Story: Fitzsimmons, Robert

Page 1: Biography

Fitzsimmons, Robert

1863–1917

Boxer, blacksmith, actor

This biography, written by N. A. C. McMillan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993, and updated in May, 2013.

Robert Fitzsimmons, known as Bob Fitzsimmons, and in boxing circles as 'Ruby Robert' and 'the Freckled Wonder', was born at Helston, Cornwall, England, on 26 May 1863. He was the youngest of 12 children of James Fitzsimmons, a policeman, and his wife, Jane Strongman, who with their five youngest children arrived in New Zealand on the Adamant in 1873 and settled in Timaru.

James Fitzsimmons set up a blacksmith's forge in Timaru. After completing his education at the Timaru Main School, Bob joined his father and his brother Jarrett to learn the trade. His work at the forge developed the powerful arms and shoulders which made him such a devastating puncher when he took up boxing. His upper body formed a marked contrast to his spindly legs.

In 1880 the famous British pugilist Jem Mace visited New Zealand and organised a boxing tournament in Timaru. Fitzsimmons entered and won the tournament, knocking out four opponents in one night. He won the tournament again the following year and turned professional, fighting with marked success in Australia from 1882 to 1890. He then sailed for San Francisco, arriving on 10 May 1890. After winning three bouts he was matched with Jack Dempsey, 'the Nonpareil', for the world middleweight championship in New Orleans on 14 January 1891. Fitzsimmons caused an upset by knocking the champion out in the 13th round.

Fitzsimmons found difficulty in making the middleweight limit and began fighting as a heavyweight. (The light-heavyweight class was not introduced until 1903.) However, he reduced his weight in 1894 to defend his title against Dan Creedon, a New Zealander from Invercargill. Creedon had campaigned with considerable success in Australia and the United States, but Fitzsimmons knocked him out in the second round.

On 17 March 1897 Fitzsimmons, by now an American citizen, became heavyweight champion of the world when he knocked out James J. Corbett in 14 rounds at Carson City, Nevada. At 11 stone 13 pounds Fitzsimmons conceded 16 pounds to Corbett and he remains the lightest boxer to hold the world heavyweight title.

Fitzsimmons lost his title on his first defence on 9 June 1899 when James J. Jeffries, to whom he conceded 39 pounds and 12 years, knocked him out in 11 rounds at Coney Island. Three years later Fitzsimmons failed to regain the championship when Jeffries stopped him in eight rounds at San Francisco.

On 25 November 1903 Fitzsimmons took the light-heavyweight championship of the world from George Gardner, winning on points over 20 rounds at San Francisco. He thus became the first boxer to hold world titles at three weights. He lost his light-heavyweight crown to 'Philadelphia Jack O'Brien' (J. F. Hagen) in 1905, but continued to fight intermittently until 1914. Of 62 bouts he won 40, lost 9 and drew 13.

Fitzsimmons visited New Zealand in 1910 and was fêted like royalty, especially in Timaru. During his boxing career he made a number of appearances on the vaudeville stage. His speaking voice was high and penetrating and he never forgot his lines. Following his retirement he gave exhibition bouts with his son, Robert, and for a while in 1916–17 was a travelling evangelist, along with his fourth wife, Temo.

Fitzsimmons was married four times. With his first wife, Louisa Johns, whom he married in Sydney on 14 October 1885, he had a son, Charles. The marriage ended in divorce. Fitzsimmons then married Rose Samnell, also known as Rose Julian, a well-known acrobat, in the United States probably in 1893. There were three children from the marriage: Robert, Martin and Rosalie. (Fighting as 'Young Bob Fitzsimmons', Robert enjoyed a moderately successful ring career as a heavyweight between 1919 and 1931.) After Rose's death in New York in April 1903, Fitzsimmons married a vaudeville singer named Julia May Gifford, at San Francisco on 25 July 1903, but they divorced in January 1915. He married Temo Ziller at Portland, Oregon, probably on 26 May 1915. Fitzsimmons died of pneumonia in Chicago, Illinois, on 22 October 1917, survived by his fourth wife.

Bob Fitzsimmons had a freckled face and thin, sandy hair. He was widely respected for his integrity and the high standards of behaviour instilled by his religiously minded parents. As a boxer he ranks among the world's greatest.

How to cite this page:

N. A. C. McMillan. 'Fitzsimmons, Robert', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 2, 1993, and updated online in May, 2013. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f12/fitzsimmons-robert (accessed 19 October 2017)