conflicts.

Comments: The first world heavyweight boxing championships was fought at Nevada, Colorado on 17 March 1897 between the American James Corbett and the Briton Bob Fitzsimmons, who won. The bout, which lasted fourteen rounds, was filmed in its entirety by the Veriscope company, using three cameras in parallel and employing 63mm-wide film. The film, which lasted over an hour and a half, was first exhibited in Britain at the Royal Aquarium, a multi-purpose entertainment venue in Westminster, London. Few people had actually seen a boxing match before 1897 (the sport existing in a semi-illegal state in Britain), and the film attracted huge attention for making visible that which had been much read about but seldom seen by most.

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