Fight to the Finish: The Barge Battle of 1889, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, Joe Choynski and the Fight That Launched Boxing’s Modern Era, by Ron J. Jackson Jr., Eaken Press, Fort Worth, Texas, 2019, $29.95
Bare-knuckle boxer James J. Corbett became a household name after defeating John L. Sullivan to claim the world heavyweight championship, but first the speedy boxer had to settle a San Francisco feud with powerful pugilist Joe Choynski. Author Ron Jackson, who has written for Wild West on a variety of subjects from the Alamo to wolf catcher Jack Abernathy, smoothly delivers the background information (Corbett’s father had emigrated from Ireland; Choynski was the Jewish son of a Polish immigrant), the early years of the two fighters (they lived only about a mile apart in San Francisco and had thrown punches at one another in a stable fight in 1884, five years before their official bouts), the controversies of the fight game (a sheriff broke up their illegal May 1889 fight in a Fairfax, Calif., barn after four rounds), the high drama of the match (which resumed in June 1889 on a grain barge in Benicia Harbor, to keep lawmen from stepping in again) and the epilogue.
Never mind Corbett’s “Gentleman Jim” nickname. “The feud,” Jackson writes, “resulted in arguably the most savage fight ever contested in the annals of boxing history.” Even for readers who know in advance who won this fight to the finish, the author keeps us riveted through the 27 rounds. Neither man can be considered a villain in this grim but captivating business, and it’s hard to root against either. For them the battle was less about ethnic pride and more about determining who was the best fighter in San Francisco. Both, says Jackson, were intelligent, ambitious, tough, inquisitive and quick students in the ring and went on to enjoy great fighting careers after their Benicia showdown. “The barge fight,” he adds, “simply proved to be the springboard to greatness.”