Fitzsimmons the Kiwi?
Luke G. Williams
As Joseph Parker attempts to become the first New Zealand born pugilist to win a portion of the world heavyweight championship, Luke G. Williams looks at the case for and against recognising the legendary Bob Fitzsimmons as a New Zealander …
An online poll this week in a New Zealand newspaper asked readers to decide who they thought was the greatest Kiwi heavyweight of all time: offering three options in the shape of Joseph Parker, David Tua … and Bob Fitzsimmons.
Labelling Fitz a New Zealander is a controversial call, although arguably no more controversial than England, Australia or America claiming him as one of their own, as each of these countries has done over the years.
The sport’s first-ever three-weight world champion was born in Cornwall in 1863, but his family emigrated to New Zealand before he was a teenager, settling in Timaru, a port city in the south island where his father James set up a blacksmith’s forge.
Fitzsimmons’ first tentative forays into the boxing ring are thought to have taken place in New Zealand, although it was arguably in Australia that he really learned his craft from the famous Antipodean boxer Larry Foley.
However, it was in America that Fitzsimmons became a sporting legend, winning the world middleweight title in 1891, the heavyweight crown in 1897 and the light heavyweight championship in 1903.
He did later return to the British Isles for a theatre tour of England and Ireland, but never fought a professional contest in the land of his birth.
After he died in 1917, Fitzsimmons was buried in Chicago, while today there stands a statue of his likeness in Timaru, where he was greeted like a hero on a visit in 1910, as well as a plaque on the outside wall of the house in Helston where he is thought to have lived as a child.
But which nation has the best claim on Fitz’s reflected fistic glory?
The inconvenient answer - particularly for New Zealanders and Englishmen - is probably the United States of America.
For example, a report in the Topeka State Journal dated 23 February 1897, details how Fitz had “recently” secured his US citizenship. In the lead-up to his battle for the world title with arch rival Jim Corbett, the latter tried to drum up nationalistic support for his cause based on his “nativity” to America.
According to the Topeka State Journal report, Fitzsimmons “scoffed” at such tactics, declaring that Corbett had “no more right to claim that he is to defend the American flag in the ring” than he did.
“I am an American citizen," the report quotes Fitzsimmons as stressing. "I furthermore am the American champion and the champion pugilist of the world.”
To reinforce the case for regarding Fitzsimmons as an American boxer, it’s worth pointing out that ‘Ruby Robert’ would later wear the stars and stripes on his shorts the night he defeated George Gardner for the light heavyweight title.
In the interests of diplomacy perhaps the most accurate way to refer to Fitzsimmons might be to say that he was an English-born, New Zealand-raised, Australian-trained American! Although, having said that, it has been claimed that Fitzsimmons' father was Irish and his mother had Scottish ancestry, so maybe we should just refer to him as a "citizen of the world"!
Thanks to Gary Lucken