Commenting on the sudden death of cricket legend W G Grace in October 1915, at a time when most of the world’s attention was of course on the grim progress of the First World War, the journalist A G Gardiner wrote:
In the midst of world-shaking events, something stirred me. For a brief moment I forgot the war, and was back in the age where we greeted the rising sun with light hearts, and where we used to be happy.
Something similar would surely have happened to sports-watchers almost exactly two years later, when, while his compatriots were struggling in the mud of Passchendaele, on 22 October 1917 another legendary sporting figure, the retired boxer Bob Fitzsimmons, succumbed to pneumonia in his Chicago home, at the age of just 54. He had hung his gloves up just three years previously.
Bob Fitzsimmons’s legendary status was one of those that would only grow with time, as he was the last British boxer to become the world heavyweight champion for over a century – or, sort of. I say “sort of”, because although he was a Cornishman, born in Helston, when he was a child his family moved first to New Zealand and then Australia (then again, these were the days of the British Empire, where Britishness could be claimed by anyone who lived in whichever of the Empire’s colonies). Additionally, he spent most of his career based in the United States, where most of his bouts took place, and where (naturally) he could make most money from his chosen sport.
Fitzsimmons first punched his way into world consciousness in the middleweight division, where, on 14 January 1891 in New Orleans he knocked out Jack “Nonpareil” Dempsey (not to be confused with Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion for most of the 1920s) in the 13th round to win the world title. He lost the title to Tom Sharkey five years later, after a disputed foul.
Just a year later Fitzsimmons moved up to the heavyweight division, and on 17 March 1897 he defeated the then world heavyweight champion Jim Corbett in a title fight in Carson City, Nevada. He had made just one successful title defence, when in June 1899 he was knocked out in Round 11 by another Jim, James J Jeffries. Three years later he lost another match to Jeffries in an attempt to regain his world title.
Undaunted, in 1903 the Cornishman then made what must have seemed a bizarre decision: he dropped down a division, to light-heavyweight, and actually won the world title on a points decision after his match with the then champion George Gardner on points in the 20th round. Fitzsimmons thus became the first boxer to win world titles in three separate divisions (and the only European boxer with this distinction). As with his previous successes, however, his reign as champion was limited here, as just over two years later he lost the title to Jack O’Brien. Fitzsimmons even got a chance to fight Jack Johnson in 1907, losing in a 2nd-round knockout just a year before Johnson became the first African-American world heavyweight champion.
In 1914, at the age of 51, Fitzimmons finally retired. He didn’t live very long to enjoy his retirement. Married four times, and also swindled a few times and with a gambling habit, he was almost penniless when he died three years later. Even though he had trouble hanging on to his titles, Fitzsimmons was for a long time renowned as a tough competitor and a hard puncher (the 8th hardest in history, according to Ring magazine). British boxing fans would have to wait a century for their next world heavyweight champion (in the form of Lennox Lewis). Finally, whatever personal troubles he might have had, the Los Angeles Herald of 22 October 1917 surely spoke for most connected with the Cornishman when it reported ‘All who have ever followed the history of the ring had a great respect for Bob Fitzsimmons.’