Transcript of podcast episode 60
This podcast contains historical language and content that some listeners may consider offensive. This includes language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Items in the collection, their content and their descriptions reflect the time period when they were created and the views of their creators.
Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
Dan McCaffery believes that Tommy Burns was one of the best pound for pound boxers who ever lived. Measuring a mere 5'7", Burns was the shortest man ever to hold the world heavyweight title, and the only Canadian born to do so as well. The first champ to travel the globe defending his title, he defeated the best boxers in the U.S, England, Ireland, France and Australia. He was also the first heavyweight champ to defend his title against an African American, in an era when most fighters adhered to the so-called 'colour line'. Burns had over half a dozen contests with black boxers before his clash with the legendary Jack Johnson, and is credited with being the first white heavyweight to give a black man a chance to win the title.
On today's episode we are in Sarnia, Ontario to chat with author and award-winning journalist Dan McCaffery. Dan will tell us about Tommy Burns' humble beginnings to his hard-won success, a heroic Canadian who continuously beat the odds to become the champion of the world.
[Quote from Tommy Burns]
"I will defend my title against all comers, none barred. By this I mean white, black, Mexican, Indian or any other nationality. I propose to be the champion of the world, not the white or the Canadian, or the American. If I am not the best man in the heavyweight division, I don't want the title."
JA: A quote from Tommy Burns after becoming the heavy weight champ of the world.
Dan McCaffery (DM): My name is Dan McCaffery, born in Sarnia, I'm 67 years old. I worked for 20 years at The Sarnia Observer daily newspaper where I was the editor for the last five years.
Before that, I worked at The Sarnia Gazette weekly newspaper for 15 years. I studied journalism at Lambton College in Sarnia. I had my first book published in 1988. It's about the flying ace Billy Bishop and this Tommy Burns was one of nine books I've had published.
JA: Dan published the only book on the Canadian boxer entitled Tommy Burns: Canada's Unknown World Heavyweight Champion. As with his other biographies and books on Canadian history, Dan spent years tracking down his subjects, through numerous interviews and contemporary accounts, as well as researching at Library and Archives Canada…
We asked Dan how he first became interested in Tommy Burns.
DM: I'd never heard of him when I was a sportswriter. I was a fan of boxing and I had no idea that Canada had produced a world heavyweight-boxing champion. But in 1974, Muhammad Ali came to Sarnia as a guest speaker at a sports celebrity dinner which was being held for charity. I asked Ali who his favorite boxer was and he said, "Jack Johnson." I'd never heard of Johnson. I looked up his record, found out that he was the first black heavyweight champion, and that he'd won the title by beating a Canadian named Tommy Burns.
JA: Tommy Burns was actually born Noah Brusso. We asked Dan if he could tell us about Noah's early life growing up in Hanover, Ontario.
DM: He was born in 1881 in a log cabin that was really a pioneer cabin from the 1850s. It was a little building with four rooms. He was one of 13 children and he was raised in poverty. His father was a cabinetmaker, didn't make a lot of money. Tommy often went to bed hungry. It was very tough times. The life expectancy of a Canadian in 1900 was 48 years, and five of his 12 siblings died before they reached adulthood. It was a very tough time for him. He went to school in a little two-room schoolhouse where the pupil-teacher ratio was 75 to 1. The discipline was very harsh. The teachers, from necessity, probably had to do it that way.
Kids who misbehaved were often locked in the closet. Nowadays, you'd never get away with anything like that. Most disturbingly, was when he fought for the school championship at age 10 against a 12-year-old boy, there were hundreds of people who watched this and many of the adults were there laying bets as two small children fought each other with bare fists until one was knocked unconscious. It's absolutely outrageous and something we'd never see today.
Narration: "I shall never forget the fight I had with Sam Hill, to settle the school championship. We met after a series of elimination bouts, which left us to settle, once and for all, who was really the 'boss man' at that little school. At last the prearranged day arrived and we met in a big vacant lot at the rear of the school. At least a hundred children were there, in addition to people from town who wanted to see the fun. The news had leaked out, and Sam was favoured in the betting, as he outweighed me and had a slightly longer reach. I figured I was in for plenty of trouble, so I kept away from Sam, boxing, dancing and skipping around. The crowd surged in and out around us, enjoying the scrap immensely. I finally ran into one of Sam's blows, which floored me. After a good rest, we went at it again and I knew then that I had his number. His punches had lost their original force, so I began to box freely. The going got hard, but we were at it about an hour before he was finally played out. Too tired to properly defend himself, he allowed me to slip through his guard and land a solid punch in the solar plexus. The blow did not seem so hard to me but he gave me an odd glazed look and slowly collapsed, like a deflating balloon. At 10, I was champion of the school."
JA: That was a quote from Tommy Burns from Dan McCaffery's book.
JA: Young Noah was thrilled with his victory and the attention it garnered him. Champion of the school at age 10. His parents however were not so pleased. On hearing about the fight at the school, Noah's mom Sofia pulled him out of class and arranged for him to work as a finisher in a furniture factory. His school days were over. He would work many jobs over the next few years—washing freight trains and piling lumber—all the while his mother helping him with his reading and writing. Entering his teens, Noah started getting into trouble, fighting in public and having run-ins with the police. It was around this time that he discovered sports, which may have saved him from a life of delinquency.
We asked Dan if Noah was a good athlete when he was younger.
DM: He was a superb athlete. He had played lacrosse, hockey, and figure-- Not figure skating, pardon me, power skating and he credited lacrosse and hockey with developing the strength in his legs. He had tremendous strength in both legs, which, as a boxer, he was very fast on his feet, and he could dart back and forth, left and right, and keep out of trouble. He credited it all to those two sports.
JA: After a few years of working odd jobs, and playing lacrosse, hockey and soccer in and around the small towns in Ontario, Noah eventually found himself in Sarnia, working as a bouncer at a riverfront tavern. He didn't stay in Sarnia long, getting a job as a baggage handler on a Great Lakes steamer ship that travelled between Buffalo and Cleveland. One afternoon, while docked in Detroit, 19 year old Noah got into a fight with the ship's steward. He won the fight, knocking the bigger man down multiple times, and was subsequently fired. Soon after jumping ship, he joined the Detroit Athletic Club and signed on with the local lacrosse team.
We asked Dan how Noah got into boxing.
DM: He didn't really get into it until he was on a ship. He was working on a freighter on the Great Lakes and he got into a fight with an older man on one of the ships and he got fired.
They were at Detroit and he set up shop in Detroit. He went to a boxing match just as a spectator and while he was there, one of the two participants, one of the two fighters injured himself, sprained his ankle trying to get into the ring. So they asked if there's anybody in the audience who would take his place. Tommy's friends knew he'd worked out a lot and they goaded him into taking the fight.
The fight, interestingly, was against a black fighter and that was kind of unheard of in those days for people to cross the colour line and fight black fighters, but Burns thought nothing of it. He fought this professional fighter named Fred Thornton who interestingly was a Canadian from Windsor, Ontario. He was a very good fighter, but Tommy knocked him out in his first fight.
JA: Young Noah did indeed win the fight, knocking out Freddie 'Thunderbolt' Thornton in the fifth round, and because the prize was a money one, earning him $1.25, it meant that he had entered the professional ranks.
You may have heard Dan mention 'the colour line'. We asked Dan if he could explain to us what this was.
DM: This was flagrantly drawn openly in the press. World heavyweight boxing champions refused to fight black fighters. Essentially, the world heavyweight boxing champion was the best American white man. They were all Americans who fought each other and called themselves the world champions. The first champion of the modern gloved era was a fellow named John L. Sullivan. He took out a newspaper ad in which he said, "I will fight all comers, first come first served who are white. I will not fight a Negro. I never have and I never shall."
Other—four more—champions came along and they're all in the newspapers. You can find the stories. They publicly drew the colour line. That's what the term was and they just flatly refused to fight blacks. A lot of them did it just because they were afraid of facing good black fighters but all of them were racist, of course. Tommy Burns, when he became champion, the first thing he did is say, "I will draw no colour line nor do I bar any man on earth." He'd already fought seven black fighters on his way up, which was highly unusual as it was.
He took a lot of heat for it but Burns refused to boycott black fighters because, he said, they're good fighters and "I can improve myself by fighting them." And he did. He didn't run for cover at the sight of black boxers and because of that, he was vilified by the American press when he lost the world heavyweight championship to a black man.
JA: Not only did he fight black fighters all throughout his career, but he also had black sparring partners and black friends. As Dan mentions in his book, Brusso didn't think that blacks should be denied equal opportunity to get ahead in the world, and as an underdog himself most of his life, he did not approve of the bullying of African Americans that he saw going on around him. Despite great pressure from his peers, he refused to draw the colour line.
After his victory over Thornton, Noah Brusso went into boxing full-time, with his next two fights ending in knockout victories for him. On January 4 of 1901, he beat Eddie 'The Bay City Brawler' Sholtreau in one minute 35 seconds to become the new Michigan middleweight champ. By the end of 1903, Noah Brusso had a record of 23 wins and one loss, the loss coming by way of decision at the hands of a much larger heavyweight fighter named Mike Schreck. Because Schreck was a heavyweight, Brusso didn't lose his Michigan middleweight title.
Then in January of 1904, Noah Brusso becomes Tommy Burns….Dan explains.
DM: At that time, he was still going by-- His real name was actually Noah Brusso. He had a fight with a fellow named Ben O'Grady, Ben 'Gorilla' O'Grady. They had a lot of colourful nicknames back then. In the fight, he knocked O'Grady unconscious and he was in a coma for several days in hospital. Tommy was arrested and spent time in jail and when he got out of jail, he decided to get out of Detroit and he moved to Chicago to fight there.
He changed his name because his mother was appalled by the fact that O'Grady nearly died and she really disapproved of him being a prizefighter. He changed his name to Tommy Burns thinking he'd hide his profession from her. Of course, that didn't work. As soon as he became famous the newspapers told everybody including his mother that Tommy Burns was actually Noah Brusso. He moved to Chicago and became a fighter there with a new name. He picked the name Tommy Burns because it was an Irish-sounding name and people thought Irish fighters were great. Also, it was the name of a popular Canadian jockey of the era, and that's how he became Tommy Burns.
JA: Tommy was charged with assault and thrown in jail for knocking Ben 'Gorilla' O'Grady unconscious. The charges were eventually dropped, but Tommy was banned from fighting in Michigan for a year. He made his way to Chicago, and before his fourth fight as 'Tommy Burns', he was approached and offered money to take part in a fix. He was supposed to take a dive and let a fighter named Tony Caponi win, in exchange for $1000. He was threatened with having his legs broken if he didn't go along with the con. Tommy refused to throw the fight, and won in six rounds. Worried about retribution for not going along with the fix, he left Chicago and headed west to Salt Lake City, Utah. He had only one fight in Salt Lake City, against a heavyweight named Joe Wardinski, whom he knocked out in the first round with a left hook. Tommy even travelled up to Nome, Alaska for a spell. He finally settled in Los Angeles, California where he would make his home for many years.
By the end of 1905, Tommy's record was an amazing 30 wins, 24 coming by way of knockout, four losses and seven draws, all in the middleweight division. At the beginning of 1906, Tommy decided to start fighting in the heavyweight division. We asked Dan why he made this change.
DM: He started out as a middleweight but the weight limit was 158 pounds, and he was having a terrible time getting down to that limit. If on the day of the fight, you weighed 159, you couldn't fight. He practically starved himself for days on end, sometimes going a couple of days in a row without eating. When he got into the ring, as he got older, he's having just a dreadful time getting down to 158. He was weak and he was losing fights and tying fights so he decided he would move up.
