The Triple Crown of Bob Fitzsimmons

By Matt McGrain on April 17, 2012
The Triple Crown of Bob Fitzsimmons
Fitzsimmons was the first man to win the undisputed world title at three different weights

Fitzsimmons may not be the fashionable choice, but Ruby Robert was as precious as any one of the great jewels of boxing…

Like most boxing fans, I make lists. Like no other sports fans we are born to it, each division having a top-10 attested to by six or seven different organizations and dozens of different publications, who also often list a top-10 pound-for-pound—you can see the world’s best 10 in the opinion of this site’s editor just by returning to the front page.

More difficult is the mythical all-time pound-for-pound rankings. Who are the greatest fighters of all time as measured on this difficult pound-for pound scale? Sitting down with what knowledge I had of the best fighters in history, last year I sculpted my final pound-for-pound top-10. At the top of the pile were four fighters, the only four I felt had a case for the number one spot, the greatest of all time, Sam Langford, Harry Greb, Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong. Installing Langford at number one I admitted to myself that any of the other three would be as settled in that spot and left it at that. But something—or rather someone—started to nag me. Someone I began to feel belonged.

Bob Fitzsimmons is perhaps boxing’s most devastating puncher. He’s also the first man to win the undisputed world title at three different weights, over an incredible 12-year span. Here, we are going to take a look at those three title tilts, the men Fitzsimmons overcame in each of them and what they mean for boxing history—and for Bob Fitzsimmons’s place in it.

Undisputed Middleweight Champion of the World

Jack Dempsey, “The Nonpareil,” was gloved boxing’s first pound-for-pound number one. For all that world heavyweight champion John L Sullivan was the preeminent fighter of his day, a devastating and destructive puncher, Dempsey, for whom one of the sport’s most exciting world champions would one day be renamed, was boxing’s first great scientist, a two-handed box-puncher renowned for his exceptional skill and ring generalship. Sometime Dempsey second Jack “Napoleon” McAuliffe was considered Dempsey’s only contemporary in terms of boxing skill and strategy, but Dempsey was generally regarded as his slight superior. He was admired to such an extent that the 154-lb. champion, who fought at between 135 and 155 lbs., was at one time mooted as a possible opponent for Sullivan himself.

Jack himself baulked at this. The world’s best middleweight matching the world’s best heavyweight? Simply put, it couldn’t be done.

Almost 60 fights into his unbeaten run (the two losses listed on Dempsey’s record are in fights where he agreed to be named a loser if he failed to post a knockout over four rounds), Dempsey had been matched with his former victim (TKO13) George LaBlanche in August of 1889 and lost his first fight in a 32nd round knockout. The result is amongst the most contentious knockout victories in history, its being reported that LaBlanche had wildly thrown a punch with his eyes firmly closed, utilizing the oft-quoted “puncher’s chance,” knocking Dempsey unconscious in what had been up to that point, a one-sided beating in favor of the champion. A report from the Fort Worth Daily Gazette in the days immediately after the fight:

“Several vicious blows by Dempsey were the only features of the 27th round and in the following rounds [LaBlanche] did little but stand up well under fierce slugging…when the men came up for the 32nd…[Dempsey] was by far the fresher of the two and with few exceptions had the fight all his own way up to that time. He forced LaBlanche into a corner and pounded him unmercifully…the latter whirled around suddenly and caught Dempsey a terrific blow on the jaw and the Nonpariel went down like a shot.”

The punch LaBlanche used to win the fight was controversial to say the least, some newspaper reports describing its “being banned” in the wake of the fight. Dempsey immediately pursued a rematch, and whatever the truth of that 32nd round, LaBlanche, who could not claim the title due to his weighing in as a heavyweight rather than a middleweight, refused to rematch Dempsey. Dempsey’s reputation was, in the main, unharmed by the loss. Bouncing back with a 28th round knockout of contender Billy McCarthy in defense of his title, Dempsey then disappeared from the ring for 11 months, tempted back only by the enormous purse on offer for his fight with Fitzsimmons—$11,000 to the winner and $1,000 to the loser.

Dempsey was a favorite pre-fight, with an astonishing half a million dollars said to be wagered on the fight. Those wishing to place money on the champion were putting up $100 to win $75-90 from those wishing to back Fitzsimmons. Amongst the press, there was uncertainty.

“The merits of the two men are still under discussion,” wrote The Pittsburg Dispatch. “Fitzsimmons is much the taller and has a longer reach…but his wind is an unknown quantity for he has never had a long fight…he is training largely for wind.”

