Freelance writer from Cornwall
‘Speckled Bob’, ‘Ruby Robert’, ‘The Fighting Blacksmith’, all common nicknames for Cornwall’s own Robert Fitzsimmons, born in Helston and claimed by many Brits as being one of our greatest sporting heroes. Right? Erm, not really…
Fitzsimmons was the first boxer to win the World Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight and Heavyweight title belts, that much is true. To accomplish this stunning, previously unattained status he defeated some of the best fighters the world had to offer such as the legendary James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett, this is also true. Such is the respect for Bob within the boxing fraternity that he’s been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) and is listed by ‘Ring Magazine’ (considered by fight fans to be the boxing bible) as their eighth-hardest puncher of all time and even has his own entry in the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica.’
But did he accomplish any of this, or even begin to start his legendary career, in Cornwall or even in the UK? Does his Cornish birthplace and British nationality actually have anything to do with his lasting legacy as a boxing great and sporting legend, as so many British folk would like to think?
No, not really.
Bob was certainly born in Cornwall. He was born in 1863, in Helston as a matter of fact. But he left Cornwall with his parents in 1872 when he was only nine years old. When his family settled in Timaru, New Zealand he started out working in his father’s blacksmith shop which is where he gained his fearsome strength. But, like his strength, his boxing skills were also acquired in New Zealand and later Australia when the Fitzsimmons family moved thee in 1883. Neither his strength or his skills had anything to do with hisCornish or British origins.
Bob was discovered by an old-time English bareknuckle fighter, Jem Mace, while Mace was touring New Zealand and running his ‘Jem Mace Tournament.’ Mace’s Tournament was old-school, a relic of modern boxing’s early beginnings in Regency England. The Tournament was fought full-contact and without gloves. It was bare-knuckle, brutal and potentially extremely dangerous. Bob won the Tournament, impressively enough that he earned a spot training under one of the sport’s legendary (and most-overlooked) trainers, Australian former bareknuckle fighter Larry Foley. It was Mace who discovered the rough diamond that became the sport’s first triple-weight World Champion. It was Foley who gave that rough diamond a good polish, refining his raw power and stamina, teaching ‘Ruby Robert’ all the skills he needed to become a legend. Fitzsimmons possessed great courage and extraordinary strength, but without Mace and Foley it’s unlikely he would ever have emerged beyond fighting at a regional or national level. It was New Zealand and Australia, not Cornwall and the UK, that really gave us this sporting icon.
It was chasing his dreams to the United States that earned Fitzsimmons legend status. He went to America in 1890 and won the first of his World titles in 1891 when he defeated the fearsome Jack ‘Nonpareil’ Dempsey for the World Middleweight Championship in New Orleans on January 14, 1891.. His defeat of Dempsey involved his scoring thirteen knockdowns and hammering Dempsey so badly that even Fitzsimmons himself begged Dempsey to admit defeat. Dempsey wouldn’t quit so Bob did the humane thing. He laid Dempsey out with one last sledgehammer right hand and then carried him to his corner rather than keep battering him round after round. He spent the next few years defending his Middleweight crown (until he vacated it, no worthy opponent came forward to fight him) and hoping for a shot at the Heavyweight belt as no Light-Heavyweight title then existed.
Next up was Bob’s finest hour, capturing the World Heavyweight Championship by defeating James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett in Carson City, Nevada on March 17, 1897. This was actually the first boxing match ever to be recorded on film (the film itself, ‘The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight’) was also the longest feature film ever at that time) and was the first prize fight to be covered by a female reporter, Nellie Davis. Initially Corbett had the upper hand. He battered Fitzsimmons severely but Bob’s superior strength and staying power won through. IN the fourteenth round Fitzsimmons unleashed his trademark ‘solar plexus punch’ an especially venomous body blow that put Corbett down and kept him there. Having won the World Middleweight and Heavyweight titles, only the newly-created Light-Heavyweight belt was needed to complete boxing’s Triple Crown. It wasn’t long before the ‘Fighting Blacksmith’ added that one to his collection as well.
On November 25, 1903 Fitzsimmons defeated World Light-Heavyweight Champion George Gardner by decision at the Mechanic’s Pavilion in San Francisco, becoming the first-ever triple-weight World Champion. Even today only 38 fighters have ever held three or more titles, but ‘Ruby Robert’ was the first. But did it have anything to do with being Cornish or British? Was his talent discovered and refined in the UK? Did Fitzsimmons even bother visiting his native Cornwall when he very briefly visited Britain, having taken United States citizenship during his fighting days? The answer to all of these questions is simple and, for those wanting to claim Bob Fitzsimmons as a British or Cornish icon by virtue of anything other than simple geography, very disappointing.
The answer to all of those questions is NO.
He died on October 22, 1917 in Chicago, Illinois. He was aging and not in the best of health when pneumonia set in. Fitzsimmons is buried in Chicago at the Graceland Cemetery under a small, plain headstone. An American citizen long before he died, Bob Fitzsimmons might be claimed by many as being a British or Cornish sporting icon, but the only lasting link between Bob Fitzsimmons and Cornwall is that he happened to be born here.