He should have probably gone up to the light heavyweight division where the weight limit was 170, but he decided if he's going to go up, he'd go all the way up to heavyweight, which is the glamour division where the money was. Of course, you could be any weight you wanted up there. Problem was he was only at 5'7". He was the shortest heavyweight champion in history. He was facing guys who were usually a head taller than him and 30, 40 pounds heavier than him but he pretty well cleaned up the field. He was a terrific boxer and once he became stronger, he was able to take on much larger men than him.
JA: Tommy's first fight as a heavyweight would come against the reigning heavyweight champ, Marvin Hart. Five inches shorter and forty pounds lighter than Hart, no one gave 24-year-old Burns much of a chance. The Chicago Journal openly mocked Burns, pocking fun at his small town Canadian roots, declaring he was from 'Muskrat Falls', Canada. Boxing reporter George Siler wrote:
Narration: "The coming battle is not causing the interest that a battle of its importance should, presumably because Burns is not considered classy enough to take part in a championship battle. The champion will have a decided advantage over Burns in height, weight and reach and there is no doubt he will have it on Burns in science. With all these advantages, to which should be added hitting power, there is no reason why he should not knock out his smaller opponent within 10 rounds. This will be Tommy Burns' first heavyweight battle and although he might have improved his skill and weight, he still seems far outclassed."
The match took place on February 23, 1906 in Los Angeles. Burns was a 2-1 underdog. It was a scheduled 20-round fight that went the distance, with 4,000 fans in attendance. Here's reporter Stanley Weston on the fight…
Narration: "At the opening bell, Hart rushed across the ring to make short work of Burns. Burns, much faster, easily avoided the rushes and peppered long lefts into Hart's face. Burns kept Hart broiling throughout the fight by taunting him. In the fifth, he closed Hart's right eye. From then on, Burns danced in the direction of Hart's blind eye and belted the so-called champion at will."
Another reporter from the San Francisco Call:
Narration: "From start to finish, with the possible exception of the tenth and twelfth rounds, when Hart had a small advantage, Burns outfought the bigger man, outgeneraled him and beat him at every point in the game of boxing. At times Burns, although greatly handicapped in weight and height, made Hart look like a novice.
In the opening round, Burns was nervous and lacked confidence. After this, however, he quickly sized Hart up and began a systematic attack on his face and body with straight lefts. In the third round he started the blood flowing from Hart's nose and kept it running in almost every round thereafter. In the fifth Burns cut Hart over the right eye and in the following rounds battered the optic until it was closed. The left eye was also badly marked. Hart's face presented a bloody sight practically throughout the fight.
Hart failed to show any sort of championship form. At boxing, he stood no show with Burns and at in-fighting his superior strength failed to offset the clever smaller man's generalship. Hart's persistent attempts to rough it in the clinches earned the disapproval of the crowd which appeared to be with Burns almost to a man.
Burns' style of attack was to shoot his left to the face or the body and step inside of Hart's swings, allowing them to go around his neck or ducking them entirely. Hart simply could not land on Burns, and toward the latter part of the fight tried hard to rough it and wear Burns out by using his weight in the clinches. The fight was tiresome, one round being much like the preceding and following ones.
In the fourteenth Burns appeared to have a chance to knock Hart out. He caught the bigger man a right and left on the jaw that sent him staggering for a moment. Quickly seizing his advantage, Burns hammered Hart about the face and head until he forced him to cover up and give ground. The crowd went wild with enthusiasm for Burns' effective work.
In the last few rounds seeing the tide of battle going against him Hart, urged by his chief second, Tommy Ryan, tried desperately to corner his quick-witted opponent and administer a knockout. Every attempt failed, however, and every round increased Burns' lead."
JA: The fight was over and the referee made his decision. He raised Tommy's arm in the air, declaring him the winner. For the first and only time, a Canadian held the World Heavyweight Championship. Immediately after the fight, a reporter asked him if he would draw the colour line. We asked Dan what Tommy Burns replied.
DM: When Tommy won the title, the first thing he said is, "I will defend my title against all comers. None barred. By this, I mean white, black, Mexican, Indian, or any other nationality. I propose to be the champion of the world, not the white or the Canadian or the American. If I am not the best man in the heavyweight division, I don't want the title." That was reported in the newspapers and you can find it on microfilm. That's the first thing he said.
JA: After gaining the title, Tommy's first two title defenses happened on the same night! On March 28th of 1906 he fought both Jim O'Brien and Jim Walker, knocking out both men in the first rounds. The wins did not impress the media and fans, saying that the boxers were not viewed as 'real' contenders. Tommy then beat four more men over five fights, defeating Jack O'Brien twice, Jim Flynn, Joe Grimm and the Australian heavyweight Champ, Bill Squires. All men much taller and larger than himself. The Burns-Squires fight took place July 4th of 1907 in San Francisco. It only lasted two minutes and eight seconds, with Squires being knocked out in the first round.
What was Tommy's secret? How was he able to beat opponents so much bigger than him? Dan gives us some insight.
DM: Mainly because he was very fast, a lot of them were very crude boxers who'd done nothing about anything except charging ahead and taking wild swings, big powerful swings which Tommy easily ducked. He'd get in close. He was very good at infighting. He had a great uppercut. He was a man who studied boxing and he considered it a science. He just outclassed them. He also taunted his opponents mercifully. He was always insulting them in the ring and goading them. He did it to get them off their game, to get them angry. He said, "If a man loses his head, he'll lose the fight."
He was a short man at 5'7" and he would crouch low and he'd keep his gloves up near his face and looking out over them in a peekaboo style. He was a difficult target to hit because he was small. Another secret to him, if you look at his pictures, he had incredibly long arms. He looks like an orangutan. They go almost down to his knees. He had this tremendously long reach. Other opponents would think they were out of range of him and suddenly they'd get smacked in the face because he had this long reach. As I say, he was very nimble, he's fast on his feet and they weren't. These are big straight-ahead boxers who had fought in lumber camps and they've fought in the streets and they'd never really studied the art of boxing. They're just big he-men.
JA: We asked Dan how Tommy's life changed after he became the champ.
DM: He became rich for one thing and he became world-famous. He immediately decided he wanted to collect the championship belts of other fighters. He defended his title against 'Philadelphia' Jack O'Brien, who was the world light heavyweight champion. Interestingly, O'Brien was bigger than Tommy Burns although he was the light heavyweight champion. After he defeated him, he then went on a world tour to collect the belts of the champions of every boxer in every country where boxing was legal. He defeated the champions of England and Ireland and Australia and South Africa. He even defended his title in Paris. He was in Dublin where he defeated the Irish champion on St. Patrick's Day. He defeated the English champion in London.
Until Tommy came along, the so-called world champions had never fought anybody but Americans. He took his title on the road and defended it all over the world, which is not easy to do in those days because it was difficult to get around. There was only 200 miles of paved roads in the United States and there was no cars to speak of and there was no airplanes. You had to travel by rail and the trains were slow. Tommy, before he became champion, even went up to Alaska where he fought in a saloon against a local legend named 'Klondike' Mike Mahoney. He was everywhere, from Sydney, Australia to Alaska. He was in all over Europe. He was a true world heavyweight champion.
JA: Tommy did indeed go all over the world for fights, battling Europe's top men for their titles, none giving him much chance even though he was the heavyweight champ. He seemed to be the underdog at every turn. Tommy's first fight overseas came in December of 1907 at the posh National Sporting Club in London England. The English fans didn't think much of Tommy and his diminutive size, convinced that their English champ, James 'Gunner' Moir could easily beat him and become the next World Heavyweight Champ. Burns knew he wasn't being taken seriously as the champ. In a letter home he wrote:
Narration: "London is a great place, and the sports fans treat me royally, but they look upon me as a farmer does on a turkey he is fattening up for Thanksgiving Day. I went to the National Sporting Club to see one of their fights and met Gunner Moir there. We were introduced and I was given a fine reception, but nothing compared to what they gave him. They almost tore down the house when he stepped up to the ropes. While I was waiting to be introduced, I heard remarks from all sides of the ring. Some of them were saying that I was too small, others laughed at the size of me compared with Moir, and others said "Poor fellow, wait 'til the Gunner gets him." Moir is a big fellow, weighing, I would say, 200 pounds, and is about three inches taller than I am. He is a big favourite over here and I think they will bet the Bank of England on him in this fight."
