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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fitzsimmons, Robert (1863–1917)

by A. F. Collings

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Robert Fitzsimmons (1863-1917), professional boxer and sometime actor, was born on 26 May 1863 at Helston, Cornwall, England, twelfth child of James Fitzsimmons, policeman (but formerly an Irish soldier), and his wife Jane, née Strongman, of Truro. The Fitzsimmons family migrated to Timaru, New Zealand, in 1872, where James became a veterinary shoeing-smith. Robert and an older brother became blacksmiths.

Bob Fitzsimmons was boxing with bare knuckles as an amateur at 15. He first drew attention by knocking out four opponents in one afternoon in an 1880 Timaru tournament staged by Jem Mace, the visiting British ring hero. In 1883 he went to Sydney seeking the tutelage of Larry Foley. He enjoyed some success there as a pugilist, but mainly supported himself as a blacksmith. On 14 October 1885 he married an English girl Louisa Johns; of their three children a son survived. In eight years in Sydney Fitzsimmons boxed 27 times, for 16 wins, 4 losses and 7 no-decision bouts. On 12 February 1890, he was knocked out in four rounds by Jim Hall, contesting the Australian middleweight championship, but had knocked out Hall in one round two days earlier. There is some suggestion that these two results were prearranged.

Leaving Sydney for San Francisco, United States of America, on 16 April 1890, Fitzsimmons won three fights within two months. On 14 January next year at New Orleans, he knocked out Jack Dempsey, 'The Nonpareil', in fourteen rounds to win the world middleweight championship. His greatest success came on 17 March 1897, at Carson City, Nevada, when he knocked out James (Gentleman Jim) Corbett in the fourteenth round with his 'solar plexus punch' to gain the heavyweight championship of the world. Two bouts and two years later, he lost this title by knockout to James J. Jeffries, and lost a return bout in 1902. A twenty rounds points decision over George Gardner at San Francisco on 25 November 1903 won him the newly recognized world light heavyweight championship, which he lost to Jack O'Brien at Philadelphia in 1905. His last championship contest was for the Australian heavyweight title on 27 December 1909 in Sydney, where he was knocked out by Bill Lang. He had a further two no-decision bouts in Pennsylvania in 1914 aged 50.

In a professional career extending from 1881 to 1914, Fitzsimmons had 81 bouts for 53 wins, 11 losses, 1 draw, 12 no-decisions and 4 exhibitions. His feat, winning world titles in three divisions, has been equalled only once, by Henry Armstrong some forty years later. While powerful in the shoulders and arms, Fitzsimmons weighed only 160 lbs. (72 kg), was spindly-legged, pale and freckled, and balding—he was sometimes known as 'Ruby Robert' or the 'Freckled Freak'.

In 1893 Fitzsimmons was divorced from his wife and on 24 July at San Francisco married his manager's sister, Rose Julian, an Australian acrobat, who bore him two sons and a daughter. On Rose's death in 1903, he married on 24 July a young actress, Julia May Gifford, also at San Francisco. They were divorced in 1915 and on 16 March at Newark, New Jersey, Fitzsimmons wed another actress, Temo Ziller of Portland. Like most heavyweight champions of his time, Fitzsimmons capitalized on his fame and appeared in several stage plays. His book Physical Culture and Self-Defence (Philadelphia) was first published in 1901. In the final months of his life, he became an evangelist. He died of pneumonia at Chicago on 22 October 1917. Born in Cornwall, raised in New Zealand, but serving his boxing apprenticeship in Sydney, Fitzsimmons is claimed as a British, New Zealand, or even Australian, champion. However before winning a world title he became an American citizen.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of American Biography, vol 6 (New York, 1931)
  • B. F. O'Brien, Kiwis with Gloves On (Wellington, NZ, 1960)
  • K. Roberts, Captain of the Push (Melb, 1963)
  • G. Odd, The Fighting Blacksmith (Lond, 1976).

Citation details

A. F. Collings, 'Fitzsimmons, Robert (1863–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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