Why you should care
Because boxing was the perfect sport for the early days of pay-per-view.
Covered in black tar paper to shut out external light, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria movie production studio in West Orange, New Jersey, looked more like an oversize shack or a child’s makeshift fort than it did a venue for a groundbreaking boxing match between the heavyweight champion of the world, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, and New Jersey champion Peter Courtney.
The shorter Courtney threw wild haymakers at Gentleman Jim, who dodged the blows with agility and grace. Corbett, wearing shorts so high they would have made Larry Bird blush, had the skills to end the bout in the first three minutes but likely allowed it to go six rounds to appease his financiers. He certainly wasn’t playing to the crowd. The only people squeezed into Black Maria were a few staged audience members and the crew filming the fight on the first practical motion picture camera, the kinetograph — invented by William K. Dickson in Edison’s West Orange laboratory.
[Corbett] was a celebrity — a pop culture figure in the very early days of mass media.
Jeremy Geltzer, film historian
Regular fight fans had to adapt to a new way of catching all the action from the 1894 bout. They lined up with hard-earned nickels and waited for their turn to watch the bout through the Kinetoscope, another Dickson invention, which had a peephole window on top for viewing the flickering films made with the kinetograph.
The playback of the boxing match made money — the first film to do so, according to the 1968 boxing documentary The Legendary Champions. That means it was also the first financially successful boxing pay-per-view. Better yet, it helped launch the career of the sport’s first movie star, Corbett, the fighter who had defeated the legendary John L. Sullivan to win the world title. “He was a celebrity — a pop culture figure in the very early days of mass media,” says Jeremy Geltzer, who has written several books on early film history.
Gentleman Jim’s prize money was $4,700, which had the buying power of more than $100,000 in today’s currency. He also earned up to $20,000 in royalties, according to Geltzer’s book Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment, but Geltzer admits it’s difficult to determine just how much pioneering boxing films made. Customers often paid in cash, and since boxing was illegal in many states at the time, money to view filmed bouts may have changed hands under the table.
In the early 1890s, every new film was experimental and met with uncertainty, but Edison and his crew quickly saw value in boxing. The ring fit into the Black Maria, the fights provided lots of action and the rounds segmented the narrative into convenient chunks, which meant customers needed to keep paying to see the next round.
The improbable source of their insight may sound familiar in a world of YouTube. Edison and his team first noticed viewer interest in boxing when they filmed matches of cats boxing — the Gilded Age’s version of viral videos. “Cats boxing was as funny in 1891 or 1893 as it is in 2018,” says Geltzer. “People are always interested in the same thing.”
It didn’t take long before camera technology improved, and cinematographers were able to capture images beyond dark, enclosed spaces like the Black Maria. In 1897, a challenger worthy of Gentleman Jim emerged — Bob Fitzsimmons, a hard-punching Brit with the nonthreatening nickname “The Freckled Wonder.” Veriscope, an early motion picture company, organized a bout between the two athletes, but prior to the match several states enacted anti-prizefighting laws, according to Geltzer. Veriscope was ready to shift the bout to Mexico when a promoter named Dan Stuart successfully lobbied the state of Nevada to repeal the law.
The match was held on March 17, 1897, at an outdoor venue in Carson City, Nevada, and ended after 14 rounds, when Fitzsimmons knocked out Corbett. Attendance was poor, but that didn’t matter — Veriscope caught all of it on film. The resulting 90-minute feature stood in stark contrast to the 30-second loops that were the era’s typical format, and it proved enormously popular across the country.
That success triggered the first film censorship laws at the state level, with Maine leading the way later that year by banning the exhibition of prizefight films. But boxing flicks continued to grow in popularity until Black heavyweight Jack Johnson destroyed Jim Jeffries, the Great White Hope, in a match filmed in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. Not only did a Black man beat a white man at the height of the Jim Crow era, but the humiliation (for some whites) could be seen over and over again. “That is significant,” notes Geltzer, “because that’s when authorities cracked down on boxing films.”
Two years later, Congress banned the interstate distribution of prizefighting motion pictures. That decision halted the popularity of the genre for decades, but in the long run, pay-per-view fights just made too much money to be held down forever.