Fitzsimmons vs. Maher II (and the greatest knockout we'll never see)
After a 389 mile train ride, 182 men stumbled down a ‘precipitous descent of a seldom-used wagon road’, continued ‘over rocks and boulders’, and found themselves ‘clutching at a bramble’ to avoid any potentially perilous slips. They were heading over to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to reach a place which was a long march for the nearest Mexican troops, and where the Texas rangers that had been with them every step of the way had no authority in.
Remove the punctuation and it almost reads like prose from a Cormac McCarthy western. Instead, it’s a partial description of the epic journey the ardent boxing fan had to go on to see the World heavyweight title being contested in 1896, with quotes from The New York Times account.
Long journeys across unfamiliar terrain were nothing new for the fighters.
Born in Cornwall, the red-haired and freckled Robert ‘Bob’ Fitzsimmons moved to New Zealand at 10 years old. As a teenager he started to build a powerful physique with hard work in a foundry, and then as a horse shoe maker which would eventually lend to one of his nicknames, ‘The Fighting Blacksmith’.
But he would have to harness the raw power he had. Making the move to Australia on the say-so of the immeasurably influential bareknuckle wizard Jem Mace—and receiving tutelage from one of the premier black heavyweights of the day Peter Jackson—Fitzsimmons learned all the tricks of the trade and proved himself a tireless trainer. As part of his regime Fitzsimmons regularly competed with bigger athletes in Greco-Roman wrestling exhibitions to demonstrate his strength.
After honing his skills against Australia’s best, Fitz set sail again, this time to the United States, the home of the heavyweight championship.
Not that he was a likely candidate for the crown to look at him. Years of working with his hands inside and outside the ring had paid off, with the Cornishman a physical specimen from the waist up, a Roman gladiator out of his time. Yet, Fitzsimmons had slender legs and never weighed over the modern super middleweight limit.
Lucky then that he was regarded as the most scientific fighter of his time, a patient trap-setter who beat up great fighters his own size and used his superior speed to not only drub the ‘Nonpareil’ Jack Dempsey and win the world middleweight championship, but also to lay waste to men much bigger than himself and claim two more titles.
Peter Maher was one of those bigger men.
An Irish immigrant to the United States, Peter Maher not only a stone heavier, he was 6 years younger and a knockout artist himself, sitting comfortably in the small club of men with over 100 stoppage wins when his career was done.
Whilst Fitzsimmons had beaten a better calibre of opposition than Maher, a punch up in five-ounce gloves with the Irishman was a risky proposition for anyone. It showed when they met for the first time, in 1892, with Fitzsimmons nearly being blasted out of the ring in the opening round, only for the crafty Cornishman to survive and pay the Irishman back. Maher conceded in 12 rounds.
Despite the conclusive ending, these men needed to trade blows again. It would be the best heavyweight in the world that made it happen.
‘The World Championship’
It’s 1896. Recently retired heavyweight champion ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett, an American with Irish roots, felt it better to bestow the title to someone of the same ancestry, and chose Maher, supposedly on the merit of decimating Steve O’Donnell, one of Corbett’s sparring partners.
Having beaten Maher already, Fitzsimmons claimed the title for himself, and sought to prove himself the better man once and for all. Some pundits agreed, with The Mansfield Daily Shield saying Maher’s claim was a ‘gift championship’, predating the debate over the merits of alphabet champions that boxing fans have today.
Consider the ‘National Police Gazette’ the premier boxing rag of its day. A popular and influential publication, boxing coverage was at the forefront of their sports coverage, and their articles are an excellent resource for boxing historians today. They put forth their diamond-encrusted belt for the Fitzsimmons-Maher rematch (consider it the equivalent of ‘The Ring’ title today if you will) with the two knockout artists the two best heavyweights left in the wake of Corbett’s retirement.
