Robert James "Bob" Fitzsimmons (May 26, 1863 - October 22, 1917), a British-born New Zealand boxer, made boxing history as the sport's first three-division world champion. He also achieved fame for beating Gentleman Jim Corbett, the man who beat the great John L. Sullivan. Nicknamed Ruby Robert or The Freckled Wonder, he took pride in his lack of scars, and appeared in the ring wearing heavy woollen underwear to conceal the disparity between his trunk and leg-development.
Fitzsimmons (Jezu), the youngest of 12 children was born in Helston, Cornwall in the UK. His parent were James Fitzsimmons, born County Armagh, Ireland and his mother was Jane Strongman born St Clement, Cornwall. Bob emigrated to New Zealand at the age of nine along with his parents, brothers and sisters. His family settled in Timaru and Bob became a blacksmith in his brother Jarrett's smithy.
Between 1880 and 1881, Fitzsimmons reigned as the champion of the Jem Mace tournament in New Zealand. Some say he officially began his career as a professional boxer in New Zealand later in 1881. Records remain unclear whether he received payment for a bout in which he knocked out Herbert Slade in two rounds.
Fitzsimmons had six fights there, two of them bare-knuckle events. He won one and lost five, it remains unclear whether any of those bouts involved payment.
Boxing record-books show that Fitzsimmons officially began boxing professionally in 1883, in Australia. He beat Jim Crawford by getting a knockout in three there. Fitzsimmons had his first 28 definite professional fights in Australia, where he lost for the Australian Middleweight title (rumors spoke of a fixed bout), and where he also won a fight by knockout while on the floor: when Edward Starlight Robins dropped Fitzsimmons to the canvas in round nine of their fight, he also broke his hand and could not continue, therefore the referee declared Fitzsimmons the winner by a knockout.
By this stage Fitzsimmons had established his own style. He developed a certain movement and caginess from one of the greatest bare-knuckle fighters, Jem Mace. Mace had encouraged Bob to develop his punching technique and he revolutionised this, drawing on the enormous power he had gained from blacksmithing. Fitzsimmons delivered short, accurate and usually conclusive punches. He soon built up a reputation as by far the hardest puncher in boxing.
Then, on January 14 1891, in New Orleans, he won his first world title from Jack (Nonpareil) Dempsey. Fitzsimmons knocked out Dempsey (from whom the later Jack Dempsey would take his name) in the 13th round to become the world's Middleweight champion. Fitzsimmons knocked Dempsey down at least 13 times, and by the finish left him in such a pitiable condition that he begged him to quit. Dempsey would not do so, so Fitzsimmons knocked him out and then carried him to his corner. On July 22, police broke off his fight with Jim Hall after he had knocked Hall down several times.
Fitzsimmons spent the next two years fighting non-title bouts and exhibitions until giving Hall a chance at the title in 1893. He retained the crown by a knockout in round four. He spent the rest of that year doing exhibitions, and on June 2, he had scheduled a two-way exhibition where he would demonstrate in public how to hit the boxing bag and then how to box against a real opponent. Reportedly, two freak accidents happened that day: Fitzsimmons hit the bag so hard that it broke, and then his opponent of that day allegedly slipped, getting hit in the head and the boxing exhibition cancelled.
After vacating the Middleweight crown, Fitzsimmons began campaigning among Heavyweights (the light-heavyweight division did not exist at that time). Wyatt Earp, the famous lawman, refereed one of his fights, against Tom Sharkey. Fitzsimmons battered Sharkey and had him on the verge of a knock-out, but when he hit him with a body-and-head punch-combination Earp declared him the loser on a disqualification because he had hit Sharkey while Sharkey was down. Earp, according to a widespread belief, had involvement with gamblers who had bet on Sharkey.
Fitzsimmons challenged for the world's Heavyweight title in 1897. On March 17 of that year he became World Heavyweight champion, knocking out Jim Corbett in round 14. This constituted a remarkable achievement, as Corbett, a skilled boxer, weighed a stone (14 lb) more than Fitzsimmons. He out-boxed Fitzsimmons for several rounds, knocked him down in the sixth round, and badly damaged his face with his jab, left hook and right hand, but Fitzsimmons kept coming and Corbett began to tire. In the 14th round Fitzsimmons won the title with his "solar plexus" punch. Corbett collapsed in agony. Fitzsimmons' "solar plexus" punch became legendary, although he himself may never have used the phrase.
Fitzsimmons spent the rest of 1897 doing paper runs.
In 1899, Fitzsimmons and James J. Jeffries succeeded in boxing in New York without the police intervening, probably at an underground club. Most people gave Jeffries little chance, even though at 15 st (95 kg) he massively outweighed his opponent, but Jeffries lifted the world Heavyweight crown from Fitzsimmons with an 11th-round knockout.
In 1901 he published a book Physical Culture and Self-Defense (Philadelphia: D. Biddle).
In 1902, he and Jeffries had a rematch, once again with the world Heavyweight crown at stake. Fitzsimmons battered Jeffries, who suffered horrible punishment. With his nose and cheek-bones broken, most would have sympathised with Jeffries had he quit, but he kept going until his enormous weight advantage told and Bob suffered a knockout in round eight.
September of 1903 proved a tragic month for Fitzsimmons, as his rival, Con Coughlin, died the day after suffering a one-round knockout at the hands of Fitzsimmons. But less than two months later, Fitzsimmons made history by defeating world Light-Heavyweight champion George Gardiner by a decision in 20 rounds, thus becoming the first boxer to win titles in three weight-divisions.
Soon after, he went back to the Heavyweights, where he kept fighting until 1914, with mixed results. He boxed Jack Johnson, and film historians believe that his fight with Bob KO Sweeney became the first boxing-fight captured on film.
Although Fitzsimmons became a world champion in each of the Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight and Heavyweight divisions, historians do not considered him the first world Light-Heavyweight champion to become world Heavyweight champion, because he won the Heavyweight title before winning the Light Heavyweight belt. Michael Spinks counts as the first Light-Heavyweight world champion to win the Heavyweight belt as well. In 2003 Roy Jones Jr. joined Fitzsimmons, Michael Moorer and Spinks as the only men to have won world championships at both Light-Heavyweight and Heavyweight.
Fitzsimmons's exact record remains unknown, as the boxing world often kept records poorly during his era, but Fitzsimmons said he had had more than 350 fights (which could have involved exaggeration on his part).
He died in Chicago of pneumonia in 1917, survived by his fourth wife. His grave lies in the Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. Having four wives, a gambling habit and a susceptibility to confidence tricksters, he did not hold on to the money he made.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame has made Bob Fitzsimmons a member in its "Old Timer" category.
In 2003 Ring Magazine named Fitzsimmons number eight of all time among boxing's best punchers.