It is a story familiar to all boxing fans, Dempsey, the established champion, proven but perhaps starting to fade, matched with the up-and-comer, a seeming superior athlete but one who is unproven. Also familiar was the affect this had on the newspaper men, with a general 50-50 split shored up by a huge number of writers hedging their bets. Embracing a final cliché, their general feeling was that Fitz would win early or Dempsey would win late. 

The fight, “looked upon as one of the greatest ever made” according to the St. Paul Globe, drew sports from every corner of the country and a total of 4,500 spectators, grossing the Olympic Athletic club around $35,000. Fitzsimmons entered the ring first, weighing in at between 151 and 155 lbs. Some reports have him weighing in at 155 lbs. and being required to work off a single pound to make the then middleweight limit of 154 lbs, but the most widely reported figure is 151 lbs. Dempsey was only slightly smaller on paper weighing in at 147½ lbs , but a size difference was almost universally remarked upon.

The first round was the only competitive round of the fight. They swapped punches but Fitzsimmons immediately began to crowd Dempsey, using his superior physicality to corner the smaller man and land before darting out and rushing once more. Dempsey feinted and clinched three times in quick succession as Fitz led. Dempsey “returned with heavy body blows” according to the Maysville Evening Bulletin, but Fitzsimmons was unaffected. 

By the end of the second Dempsey was showing signs of distress and in the third he was dropped for the first time, hurt by a left uppercut, then smashed to the canvas by a right hand, a punch that may also have broken Dempsey’s nose. A key blow for Fitzsimmons, he would land the left uppercut over and again throughout the fight. By the sixth, Dempsey was in desperate trouble and forced to trade with his rangier opponent but was repeatedly hurt by Fitz’s punches. “Jack constantly clinched to save himself…hot fighting followed. Jack seemed groggy at the end of the round.” (LA Herald)

Boxing had failed the champion and so now he had to try to fight but he was entirely outgunned.  According to Adam Pollack in his definitive Fitzsimmons biography, In The Ring With Bob Fitzsimmons, it was as early as the next round, the seventh, that Fitz began to ease up on his outclassed opponent:

“After receiving a right and left Dempsey fell against the ropes in a sitting posture, his hands hanging helplessly at his sides. Fitz declined to hit him in that position. After standing, Dempsey hit to the body, but his punches had no effect…Dempsey [was] barely able to keep his feet.”

Fitz’s apparent compassion was all the more astonishing given that Fitzsimmons had money, perhaps as much as $5,000, riding on his stopping the champion before the end of the 10th. In that 10th round Fitz had Dempsey at his apparent mercy, landing his uppercut seemingly at will. According to The Evening World, “Jack did not seem to be able to reach [Fitzsimmons].  Fitz planted both hands in his wind in quick succession. Jack ran around and clung to his man to save himself…he was clearly outclassed.”

Fitzsimmons rained abuse down on his man, landing uppercuts and overhand rights for multiple knockdowns, lifting Dempsey “clean of his feet” (Pollack) with one right hand, knocking him down as many as three times, once with “a left hand jab” (LA Times) that sent Dempsey’s head crashing against the bottom rope.

“Jack you are whipped,” Fitzsimmons is said to have told his struggling opponent. “I can’t hit you.”

Dempsey refused to quit though, and even when he went down in the 11th and the Dempsey corner threw the towel in he was allowed to continue. The 12th was “Sickening to even the most blood-thirsty” according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Dempsey repeatedly missed with his right uppercut, one of his favorite punches, which Fitz had taken away from him with short blows and sharp movement whilst repeatedly landing punches of his own on what The St. Paul Daily Globe called “The doomed champion of the middleweights.” The same newspaper’s take on the final round:

“Bob went right at Jack in his corner and punched him right and left; Jack clinched and Bob knocked him down. The Nonpareil lay like a log after one or two vein endeavors to rise…three gongs sounded the greatest middleweight’s career to slumber…Jack Dempsey was badly punished…a swollen face, cut lips and nose and a bad mark or two on his body.”

Dempsey was likely not the man who had beaten Billy McCarthy over 28 rounds in 1890, but he was the incumbent middleweight champion of the world and a former or then current pound-for-pound number one. Fitzsimmons had destroyed him without breaking a sweat, literally according to some reports. 

“It was not a hard fight,” the new champion told press the next day. “I did not even get thoroughly warmed up. I did not work any harder than when punching the bag. I said before the fight that I would reach him whenever I wished, and whenever I caught him with my right he would go down. It turned out that way.”