The 'Police Gazette’ certainly felt that Maher had to beat Fitzsimmons to bolster the claim bestowed upon him by Corbett:
“He has been hailed as the champion, but conservative, reasonable, thinking people, appreciate the fact that the simple act of handing a title to a man on a gold plate is not the only thing that is requisite to make him a champion”.
Whilst verifying early boxing records is a minefield (with many bouts not verified) a cursory look at Boxrec shows Maher had been in fine form since his first meeting with Fitzsimmons going 60-1-2 with 51 knockouts in just a little over three years.
Now, it’s a distinct possibility that some of these bouts never happened, or that we have yet to discover losses that took place. What is easy to verify is that when Peter Maher did fight he almost always won by devastating early knockout.
The fight was an easy sell, with a $10,000 purse put up by a party wanting to film the contest.
Unfortunately for Fitz, he didn’t just have a big puncher standing in the way of his path to a second world championship.
Originally set for El Paso, Texas, the Catron bill signed off by U.S President Grover Cleveland saw boxing banned nationwide. The U.S Attorney General Judson Harmon was quoted widely as saying ‘If they fight in any territory of the United States, we will follow them to the ends of the earth if necessary to bring them to justice’.
Adam Pollack (the leading historian working today covering the early heavyweight champions) wrote in his essential ‘In The Ring With Bob Fitzsimmons’ about the arduous journey to making the fight a reality:
To avoid the U.S legal authorities, the Fitz-Maher bout was held in Mexico, not near El Paso, as had been anticipated, but in a more remote location…General Marbry and 26 of his armed Texas rangers went with them to make sure they did not fight in a U.S territory. Apparently, 200 Mexican troops were stationed at Eagle Pass, but it would have taken two days of marching to reach the scene.
Thus, it was the perfect location. American authorities would have no jurisdiction, and Mexican troops were too far away to intervene.
More obstacles would get in the way of simple fisticuffs however: eye infections suffered by Maher caused a postponement before anyone could begin the long trek down south. Fitz was incensed: The New York Times quoted Fitzsimmons as calling Maher ‘a stiff’ and ‘a yellow dog’.
The sickness subsided. Within a week Maher’s condition improved. The bout was back on, with a ring pitched in the middle of nowhere and a 16 foot tall circus canvas surrounding it.
The train journey took the spectators to Langtry, Texas. Then they crossed the river on a makeshift bridge made just for the event. They also had to trudge their way through ‘500 yards of sand and mud’ according to The New York Times, to reach a bridge made especially for them to cross the river.
Maher looked tired around the eyes down to his recent sickness, but apart from that both men were in great condition. Reports vary of the weights, but Maher was as high as 180lbs, Fitz no higher than 167lbs.
And yet, there was another twist to the tale. With sporadic rainfall, the financial backers declared that the light was too bad and they would be unable to film the bout.
How would the fight film have even looked? The Edison Kinetoscope was the camera pegged to film the shootout, and it was a primitive piece of kit by modern standards. It is possible that the company in question might have shot the bout at 30 frames-per-second, which would not be displeasing to our eye.
A year before Fitzsimmons and Maher squared off for the second time, a Kinetoscope camera had filmed contest between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. You can see from this footage that it would be desirable to see a fighter as great as Bob Fitzsimmons in this quality, even if a comparison to modern high-definition footage would be a short one (and not the point either).
Alas, the fight was never filmed, or if it was the poor weather made it impossible to salvage it.
Neither fighter cared about the money by that point. Bragging rights took precedence. They donned their five ounce gloves. As said in The Davenport Daily Democrat: ‘The big fight for the heavyweight championship of the world is at last a reality’.
