Bob Fitzsimmons

By Ted Spoon

Fighter’s who attain Championships at multiple weight divisions are not easy to come by, but when linearity ruled they were extremely rare. Pugilists who are able to climb the weights successfully will have something about them that proves dividend despite a natural size disadvantage; They may have huge power, very fast hands, incredible toughness, the will to overcome every obstacle, be a top ring general or (in case of Bob Fitzsimmons) possess all of the prior tangible and intangibles.

Mike Tyson once stated that the Heavyweight champion of the world should be viewed as the ‘strongest’ man in the world, in the sense he has the ability to knock anyone out, he is a very serious individual, should set an example to children/never do anything wrong and conduct himself with class (much like a super hero).

Tyson’s observation paints a familiar picture in the mind of those who read his view on the matter (a big, muscular, handsome gladiator, right?). Taking Mikes comments to heart, Bob Fitzsimmons must cut one of the most unlikely figures to have captured the Heavyweight crown:

Affectionately known as ‘Ruby’ Robert (for his red hair and fair complexion) he was often described as a ‘physical freak’ (The ‘freckled freak’ being one of his more sour tasting name tags). A shade under 6 feet (a natural Middleweight) and never weighing more than a shade over 170lbs his lanky limbs, freckled face, balding head and beady eyes made for one of the (if not the) most aesthetically misleading pugilists there has perhaps ever been…

The English born Bob emigrated at the age of nine with his family to New Zealand. Although Britain has gone onto credit ‘Fitz’ as there own (first World Heavyweight champion from Britain) he never did fight in the country were he was born.

Bob grew up working as a blacksmith. All the hard labor he put in is said to have developed those huge torso and shoulder muscles, which lead to his phenomenal punching power. As a young working lad it was clear ‘Fitz’ had real potential and is noted to have come to fruition after winning an amateur tournament in Australia orchestrated by Legendary British Bare-Knuckle fighter Jem Mace. Jem was said to have urged ‘Fitz’ to go Professional. Bob did just that, nearing 20 years of age he got his career rolling with a few knockouts over 4 round contests until he ran into a promising fully fledged Heavyweight by the name of Mick Dooley were he was knocked out in 4.

His aspirations for real success however were not blunted (perhaps heightened) as he continued to improve n’ progress. Bob fought allot of 'NC' affairs and simple 4 round fights, but it was already apparent he was one heck of a puncher. His recorded career displays only 7 pts victories, all the rest were by way of Knockout. 5 of them you could say came before he really hit his stride.

Although there was never any love loss between Corbett and ‘Fitz’, Bob’s real rival (you could say nemesis) was Sydney born Plasterer Jim Hall. Hall was the mirror image of Fitzsimmons; Lanky, knock kneed, slim-shanked and top heavy. Hall, also a tremendous puncher, often liked to challenge his foes on the condition that if he could not knock them out in a set number of rounds, they’d get the better side of the purse.

The two have been recorded to have fought each other 6 times, but only during their last three fights were 3 official verdicts given. ‘Fitz’ is credited with a 5th round knockout in their 4th meeting, Hall won the 5th by way of 4th round knockout (which Fitzsimmons swore was a dive for a $75 bribe) and again ‘Fitz’ won the 6th and final meeting by way of 4th round knockout.

When ’Fitz’ bit the dust in 4 there was much speculation over the fight’s legitimacy after Bob’s claims and Hall’s actions. Bob’s biographer (Gilbert Odd) claimed that Hall had a reservation to set sail over to the States with a Californian representative of the athletic club, but Hall was reportedly stabbed in a drunken brawl after the fight and never made the trip (his aspirations of a fight with then champ ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey were shot down in flames after attempting to use Fitzsimmons as a stepping stone). Consequently ‘Fitz’ never did see his $75, Hall refuted the accusations of the ‘deal’ and Bob then later expressed he easily whipped Hall in private not long after the fight (an unconfirmed event).

Effectively they had shot each other in the foot and were craving for a chance to settle their ‘business’ with a burning passion…

…Meanwhile Fitzsimmons went from strength to strength, through knocking over recent victim to the champion ‘Billy (professor) McCarthy’ he got his shot at the rapidly declining Dempsey. Like the great Joe Gans after him ‘Nonpareil’ fell victim to TB. The once legendary Dempsey’s skill’s n’ toughness were no more as ‘Fitz’ battered the declining champion up and down like a ‘yo-yo’ until the 13th round brought an end to the unnecessary slaughter.

Hall had been keeping busy and waiting for his opportunity to fight Fitzsimmons. That chance came 22nd July 1891. Both men had trained hard and everyone was set for what the papers hailed as “The greatest ring event of the past decade”. On the morning of the fight however, Governor Merriam took on board Arch Bishop John Ireland’s opinion on fighting, that being a display of ‘Vulgar Animalism’ so the National Guard saw that the fight was called off in a swift change of heart.

It would be a further two years until the antagonists would finally clash for good…

…after that ‘no-go’ Fitzsimmons had now set his cites on something which seemed unattainable for a man of his stature, that being the Heavyweight Championship of the world. He must have made a believer out of many though when in 1892, he took on the big, power-punching Peter Maher and prevailed in a 12th round knockout when his far superior speed and ring craft made the difference in a one-sided encounter.

