Bob Fitzsimmons: the little nipper born to fight

Gary Lucken
22/10/2017 12:02am

On the 100th anniversary of Bob Fitzsimmons' death, Gary Lucken reveals a long forgotten episode from the great pugilist's childhood in England...

Countless words have been devoted to chronicling the life of Bob Fitzsimmons in the 100 years that have passed since the boxing titan died.

Even now, however, there are fascinating snippets of long forgotten information just waiting to be unearthed by historians.
A perfect example lies in the archives of Philadelphia’s now defunct Evening Public Ledger newspaper.

The Ledger, like papers around the world, carried various reports on Fitzsimmons following his death from pneumonia on October 22 1917.

But thanks to a spot of local knowledge it also revealed to readers a tantalising glimpse of the pugilist’s early childhood in England, a period in his life of which very little is known.

For many years William “Bill” Fitzsimmons, one of Bob’s older brothers, had been living and working in, appropriately enough, the City of Brotherly Love.

At one point the men seem to have been quite close because Bob and his wife Rose spent a brief vacation at Bill’s home in Hutton Street, West Philadelphia, in the months leading up to his 1899 heavyweight title defence against Jim Jeffries.

Bob also sometimes entrusted his sons Bobbie and Martin to Bill’s care when the fighter and his wife were travelling around the country.

When news broke of Fitz’s death a Ledger reporter, no doubt aware of his Philly link, went looking for his sibling and grabbed an impromptu interview.

The paper reported: “Today an old painter, with his English accent as strong as the smell of the linseed oil upon him, perched on the fifth rung of a ladder in a subterranean passageway in the Drexel building and interrupting his work told how ‘Bobbie’, his brother, fought his first fight.

“’He was only a little nipper then’, Bill Fitzsimmons said proudly, ‘but he could fight.

“Bobbie was a born fighter. I think he wanted to be up to his scrapping from the day our mother bore him.

“Bobbie’s first public fight came long before he emigrated from where he was born, in Cornwall, England, to New Zealand, and he emigrated when he was nine.

“As near as I can remember, the little nipper was about five on the occasion of his first public appearance’, the brother continued, his lips twisting with humorous reminiscence.

“’Bobbie was the youngest of seven sons, and as such he ought to have been lucky’, the brother paused in dubiety over the great heavyweight champion’s good fortune, ‘at any rate, he was lucky in fights.

“The first fight took place in Devonport, England. Our eldest brother belonged to the Admiral’s fleet. He was coxswain, and we took the little nipper up to see him. Five-years-old he was, but he got away from us.

“We found him in the middle of the street holding two fellows almost twice his size off.

“We took him away and put him to bed. But that was the start. You can’t keep a good fighter from fighting.

“The little nipper up and went to New Zealand when he was nine and started to learn the blacksmith trade, but the fight in him was too strong. He’d have made a crackerjack blacksmith, but he was a better fighter.

“Bob was an honest, good-hearted, open-palmed man’, the brother said in that detached fashion that we use in discussing people whose ways lie apart from ours, ‘but he had a crowd of hangers-on, leeches. They bled him. I don’t know as he has left anything much.

“I haven’t seen or heard from him for two years – that was when he came to Philadelphia for some fight or other and I went to the station to meet him.

“He wasn’t like the little nipper he used to be. We was strangers, but that was to be expected, our lives have been different’.”

The report seems to have gone largely unnoticed at the time, and indeed ever since, but the story of how the young Fitzsimmons first raised his dukes in anger can now take its place in the historical record.

It’s hard to imagine many more suitable places for a famous fighting man to have his first brawl than Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport, which continues to this day to be a major operating base for Britain’s Royal Navy.