Bob Fitzsimmons vs Con Coughlin - myth and reality
The legendary Bob Fitzsimmons has gone down in boxing history as the first triple weight world champion and one of the hardest hitters to ever enter the roped arena.
Modern accounts of his life often highlight the apparent death of opponent Con Coughlin, aka 'The Irish Giant', as evidence of Fitz’s devastating punching power.
There’s just one problem with that. It isn’t true. It never happened.
Fitz undoubtedly packed a dynamite wallop in a long career in which he won the world middleweight title in 1891, the heavyweight crown in 1897 and the light heavyweight championship in 1903.
And he did destroy Coughlin with ease when the pair met one evening before a packed house in Philadelphia in 1903 – but he didn’t kill him. Far from it.
The bout is actually notable for a totally different reason – it was arguably one of the greatest frauds inflicted on fight fans and media of the era.
Prior to the latter part of 1903 few people had apparently heard the name Con Coughlin – until boxing manager Sam Fitzpatrick announced he had discovered an exciting giant of a man in Galway, Ireland, and shipped him over to the US.
Fitzpatrick claimed Coughlin had beaten the best the Emerald Isle had to offer and bragged that he was even capable of toppling reigning World Heavyweight Champion Jim Jeffries.
According to the Police Gazette, he “industrially touted” Coughlin and boasted: “I declare on my word of honour I was never so impressed by a fighter. In my opinion he is a second John L Sullivan.”
Fitzpatrick, who had a certain credibility by virtue of previous involvement in the careers of fighters such as Peter Jackson and George Lavigne, offered to match his new protégé, also known as 'The Irish Kangaroo', against any of the leading heavyweights of the day.
Fitzsimmons, who was preparing for his upcoming light heavyweight title fight with George Gardner, took up the challenge in return for a purse of $1,000 and it was announced that the pair would do battle in a six-round bout at the Washington Sporting Club at 15th and Wood Streets in Philly on 30 September.
The publicity machine went into overdrive and the fight was eagerly anticipated by fans and sports writers – partly because of a desire to see the hot new prospect and partly due to Fitz’s popularity and reputation.
Newspaper photos showed Coughlin towering over his trainer during sparring and cartoonists entertained readers with illustrations showing the disparity in size between him and Fitzsimmons.
Coughlin was certainly an imposing physical specimen with contemporary reports describing him variously as anywhere between 6ft 2in and 6ft 5in tall, weighing up to around 240lb and boasting a reach approaching 80 inches.
Fitz, by comparison, was a shade under 6ft tall, weighed around 175lb and had a reach of around 72 inches.
The media earmarked the fight as one to watch and commented that it was worth fans making the trip to Philadelphia. The New York Evening World even announced it was dispatching a cartoonist to cover the event.
Few, however, appeared to look too closely into Coughlin’s supposed fight record in Ireland, which appears to have been a figment of his manager’s imagination.
Fight night arrived and, encouraged by flyers plastered around Philadelphia, around two thousand people flocked to the club, paying admission fees probably ranging from 50 cents to two dollars.
What followed was a farce – Fitz, the experienced old pro, flattened the towering Coughlin three times before Coughlin’s seconds threw in the sponge before the first round was over and helped their humiliated and “half-dazed” fighter back to his corner.
The fiasco infuriated the newspaper press who spent several days lambasting those who had organised the contest.
The Topeka State Journal accused Coughlin of being “scared”, the Philadelphia Record commented that Fitz “was not obliged to ruffle a hair in order to stop the big Irishman” and the Philadelphia Inquirer said it was “just like taking candy from a baby”.
The Inquirer added that Coughlin “seemed to like the floor”, accused him of being “a rank counterfeit” and suggested that the name “Con” was appropriate.
The NY Evening World was particularly savage - in a spectacularly sarcastic report it branded the fight “a farce comedy”, “a sin and a shame” and “a one-act farce”.
Fitzsimmons, who a few weeks later won the world light heavyweight title via a 20-round decision, was spared criticism – he was actually praised for not dragging out the Coughlin fight in a bid to con the spectators that it was a worthy match-up.
Reporters who began digging into Coughlin’s background also realised he was far from being a new prospect.
They discovered he was apparently the same Con Coughlin who, fighting out of New York, had enjoyed a brief and mediocre boxing career 10 years earlier after coming over from Ireland to compete as an amateur hammer thrower. Fitzpatrick, according to the Butte Inter Mountain newspaper, had simply “scooped” Coughlin “out of the pugilistic graveyard”.
But among all the contemporary ink devoted to the Fitzsimmons v Coughlin fight there was not one mention of Coughlin sustaining life-threatening injuries, let alone dying.
In fact, according to the Spokane Press, Coughlin was healthy enough to reach the obvious conclusion that he should quit the fight game for good in a conversation with Fitzpatrick, who later went on to manage the great Jack Johnson.
The paper said: “After his bout with Fitz, Sam Fitzpatrick said to him: ‘Whom will I match you with now, Con?’”
Coughlin was said to have retorted: “No one. I am through with this fighting business. I will go back to work on Monday morning.”
Further evidence that Coughlin was alive and well years later comes in an article in the Pittsburgh Press on January 5 1910 which mentions that Coughlin attended a boxing exhibition by Jack Johnson at the Duquesne Gardens.
The paper reported: “Con Coughlin, the Irish Giant, a powerfully built Celt who once ‘put them on’ with Bobby Fitzsimmons, was at last night’s show. Con is out of the mitt game and puts in his massive frame and energy at trolley work.
“Coughlin was one of the biggest men that Fitz ever faced in the ring. Bob liked the hulks, for he said they always fell harder than the bean poles.”
What happened to Coughlin after that is unclear – he seems to have vanished into history, his ultimate fate unknown.
So what explains the baffling modern claims that Coughlin died at the hands of Fitzsimmons?
The likely explanation is a simple mix-up over names in connection with a completely different fighter who DID die after an exhibition bout with Fitz almost a decade earlier.
In November 1894 Con Riordan collapsed and passed away after sparring with Fitzsimmons in Syracuse. Fitz was subsequently charged with manslaughter but cleared by a jury after medical evidence suggested his punches were not to blame.
To add to the confusion, Con Riordan and Con Coughlin once fought each other - Riordan KO’d Coughlin in a little over 60 seconds in August 1893 when they met at Madison Square Garden.
According to some reports of that fight Coughlin lay senseless in hospital for 48 hours and it was feared for a time that he would die – he recovered but then quit boxing for the first time.
At some point many years later someone, somewhere, confused the two Cons and the Con Coughlin death myth was born.