The bout may have been safe from outside interference, but Peter Maher didn’t fight like he wanted to stick around and see what happened. Maher was warned for hitting on the break less than a minute into the fight, and after Fitz mounted some offence Maher responded well, ‘landing his left on Fitz’s lip, drawing blood’ according to the post-fight report in The Davenport Weekly Democrat. Maher was confident, something he alluded to before the fight when talking to the ‘El Paso Daily Herald’:
“When Fitzsimmons defeated me at our first engagement I was a big, strong fellow to be sure, but a mere novice in the art of boxing. I was hardly more than a boy and had but the most elementary knowledge of the game of stop, hit and get away. Even at that I had Fitz nearly out in the first round, but I did not know enough to take advantage of points I had gained. I do not mean to repeat my former mistake and stay away from him. I honestly believe that I will win…Of one thing the sporting public can rest assured - the battle will be swift and hard…Fitz will have to knock me stone out to win”.
And Fitzsimmons was perhaps more capable of doing that than any other fighter in the history of boxing.
It was 20 seconds before Maher was even scraped off the floor. 10 minutes later, he came to and realised his hope of legitimising his claim to the title was over.
‘Fitzsimmons played the same old game he was played before’ said The Davenport Weekly Democrat, ‘leading on his opponent until he had him where he wanted him’.
‘Maher followed him up and led with his left, when Fitzsimmons side-stepped, and, swinging his right, landed full on the point of Maher’s chin’ said The New York Times. The El Paso Daily Herald saw it the same way with a ‘Quick as lighting’ Fitzsimmons cracking Maher with a right hook: ‘Maher’s head dropped, his frame trembled and he fell to the platform, rolled back until his head struck and then rolled again with his left arm on the floor, his head and feet slightly raised from the platform and his eyes turned white’.
Maher was counted out just 1 minute 35 seconds into the fight.
This may’ve been one of Fitz’s greatest knockouts, but given the protracted build-up you could be forgiven for imagining those who saw the fight were disappointed it ended so quickly.
Instead, Fitz and his big punch were praised unanimously. Adam Pollack summarised the post-fight chatter in his aforementioned opus ‘In The Ring with Bob Fitzsimmons’:
“He is a clever fighter, and I don’t know exactly where I was hit”, said a nonplussed Peter Maher. “It seems to me it was on the jaw and the back of my head has a big lump on it, and that’s where it struck the floor. I thought I had him licked from the start, and so far as my condition is concerned, I have nothing else to complain of, and I would like to get a fight with somebody else”.
“I got in on him with my right and caught him squarely on the jaw”, said Fitzsimmons. “I knew it was all over when I landed on him. It was dead easy from the start”.
Fitzsimmons however, did not feel fulfilled.
‘To show Corbett how little weight his championship present carried, I formally, through the Associated Press, renounce all claims to the belt and refuse to accept it.’
The inevitable bout between Fitzsimmons and the ‘retired’ Jim Corbett to finally prove who the real heavyweight champion was would be a while in the making, and when it finally happened motion picture cameras would be on hand to film the bout, giving us a good look at the greatest fighter in boxing history up until that point.
But even before the Cornishman got his shot at ‘Gentleman’ Jim he had already proved himself the hardest puncher in the World and the definition of pound-for-pound. The story of Fitz-Maher II is just one of many exciting and seemingly unbelievable chapters in what was a truly great career.
For further reading on the fighters mentioned in this article, be sure to check out Adam Pollack’s ‘In The Ring’ series, which feature the most comprehensive looks at both ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons you will find in any publications. These three make multiple appearances in Pollack’s books, but I would heartily recommend ‘In The Ring with James J. Corbett’, ‘In The Ring with Bob Fitzsimmons’, and ‘In The Ring with James J. Jeffries’ (all published by ‘Win by KO Publications’.
For further reading on Peter Maher go no further than Matt Donnellon’s ‘The Irish Champion Peter Maher: The Untold Story of Ireland’s only World Heavyweight Champion and the Records of the Men He Fought’.
For more coverage on the build-up to the fight and some of the main players involved in staging it, Kelsey McCarson over at The Sweet Science wrote an interesting piece called ‘Rumble on the Rio Grande’ which you can read here