Blacksmith and world champion boxer.
A new biography of Fitzsimmons, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Fitzsimmons was born in the Cornish village of Helston, England, in 1862, and as a child came to New Zealand with his family. His father settled in Timaru where he carried on the family craft of blacksmithing. After an elementary education, young Robert joined his father at the forge where he early developed a generous physique. Despite strong parental objections, Fitzsimmons took up boxing in his late teens as his principal diversion and for 10 years was a well-known and popular figure in the amateur ring in South Canterbury, Canterbury, and Otago. His early professional leanings were discouraged by his somewhat puritanical family, and he was 28 when he finally broke away from this restraint and went to America to try his fortune in the ring. He arrived in San Francisco in 1890, and in January of the following year he won the world middleweight championship, a title which he held until 1897 when he beat the Denver champion, James Corbett, in the last minute of a 14-round bout with his famous solar-plexus punch.
In 1899, at the age of 37, he appeared in the heavyweight field, and was soundly beaten by James Jeffries at Coney Island, New York. Quite undismayed he continued as a heavyweight, and when 40 years of age won the world title in 1901, beating Tom Sharkey and Gus Ruhlin in convincing fashion. He held the heavyweight championship until 1903 when he again met Jeffries, and was again completely outclassed. In all, Fitzsimmons fought more than 350 bouts, the last in 1914 at the age of 52, three years before he died of pneumonia in Chicago.
Fitzsimmons was a picturesque figure in the ring and won for himself a wide popularity in his heyday. He was a flamboyant and vigorous fighter, with many of the tricks of the showman, and had a highly developed streak of vanity. He was inordinately proud of his complete lack of scars despite his hundreds of fights, and he always appeared in the ring in heavy woollen underwear in the hope of concealing an odd disparity between his trunk and leg development. Fitzsimmons made a small fortune from boxing but, like many other champions, he was constitutionally incapable of conserving his resources. He had four fairly expensive excursions into the realm of matrimony, and was a prey to every card-sharp and trickster who could get near him. Gambling was a disease with him and at his death he had little to show for a strenuous life in the ring. At the height of his fame he had some success with his book, Physical Culture and Self-Defence, which was published in America in 1901.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- South Canterbury, Gillespie, O. A. (1958)
- Famous Prize Fights – or Epics of “the fancy”, Farnol, J. (1928).