Bob Fitzsimmons vs George Gardner - the day history was made
On this day in 1903, Bob Fitzsimmons became boxing's first ever three-weight world champion. Gary Lucken recalls Fitz's showdown with George Gardner for the World Light Heavyweight Championship ...
As the year 1903 drew to a close the boxing world was abuzz with one major topic of discussion – could the great Bob Fitzsimmons add yet another title to his already glorious fistic palmarès?
Fitzsimmons had famously won the world middleweight crown by crushing 'Nonpareil' Jack Dempsey in 1891 and in 1897 had captured the world heavyweight title by dethroning 'Gentleman' Jim Corbett.
His place in pugilistic folklore was already assured – but he felt he wasn’t done yet.
In late September 1903 the news broke that Fitzsimmons had signed articles of agreement to fight World Light Heavyweight Champion George Gardner.
It seemed a fascinating match-up – Fitz, now aged 40 and dubbed 'The Grand Old Man of the Ring', against a 26-year-old adversary who was virtually young enough to be his son.
At stake was not just the light heavyweight crown but also the opportunity for Fitz to become the first ever triple weight world champion.
The 20-round fight was fixed for 25 November and was to be held at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco under the auspices of the Yosemite Athletic Club.
Both men were to weigh in at no more than 168lbs on the day of the battle and would divide 60 per cent of the gate receipts between them – 75 per cent to the winner, 25 per cent for the loser.
Early betting made the Cornish-born Fitzsimmons a 2 to 1 odds on favourite, with pundits and fight fans believing experience and ring savvy would triumph over youth and vitality.
His backers also believed he still retained much of his fabled punching power – citing the savage beating he inflicted on Jim Jeffries in 1902 before being KO’d in a valiant but failed bid to reclaim the heavyweight title he had lost to Jeffries in 1899.
Irish-born Gardner, who fought out of Lowell, Massachusetts, had won the light heavyweight title via a twelfth round KO of Jack Root in July of 1903.
He had also beaten noted fighters such as Marvin Hart, Peter Maher, Kid Carter and Barbados Joe Walcott and had taken the future heavyweight champ Jack Johnson 20 rounds before losing a points decision in 1902.
But despite Gardner’s record and a reputation as a strong, clever fighter with a good punch, the popular consensus was that Fitzsimmons would win by early KO and that the younger man could only prevail if he survived into the later rounds and won on points or by a late stoppage.
By late October both men were busily preparing for the big fight at training camps on the coast – Fitz at Alameda, east of San Francisco across the Bay, and Gardner quartered at facilities north of ‘Frisco.
As the battle drew closer the betting odds began to shift towards Gardner, albeit with Fitzsimmons still favourite, amid reports that all was not well in the Fitzsimmons camp.
Gossip abounded that Fitz was weakening himself by overtraining to get down to the weight limit, having reportedly tipped the scales at up to 200lbs when the fight was announced.
The St Louis Republic newspaper reported that his friends were “becoming uneasy” because he had “sapped his vitality” and looked “aged, almost scraggy”.
Furthermore his hands, often likened to “giant hams”, were said to be in poor condition, having failed to fully heal after being badly damaged in his second fight with Jeffries, and the Washington Evening Star reported that he was suffering from a cold and badly blistered feet resulting from excessive roadwork.
Eyebrows had also been raised at Fitz’s failure to KO the 'Human Punching Bag' Joe Grim in a six-round bout in Philadelphia in mid-October (his decision to pick up some 'easy' money in this contest angered ‘Frisco promoters who feared him picking up an injury and jeopardising the Gardner showdown).
Nevertheless, big names in the fight game publicly backed Fitzsimmons to dispose of Gardner when the time came, including reigning heavyweight king Jim Jeffries.
The 'Boilermaker' told reporters: “I will be very much surprised if Fitzsimmons does not win. Gardner may be a great fighter, but he is going against pretty tough game when he tackles Fitz.
“I have fought him and know that he is a great fighter; in fact I think he is the hardest proposition I have ever encountered. He is a wonderful hitter and is onto all the tricks of the game. He is an excellent ring general.
“It takes a great fighter to defeat Fitzsimmons and if Gardner is successful we can put him down as a wonder. Of course, Fitzsimmons’ age is a slight disadvantage, but if he trains good and enters the ring in good physical condition he would be hard to defeat.”
Former bantamweight and featherweight world champ 'Terrible' Terry McGovern added his backing, commenting: “It will be a great fight, and if Fitz is good he should win.”
Even Fitzsimmons’ old foe Jim Corbett initially backed him to win, although he later placed a $500 wager on Gardner with a Wall Street broker.
The main voice of dissent was, unsurprisingly, Gardner himself.
He declared: “The fact that Fitzsimmons is a hot favourite in the betting does not disturb me a bit. I expect it.
“About all I can say is that if Fitzsimmons wins he must win in quick order. I don’t think he will have the strength to go a distance, while the longer it goes the better I’ll get.”
The day of the fight arrived and at around 3pm both men weighed in under the 168lbs limit with no problem. Both were a shade under 6ft tall with a reach in the region of 77 inches.
Betting odds now had Fitz the favourite at around 10 to 8 on and the only last minute hitch came when veteran referee Eddie Graney had to be persuaded not to pull out of officiating following the death of one of his close friends.
A crowd of around 6,000 people crammed into Mechanics’ Pavilion, slightly fewer than expected, with Pinkerton detectives on patrol to keep out potential troublemakers.