William Muldoon, the future inaugural chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission was stunned by Bob’s performance. “I never dreamed he was such a man. He is a terrific hitter, a two-handed fighter and a great general.”

Lightweight contender Billy Myer was in agreement. “I was amazed by Fitzsimmons’ cleverness. He was as fresh as a lark when he finished.”

This is an aspect of the fight that I consider has never been stressed enough. Fitz outboxed and out-generaled the great scientist as much as he outfought him. The manner and the mode make this one of the most impressive results in that era, in any era.

Another impressed ringsider was heavyweight contender James J. Corbett. How would Fitzsimmons feel about facing Corbett?

“Too big and too clever” was Bob’s reply. “The middleweights are plenty enough for me.”

Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World

Fitzsimmons defended his middleweight championship only once, separating the undefeated Dan Creedon from his senses in the second round with a left hook, but by this time he had already begun to change his mind about hunting bigger game. Heavyweight and one-hundred fight veteran Peter Maher was destroyed in a single round by a single punch so destructive many spectators didn’t see it. The famously shambolic DQ loss to an overmatched Sharkey could not obstruct the truth—Fitzsimmons was on a collision course with the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, the same James J. Corbett who had applauded Fitzsimmons on the day he destroyed Jack Dempsey for the world’s middleweight title. Fitzsimmons was about to attempt what he himself, and the man he had beaten on that day, had deemed impossible—wrestle the heavyweight title from the world’s best big man.

Corbett has been labeled the grandfather of modern boxing, but as I think we’ve seen, there were great scientists holding titles before Corbett. Unquestionably though, Corbett was the man who legitimized boxing as opposed to punching as an acceptable mode for the heavyweight champion of the world. With both Jack Dempsey and Jack McAuliffe washed up by 1897, Corbett was likely the world’s premier technician, a moving, jabbing boxer weighing it around 185 lbs. 

Fitz’s weight is a subject of much debate. BoxRec lists him at 167 lbs, but other sources have him as heavy as 172 lbs. Referee George Siler insisted that Fitzsimmons was considerably lighter. “I know that he weighed 157 and ½ lbs.…[this] is no guess. It is gathered from actual fact gathered from unimpeachable sources.”

If Adam Pollack could not unravel this mystery, it is likely that Fitzsimmons’ weight going into this fight will never be known for sure, but he gave up perhaps as much as 30 lbs. to James Corbett and certainly no less than ten. My guess is that Fitz weighed around 20 lbs. less than his opponent at the first bell.

Fitz’s style had also changed in the six years since his first title tilt. For a mere mortal, fighting a much bigger man is a signal that he should box and move, stay away from the inside and avoid trading. Fitzsimmons had proven himself capable of such boxing when he fought as a middleweight, but as he moved up to heavyweight, Fitzsimmons began to stress his prestigious power as his greatest chance of beating the much bigger men he tangled with. Two newspaper reporters try to describe the Fitzsimmons style, first The Rocky Mountain News:

“Nobody can imitate him. With his arms rigid and his head well back, he crouches low and watches…Bob requires less latitude in which to hit than any living man…he can hit a terrific jolt or bat at any distance. Everybody knows what a hook he is capable of landing.”

And the New York Journal:

“Fitzsimmons is not a stylish boxer…He has adopted a system of his own…his tactics from start to finish suggest that he is not seeking to wear a man down by constant jabbing, but rather to create an opening for one decisive smash that will end the whole business…exceedingly tricky.”

The above passages give an impression of a fighter coiled and trying to bait from the opponent by traps and tricks the opportunity to lash out with a single destructive punch. This must be contrasted with the tactics he used against Dempsey, wearing his opponent down to a bare nub before eliminating him.

The Wichita Daily Eagle reported the day before the fight that “Corbett is the favorite and has been all along…Corbett, according to the best judges, is more perfect physically than Fitzsimmons, but both have worked long and hard.”

Corbett’s plan was stated as being to keep Fitzsimmons at arm’s length for the first few rounds, fight in a defensive manner, wear his opponent down and then knock him out. Fitzsimmons was as yet unsure of the details concerning his plan. “I never tell myself how to fight before I begin,” remarked the Cornishman. “When the time comes I go as my instincts tell me.”

The fight film, battered and grainy but as precious as gold, shows Corbett moving backwards and to his left, away from Fitz’s vaunted left hook, repeatedly feinting the smaller man out of position, landing upon him nearly at will with both straight punches and wider shots. By the sixth round Fitzsimmons was bleeding from the mouth and the nose, his blood covering both men, and a barrage of unanswered punches forced him to one knee.

