Bob Fitzsimmons - The Greatest Pound For Pound Puncher Ever?

17.06.06 - By Jim Dorney: The fact that Bob Fitzsimmons died in 1917 and very little film of him exists means that quite a lot of casual boxing fans will never have heard of him. That's a real shame. Fitzsimmons was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most memorable characters in boxing. He completely defied everything -How you're meant to look, how you're meant to fight, what weight you're meant to fight at, how old you're meant to fight on for & many others.

The catchphrase 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall' was attributed to Fitzsimmons which he apparently remarked as he entered the ring against Ed Dunkhorst, allegedly one of the heaviest boxers ever. It's said that Dunkhorst sometimes entered the ring at over 400lbs, making his moniker 'The human freight car' somewhat appropriate!

Bob Fitzsimmons was born in Helston, a small town in Cornwall, England in 1867. When he was still a young boy his family emigrated to Timaru, New Zealand, where Fitzsimmons learned to box. He entered a tournament organised by bare-knuckle legend Jem Mace as a 14-year-old lightweight & won by beating the 200lbs plus 'Timaru Terror' - A blacksmith who was the scourge of the local rings.

Fitzsimmons was a blacksmith himself (as was Jem Mace) who worked at his brother Jarret's forge. It was there that he developed the awesome upper-body strength that would give him his inhuman punching power. He later turned professional in Australia and bar a fight against Australian middleweight rival, Jim Hall that he threw because he was told he wouldn't get paid if he didn't lose, he beat everybody, including Hall by way of knockout rematch.

Feeling that he wasn't getting anywhere fast in Australia, Bob travelled to the States to challenge the mighty Jack 'Nonpareil' Dempsey, considered one of the greatest of the early middleweight champions. Both weighing in over 10 lbs under the middleweight limit, Fitzsimmons, who was unheard of in America and due to his odd appearance a huge underdog, obliterated Dempsey, completely finishing him as a fighter. He went on to defend the middleweight title against a couple of credible challengers such as Dan Creedon before he decided to go all the way to the heavyweight title of the world.

To put Fitzsimmons' achievements into perspective, we must first examine the man himself. Fitzsimmons stood a shade under 6ft tall, with extremely skinny legs that broadened out into a remarkably muscled back and shoulders. He looked like a heavyweight from the waist up, and a lightweight from the waist down. He was ginger-haired, giving away his family's Irish heritage, balding, and his freckled face burnt easily in the sun. He was, quite simply, just not what a boxer is supposed to look like. Sometimes his curious appearance caused laughter amongst audiences, wondering how this strange-looking man had come to practice the noble art. But, as the noted boxing historian Tracy Callis says in his excellent biography of Fitzsimmons, no-one that fought him laughed.

Nicknames for the great man included "the fighting machine on stilts," "the freckled freak," "speckled Bob," "ruby Robert" and simply "the Cornishman." Fitzsimmons always considered himself quintessentially British, and Cornish above that.

Bob was one of the first ever truly scientific boxers. The man he won the heavyweight title from, James J. Corbett is generally acknowledged as the father of modern scientific boxing, and while Fitzsimmons wasn't quite as flashy a stylist, his science laid in his ability to punch. He wrote a book on boxing, instructing his readers on how to utilise their weight and balance to get the full effect of a punch, and he could hit equally hard with either hand.

After Corbett beat the legendary John L. Sullivan, the last of the bareknuckle heavyweight champions, he announced his retirement. It wasn't to last. Fitzsimmons knocked out Peter Maher in 90 seconds to claim the title & Corbett, who disliked Bob intensely, 'unretired', mooting his claim. Corbett hated Fitzsimmons so much because Bob was so vocal in calling him out, yet wasn't even a heavyweight. Fitzsimmons' prime fighting weight was around 167 lbs, which is under the super-middleweight limit. He was this weight when he beat the much heavier Corbett for the title with his famous 'solar plexus' left hook to the body, severely winding Corbett and putting him out for the count.

Fitzsimmons was the first ever middleweight champion to hold the heavyweight crown, and unlike subsequent fighters that have repeated this feat, he was still to all intents & purposes a middleweight when he did it. By contrast Roy Jones Jr. was 193lbs when beat John Ruiz, and whilst 193lbs is considered light for a heavyweight nowadays, it's nearly two stones heavier
than what Bob fought at - And Fitzsimmons won by knockout.

Further evidence to his enormous punching power was after he lost the title in a tough contest to James J. Jeffries, (who outweighed him by around 55 lbs and was three inches taller) he was granted a return a couple of years later, after knocking out the respected contenders Gus Ruhlin and Tom Sharkey. All this at the sprightly age of 39, which was unheard of at the time.

For round after round Fitzsimmons outlanded and outsped Jeffries, battering him beyond recognition. According to onlookers, Jeffries' visage was horrific after a few rounds - Fitzsimmons broke his nose and jaw, cut him badly over both eyes and cheeks, and broke one of his ribs to boot. Not bad for a 39 year old bald ginger middleweight! Only the subhuman countenance and comparative youth of Jeffries kept him in it, and without doubt it would have been stopped today and Fitzsimmons would have been the first man to regain the heavyweight championship. Finally Bob punched himself out, and Jeffries somehow managed to see well enough out of his mangled eyes to find a left hook to knock the grand old man out.

But that wasn't all - At the age of 42, Bob became the second man ever to hold the new light-heavyweight title, (again weghing in well under the limit) beating George Gardner, and putting him down several times in the process. He should really have ended it there - But like so many other fighters, his ego and desire kept him on for too many fights. Some he won, but most he lost, and he died poor from pneumonia at the age of 54, after fighting his last fight at 51.

He was the first ever boxer to win titles at three different weights, and for those titles to range from middleweight to heavyweight when he was only really a middleweight, is extraordinary. All who fought him agreed that he certainly punched like a heavyweight and his knockout percentage is impressive by heavyweight standards. I won't deny that there have been some men in history who have likely hit harder than him, but these would have been men who considerably outweighed him. It's my belief that pound for pound, Bob Fitzsimmons was the hardest hitting fighter for his weight in history. Don't let that you've not heard of him or know little about him influence your decision - Look up his record and see the men he knocked out, then consider that he was very close to stopping (and certainly would have done by today's standards) the mighty Jim Jeffries in his prime, who is generally acknowledged as having on of the sturdiest chins in heavyweight history. There's no denying it, other than him being an brilliant fighter, Bob Fitzsimmmons was a phenomenal hitter.

I welcome your comments - For those who'd like to learn more about Bob Fitzsimmons, there's a good biography named 'Prize Fighter' by Dale Webb, published by mainstream publishing, and a number of limited-edition biographies available from which contain some fantastic old photographs.

Article posted on 18.06.2006

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