Place of Birth - Helston, Cornwall
Date of Birth - 26th May 1863
Passed Away - 22nd October 1917
Record - 28 wins (23 KO’s), 7 losses, 1 draw, 5 no-decisions
Greatest Accomplishment - Winning universally-recognized world championships in 3 of the original 8 weight divisions
Although born in Great Britain, Fitzsimmons moved with his family to Timaru, New Zealand, when he was ten years old. He had six brothers and five sisters, and one of his older brothers, Jarrett, became a blacksmith. He joined him in that trade.
Fitzsimmons’ birthplace in Helston
The famous bare-knuckle champion of England, Jem Mace, toured New Zealand and held a tournament, which Fitzsimmons entered and won. Early boxing records are sketchy and it is difficult to establish exactly when his professional career began, but most historians agree that it would have been around 1883. Mace coached him in developing his technique, focusing on accuracy and utilizing his impressive power. Boxing as a middleweight, Fitzsimmons ventured to Australia in 1885, settling in Sydney. He fought Jim Hall for the Australian middleweight title in 1890, but lost. Later that same year, he relocated to the USA and made swift progress. On 14th January 1891, he challenged the outstanding Jack Dempsey, the “Nonpareil”, for the world middleweight championship in New Orleans, Louisiana, and won by KO in the 13th round. His purse was $14,000.
Capitalizing on his new-found fame, he boxed regularly and took part in many exhibitions on theatrical tours, which was a common trend at the time. During this period, he avenged his loss to Hall, scoring a 4th round KO in New Orleans and earning a career-high purse of $40,000. Notably, Fitzsimmons actually trained himself and his regime generally consisted of a 6-8 mile run with his pet dog (initially a Great Dane and later a St Bernard called Pat) and a bicycle ride in the morning, followed by gym work in the afternoon. His breakfast consisted of sherry and an egg or oatmeal, and during training he would also eat muffins, steak and vegetables.
He made just one defence of his world title (a 2nd round KO of Dan Creedon on 26th September 1894, again in New Orleans) and there is no clear indication of when he gave it up. However, what is clear is that he began aiming for the world heavyweight title, which was held by James J. Corbett. On 2nd December 1896, Fitzsimmons was disqualified in a bout with leading heavyweight contender Tom Sharkey in San Francisco, California, for an apparent low blow. This aroused a storm of controversy, with some reports claiming that it was indeed low and other reports suggesting that it was a fair punch to the stomach. Interestingly, the referee was legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp; was his judgement accurate or did he make a mistake? Unfortunately, as the bout was not filmed and no photographs of the blow landing exist it is impossible to know for sure. Although a number of sources suggest that it was fixed, there is no proof of this.
A promotional card for one of Fitzsimmons’ stage performances
After much coaxing on Fitzsimmons’ part and prolonged negotiations, he finally got his shot at Corbett on 17th March 1897, in Carson City, Nevada. In a fight to the finish, he prevailed with his famous punch to the solar plexus in the 14th round to become a two-division world champion (at the time there was no light heavyweight division). Even though this contest generated an incredible $2.7 million, he only earned $38,000, which included Corbett’s stake money and his film rights.
Fitzsimmons was married a total of four times; to Louisa Johns in 1885 (they had a daughter who died when only eleven months old and two sons), to Rose Julian in 1893 (they had two sons and a daughter), to Julia Gifford in 1903 (they had no children and divorced in 1915) and Temo Slomonin in 1915 (they also had no children).
Rose was Fitzsimmons’ 2nd wife and she advised him to go to the body in his fight with Corbett; she sadly died on 17th April 1903
More exhibitions and public appearances followed, and he did not get around to making his 1st defence until 9th June 1899, when he stepped into the ring against the awesome James J. Jeffries at Coney Island in New York City. The hard-hitting Jeffries was too strong for him and stopped him in the 11th round. Fitzsimmons' reign as heavyweight champion was over but he was not finished yet.
The Sporting Club in Coney Island, which was the venue for the first fight between Fitzsimmons and Jeffries
He avenged his defeat to Sharkey with a 2nd round KO in a rematch on 24th August 1900. However, in an attempt to regain the heavyweight crown from Jeffries, on 25th July 1902, he lasted only 8 rounds. In 1903, the light heavyweight division was launched, and Fitzsimmons tried his luck there against its 2nd world champion, George Gardner. He won on points over 20 rounds on 25th November the same year, in San Francisco, to win his 3rd world title. It should be noted that in this era there were no “in-between” weight classes and no sanctioning bodies recognizing different champions. When put into perspective, it is easy to acknowledge Fitzsimmons’ wonderful achievement.
Almost in semi-retirement, he lost the world light heavyweight championship to the talented Philadelphia Jack O’Brien on 20th December 1905 in San Francisco. This was his 1st defence and he retired after 13 rounds, obviously past his prime (he and O’Brien had previously fought a 6-round no-decision bout on 23rd July 1904).
A newspaper drawing from 1896 of Fitzsimmons with his oldest
son (“Young Bob”)
Fitzsimmons doggedly soldiered on and was flattened by the legendary future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson on 17th July 1907 in Philadelphia. There is no verification of a retirement announcement being made and he continued boxing exhibitions and appearing on the stage until his death from pneumonia at the age of 54. He also became an evangelist and is buried in Graceland cemetery in Chicago.
His stage performances usually included demonstrating boxing techniques and his former skills as a blacksmith. He could earn up to $1000 a week for these performances, but in the end he estimated that since his career began he had been duped out of an estimated $125,000 by shady managers and promoters.
A statue of Fitzsimmons in Timaru, New Zealand, where he spent some of his childhood
He was really only a middleweight and was known as “Ruby Robert” due to his (thinning) auburn hair. He did not look like the quintessential heavyweight champion, but his upper-body strength and exceptional punching power, along with underrated skills, gained him remarkable success and ensured a place amongst the greatest of all time.