Gentleman Jim Corbett’s breif encounter with the Jesuits of St. Ignatius College

James J. Corbett, known as Gentleman Jim to boxing fans, became World Heavyweight Champion by knocking out John L. Sullivan. Corbett later earned entry in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

In 1880, when the famed boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett was only 14 and a freshman at the high school division of St. Ignatius College, he twice fought an older student, John Carney. As a result, the Jesuits expelled him. He finished his high school career at Sacred Heart before going on to boxing fame. Carney was later charged with murder in 1898 after a fatal brawl.

We first heard about Corbett’s time at SI from Mike Nerney, who was researching Carney, Nerney’s ancestor and Corbett’s opponent.

SI and USF Archivist Rev. Michael Kotlanger, S.J. ’64 noted that their brawl “must have been the final straw in their academic careers with the Jesuits because in all their time at campus neither student qualified for any of the end-of-the-year academic honors that the school awarded annually to the entire student body.”

Here is his story, taken from Corbett’s book The Roar of the Crowd, published in 1925.

From my first fight I started to run away. This scrap came at an early age, when I was about [14] years old. I was attending St. Ignatius College in San Francisco, and at noon and recess periods was confined to what they called the “Little Yard.” Up to a certain grade you were in the “Little Yard” with the smaller youngsters, and when you were promoted out of the “Little Yard” you could go in the “Big Yard” with the big boys; but I was always large for my age and looked much older than I really was, so I would go to the picnics and they would have prizes for boys under 12 years old, and they would never let me try for them, and I felt rather out of it and often lonely, so whenever I could I would sneak in the “Big Yard” at lunch times to play hand ball and prisoners’ base with the older boys.

The bully of the “Big Yard” was a boy called “Fatty” Carney, but I had never been warned about him. Now about this time, I struck up an acquaintance with a fellow by the name of Hopkins. We used to bring our own lunches, as we lived quite a distance from the school, and this Hopkins boy, whose folks were well-to-do, brought all the finest kinds of cakes and sandwiches. Perhaps this was one of the attractions of the friendship. Anyway, I used to go in and play with him and get some of his lunch, which was much finer than anything I had ever had. In playing prisoners’ base one day, I happened to chase him, and “Fatty” Carney, the bully I have just spoken of, was running after someone else, and Hopkins ran into “Fatty” and Carney promptly hit him. Of course I took Hopkins’ part, as he was my “pal,” and grabbed Carney’s arms and started to fight him then and there, but the other boys interfered and a Brother of the College came and ordered me back to the “Little Yard” where I belonged, but not before Carney had said, “I’ll get you after school!” Someone was then kind enough to inform me that I was up against the toughest fellow in the school.

When school was dismissed that afternoon, one of the boys whispered to me as we marched out in line that Carney was waiting for me outside. My first intention was to run away. There were two exits, and I was trying to decide which was the safer when it suddenly occurred to me that if I [were to run] away, [then] all the boys would laugh at me, and I would be looked upon as a coward. I kept thinking it over while I was marching, but my pride was now aroused, and I said to myself, “I will go out and get licked.” And out I marched on the street, and there was Carney with a bunch of fellows surrounding him, waiting. I was only a kid then, but that afternoon an idea came to me that has since stood me in good stead: to avoid trouble, if possible, but if it lay ahead of me, to be the aggressor and not let the other fellow think I was at all afraid. In my heart I was afraid of Carney then, but I marched right over to him, scared as I was, and said, “Are you waiting for me?” He said “Yes.”

We went around to a lot opposite the United States Mint, called the “Mint Yard,” and the whole school followed. We started to fight. He was a big, strong fellow. If we had been men and in a regular ring, they would have called him the slugger and me a panther, terms much used in descriptions of fights those days.

I had never had a boxing lesson, but occasionally had watched my older brother box. He was six years older than I, and I remembered a few of his tricks, such as looking at the stomach and hitting in the face, just the crude principles of the boxing art.

“Fatty” started to rush me, and as he was stronger and older than I, I began to jump out of his way, trying to make him miss. Then I’d jab at him and jump away, instinctively using my head even at that age, though I didn’t realize it myself. After a few minutes, the police came and scattered us, but by that time I was sure I could whip “Fatty,” and when we ran away from the police, I ran in the same direction that he took, as I wanted to have it out with him. He made for his home, and we came to the “Circus Lot,” used for the circus performances in those days. I had no supporters with me, just two or three of the boys of my own neighborhood who had followed me, while “Fatty” had his whole gang at his back. We started fighting in this lot and I was getting the better of him, and he realized it, so he grabbed hold of me and started to wrestle, and, being much stronger than I, threw me down and proceeded to punch me while I lay underneath him. An old gentleman with a cane stood near, watching us. He took the cane in his hand and stepped in and hit “Fatty” on the back with it and told him he ought to fight boys of his own age and size. I went home with a black eye.

My father, an old-fashioned Irishman, discovered this little souvenir of the fight. Pointing at it, he asked sternly, “Where did you get this?”

I explained the circumstances to him and told him it had been a case of either fighting or running away and being called a coward. I didn’t realize at the time that my father was really proud of me because I had not chosen the other entrance of the school. He asked me who it was I had fought with, and I told him “Fatty” Carney.

“Carney down on Howard Street?” he asked.

In those days San Francisco wasn’t as big as it is now, and everybody knew everybody else, and he repeated, “Carney down on Howard Street? H’m! What d’ye think uv that!” He seemed surprised to think that I had been fighting with this big Carney boy and couldn’t understand it.

I returned to school the next day; so did Carney. Then the older boys in the “Big Yard” came around, making a fuss over me, and I could hear the boys talking and saying to each other, “Why, you ought to have seen him yesterday! This kid was shifting and using judgment just the way professionals do.”

I was surprised and pleased, but the wind was taken out of my sails when the head of the College appeared and put us both out of school. He did not suspend us, but expelled us for good. Anyway, this fight grew to be a legend, a sort of historical event in the school, and was talked of long afterwards, so the boys told me.

From that fight I learned a lesson that has lasted me all my life: that the size of a man does not count, and that by using my head and feet I could lick a man much stronger than myself.