Bob Fitzsimmons: the final count
On the 100th anniversary of his death, Gary Lucken pays tribute to the extraordinary Bob Fitzsimmons...
Exactly one hundred years ago, shortly before day began to break, a follicly challenged, middle-aged man took his final breath and died in the Windy City of Chicago.
The deceased patient who lay in one of the hundreds of beds at the six-storey Michael Reese Hospital near Lake Michigan was no ordinary individual.
He was Bob Fitzsimmons – boxing’s first ever triple weight world champion, a pound for pound legend and one of the hardest punchers in fistic history.
More simply put, he was one of the finest mitt-slingers who ever lived.
Fitzsimmons had been rushed to the hospital after collapsing five days earlier while bag punching at a local theatre where he was appearing in a vaudeville show.
He quickly lapsed into unconsciousness, a victim of lobar pneumonia, and physicians believed he would die within hours. To their astonishment he embarked on a valiant battle for life, occasionally waking and even talking.
But tragically it was a fight that not even he could win and at around 2.45am on October 22 1917 the boxing great passed away at the age of 54.
News of his death flashed across the globe and newspapers around the world carried lavish tributes to the dead ring warrior, drawing heavily on pugilistic parlance in the process.
The Buffalo Enquirer (New York) was typical of the contemporary coverage. It captured the prevailing mood by commenting: “Grim death delivered a knockout blow to Bob Fitzsimmons in a Chicago hospital this morning…. The Great Referee motioned to Bob to arise and assisted him to the Corner from which no man returns.”
Fitzsimmons was born in Helston, Cornwall, on May 26 1863 but his family left England and moved to New Zealand when he was aged around nine, settling down in the town of Timaru and opening a blacksmith’s forge.
At the age of 11, a desire to seek revenge against a football player who had viciously assaulted him prompted the young Fitzsimmons to learn how to box.
He engaged in both bareknuckle and gloved bouts in the following years while also working stints in an iron foundry and as a blacksmith but his professional fighting career only began in earnest when he moved to Australia in around 1883.
Then, in 1890, after several years spent honing his skills at domestic level, Fitzsimmons made a decision that would change his life forever – he decided to sail to the United States in search of boxing glory.
Fighting folk in America initially scoffed at the relatively unknown newcomer’s prospects, in large part due to his odd, some even said ugly, appearance.
A shade under 6ft tall and then weighing little more than 150lbs, Fitzsimmons boasted immensely powerful shoulders, a legacy of his time as a blacksmith, but his muscular upper body was perched incongruously on a pair of spindly legs which were often likened to stilts.
That, allied to a balding pate with tufts of red hair hanging on for dear life, a heavily freckled face and body plus a quaint “Cor blimey” manner of speaking, which contemporaries said made him sound like a Cockney, seems to have made it difficult for people to take him seriously.
His detractors soon stopped laughing.
Three stoppage wins earned Fitzsimmons a shot at “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey, the World Middleweight Champion whose fighting fame was second only to that of John L Sullivan. Dempsey, as his nickname suggested, was considered to be “without equal”.
The pair did battle in New Orleans in 1891 and the challenger claimed the title after a dramatic scrap in which Dempsey was floored several times before suffering a 13th round KO.
Fitzsimmons was now a bona fide star and quickly acquired a string of nicknames including Ruby Rob, The Freckled Wonder, The Fighting Blacksmith and Cornish Bob. Others affectionately dubbed him simply “Fitz”.
The new middleweight king soon began turning his attention to the heavyweight division and in the years to come would become renowned for his ability to KO much bigger men.
Along the way he is often credited with popularising the phrase “The bigger they are, the ‘arder they fall”.
Notable further fights included a 95-second demolition of Peter Maher in 1896 and, later that year, a notorious bout with “Sailor” Tom Sharkey which was refereed by gunslinger Wyatt Earp. In the latter fight Fitzsimmons appeared to have won with a Round 8 KO, only to be disqualified by Earp for a supposed low blow - a decision widely regarded as a fix.
The controversial verdict proved to be just a temporary setback because in 1897 Fitzsimmons got what he had long been after – an opportunity to take on World Heavyweight Champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.
On March 17, in a famous showdown at Carson City, Nevada, the challenger survived a sixth round knockdown before securing the title by stopping Corbett with a paralysing body shot in Round 14. The destructive winning blow was quickly dubbed the “solar plexus” punch and immediately entered boxing folklore.
Fitzsimmons lost the heavyweight title two years later when he was knocked out by “The Boilermaker” Jim Jeffries but he continued campaigning and earned a rematch by virtue of stoppage wins over other contenders such as Sharkey and “The Akron Giant” Gus Ruhlin.
In 1902 Fitzsimmons, weighing around 172lbs, a near career heaviest, took on Jeffries, a hefty 219lbs, for a second time in a brutal battle which took place in San Francisco.
Despite the massive weight disparity Fitzsimmons proceeded to hand Jeffries a vicious beating, badly damaging his own increasingly brittle hands in the process, before the champion succeeded in knocking him out in the eighth round.
Fitzsimmons may have lost but, if anything, his already stellar reputation had been enhanced yet further. A heavily bloodied Jeffries was even said to have told him afterwards: “You’re the most dangerous man alive.”
For most men, winning both the middleweight and heavyweight crowns would have been ample achievement and retirement would have beckoned. But Fitzsimmons wasn’t most men. He wasn’t done yet.
In 1903 he set his sights firmly on a new prize – the throne of the relatively new light heavyweight division.