Before the fight, the referee had warned both men that they would be expected to “retreat ten feet” upon a knockdown but Corbett, in his determination to get to Fitzsimmons, forgot, and had to be repeatedly warned by the referee and eventually by Fitzsimmons cornerman Martin Julian to “stand back” before he gave up the distance, delaying the beginning of the count. Fitzsimmons was in reasonable shape though, and according to The Kansas City Journal “was only taking a rest.” As he rose, Corbett rushed him and poured it on, and by the bell “was evidently going.” Corbett, too, would claim he felt another fifteen seconds would have been enough to have the fight won.

But in the seventh, it was Corbett who looked tired. Fitzsimmons began to bleed again almost immediately and although Corbett still seemed every inch the general, he could not muster the energy to press.

By the 10th, Fitzsimmons had walked his larger opponent down. The Evening World reported that although Fitz was spitting blood, “he was the much cooler and stronger man at this point…they mixed it up with honors about even.” Some accounts of the round differ, giving it to Corbett, but it is likely the first round in the fight that Fitz achieved at least a share in. 

The 11th was even better for Fitzsimmons, and although the fight film shows that Corbett continued, throughout the fight, to land his left to the head and his right to the body, he could no longer keep Fitzsimmons off him and it is significant that the smaller man was able to land his uppercut for the first time in this round. Newspaper accounts witness a worried looking Corbett between the 11th and 12th, although he appeared to rally and take the next round. 

The beginning of the 14th was generally quiet, but the timbre of the fight had changed. Corbett was more reluctant than ever to get involved and both men feinted each other back. Corbett sought single shots rather than combinations and clinches were short as the champion held Fitz in place, handling the challenger gingerly, as though he might explode. Fitzsimmons resumed his arching, leaning style, and Corbett, although refusing to fight aggressively, resumed leading. Stepping in with that left to the head, his money punch throughout the fight, Corbett angled his body, providing a smaller target for the countering Fitzsimmons. Stepping firmly inside to punch with his bigger opponent, Fitzsimmons slipped the jab and came square delivering a hard left hand to the body, right below the heart, pivoting all the way through one of the most extraordinary punches in all of boxing history.

“The heart punch simply choked me,” Corbett admitted afterwards. “I could not breathe nor move for fifteen seconds. Oh, how it hurt!”

Corbett looks paralyzed as he propped himself up on the canvas with one hand, his face contracted in agony. He tries to get his left leg under him but it causes him to collapse forwards onto the canvas, and when the referee tolled “ten” he was crawling pitifully for the ropes as Fitz calmly looked on.

With a single punch, Fitzsimmons, “who looked, until the last minute, to have no chance of victory” (The Evening World) had added the world’s heavyweight title to his world’s middleweight championship. 

Whilst Roy Jones was able to lift a heavyweight strap from John Ruiz more than 100 years later, Fitzsimmons is still the only middleweight champion to hold the undisputed heavyweight title. That he did so by outlasting and then outpunching a younger, bigger, faster man makes it perhaps the most outstanding results in fight history, and given the rules regarding weight classes in the modern fight game, it is unlikely that it will ever be equaled.

Undisputed Light Heavyweight Champion of the World

Fitzsimmons would lose his world heavyweight title to an all-time great heavyweight of then prohibitive size, the 206-lb. James Jeffries. A bridge too far, Fitzsimmons seemed to be finished with world titles, having by then vacated the middleweight title. But in 1903, the light heavyweight division was inaugurated when Jack Root was beaten by George Gardner. Now Fitzsimmons, aged 41 and ancient for a pugilist of that era, would challenge Gardner for his third world title. 

Such was Fitzsimmons’s reputation that the buildup saw him ranked a slight favorite, the first time this had been the case for a Fitz title-tilt, but the ITALICSaint Louis Republic’s report that he was “overtrained…[and] has reduced himself down from 200 lbs.,” to reach the then 170-lb. light heavyweight limit changed minds.  he article quoted sources suggesting that Fitz “looked scraggily” and that “the old man would need to put Gardner away in the first few rounds.”

Worse, two days before the fight Fitzsimmons was described as “being attacked by a severe cold” and experiencing a stiffness in his joints. The man himself did not appear optimistic.

“I have not felt good in training. I seem to lack my usual speed. This cold has bothered me greatly, I have not been myself. It will be a fight between a good old man and a good young man…Gardner will know he has been fighting when I finish with him, even if I am half-dead.”

