The thug who changed the course of boxing history
On the 100th anniversary of Bob Fitzsimmons' death, Gary Lucken reveals the moment that set the Cornwall-born sensation on the road to fistic glory...
Delve into the past of a famous fighter and the chances are that somewhere in their life was a pivotal moment that set them on the path to the roped arena.
Such was the case with the legendary triple weight world champion Bob Fitzsimmons.
For “Ruby Rob” it was a chance encounter with a footballing thug and a burning desire for revenge that triggered a fabled boxing career in which he won the middleweight, heavyweight and light heavyweight crowns.
As a young boy living in the town of Timaru in New Zealand, Fitzsimmons seemed headed for a life as a clergyman.
But fate intervened one day in the 1870s when 11-year-old Bob was sent out on an errand by his mother Jane.
Fitzsimmons revealed what happened during an interview he gave in 1913 to Bob Edgren, sportswriter and cartoonist at New York’s Evening World newspaper.
He recalled: “My mother began training me for the ministry. Until I was eleven-years-old I went to church and sang in the choir twice a week, and to Bible class twice on Sundays. But for a box of snuff and a kicked football I would have been a minister today.
“One day my mother sent me to buy a box of snuff at a chemist shop near our home. On the way I passed an open field where two football teams were playing. I walked slowly, watching the game and wishing that I could get a chance to kick the ball. I was very curious to know how it would feel.
“Just while I was wishing, somebody kicked it over the fence and it rolled right to my feet. So I kicked it back again as hard as I could.
“A second later the captain of one of the teams, a big fellow over six feet tall, leaped the fence and ran straight at me.
“Before I had any idea what he meant to do he struck me a terrific blow on the nose, smashing it and cutting a gash across the bridge that is the only scar I carry today after hundreds of ring battles.
“The blow knocked me senseless. I was unconscious for three hours and a half, and the blood that ran down my throat strangled me so that I came near dying. At last they brought me to.
“The coin I was carrying had flown out of my hand when I was struck. I remembered that I had started for some snuff, but I had nothing to buy it with, so I staggered home in the dark empty-handed.
“When I slipped in through the door my mother only saw that I had a bloody nose. My training for the ministry hadn’t included fighting. I’d often been warned that I must not fight.
“’You’ve been fighting, have you?’, asked my mother. And without another word she turned and took a stout whip down from its nail on the wall and proceeded to give me the worst whipping I ever had in my life. Then she sent me to bed.
“Next morning she came to my room. My eyes had swelled overnight and were closed tight and my nose was a sight.
“When my mother saw for the first time how badly I was hurt she cried over me and told me again and again how sorry she was she had whipped me, and I told her how it all happened. Then she sent for a doctor.
“I was hurt Friday afternoon. Saturday there was no school and on Sunday my eyes were still closed, so for the first time I was let out of going to church. But Monday I was made to go to school.
“There the scholars laughed at me so much that I ran home, and I never went to either a school or a church afterward.
“My mother used to send me to church but I’d lie on the grass outside and listen to the hymns, because I loved the singing, and then ask somebody for the minister’s text so I could tell what it was when they asked me at home.
“The trouble was that all this time I could only think of the man who had beaten me. Week after week the desire for revenge grew. But I was a slim little fellow, only eleven, and I knew I’d have no chance to fight if I met him.
“Brooding over it put an idea into my mind. I’d work and grow as strong as I could, and learn how to fight, so that I’d be ready when I was big enough to tackle him.
“I went to my brother’s blacksmith shop and induced him to give me two old leather aprons. I cut these up into patterns for boxing gloves. I’d never seen any, but I’d heard about them.
“I sewed the gloves with string and stuffed them with leather clippings and cotton, and then got the other boys of the neighbourhood together and boxed with them every day.
“In a couple of years I could outbox any of them easily and I was growing tall. Every night before I went to sleep I thought of what I’d do to that football player when I grew a little bigger.”
Fitzsimmons told Edgren that he continued to think about his assailant as he grew older and engaged in his first bareknuckle fights while also working in various jobs such as at a foundry and as a horseshoer for his brother.
He went on: “All this time I never forgot about the football captain. By the time I was 17 I concluded I could whip him and the next two years I spent all of my spare time travelling around to football matches looking for him.
“But he had disappeared, and to this day I’ve never set eyes on him.
“He knocked me out of being a minister, and if I’d ever found him I’d have knocked him out of being a football player.
“But I don’t hold the grudge any more. He punched me from poverty into a bunch of fortunes. But for him I’d never have been a fighter. I’d never have won, as I did once, $40,000 with a single blow.”
It’s not known if the thuggish and anonymous footballer ever realised later in life who it was he had picked on that fateful day.
Or if he ever knew he had, for a time, been in danger of some crunching payback from a pair of the most explosive fists in the annals of boxing.
Nobody deserves gratitude for perpetrating a random and unprovoked act of hooliganism but it seems that it was thanks to such an act that one of the great fighting careers was born.