This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

May 2005


26 May 1863:   Bob Fitzsimmons, Cornish boxer, world’s middleweight champion, 1891, and world’s heavyweight champion, 1897, born.

Bob Fitzsimmons was a man of many nicknames: “Ruby Robert,” “Rock Cod,” “Speckled Bob,” and “the Freckled Wonder.” As the holder of no less than three world titles, Middleweight (1881- 1897), Heavyweight (1897-99) and Light Heavyweight (1903-1905) he is considered by many to be among the greatest boxers who ever lived. And although he made his fame outside his native land, his memory is revered to this day as one of Cornwall’s favorite sons.

Born in Helston, Cornwall on 26 May 1863, at the age of ten Bob moved with his family to Timaru, New Zealand, where his father became a policeman. Young Bob was trained as a blacksmith, a line of work that would prove useful in his second career. When a visiting English promoter arranged a series of amateur bouts in New Zealand, Bob impressed everyone one night when he knocked out four men in succession. Before long he was on his way to Australia to begin a career as a professional boxer and on a trajectory that would bring him to America and lasting fame.

On 14 January 1891 he beat Jack Dempsey (the original Jack Dempsey, known as “the Nonpareil”) to become the Middleweight Champion of the World. A few years later he took the daring step of contesting for the Heavyweight Championship, though he physically remained a Middleweight. On Saint Patrick’s Day, 1897 he met Jim Corbett in Carson City for what was billed as “the Fight of the Century” before a celebrity audience that included Wyatt Earp and sportswriter Bat Masterson. There he turned what had been a losing fight into an upset victory when he decked Jim Corbett with a single punch to the solar plexus. The outcome surprised many, it may have surprised Bob Fitzsimmons as well. “Heavyweight Champion of the World,” he later wistfully remarked, “And I’m only a bleeding Middleweight.”

Strategy and careful planning made Fitzsimmons a champion. He fought at a time when Boxing was struggling to emerge from its bare-knuckle origins, and Fitzsimmons was one of the first to epitomize the new “scientific” approach to the sport. “He knows all the vulnerable spots in the human anatomy as well as the most erudite surgeon in the business,” noted a writer in the Police Gazette in 1904, “and has a greater variety of effective blows than any fighter who ever lived.”

With his blacksmith’s strength Fitzsimmons could certainly land a powerful punch: once, showing off for reporters, he hit a punching bag so hard the bag exploded. Otherwise Fitzsimmons presented a distinctly odd appearance for a boxer. His powerful upper body was set on a pair of skinny legs - “a fighting machine on stilts,” John L. Sullivan once called him - and his balding head was graced with a whispy “banker’s fringe.” His deeply freckled complection inspired some of his many nicknames.

His repeated wins made him a sought-after celebrity. In 1910 he met Harry Houdini, then in Australia on a world tour in which Houdini became the first man to fly an airplane in Australia. Squaring off for a mock fight with the flying magician, he badly frightened Bess Houdini, who knew all too well the combative instincts of her athletic, but much lighter weight husband.

Bob had a combative side as well, and is reputed to have coined the expression, “the bigger they come the harder they fall.” (Actually it was Joe Walcott, a fighter from Barbados who first said it.) Leaving his affable, joking nature at the ringside, Bob fought for keeps once inside the ropes. Once, winning a bout against Tom Sharkey, he was disqualified by referee Wyatt Earp for hitting Sharkey when he was down, and even Bob knew better than to argue against the victor of the OK Corral. His lighthearted spar with Houdini stayed within bounds, however, and the two parted good friends.

Outside the ring Fitzsimmons could be generous to a fault. On one occasion, having won his first Australian fight, he gave the winner’s purse - some $500 - to the loser, knowing the man had a sick mother at home in need of medical care.

 In the balance of his career Fitzsimmons came up against the finest boxers of his day. A scheduled bout against John L. Sullivan in Brooklyn on 5 July 1898 was canceled by the arrival of the NYPD: prizefighting was then illegal in the newly consolidated City of New York. Nevertheless he fought Jim Jeffries at Coney Island a year later for the World Heavyweight Championship. “A guy could make just one mistake against old Fitz,” Jeffries said. Jeffries was careful not to make that mistake, and Fitzsimmons lost the title.

But Fitzsimmons came back in 1903 to win the Light Heavyweight Championship in San Francisco against George Gardner, making him the first-ever boxer to win a title in three different divisions. After losing that title in 1905, he went into semi-retirement, appearing on the vaudeville stage, taking up evangelism, and fighting occasional exhibition rounds, including one against Jack Johnson on 17 July 1907 in Philadelphia. His last fight in 1916 was an exhibition match against his own son (billed as “the Young” Bob Fitzsimmons) with whom he had been touring the vaudeville circuit.

Bob Fitzsimmons died of pneumonia on 22 October 1917 and is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, not far from the grave of Jack Johnson. His birthplace in Helston is commemorated with a plaque on the cottage, and the local pub, the Fitzsimmons Arms, proudly displays his portrait on the pub sign. A bronze statute of him, in fighting stance, stands today in his old hometown of Timaru, New Zealand.

NOTE: Some sources (including his own tombstone!) give an erroneous 4 June 1862 birth date for Bob Fitzsimmons. His correct birth date is 26 May 1863. This will be corrected on the 2006 Celtic Calendar.

For more information on Cornwall, see the Cornish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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