Film History Essentials: Leonard-Cushing Fight (1894)

What it’s about:

Two fighters face off in a small boxing ring. They are Mike Leonard (in white) and Jack Cushing (in black). A group of 4-5 spectators watch from behind the ring, facing the camera, and a referee stands in the corner on the far left side of the frame, carefully observing the fight. Most of the hits landed in this brief clip seem to come from Leonard, who is fighting much more aggressively. Cushing seems to be on the defensive, dodging when he can and grappling when he can’t.

Why it’s essential:

In the summer of 1894, kinetoscope parlors were beginning to open all over and customers were flocking to see Dickson’s slate of films. But there were some obvious constraints on what these machines were capable of. A few years earlier, Edison had bragged that there was no limit to the length of what he could film on the kinetograph: “I can put a roll of gelatine strip a mile long into it if I like.” As it happened, though, however much was filmed, the finished kinetoscope was only designed to hold 50 feet of film, meaning that the movies they showed couldn’t be longer than about 20 seconds. Obviously this would create all sorts of creative limitations for storytelling and for the artistic vision of—just kidding. No one cared about any of that. The problem was that the kinetoscope couldn’t show a whole boxing match.

In 1894, boxing was actually illegal in much of the United States. However, it was not illegal to look at a photograph of a boxing match, and in the eyes of the law, moving pictures were just photographs (a whole lot of photographs). This legal loophole represented a financial opportunity for men of vision in areas where an audience could not legally attend a live fight . . . places like New Jersey and New York. The owners of the newly-formed Kinetoscope Exhibition Company had just such a vision, and approached Edison about helping them realize it. He accommodated them with machines that were specially built to run 150 feet of film at a slower framerate, which allowed a boxing match to be exhibited, one round at a time, as long as the rounds were limited to 60-90 seconds.

The enterprising gentlemen of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company lined up a couple of fighters, and on June 15, 1894, the match was recorded inside the Black Maria. The men danced and sparred for a few minutes, and then Leonard knocked out Cushing in the 6th round. The film debuted in Manhattan at the beginning of August, with one round apiece played on 6 machines at a double cost of 10 cents per round to view. Leonard-Cushing Fight was the first commercially-exhibited sports film, and by far the longest film that had been made to that point: Nearly 6 minutes in length, between 750 and 900 feet of film (with the final round ended early by the knockout).

Reports are mixed on exactly how profitable this was, particularly given that the fighters were not that well known, and patrons were free to pay to see only the knockout round, skipping the first five. But it was successful enough (or perhaps enough of a proof of concept) that productions continued. A month later, Dickson filmed Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, featuring world heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Boosted by Corbett’s celebrity, the result was one of the most profitable films ever produced for the kinetoscope, and remained in circulation for years.

Profitable or not, the entire enterprise forced Edison to walk an extremely fine line when the films were being promoted. The fights, of course, taking place in a too-small boxing ring and with such extreme time constraints, were nothing close to whatever passed for regulation at the time, and in fact were basically all but staged bouts. But the advertising naturally pitched them as genuine, authentic fights. That was what patrons wanted to see, and what they would pay for.

Promoting the existence of a film of a “genuine” fight that apparently took place in a state where such fights were illegal, however, attracted unwelcome attention from the authorities. Edison, when approached, simply disavowed all knowledge that any real fight had taken place and suggested that he certainly wouldn’t have allowed anything illegal to happen on his watch. This somehow seems to have worked, although it probably also helped that the technology involved was much too new for the law to have caught up to its use.

Why you should see it:

Only about 37 seconds of Leonard-Cushing Fight survives, as far as we know. Because the first five rounds of the fight were more or less interchangeable, Edison and Dickson didn’t bother to send in a complete copy for copyright purposes. It is unknown even what round the surviving footage is from, except that it likely isn’t from the final round. I feel like it’s enough for us to get the general idea. I don’t feel like we’re missing much in those other 5 minutes . . . but then, sports entertainment and the business model that is driven by it aren’t areas that interest me a great deal. I am, however, a fan of films being longer than 20 seconds, and on that front I can appreciate this for what it represents, if nothing else.


~ by Jared on January 29, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Leonard-Cushing Fight (1894)”

  1. […] Exhibition Company who lobbied Edison to modify the kinetoscope so it could be used to exhibit an entire boxing match (and he may even have helped modify it). Then, in 1895, he was part of the Lambda Company when they […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: