World Heavyweight Champion: 1897-1899
Bob Fitzsimmons cut a strange, almost comical figure in the ring. He was variously described as ‘grotesque’ and ‘a cartoonist’s caricature’. He had a powerful, heavyweight’s torso – a legacy of his years working as a blacksmith in New Zealand – but his legs were spindly and he was knock-kneed. Facially, he looked older than his years. He had receding red hair and was covered with freckles. His colouring gave him his politest nickname, Ruby Robert. He was also known as The Fighting Blacksmith and, less kindly, The Freckled Freak. Fitzsimmons was born in Helston, Cornwall on the 26 May, 1863. His family emigrated to New Zealand when he was a child, and it was in the antipodes that he carved a reputation as a formidable fighter. He served his boxing apprenticeship under the tutelage of the Norfolk gypsy, Jem Mace, and then in the Sydney gym-saloon of Mace’s protege, Larry Foley. Fitzsimmons learned his lessons well. In eight years he suffered only one defeat. When he was 28, Fitzsimmons headed for the United States to further his career. In an age before global media, he was an unknown quantity to the American boxing scene. Opponents and fans alike must have raised an eyebrow at this odd-looking figure, weighing in at just list 41b, who was prepared to take on all-comers from middleweight to heavyweight. They quickly learned that Fitzsimmons packed a mighty punch for one so light. Having taken the middleweight title by beating ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey in 1891, Fitzsimmons set his sights on the heavyweight crown. He was present at the Sullivan-Corbett fight a year later, and wasted no time issuing a challenge to the new champion. It would be five years before Corbett’s hand was forced. In the intervening period one of Fitzsimmons’s victims was Peter Maher, the man Corbett nominated as heir to his crown when he flirted with retirement. The pressure on the champion was growing. Even the public joined in the fun, regularly taunting Corbett for avoiding Fitzsimmons. ‘Movin’ pitcher’
Ruby Robert raised the stakes by taking on Maher yet again. This time he beat the big Irishman even more easily. Annoyed that the fight was to be filmed on the new Edison Kinetoscope and that he was to receive no percentage of the money the ‘movin’ pitcher’ would make, Fitzsimmons responded by knocking Maher out barely a minute into the contest, and before the Kinetoscope operators had got their machines working. The clash between Corbett and Fitzsimmons was now inevitable. In the run-up to the contest, which took place in Carson City, Nevada, the ill-feeling between the two men was much in evidence. On one occasion, Corbett violently tweaked Fitzsimmons’s nose in a hotel lobby. The champion then added insult to injury by asking his brother to sign the register on Fitzsimmons’s behalf. Fitzsimmons, who was semi-literate, had to be restrained, otherwise the big fight would have been staged there and then. It is little wonder that there was no handshake when the two stepped into the ring just before noon on 17 March, 1897. Taller, 151b heavier, faster and with a glorious array of punches, the champion toyed with Ruby Robert for the first five rounds. Strutting and grinning, Corbett picked his man off at will and made him look like a novice. In round 6 a vicious uppercut from Corbett lifted Fitzsimmons clean off his feet. The challenger slumped to the ground and lay like a rag doll. Corbett stood by menacingly, ready to go in for the kill. Referee George Siler insisted that Corbett retire before he began the count. That, and the fact that Corbett berated Siler for counting too slowly, gave Fitzsimmons time to recover.
Corbett continued to mete out a lot of punishment but couldn’t put Fitzsimmons away. The challenger was tough as teak; he also had a burning desire to win. By the 10th round, Corbett was beginning to tire and the tide began to turn. In round 14 Corbett rocked backwards to avoid a scything right from Fitzsimmons. Previously he had danced his way out of trouble; now he wanted to stay in close so that he could counter. It proved a fatal mistake. He left his body exposed momentarily and Fitzsimmons drove a sickening left into the pit of the champion’s stomach. Fitzsimmons’s wife Ruby, who was in her husband’s corner, had been yelling ‘hit him in the slats!’; Ruby Robert finally got the chance to heed her advice in the 14th round, to decisive effect. The body blow dropped Corbett to his knees, his face contorted with agony. He tried to get up at eight and reached for the ropes, only to fall ignominiously flat on his face. When he did recover, an incandescent Corbett railed at his opponent that it was just a lucky punch. It was certainly a punch that Fitzsimmons had used to good effect before.
Wyatt Earp betting ring
The previous year he had sent Tom Sharkey writhing to the canvas with an identical blow, in a contest refereed by the legendary Wyatt Earp. The ‘solar plexus punch’, as it came to be known, was devastating and perfectly legal. Against Sharkey, Earp had ruled it a low blow and disqualified Fitzsimmons, but that was because he was involved in a betting ring which had invested heavily on Sharkey. There were no such underhand shenanigans this time; the solar plexus punch won Bob Fitzsimmons the heavyweight championship of the world at the age of 33. Corbett could hardly complain when Fitzsimmons ignored all pleas for a rematch, the new champion also preferring to cash in on his celebrity status by taking to the stage. It would be two years before he was tempted into a title defence, and then only to satisfy the clamours of the boxing fraternity and to replenish his own coffers. Instead of a return with Corbett, Fitzsimmons lined up James J. Jeffries, a mountain of a man whom Gentlemen Jim had sparred with and used as a punchbag. On the eve of the fight, which took place at Coney Island Athletic Club on 9 June, 1899, the supremely confident champion went out with friends, carousing late into the night. He believed that Jeffries’ 501b weight advantage would simply mean he would hit the canvas that much harder. But it was Fitzsimmons who was to come down to earth with a bump.
Bob Fitzsimmons 1897-1899
World Heavyweight Champion:
World Light-Heavyweight Champion: 1903-1905 1891-1897
World Middleweight Champion:
Record: Won 46 (39 Kos) Lost 8 Drawn 10