We live in the era of the camera and mass-produced, edited, precisely manicured photos, when glamor, style and looks have never been more important. In this regard, one of the greatest boxers of all time would impress very few. While Bob Fitzsimmons electrified the crowd with his astounding performance impact force, entered the ring as a less than impressive or imposing physical specimen. But appearances can be deceiving.
That was certainly the case with Spotted Bob. Bald, pale, freckled, with a lower body so underdeveloped that he had taken to wearing thick wool underwear to hide the difference between his slim legs and broad, muscular torso, Fitzsimmons nevertheless struck fear into the hearts of men, because such things mean nothing in the ring. And when the bell rang, Fitzsimmons’ cunning, killer instinct, and crushing strength belied his less than intimidating physical stature. “The Freckled Wonder” was indeed a prodigy, a knockout artist, a killer puncher and the first triple boxing champion.
Born in Cornwall, England, Robert Fitzsimmons moved with his family to New Zealand as a child. There he worked from an early age as an apprentice blacksmith and in the process developed amazing upper body strength, the basis of his punching power. He had around forty fights in Australia, his earliest bare-knuckle fights, losing only twice. His success warranted a long trip to the United States for a shot at the world title. In 1891, he faced middleweight champion “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey (not to be confused with Jack Dempseylater heavyweight champion), beating him around the ring and knocking him down a dozen times, finally stopping him in the thirteenth round.
Fitzsimmons continued to fight at heavyweight and light heavyweight, when in fact he was a true middleweight for most of his career, rarely weighing much more than 160 pounds. Clever and extremely accurate, he was a master of feints to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position before using his explosive power. Although he lacked the weight and size of a heavyweight, he had the power of a heavyweight and to this day is regarded as one of the toughest punchers of all time. No less authority than Nat Fleischer rated Fitzsimmons as the greatest knockout boxer in boxing history.
Immediately after winning the middleweight title, Fitzsimmons began competing with heavyweights, giving as much as 70 or 80 pounds to his opponents. His punching power was such that weight differences didn’t matter much. In 1897 he fought the heavyweight champion James J. Corbett, considered at the time to be an almost invincible boxing champion. Corbett dominated the early phase, scoring a sixth-round knockout, but Fitzsimmons refused to give up and it turned into a war of attrition. In round fourteen, the challenger came home with a devastating left hook to the body, ending the fight. Corbett, writhing in agony, tried in vain to defeat the count, but strangely enough, the middleweight was now the heavyweight champion of the world. Corbett later declared that “by his weight and inches, he (Fitzsimmons) was the greatest fighter ever to put on the gauntlet.”
Two years later Fitzsimmons lost the title to James J. Jeffries who was about forty pounds taller than the champion. By all accounts, “Ruby” fought bravely, but Jeffries was just too big and too strong when he forced a stoppage in the eleventh round. Fitzsimmons fought and defeated the heavyweights, eventually earning a rematch with Jeffries, which he lost in eight rounds. But after winning two world titles, he began competing with light heavyweights in search of a third. In 1903, he defeated George Gardner on points to win his third world title, becoming the first boxer to achieve the triple crown feat.
More than a century later, Bob Fitzsimmons remains the greatest of all time, one of the smartest and bravest fighters, and an incredibly powerful puncher. Most boxing historians place him at the top of any list all-time great middleweights and 2003 Ring warehouse a poll named him the eighth most powerful puncher in boxing history, regardless of weight. There is no doubt that he was the hardest middleweight puncher of all time, but strength alone does not make him successful. As boxing historian Edgar Lee Masters put it, “In terms of courage, strength, skill, will to fight, there is nothing in history that catches Fitz’s attention.”
— Michael Karbert