You’ll see Eugene Corri in footage shot at the National Sporting Club (NSC) in London’s Covent Garden, the HQ of British boxing from 1891 to the 1920s, where the well-heeled dinner-suited crowds observed an eerie silence during the fighting as cigar smoke billowed around the small ornate hall. He’s usually seated ringside, appraising the bout from outside the ropes, as was the norm then for Britain’s referees.
With his stocky frame, his ever-smiling countenance, sprouting moustache and flamboyant dress sense – his Corinthian overcoat and top-hat of the style worn by the Bucks of the Regency period – Corri was a larger-than-life character and a key figure in early 20th-century British boxing. An amiable, happy-go-lucky man and an engaging raconteur, “Genial Gene”, as he was known, had a wide circle of friends ranging from peers to pugilists. He adored cigars and was rarely seen without one; his consumption was said to exceed even that of noted cigar man Lord Lonsdale. But beneath the vibrant persona was a stern manner that made him one of the strictest refs in the game.
As a young man, Gene worked in Throgmorton Street, in the City of London, as a stockbroker’s clerk and later became a partner in the firm. He got involved with boxing in the 1880s when he was in his 20s. After trying his hand at the noble art, he moved into refereeing. When the NSC opened in 1891, he was one of its first members and became one of its regular referees.
During his long career, Corri handled fights involving such ring legends as Georges Carpentier, Tommy Burns, Sam Langford, Sam McVea, Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll, Ted Kid Lewis, Freddie Welsh, Willie Ritchie, Pedlar Palmer, George Dixon and Mickey Walker. Unsurprisingly, he had a wealth of stories from his time in boxing and shared them in four interesting books.
When he refereed Tommy Burns’s world heavyweight title fight with Gunner Moir at the NSC, for example, the distrustful Burns insisted that his purse money be placed in the hands of the referee. NSC manager “Peggy” Bettinson duly agreed and passed Corri a huge wad of notes, which he slipped into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket.
As the contest progressed, Gene was compelled to enter the ring to take control of the action. Feeling the heat, he absentmindedly threw his jacket over a ringside chair. Burns won the fight in 10 rounds, at which point Corri remembered the wad of notes and rushed to recover his coat. To his immense relief, the cash was still there!
As a partner in a stockbrokers’ business, Corri had been a wealthy man, counting multimillionaire diamond magnates Barney Barnato, Jack and Solly Joel and Sir Abe Bailey among his clients and intimate friends. But at the outbreak of World War One he closed the business and entered an ill-fated bookmaking partnership. He was bankrupted in 1921.
Now in his 60s, his status in the boxing world was undiminished, but he would struggle financially for the rest of his days. On meeting Corri in Fleet Street in the 1920s, an old journalist friend was shocked by his “shabby clothes and general down at heel appearance”, later writing: “When I contrasted his deplorable clothes with those he wore when last I had seen him, I just could not believe my eyes.”
But Corri remained cheerful and stoic in spite of his ill fortune. He suffered ailing health in his final years, but managed to publish his last memoir, Fifty Years in the Ring, in 1933. When he died at his home in Southend that December, the sporting and national press were full of praise. A headline splashed across the back page of the Daily Mirror encapsulated his position in sport. It read: “Eugene Corri, King of Boxing Referees.”