• Hit Him in the Slats Bob

    As we wait for Joseph Parker’s bid to become undisputed world heavyweight champion this weekend, how many of us recall that New Zealand’s first world heavyweight champion was Timaru’s Bob Fitzsimmons?

    Fitzsimmons was a Cornishman whose family moved to New Zealand when he was a child, and he grew up in Timaru where a statue of him, commissioned by Bob Jones, now stands.  The red-haired Fitzsimmons – nicknamed “Ruby Robert” and “the Freckled Wonder” – was relatively small for a heavyweight but he had developed enormous punching power from his work as a teenager in his father’s blacksmith’s forge and was renowned as one of boxing’s hardest ever punchers.

    He is the only man to win titles at three different weights – middle-weight, light heavyweight and heavyweight.  His first title was at middleweight, the next (amazingly) at heavyweight and the light heavyweight title came later (when he was 40), when the division was first recognised.  His most famous fight took place in 1897, in Carson City, Nevada, and was against the heavyweight titleholder “Gentleman” Jim Corbett.

    The fight, which was one of the earliest sporting contests to be filmed (and the film can still be seen), is remembered both for the manner of Fitzsimmon’s victory and for the role played by Fitzsimmon’s wife, Rose.  The much heavier Corbett was a worthy champion and was boxing well; he looked to be on course to retain his title.  But, late in the fight, Rose – who was ringside – famously called to her husband, “Hit him in the slats, Bob!”

    Rose had seen that Fitzsimmons needed to switch his attack from his opponent’s head to the body.  Fitzsimmons duly followed his wife’s advice, came in under Corbett’s lead, and unleashed his famous “solar plexus” punch.  The punch was so fearsome that Corbett went down and he was so disabled by its power that he was unable to continue.

    Fitzsimmons (and, one presumes, his wife as well) did not find it easy to enjoy the fruits of his success.  He spent unwisely, was addicted to gambling and was unduly susceptible to confidence tricksters.  But his achievement lives on as one of the great moments in boxing – and Rose’s injunction to “hit him in the slats” as one of the most perceptive and decisive interjections ever offered in a sporting arena.

    Joseph Parker’s efforts this weekend will not depend on such an interjection.  But he will carry with him, one hopes, in his fight against Anthony Joshua, the spirit of Bob Fitzsimmons – and of Rose.

    Bryan Gould

    25 March 2018