Review of Adam J. Pollack’s In the Ring with Bob Fitzsimmons

By Zachary Q. Daniels: Those familiar with Adam Pollack’s series on the heavyweight champions will not be surprised to learn that Pollack has done it again – produced a detailed, well-researched and revealing account of the ring career of the third heavyweight champion of the gloved era, Bob Fitzsimmons..

Bob FitzsimmonsLike his previous works on Sullivan and Corbett, this book uses primary sources from the period to uncover the specifics of what this fighter did in the ring – and in the process, discovers new information and provides new insights into his boxing career. Like the earlier works, this book will be useful to both future researchers and boxing fans alike who are interested in the boxing career of this significant figure in the history of the fight game.

Throughout the book, Pollack has improved his coverage of significant fights by integrating the various newspaper accounts into one narrative in his round-by-round coverage of these fights, rather than providing them separately by each source as the earlier books did. Additionally, less significant fights are described in a narrative format, rather than round by round, which flows better and is more appropriate to these lesser matches. The book is chock full of detail, yet it reads well, and maintains interest throughout.

The book recounts Fitzsimmons’ career in Australia in the 1880s, revealing significant facets of that early career such as his training with contender Peter Jackson, his bouts with Australian rival Jim Hall, and perhaps most notably the alleged fixed fight with Hall in 1890. Fitzsimmons’ early career in the United States, up to winning the middleweight champion against Jack “Nonpariel” Dempsey, is described in detail.

One of the themes that emerges from the book is how many facets of the current boxing scene were present in the early game. Fighters were accused of “quitting,” as happened to Peter Maher in his 1892 fight with Fitz. Boxing itself was under continual attack from both legal authorities and the press, and there were demands for its abolition. This was, as today, particularly the case after a ring death occurred, as happened following the Kid Lavigne-Andy Bowen fight in 1894 in Louisiana. This had direct impact on Fitzsimmons’ career, by removing Louisiana as a potential location for a planned fight between him and heavyweight champion Jim Corbett. Pollack covers all the maneuvering and negotiations concerning the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, leading up to the aborted bout which had been scheduled to take place in late 1895 in Arkansas. As Pollack details, both fighters – and the legal and governmental authorities of the era – share blame for this match not happening at this time.

Corbett, as has happened to more recent fighters, was attacked throughout the mid-1890s for his failure to face Fitzsimmons, who had by this time proven himself to be the most deserving title challenger. The press criticized Corbett for facing “soft” opposition, older fighters like John L. Sullivan and Charley Mitchell who were seen as quite beatable by the time Corbett fought them, and for his inactivity. Fitzsimmons, not surprisingly, joined this chorus of criticism, participating with Corbett in what would be called pre-fight “trash talk” today, such as referring to his opponent as a “cur.” In one incident in New York in May 1895, the two confronted one another and exchanged heated words, each accusing the other of being “afraid” to face him.

In another development that will be very familiar to modern boxing fans, for a time in the mid-1890s, Corbett and Fitzsimmons were both seen by some as holding the heavyweight title. After the failure to make a fight with Fitzsimmons in late 1895, Corbett issued what turned out to be a premature retirement announcement and bestowed the championship on contender Peter Maher, “because he is an Irishman.” Leaving aside the legitimacy of Corbett’s right to arbitrarily designate a successor, Fitzsimmons met and defeated Maher by first round knockout in Mexico, and as a result was regarded by some to be the heavyweight champion. However, Corbett had already repudiated his retirement prior to the Fitzsimmons-Maher fight, confirming in January of 1896 that he would fight the winner. So there was, as there is today, some confusion over who the “real” champion was.

Interestingly, at this time, Fitzsimmons came under some criticism, as Corbett had previously, for not fighting Corbett. As one writer argued, “Bob Fitzsimmons, by persisting in his refusal to accept the challenge issued by Jim Corbett, is taking the proper course to reinstate the latter in the position of Champion without a fight for the honor. . ..” As a result, some of those who had felt that Fitzsimmons had a legitimate claim to the title subsequently withdrew their recognition. The heavyweight division was in something of a state of confusion. Adding to this confusion was Fitzsimmons’ controversial disqualification loss to Tom Sharkey later in the year, widely thought to have been a fix. Although Sharkey claimed the title as a result of his supposed victory over Fitzsimmons, not many took this seriously. Discussing the potential for a rematch, Fitzsimmons engaged in what would be considered offensive trash talk today, observing that “if I ever do meet him (again), I guarantee to kill him stone dead before he leaves the ring.”

