Skip to main content
Original Issue


To hear oldtimers tell it, prizefighting's folk heroes, past masters like Jack Johnson and John L. Sullivan, could have whipped the best of the modern crop in a single night. Thanks to a group of pioneer camera buffs, there is no need to rely on such nostalgia. Late in the 19th century Thomas Edison and other early moviemakers began to shoot films of bouts in such unlikely places as Orange, N.J. and Carson City, Nev. Some of the best of their takes have now been assembled for theater showing in an embarrassingly legible film, "The Legendary Champions." As plain as the head on John L's 5¢ beer is the fact that these men, the best of their day, would have been troubled by almost any of the champions of our time.

Stanley Ketchel and Jack Johnson, considered by many to be the greatest middleweight and heavyweight ever, met in 1909 at Colma, Calif. (right). In the 12th round Ketchel sent Johnson down. Johnson got up, and Ketchel advanced for the kill with a less than classical wild right. Johnson countered for a KO, then tripped inelegantly over Ketchel's feet.

First fight film ever taken (left) pitted Peter Courtney, in black knickers, against James J. Corbett, in a precursor of the bikini. The year: 1894; the photographer: Edison. The ring was pitched in a special studio mounted on wheels that turned to catch the sun. Two-minute rounds were fought. In the sixth Corbett, conqueror of Sullivan, KOed Courtney.

Philadelphia Jack O'Brien (left, on the ropes), challenging Heavyweight Champ Tommy Burns in Los Angeles, was caught by camera running away from a clumsy, clubbing assault. Referee: Jim Jeffries.

The million-dollar gate came in with Jack Dempsey, shown (right) pounding downed Champion Jess Willard, a legal ploy in 1919. Eight years later, largely because of this bout, came the neutral-corner rule.

Fists raised in a position that positively encouraged a KO, Bill Squires, Australian heavyweight champion (left), got it in the very first round of his 1907 match with French Canada's world titleholder, Burns.

Modern style and skill were introduced to the heavyweight division by Gene Tunney (right, facing camera). He solved Dempsey's swarming assaults with a mixture of jabs, hooks and deadening rights.