Jim Hall and Bob Fitzsimmons finally got each other on the 8th March 1893. Again they trained hard except this time the ‘New York World’ reported from Hall’s training camp “He eats what he pleases, and drinks a quart of burgundy a day”. His self discipline (probably brought on by the missed opportunity’s eating away at his soul) was not the same.

The fight went ahead; a record purse of $40,000 was offered to the victor in this highly ‘charged’ encounter. Both men were lively at the sound of the first bell and displayed fine form, but the excepted ‘tear-up’ had yet to transpire. After some competitive boxing in rounds 2 + 3 the fourth saw Hall make a mistake as he moved when he need not to, ‘Fitz’ let loose a big right hook which landed squarely on Jim’s jaw and that was all she wrote as he lay on the canvas for some time after the count had been completed.

With Hall now out of the picture Fitzsimmons was still looking for that big fish to fry. Now weighing in around the mid to late 160’s Bob was fighting Heavyweights when he could; Jack Warner, Mike Brennan and Frank Keller were all blasted out early.

In 1894 Fitzsimmons’ work had caught the champions eye. During the year Bob fought a inconclusive up and down slugfest with the crafty n’ powerful Joe Choynski and defended his Middleweight title in typically concussive fashion against fellow New Zealander Dan Creedon. Corbett was now in agreement to face off against Fitz, but the location and finances were not in mutual agreement until 1897...

…1894 had saw the birth of Thomas Edison's ‘Kinetoscope’; first used for Corbett’s sparring session with Peter Courtney, the devise was set to be put to use for Fitzsimmons rematch with Peter Maher during 1896. It has been said that Bob was so annoyed at the fact he was not entitled to any of the money generated from the ‘motion picture’ earnings (because the light was too poor to shoot) that he decided to go in and blast Maher out at the start of the fight. 95 seconds to be exact!

Fitzsimmons was well on his way to a fight with Corbett, but not before another controversial chapter in his career had occurred. Tom ’Sailor’ Sharkey was the epitome of the meaning ‘rough’. He was big n’ strong, but was extremely raw when it came to fistic ability, he could wallop, but relied on fouling and dirty tactics. Sharkey was a fairly big (4-1) underdog to win. Those who knew Fitzsimmons from his exploits in Australia knew were the ’safe’ money should be placed, however when Sharkey’s management proposed a ‘winner takes all’ spin on the purse rumors quickly spread that the fight (for a purse of $10,000) was not going to be on the level.

When it was declared Wyatt Earp (the notorious gunslinger from ‘Dodge City’ and ’Tombstone’ in the Wild west) was to be the figure of authority Fitzsimmons’ camp went into disarray. Martin Julian (Fitzsimmons Manger and bother-in-law) protested and begged ‘Fitz’ not to go through with it, but Fitzsimmons believed there was no way he could be ‘cheated’ out of a knockout. Sharkey was down as early as round 1 and battered around the ring for 8 until one hook too many saw him collapse. Earp paused, briefly conversed with the announcer and then declared ‘Fitz’ was disqualified for a low blow.

Sharkey never agreed to a medical ‘check-up’ after the event, which left a sea of angry observers.

‘The fighting Blacksmith’ was to make history against James J Corbett in Carson City, 1897. Corbett dismissed Fitzsimmons as a nobody (naturally) and was out-boxing his lighter adversary for round after round. A left hook in the sixth dropped ‘Fitz’ (whom later claimed he thought the fight was near an end then), but after a controversial pause with referee George Siler he got up and continued his rushing tactics. Corbett was beginning to tire when the fight reached double figures and the bloodied ‘Fitz’ was notably coming on stronger.

Bob’s wife ‘Rose’ was yelling as loud as she could to tell her Husband to change his attack from the head to the body immortalized by the famous quote “Hit him in the slats!” Fitzsimmons quickly shifted his weight and sunk a left hook into Corbett’s solar plexus during round 14, which saw him crumble to the floor in stages.

Corbett was furious after the fight and had to be restrained. The blow ‘Fitz’ won the battle with (the now famous “Solar Plexus punch”) he claimed he had never heard of despite making it somewhat of a secret weapon in his great arsenal. He later expressed to a reporter: “Why, I just made a quick shift and came in with a left hook to his wind.” ‘Fitz’ also said it was his wife’s advise that gave him the win.

Fitzsimmons, who was already 33 when he beat Corbett, enjoyed the fruits the championship brought; he was not in serious action for 2 years (contempt with exhibitions and public appearances).

Corbett’s favorite sparring Partner (San Francisco’s own ‘Boilermaker’ James J Jeffries) was a hugely powerful and burly character who was making real waves in the division. When the two met (in what would be Fitzsimmons first defense) The 6,2 and over 200lbs Jeffries out-weighed ’Fitz’ by at least 40lbs. Fitz did well, but Jeffries would not be denied and was getting to Bob as the fight progressed until a right swing to the champs jaw put him out of his misery.