At 9.05pm Fitzsimmons appeared and made his way to the ring – sparking “a great cheer”, according to the San Francisco Call.
The New York Evening World described it as “a tremendous ovation” and added: “It seemed as if the walls of humanity banking the sides of the building rose as one man to do homage to the great old warrior.”
Fitzsimmons, a distinctive freckled, balding red-headed figure, was followed by his seconds Billy Delaney, Joe Kennedy and Sam Berger.
He was clad in a sweater said to be “a cross between sky blue and dapple grey” and wore purple trunks and lavender socks and had a belt of American flags. He then put on a pair of green gloves.
Gardner, accompanied by seconds Alec Greggains, Billy Pierce, Dave Barry and Harry Foley, followed Fitz to the ring almost immediately and was wearing a bathrobe over green trunks, green socks and a green belt.
Referee Graney called the pair to the centre of the ring and a police captain named Mooney checked that neither had anything untoward in their gloves before announcer Billy Jordan stepped up and announced the battle would be a 20-round contest under Marquis of Queensberry rules.
Jordan then yelled his catchphrase “Let ‘er go!” and the gong signalled the start of hostilities.
Contemporary press reports suggest the first three rounds were a relatively unspectacular affair with the wily Fitz getting the better of them while carefully assessing his much younger foe, whom he had never seen fight.
But in the fourth round Fitzsimmons cut loose, dropping Gardner with a savage left to the jaw which left him on the floor for a count of seven.
As Gardner rose, Fitzsimmons unleashed a barrage of blows, culminating with a right uppercut which, according to the San Francisco Call, was so powerful “Gardner was flung halfway across the ring, landing on his back”.
Gardner managed to get up but was forced to clinch to survive the round and appeared to still be dazed when he came out for the fifth. The end appeared to be near.
Another left to the head from Fitz dropped Gardner to his knees for a count of nine but then, in the words of World Featherweight Champ Young Corbett, who was ringside covering the bout for the New York Evening World, “something funny happened”.
Fitz, according to Corbett, “suddenly slowed up” and Gardner was able to “collect his wits”, prompting hisses from the crowd.
The pace of the fight dropped dramatically and although Gardner was knocked down again in the tenth, thirteenth and fourteenth rounds, the blows that dropped him seem to have had much lesser impact than earlier.
The battle appears to have become a relatively tame affair with Fitzsimmons comfortably in control until, arguably, the final three rounds when Gardner began to back up the older man, occasionally making him wince with punches but never seriously threatening to unleash a KO.
When the final gong sounded referee Graney, with no hesitation, immediately announced that Fitzsimmons had won and was the new World Light Heavyweight Champion.
The crowd rose and cheered, demanding a speech, but Fitz, according to the San Francisco Call, declined, commenting simply: “Haven’t I done enough for one night?”
Fans and the media pack were almost universally of the opinion that the fight had been a disappointing one but that Fitzsimmons had clearly won.
The general belief was that Fitz, despite his age and apparently waning punching power, was simply a class above his young adversary.
Fitzsimmons was said to be “overjoyed” at his win and it soon became apparent why he had failed to finish off his opponent.
Sitting in his dressing room afterwards, the only damage to his face a puffed lip, he showed off a pair of badly swollen hands – both had been fractured in the course of the battle. It was not his age per se that had slowed him down but years of wear and tear on his mighty fists.
He said: “Gardner is a tough nut to crack. My hands were gone and I could do nothing. It dawned on me I would have to fight for a decision.
“His punches never bothered me. The blows he sent in were usually caught on my arms. My hands hurt me more than Gardner’s punches. They were knocked out on Jeffries and they got bad before many rounds.”
But Fitzsimmons then added, in a masterpiece of understatement: “Pretty good showing for an old man, eh?”
Referee Graney, rather harshly, branded the contest “The worst I ever refereed” and said he could see Fitz was “troubled with bad hands”.
He said Gardner “was either mortally afraid of Fitzsimmons or had a very bad case of stage fright” and added: “Fitzsimmons was justly entitled to the decision as he had Gardner in distress throughout the battle. Gardner did no fighting until the last three rounds when he sailed in and tried to win. I could not make it a draw.”
A dejected and battered Gardner, flying in the face of public opinion, said after the fight: “I think I should have had the decision.
“Fitz is the hardest proposition I ever went up against. I did all the leading and forcing throughout the 20 rounds and outpointed him.
“Fitz had the best of it for ten rounds but I think I was the better man in the last half of the fight. That is why I think the decision belonged to me.”
The following day’s newspaper coverage disagreed with him.
The Butte Inter Mountain captured the prevailing mood: “Fitzsimmons last night proved that he was not a dead one when he outboxed and outgeneraled George Gardner for 20 full rounds.
“Fitzsimmons was as awkward and as cunning as of yore, and apparently realising that he must foster his strength, there was not a moment when he was not carefulness personified.
“The old man could avoid punishment from Gardner, if he could not knock his opponent out, although he landed a number of vicious blows.
“From his performance last night, Gardner is not in Fitzsimmons’ class. He landed on the old-timer once in a while, but Fitzsimmons was always going away from him and the blows were harmless.
“Several times Fitzsimmons apparently had Gardner almost out, but he was either too tired or lacked his old strength and could not land a knockout punch.”
In addition to claiming the title, Fitzsimmons trousered somewhere around $10,000 dollars as his winning portion of the gate money.
But the real prize was cementing his place in boxing history.
It would be nearly three decades before any other fighter emulated his feat of becoming a triple weight world champion.
Not bad indeed for an old man, eh?