Leonard-Cushing Fight (partially found early boxing film; 1894)
On 14th June 1894, professional boxers Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing competed in a six-round exhibition boxing match, with Leonard winning via KO. The match was notably recorded by a Kinetograph, and would become the first ever commercially released sports film.
Heading into the bout, Mike Leonard had been boxing since 1891. With a height of 5"6, and weighing between 130-140 lbs, Leonard had won eight and lost four of his first 15 confirmed fights. He garnered a reputation for his showmanship and fashionable dress sense, being nicknamed the "Beau Brummell of Boxing" in reference to the English socialite Beau Brummell. The Brooklyn boxer was widely popular within his region, and would certainly have been considered the favourite over the relatively unknown and fellow Brooklyn lightweight Jack Cushing.
Three years prior, Thomas Edison had patented the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope on 24th August 1891. Invented by William Kennedy Dickson, the Kinetograph could capture celluloid film, with a maximum capacity of 50 feet. Kinetograph films would then be viewed via the Kinetoscope, where a single viewer could see the recording via a peephole window. Two years later, Edison opened the Black Maria in New Jersey, the first film studio, with the Kinetoscope publicly showcasing the film Blacksmith Scene on 9th May 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Kinetoscope reached the markets in 1894; following negotiations between Edison's business manager William E. Gilmore and the Latham Brothers, a deal was struck where the Lathams acquired ten Kinetoscopes which would display boxing matches. The deal involved Dickson and the Lathams' engineer Enoch J. Rector working together to enhance the Kinetograph's capacity to 150 feet, adequate for achieving the Lathams' goals. A private film, Men Boxing was directed by Dickson and filmed by William Heise, featuring two Edison employees fake boxing. It convinced Dickson and others regarding the commercial viability of filmed boxing matches.
Initially, the Lathams aimed for Australia's Young Griffo to face either George "Kid" Levigne or challenge the unbeaten World Lightweight champion Jack McAuliffe. Ultimately, negotiations broke down, forcing them to instead promote Leonard against Cushing. Despite the apparent mismatch, it was actually one of the earlier examples of filmmakers marketing a larger star, who would be expected to defeat a somewhat credible opponent in a legitimate fight. Dickson and Heise reassumed their roles for the filming, which occurred on 14th June 1894. Based on the limited surviving footage and accounts from various publications, the match's legitimacy was questionable at best. Fight Pictures noted in its analysis that Leonard was "far more active and is allowed to land his punches unanswered." Cushing would later comment on the choreographed nature of the fight, stating "Fighting in front of a photographing machine was no fight." Ultimately, Leonard won via KO in the sixth round.
The fight actually caused Edison and co. to end up in legal hot water, as he accused of promoting a prize fight, a criminal act in New Jersey at the time. Ultimately, with Edison strongly denying involvement, all involved escaped any sort of legal trial. The film would be released in six parts on 4th August 1894, initially in Manhattan's 83 Nassau Street, becoming the first commercially released sports film. The film was not regarded as a commercial success, with some turned away by the staged aspects of the fights and how both boxers were lesser known outside Brooklyn. Additionally, others were only keen on seeing the sixth round but were not actually required to pay for the first five. Nevertheless, the Lathams would continue filming a few boxing matches during the Kinetoscope era, including James J. Corbett against Peter Courtney, titled "Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph", and released that same year on 17th November. Leonard himself would continue boxing until 1912, losing his last known fight against Billy Allen on 16th May.
According to Issue 105 of the Edison Films Complete Catalogue, the six films had a length of around 150 feet each. This could mean a total of 900 feet for the full match recording, although some accounts state it was around 730 feet in total, likely a more accurate figure considering the sixth round ended prematurely. Ultimately, most of the full match footage is missing, with the issue worsened by the fact it was released in six different parts, making it more prone for footage to become lost. As of the present day, just 37 seconds of the match has been recovered. It is unclear which round provided the surviving clips, although it is extremely unlikely to have been from round six, as footage of the KO is not part of the surviving recording.
- Cyber Boxing Zone detailing the career of Mike Leonard and a record of his confirmed bouts. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Mayfair Eccentrics detailing the life of Beau Brummell. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Fight Pictures detailing the filming of the event. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- History of the Kinetoscope. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- The Movies in the Age of Innocence detailing the opening of the Black Maria. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- A History of Sports Highlights detailing the filming of the match, its poor commercial response, and the legal troubles Edison and co. faced. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- History in the Media summarising Men Boxing and the Leonard-Cushing Fight. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Silent Era page on Men Boxing. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Weird Wild Realm review of the film. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Sports Illustrated crediting the film as the first released sports film. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Issue 105 of the Edison Films Complete Catalogue summarising the film and each parts' length. Retrieved 12th Dec '22
- Library of Congress page on the Leonard-Cushing Fight. Retrieved 12th Dec '22