This week marks 115 years since Britain celebrated its first-ever heavyweight boxing champion. On March 17, 1897, Bob ‘Ruby Robert’ Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett in the 14th round of their world title fight in Carson City, Nevada. A stone lighter than his opponent, Fitzsimmons was knocked down in the sixth round but refused to quit and produced a devastating punch to the solar plexus to become a two-weight world champion.
Born in Helston, Cornwall on May 26, 1863, Fitzsimmons’ journey from the south-west of England to fighting his way across America was not a simple one. At a young age his family made the decision to travel 12,000 miles to Timaru in the South island of New Zealand. Working alongside his brother as a blacksmith it is here that he developed the brutal strength that saw him recognised as one of the sport’s hardest ever punchers.
A tall and explosive puncher, Fitzsimmons began to make his name as a boxer in Australia where he had his first professional fights. With a technique built heavily on his explosive punches he was soon able to secure a move to the United States where he would cause shockwaves by winning the Middleweight Title in dominating fashion.
Facing Jack (Nonparei) Dempsey, from whom the legendary Willian “Jack” Dempsey took his name, Fitzsimmons is rumoured to have knocked down his opponent more than a dozen times before finally delivering a knockout blow and carrying the limp body of Dempsey back to the corner.
There are other such legendary tales of his power, such as the time in 1893 when Fitzsimmons was said to have knocked out seven men in one night and all in less than nineteen rounds of boxing. One opponent stood at 6ft 7” and weight more than 240 pounds (about the size of Vitali Klitschko), yet the Brit, who was little more than a middleweight, dispatched the giant in just one round.
As a middleweight, there seemed to be no-one who could live with the power of Fitzsimmons. From March 1893 to February 1896, he won 18 straight fights by stoppage. None of these contests lasted more than four rounds as he managed to pick apart his challengers with precision punches. This was a man at the very top of his game.
One early ring historian, Sandy Griswold, described his ruthless precision in the Dec 24, 1904 edition of the National Police Gazette. “He knows all the vulnerable spots of the human anatomy as well as the most erudite surgeon in the business and has a greater variety of effective blows. He was steadfast, patient and had excellent accuracy in striking vital points.”
Having already claimed the Middleweight and Heavyweight titles, Fitzsimmons would once again enter the record books when he was handed the chance to become the sports’ first ever three-weight world champion. It came just two months after a tragic loss of Con Coughlin, who died just one day after being knocked out in the opening rounds by Fitzsimmons.
Unfortunately, to this day, boxers still live with the very real possibility that they could lose their life in the ring. Fighters are a rare breed and much credit must be given to any person stepping into the ring.
For Fitzsimmons it was immediately back to business. On November 25, 1903 he fought George Gardner for the Light-Heavyweight title. This time there was no early knockout. The two traded blows for 20 rounds; a full hour of boxing went by with neither man able to force a stoppage and both refusing to quit. The judges awarded the fight to the ‘Cornishman’ and thus his legend was well and truly cemented.
Fitz carried on boxing for another 11 years and even encountered the legendary American heavyweight Jack Johnson in 1907. Like so many boxers since he found it hard to leave the sport that had given him so much and allowed him to become a figure of adulation across the States. When he finally walked away his professional record stood at 66 wins with 59 by knockout, 8 losses, 4 draws, 19 no contests and 2 no-decisions, though the fighter himself claimed to have fought more than 300 bouts.
His legacy in the sport is unquestionable and Nat Fleischer, founder of The Ring Magazine, regards Fitzsimmons as the greatest pound-for-pound puncher in the history of boxing. He also goes some way to summing up the skills the man possessed when recounting the memorable moment he captured the Heavyweight crown.
“Fitzsimmons, who took the crown from Corbett, was not a slugger of the Sullivan type, nor did he approach Corbett in boxing skill. Yet he was the greatest strategist in the ring's history, a man of wonderful vitality, and the most accurate and deadliest hitter of the class. To reach Jim Corbett in the pit of the stomach with knockout force was a feat for a magician, and Fitz was a magician. Where others signally failed, Fitz succeeded through strategic feinting to induce Corbett to raise his guard and open the way for a left shift and a crashing blow to the solar plexus.”
Since Fitzsimmons there have been just five other British men to claim a world heavyweight title. Lennox Lewis, Herbie Hide, Frank Bruno, Henry Akinwande and David Haye have all held some form of the belt, but perhaps only Lewis will go down as a true great.
In a time when the heavyweight division is possibly at its lowest ebb, perhaps it is time to reflect on one of the true British greats.