Regardless of who was seen as the champion, the only contest that mattered was between Fitzsimmons and Corbett. As Fitzsimmons came under increasing attack and his legitimacy as champion came to be questioned, he relented and agreed to face Corbett, even before his fight with Sharkey. There were extensive legal battles over where the fight would be held, as prize fights continued to be illegal in most states. Finally, the political leadership in Nevada was persuaded to remove the prohibition against fights to the finish and legalize boxing. Pollack covers all these developments in great detail and provides insight into the struggles faced by fighters at this time to even arrange fights.

Pre-fight opinions were sharply divided over who would win. John L. Sullivan picked Corbett, while Bill Muldoon, his former trainer, picked Fitz. Tom Sharkey oscillated back and forth. Based on the commentary Pollack reviews, it is clear that this was seen as an extremely competitive fight that either man could easily win. Gamblers favored Corbett.

One of the interesting elements of this book is the detail that Pollack provides on the extensive training that both men engaged in prior to this fight, helping to provide a daily “you are there” perspective that replicates the kinds of discussions and reviews of upcoming fights that fans experience today. Some of the interesting aspects of this are the use by one of Corbett’s sparring partners of a rudimentary form of headgear and extensive body padding that would become standard in boxing training in the years to come. The pre-fight “trash talk” even extended to attacks by the fighters on each others’ training approaches, particularly by Fitzsimmons, who alleged that “Corbett is wrestling and boxing with men who don’t know the first thing about their business and he tires them out rehearsing the part.” This points to another interesting aspect of training at this time, which was that both men employed a professional wrestler as one of their sparring partners, perhaps reflecting the greater use of such tactics in the game at this time – even though excessive clinching and holding was considered illegal even then. As is reasonably well-known, one of Corbett’s sparring partners was future heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries, who was just starting his career. One source alleged that Corbett “completely dazzled the Los Angeles pugilist,” and “dropped Jeffries. . .with the shortest of short arm punches. . .”

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight is, of course, covered in great detail, encompassing most of the last quarter of the book, as might be imagined, given the significance of this fight. One of the interesting things that emerges from this account is that, even in this early era, punch-stats were utilized. One account notes that Corbett “is recorded to have hit Fitzsimmons 194 times. . ..” Fitzsimmons, on the other hand, “hit Corbett about sixty times, but only twice effectively.” While this degree of “effectiveness” could certainly be argued, one of those obviously was the famous “solar plexus punch” that knocked Corbett out in the 14th round. One of the things that made this sort of quantification possible in this early era was the fact that this fight was one of the first to be filmed, a development that Pollack covers in great detail.

Another interesting element that emerges from Pollack’s review of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight is the allegations of a “long count” in the 6th round, 30 years before the more famous “long count” of the second Tunney-Dempsey fight. Corbett knocked Fitz down in that round and argued that the referee had not picked up the timekeeper’s count until after several seconds had already passed, and that therefore Fitzsimmons – who got up at the count of nine – was on the canvas for more than ten seconds. Like Tunney, Fitzsimmons and his partisans argued that he was fully conscious and intentionally took the maximum time to clear his head, and could have, if necessary, gotten up earlier. The films and descriptions from the sources Pollack provides seem to support Fitzsimmons’ contentions – although, as is always the case in instances like this, there is room for debate. What is interesting, however, from an historical perspective, is why this “long count” controversy has received so much less attention than the later Tunney-Dempsey incident in the boxing press. Perhaps the relatively poor quality of the films and their subsequent deterioration provide at least a partial explanation for this. In any event, the attention Pollack devotes to this issue hopefully will lead others to investigate and bring greater attention to this historically neglected controversy.

As with his previous books, Pollack creates interest in – and leaves us waiting for his coverage of – later developments in Fitzsimmons’ career, when he goes on to face future champions James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. His work should be of great interest to all who are interested in the sport of boxing. This book undoubtedly makes an outstanding contribution to the historical research on Fitzsimmons’ career, and should be, as noted, of great interest to boxing historians and fans alike.

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