CLAIMED as England’s first world heavyweight champion, Bob Fitzsimmons was a remarkable character and boxer. He was the first triple title-holder in boxing history, winning the heavyweight, middleweight and light-heavyweight championships in a career that lasted 27 years.
As a young man he had worked as a blacksmith and legend has it that this developed his muscular upper body. His appearance was often described as “freakish” and “ugly”. He was bald from an early age, covered in freckles and sparse tufts of ginger hair contributed to his other nickname, “Ruby Robert”. Below the waist he had skinny legs, was knock-kneed and flat-footed. Yet he was prepared to fight men much bigger and heavier than himself while weighing not much more than a heavy middleweight. He was a mere 11st 13lbs when he beat James J. Corbett for the world heavyweight title in 1897.
Born in Helston, Cornwall on May 26, 1863, Fitzsimmons was taken to New Zealand as a child and never actually fought in England, moving in 1883 to Australia, where he turned professional and ran up a record of 15-5 with six No Decision fights, mostly in Sydney. In 1890, when he was 28, he crossed the water to America and never looked back. Three knockouts earned him a shot at world middleweight champion “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey. In an exciting, vicious battle he knocked Dempsey out in the 13th round. Because of his punching power and the more lucrative heavyweight division purses, Fitzsimmons turned his attention to the big men. A sensational 95-second victory over Irish born Peter Maher at Langtry in Texas earned him a shot at Corbett’s world heavyweight title.
In one of the most famous fights in heavyweight history, the 34-year-old Fitzsimmons, 16 pounds the lighter man, took a beating for round after round. He barely beat the count after being floored in the sixth and was bleeding badly from a lacerated lip and from his nose when the 14th started. The arrogant Corbett, skilful and intelligent, had been coping with Fitzsimmons’ attempts to knock him out with head punches but was finally caught out by the now famous solar-plexus punch. Shifting his feet briefly to southpaw, Bob drove his left hand deep into the pit of Corbett’s stomach. Paralaysed by the punch, Corbett sank to his knees gasping with pain. He couldn’t beat the count and Fitzsimmons became the first English-born heavyweight champion of the world.
But he didn’t defend his title for two years, instead cashing in on his name by boxing exhibitions and touring theatres. He also refused to give the voluble Corbett a return. Fitzsimmons finally entered the ring again in 1899 to defend his title against unbeaten James J. Jeffries, who was 13 years younger and outweighed him by some two and a half stone. They fought at Coney Island, New York and Fitzsimmons broke both hands on “The Boilermaker’s” head before he was knocked out in the 11th round.
He had to wait two years for another chance but this time was dispatched in eight rounds. However, in 1903 the light-heavyweight division was introduced and Fitzsimmons, 41, unanimously outpointed George Gardner for the title.
He held on to the crown for a two years before losing to Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in 13 rounds in late 1905. Even then Fitzsimmons fought on until 1915, by which time he was 51 years old. He died in Chicago three years later from pneumonia.