On November 25, now aged 40 and known as “The Grand Old Man of the Ring”, Fitzsimmons floored 26-year-old champion George Gardner several times on his way to a 20-round points win at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in ‘Frisco.
History had been made. Never before had a fighter won world titles in three weight classes.
In fact Fitzsimmons’ accomplishments were such that the concept of a “pound for pound” king began to gain traction in the late 19th and early 20th century – the oft-repeated claim that the P4P label was coined decades later for Sugar Ray Robinson is demonstrably untrue.
Fitzsimmons lost the light heavyweight crown to “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien in 1905 and thereafter only fought intermittently, including a KO loss to Jack Johnson in 1907 in a bout in which Fitzsimmons was effectively fighting with just one arm due to an injury.
His last competitive bouts came in 1914, when his 50th birthday had been and gone, and he finally quit boxing to become an evangelist.
Fitzsimmons’ performances in the roped arena garnered acres of news coverage over the years but his life outside the ring was also a great source of stories for reporters.
To say he was a colourful character would be an understatement.
A dapper dresser, he was an early king of bling with a particular love of diamonds – he even had diamond fillings in his teeth.
And although he doesn’t generally seem to have taken himself too seriously there was the occasional flash of vanity.
When the noted sportswriter and cartoonist Bob Edgren started drawing caricatures of Fitzsimmons with huge, rounded freckles the fighter initially objected - before reluctantly admitting they were quite prominent (although he insisted there weren’t any on his legs).
He could also be a bit touchy about his hair, or lack of it. On one occasion in 1900, after being shown some film footage of himself training, he commented: “Say, I ain't as bald-headed as that, am I?”
There also seems to have been a touch of the man-child about him, a dash of Peter Pan which was reflected in his love of playing practical jokes on those around him.
In 1903, to give just one example, Fitzsimmons caused chaos with a prank he pulled in Harbin Springs, California, while helping Jim Jeffries prepare for his title defence against Jim Corbett.
He walked into a hotel near Jeffries’ training camp and marched into a room where guests were playing cards before pulling a huge (and live) bullsnake out of his shirt and waving it over their heads. Chairs were upended and chips and money sent flying everywhere as the shrieking players fled in terror.
A further gag, a favourite of Fitzsimmons, was to kneel next to a fountain or pond and stare intently into the water until someone asked what he was looking at. He would claim there was a strange fish beneath the surface and then shove the other person in when they leaned down for a closer look.
Just occasionally his good humour would lapse. On one occasion he KO’d a New York City tram conductor for being “impudent” to Rose, the second of his four wives. In another incident he was said to have flattened his tailor in a row over a dry cleaning bill, although he was later cleared of assault. And he once got into a furious row with the manager of a theatre where he was appearing – prompting the manager to smash a baby’s milk bottle over Fitzsimmons’ head.
Another distinguishing feature of the boxer’s life was his fascination with animals of all shapes and sizes. Over the years he kept a veritable menagerie of pets – dogs, horses, mules, snakes, macaws and even a bear were among his pets at one time or another.
Most famously, he was especially fond of lions. Two in particular often featured in the newspapers – Nero and, later, Senator Reynolds. Nero sometimes slept in the same bed as his master and Fitzsimmons was so fond of him that he had the animal stuffed and mounted at his home after it died.
The larger pets would also double as training partners – Fitzsimmons sometimes wrestled and “sparred” with them because he believed that studying and countering their moves made him a better fighter.
At the end of the day, however, Fitzsimmons is of course best remembered for his exploits inside the ring.
When he died his contemporaries knew that someone special was no longer in their midst, as demonstrated by the compliments they lavished upon him.
Old rival Jim Corbett, with whom Fitzsimmons had an often fractious relationship, commented: “With the passing of Bob Fitzsimmons pugilism has lost not only one of its greatest exponents but a man who was in every way a credit to the game.
“Although I lost the world’s heavyweight championship to this great warrior I have never said or thought that he did not beat me fairly and squarely.
“He was one of the marvels of pugilism and I am sure that I am voicing the sentiment of all American sport lovers in expression of the deepest and most heartfelt sorrow over his passing away.
“We who knew him in the heyday of his power know that he fought gamely to the end as was befitting the lion-hearted warrior whose marvellous ring exploits are now a matter of history and will be as long as the game lasts.”
Former heavyweight contender Charles “Kid” McCoy commented: “Barring no one, Bob Fitzsimmons was the greatest fighter the world has ever seen. He never had an equal as a hitter.”
Lightweight legend Freddie Welsh said that “The ring will never produce another Fitzsimmons” while fellow great Benny Leonard added: “I only hope I can write my name in ring history to live as long as his will. As a child I admired him and I’d like nothing better than to be one-tenth as famous.”
Jim Jeffries said simply: “He was a great old general. He was one of my best friends and I am sorry he has gone.”
And boxing manager Tom O’Rourke opined: “Bob Fitzsimmons didn’t have an equal. Think of the man’s weight, and then reflect on his deeds and you won’t place any man who ever fought above the Cornishman. No man ever hit as hard as Bob did. He brought giants down with blows that were never equalled for power.”
Perhaps it was The Times that put it most succinctly when it commented after his death: “The name of Bob Fitzsimmons will last as long as the sport of boxing itself.”
Two days after he passed away, Fitzsimmons was laid to rest at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery following a funeral attended by more than 3,000 people from all walks of life.
The fight game is unlikely to see his like again.