Ninety-three years separate Britain’s first heavyweight champion and its second, Lennox Lewis, so it comes as no surprise that the first man from these shores to win boxing’s most coveted title has been largely left to the history books.
Born in Cornwall in 1863, Bob Fitzsimmons was the first man in boxing’s long and colourful history to become a three-weight world champion, is regarded as one of the hardest punchers in the sport’s history and holds the Guinness World Record for lightest ever heavyweight champion - simply put, he’s bonafide boxing great.
At the age of nine, Fitzsimmon’s family swapped life on the south coast of England for New Zealand, making a mammoth 12,000-mile trek to the island of Timaru. Upon leaving school, Bob went to work with his brother as a blacksmith - the strength he built labouring away with his sibling would no doubt have a significant impact on his legendary punching prowess in the ring later on.
In 1880, Jem Mace, a legendary bare-knuckle champion from Norfolk, came to Timaru to set up a boxing tournament which Fitzsimmons swiftly entered and almost as swiftly won, knocking out four poor souls in one night - all those days slaving at the forge were clearly starting to take effect.
After winning the tournament for a second time the following year, Fitzsimmons went pro and would spend the first seven years of his blossoming career in Australia honing his skills. In 1890, happy with how he’d progressed as a fighter, the man from Cornwall decided to make another trip across the globe - this time to San Francisco in search of boxing glory.
At first, the Stateside audience mocked the strange Brit who’d travelled a total of 25,000 miles since leaving his home country all those years ago, especially over his appearance (he would often wear heavy woollen underwear to conceal the disparity between his trunk and leg-development.)
Three stoppage wins in quick succession soon silenced his critics and a shot at Jack Dempsey (not the future heavyweight champion - he wouldn’t be born for over a decade) and the Middleweight World Title.
Fitzsimmons stunned the boxing world when he stopped the Irishman in 13 rounds, knocking him down 13 times along the way and was even forced to beg his badly beaten opponent and the referee to put a halt to proceedings before further damage was done.
Struggling to make the middleweight limit, Fitzsimmons turned his attention to the heavyweight division - the light-heavyweight division wasn’t formed until 1903, hence such an unprecedented leap in weight class.
A meeting with ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett in 1897 meant Fitzsimmon’s name would be immortalised in the annals of boxing forever when he, at just 11 stone 13 pounds, stopped his much larger foe in 14 rounds with a crunching body shot to seize the heavyweight title.
Conceding a whopping 16 pounds in weight to his eventual victim, this was a true David vs Goliath story.
His reign at the top lasted two-and-a-half years and came to a close when he ran into the formidable James L Jeffries, who stopped the well-travelled Brit inside 11 rounds. Fitzsimmons conceded 39 pounds and 12 years to the eventual victor and in defeat, his popularity surged even further.
Fitzsimmons attempted to regain the title three years later but this time was stopped by Jeffries in just eight rounds. Jeffries, who would go on to dominate the heavyweight division for nearly a decade, claimed his vanquished opponent was ”the most dangerous man alive.”
In 1903, Fitzsimmons, aged 40 and now known as the “The Grand Old Man of the Ring,” was still not satisfied with what he had accomplished in his career and set his sights on the newly formed light heavyweight division’s throne.
Bob made history by defeating World Light Heavyweight Champion George Gardiner by a decision over 20 rounds and thus became the first boxer to win titles in three weight divisions.
Fitzsimmons was a true boxing pioneer and paved the way for, not only British heavyweights but many other boxing greats, proving that anything is possible in the ring if you work hard and believe in your abilities.
Fitzsimmons retired at the age of 50 in 1914 and died just three years later. At his funeral, 3,000 arrived to mourn his loss, a testament to the great pugilist’s popularity - there will never be another like him.