We live in the age of the camera and mass produced, edited, precisely manicured images, when glamour, style and looks have never been more important. On this score, one of the greatest boxers of all time would have impressed very few. While Bob Fitzsimmons electrified crowds with his astonishing punching power, he entered the ring a less than impressive or imposing physical specimen. But appearances can sometimes be most deceptive.
Bald, pale, freckled, his lower body so lacking in development that he took to wearing heavy, woolen underwear to conceal the disparity between his thin legs and broad, muscular torso: despite all this, “Speckled Bob” still struck fear in the hearts of men, for such things mean very little in the ring. And once the bell rang, Fitzsimmons’ smarts, killer instinct and crushing power belied his less-than-intimidating physical stature. “The Freckled Wonder” was a wonder indeed, a knockout artist, a deadly puncher, and boxing’s first triple crown champion.
Born in Cornwall, England, as a child Robert Fitzsimmons relocated with his family to New Zealand. There he worked from a young age as a blacksmith’s apprentice and in the process developed astonishing upper body strength, the foundation for his punching power. He fought some 40 bouts in Australia, the earliest ones bare-knuckle contests, losing only twice. His success warranted the long trip to the United States for a chance at a world title. In 1891 he faced middleweight champion “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey (not to be confused with Jack Dempsey, the later heavyweight champion), battering him about the ring and knocking him down a dozen times, finally stopping him in the thirteenth round.
Fitzsimmons would go on to compete as a heavyweight and light-heavyweight, while in fact for most of his career he was a true middleweight, rarely weighing much above 160 pounds. Clever and exceedingly accurate, he was a master at feinting to draw his opponent into a vulnerable position before bringing his explosive power to bear. While he lacked heavyweight heft and size, he had heavyweight power and to this day is considered one of the hardest punchers of all time. No less an authority than Nat Fleischer rated Fitzsimmons as the greatest knockout puncher in boxing history.
Immediately after winning the middleweight title, Fitzsimmons began competing against heavyweights, giving up as much as 70 or 80 pounds to his opponents. Such was his hitting power that the weight disparity hardly mattered. In 1897 he fought heavyweight champion James J. Corbett, considered at the time an almost invincible master boxer. Corbett dominated the early going, scoring a knockdown in round six, but Fitzsimmons refused to yield and it turned into a war of attrition. In round 14 the challenger got home with a devastating left hook to the body to end the fight. Corbett, writhing in agony, tried in vain to beat the count, but amazingly, a middleweight was now heavyweight champion of the world. Corbett would later declare that “for his weight and inches, [Fitzsimmons] was the greatest fighter that ever drew on a glove.”
Two years later Fitzsimmons lost his title to James J. Jeffries who outweighed the champion by almost 40 pounds. According to all reports, “Ruby” fought valiantly, but Jeffries was simply too big and too strong as he forced a stoppage in the eleventh round. Fitzsimmons kept fighting and beating heavyweights, eventually earning a rematch with Jeffries which he lost in eight rounds. But having won two world titles, he began competing with light-heavyweights in search of a third. In 1903 he defeated George Gardner on points to annex his third world title, the very first boxer to achieve the triple crown feat.
More than a century later, Bob Fitzsimmons remains an all-time great, one of the most clever and courageous of fighters and an incredibly powerful puncher. Most boxing historians rank him near the top of any list of all-time great middleweights and a 2003 Ring magazine poll named him the eighth most powerful puncher in boxing history, regardless of weight. There is no doubt he was the hardest hitting middleweight of all time, but power alone does not account for his success. As boxing historian Edgar Lee Masters put it: “For courage, for power, for skill, for fighting will, there is nothing on record that holds a candle to Fitz.” — Michael Carbert