At this stage of his career ‘Fitz’ was an old veteran and much more venerable than during his Middleweight ‘hay-day’ (he was slowing down and learning to conserve energy better), but he was still a tremendously skilled and powerful fighter. Ed Dunkhorst (known as the “human freight car”) was a huge brawler whom out-weighed Fitzsimmons by around 60 lbs, Gus Ruhlin was another capable contender for Heavyweight honors and Tom Sharkey was still around looking for a chance after his Legendary second tussle with the ‘Boilermaker’; 'Fitz' flattened all three of them securing his second shot at Jeffries title.

This time Bob dished out some heavy punishment on Jeffries, busting his nose, bloodying his mouth and cutting him up bad. Many believed Fitzsimmons gloves were ’loaded’ with something (Jeffries was said to explain to Bob after the fight how he cut him up much worse this time around in a curious manner), but again Jeffries did not stop and weakened Bob with a great body attack, knocking him out in the 8th.

Fitzsimmons had gave it his all, but it was clear to see he was in the wrong place at the wrong time as Jeffries continued to reign supreme with his overwhelming strength and ability to take a blow. Fitzsimmons decided to retire, but come 1903 had a quick change of heart and decided to pursue the Light Heavyweight title owned by George Gardner.

Bob got his chance, but at 40 years of age would his wind be good enough to go 20? ‘Fitz’ realizing his very much limited tank was said to have gone to Gardner’s dressing room before the fight, slapped him on the back and declared: “Hi, George, how are you? I hope you’re feeling like a good fight tonight.” George must have been apprehensive when an old, but greatly experienced veteran of the ‘fight game’ displayed such confidence.

George, rattled by this was tentative in the early goings and Bob took this chance to go sailing in, which produced 5 knockdowns in his favor. Bob was fading near the end, but used his great experience to fend off George’s late rush and become Boxing’s first triple champion.

The great ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’ Brien wanted a stab at the title but not before 'Fitz' tested the ice via giving a him an exhibition match. O’ Brien was a crafty fighter himself though and proceeded to go down and generally allow himself to be out-boxed over 6 one-sided rounds. 'Fitz' obliged for Jack to be made his first defense after his poor showing, but a trim, super quick and very serious O’ Brien out sped and out-boxed the old ‘fighting Blacksmith’. 'Fitz' was floored three times and completely spent at the end of the 12th round telling Referee Eddie Graney “Eddie, I’m all done up, I can’t go on.”

Fitz had one more pointless fight when he faced off against the ascending Negro Jack Johnson. Johnson (who was at the peak of his magnificent powers) easily tied up, struck and toyed with his frail opponent. Bob’s arm injury made for a complete farce as he fell down, giving up, as he had no chance to prevail.

Fitzsimmons went back to Australia to fight the countries champion Bill Lang. Bob did well in the early goings as his skill was still visible to his home crowd who cheered his every move, but at 46 and not a hope of seeing out the 20 rounds scheduled he succumbed to the more energetic Lang in the 12th round.

Fitz retired for good in 1914 after two exhibitions in Pennsylvania. The attendees were said to have been amazed at the 50 year olds skill at blocking n’ feinting.

Bob Fitzsimmons died at age 54 (1917) after being taken ill for some time with Lobar Pneumonia. .....................................................................................

The great fighters of yesterday and today all have their accomplishments, but what’s so striking about Bob Fitzsimmons career (especially when one considers the harsh times in which he fought) is his longevity, ability to adapt n’ overcome via different methods. Take his title winnings efforts for example:

  • He used his great speed n’ power to completely overwhelm ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey.

  • He used his inner heart n’ grit to eventually catch a tiring ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett.

  • He used his ability to mess with a fighter’s head, to call a bluff n’ make George Gardner stall.

    He possessed everything that makes a fighter ‘Great’ and aptly demonstrated throughout varying stages of his career. You can read up on a fighter, but still fail to mentally grasp n’ appreciate all their accomplishments, in point of Bob Fitzsimmons his career is littered with eye opening names n’ performances:

  • Tom Sharkey who gave both Corbett and Jeffries such trouble was easily handled both times, he was at the mercy of Bob’s combination of speed, power and punch placement.

  • Heavyweight contenders Peter Maher and Gus Ruhlin could not deal with Fitzsimmons clever boxing, speed and power despite their natural size advantage.

  • Both Jim Hall and James J Corbett were both taken out of commission from a single blow. The ability to knock out a quality fighter like Hall compliments of one punch is impressive enough, but to take out a fighter like Corbett (a quality n’ natural Heavyweight) from just one wallop is really 'unique'.

  • He had a huge amount of quick 4 round fights, yet still managed to produce 47 knockouts in 54 wins.

    Bob Fitzsimmons underlines the meaning of ‘pound-4-pound’ better than any other pugilist. While he may not have technically coined the old phrase “The bigger they are the harder they fall” He proved the sayings point better than possibly any other recorded pugilist.

    Ted Spoon cites Bob Fitzsimmons as the most destructive of all Middleweights in history and a danger for any fighter in history.

    This article appears at Cox's Corner with permission of the author