James Jeffries picked Fitzsimmons whilst Corbett favored Gardner by a knockout.

Jeffries would be proven right as Gardner was firmly outclassed, winning no more than three rounds of the 20 fought. His health still troubling him, Fitzsimmons also hurt both his hand in the fight, claiming a dislocated knuckle in his right hand as early as the fourth. In that fourth Gardner, “who seemed terrified of Fitzsimmons, or to be suffering from stage-fright” according to referee Edmund Graney, was sent halfway across the ring and down by a Fitzsimmons uppercut from which he didn’t recover for some rounds. Dropped again in the fifth, this time by a left, it seemed that Fitzsimmons had his man out and it was only a matter of time. 

“For round after round,” wrote The San Francisco Call, “it seemed Fitzsimmons could end matters at any time he wished. However he laid off and let Gardner recover when the Lowell man seemed about to go out…[a]fter the fight, Fitzsimmons produced a pair of badly damaged hands in explanation of his lack of effectiveness in punching.”

In the 14th Gardner was dropped again as Fitzsimmons continued to completely control the fight. Finally in the 19th, Gardner let rip with his famous body attack, and it did indeed seem to trouble Fitz, but it was too little too late. Furthermore, Fitz’s years of experience had taught him clever defense, and he caught the majority of Gardner’s headshots before they could land in those final two rounds. “I tried to knock him out,” explained the champion, “but my blows seemed to land on his arms and shoulders.”

Outclassed in every area, the light heavyweight champion of the world was never really in the fight, and although Fitzsimmons was labeled “out of condition” and the fight was regarded as one of the worst title fights seen in recent times, Ruby Robert had secured the triple-crown.

Is he the greatest fighter that has ever lived? That one will be debated for as long as there is boxing, but he certainly is in the running. In his first title challenge he outboxed the greatest boxer the sport had ever seen. In his second, he outlasted and outhit the heavyweight champion of the world fighting as a middle or super middleweight. In his last, he overcame illness and age to beat the incumbent light heavyweight champion of the world and overcome a man 15 years his junior utilizing defense and economy. He didn’t just overcome a variety of styles, he showed a variety of styles in doing so, boxing, slugging and shifting his way to a series of titles and a resume as deep and varied as almost any in history. 

Fitzsimmons may not be the fashionable choice, but Ruby Robert was as precious as any one of the great jewels of boxing.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Tyrell 09:16am, 04/22/2014

    He’ll give you fitz

  2. Lori 04:22pm, 07/24/2013

    DId Bob Fitzsimmons ever meet or presented with a gift from the King of England?

  3. bikermike 07:57pm, 03/30/2013

    Bob Fitzimmons has to be in the same paragraph as guys like Henry Armstrong…Sugar Ray Robinson…Micky Walker….to name just some
    Beat the best in the world at several weights…..
    Even today…lotsa fight fans know about Bob Fitzsimmons…Middle…then Heavy….then Lt Heavyweight Champions of the world….

  4. bikermike 07:51pm, 03/30/2013

    “Ruby Bob”...Fitzimmons was a skilled and patient fighter with great defensive skills….starting with his ...‘lean back ‘stance.

    Fitz was the kind of guy who’d lure you into a position..where you were either turning ...or advancing upon him…and he’d hit you with that vicious body punch….‘RIGHT IN THE SLATS’ as his wife used to shout in encouragement…

    If you were on the wrong foot or taking in a breath…end of the movie !!

    Guy loved to rumble…Stayed too long

    Poor guy left us in dementia…..yelling out for another title fight…

  5. Matt McGrain 12:21pm, 04/20/2012

    Thanks gents. I think Fitz was a terrible beast of a fighter, arguably further ahead of his contemporaries than even a fighter like Sugar Ray…direct comparisons are very difficult, but in most terms you’d care to talk in, Fitz is in this argument.  That’s a nice detail about Kid McCoy, Mike.

  6. Don from Prov 05:20am, 04/18/2012

    Enjoyed this one thoroughly!

  7. kredytbezbik 04:23am, 04/18/2012

    nice

  8. mikecasey 01:21am, 04/18/2012

    A triple whammy of an article, Matt! Fitz was everything you say he was. Kid McCoy, whose brilliant (if fragile) mind found out most of his opponents, admitted that he could never match Bob in a mental game of chess in their sparring sessions. Jeffries maintained that Fitz was the greatest short range hitter of them all.

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