Narration: "That's champion Tommy Burns taking off his sweatshirt, and then he will proceed to take off the trousers that he entered the ring in. The National Sporting Club where this fight is taking place is very cold and both fighters were shadowboxing for 20 minutes to keep warm prior to entering the ring. It's a common axiom in boxing, "Don't get caught cold in the first round." There is English heavyweight champion Gunner Moir on the other side of the ring. Moir weighed in this evening at 203 pounds. As the fighters go to the centre of the ring, they are told that the referee will be doing his job from outside of the ring. This means that when he shouts for the fighters to break, they must break of their own accord.
We're just seconds away from the start of round one. After his seconds rub some grease on his head, heavyweight champion Tommy Burns moves right out as he always does, taking on the role of aggressor even though he measures only 5'7" tall. English challenger Gunner Moir, at 5'10 ½" tall, is much the taller of the two.
Burns is always pressing, always putting pressure on the taller and heavier challenger. Moir seems content to fight a defensive battle here in round one, but Tommy Burns, stalking relentlessly, catches up with him momentarily and lands two smashing overhand rights to the challenger's head. The referee is the sole judge in case this fight goes to a decision. As we come to the end of round one, it's scored in favour of Tommy Burns who comes to his corner with a big grin on his face.
Rounds two and three were fought on even terms with neither fighter getting an advantage. Here in round four, Moir will try to utilize his size and weight advantage as he clinches with Burns, but Tommy is able to get away. With an 18-pound weight advantage and 3 1/2 inches in height, it would appear that Moir would have a distinct physical edge over champion Tommy Burns, but Tommy has proved to be a little giant amongst the heavyweights of his time. He more than merely holds his own: he takes on the role of the aggressor and so far has proceeded to flatten anybody and everybody in his way.
Moir has seemed to take the play away from the champion here in the middle of round four and has been working Tommy over in the clinches. Burns seems befuddled by Moir's newly aggressive tactics. Watch Burns come back and land three good solid right hands to the head and floor Gunner Moir here in the last seconds of the round. Moir takes the count of five before rising courageously to continue the action but the bell ending the round sounds before Tommy could move in. Going into the 10th round and halfway point in this scheduled 20-round bout, Tommy is far ahead on points. Moir has been told to step up the pace if he expects to win this fight.
Watch as Tommy Burns attacks and nails Moir with a jolting right, a left and then another right. Moir goes down for a count of six. He rises, determined to put on a valiant effort before his own countrymen, but Burns, moves in again. He is going to pull out all the stops.
Moir is just trying to fight defensively until he can recover. Burns will land a smashing overhand right which has a delayed action effect that topples the taller Moir after a few seconds elapses. Moir takes the count of five and then the game challenger is up again, but Tommy Burns will send home a crushing right that will send Moir reeling across the ring. Burns connects with another devastating right and sends Moir down for the third time in this round.
This time, it's for the full count as Tommy Burns has done it again. This is the sixth successful defense of his heavyweight title which he won just two years ago. Tommy is congratulated by his corner men and many of the fans. Burns, the shortest man ever to hold a heavyweight title has disproved the old adage that a good big man can beat a good little man as he scores a 10th round KO over English heavyweight champion Gunner Moir. Little Tommy Burns, winner and still heavyweight champion of the world."
JA: After his victory over Moir, Tommy decided to stay in London, racking up wins against Jack Palmer, and Irish champ Jem Roche, whom he defeated in one minute and 28 seconds into the fight, making it the fastest knockout in a world heavyweight championship bout. A record that still stands today, over 100 years later. His last two fights on the continent came in Paris, where he defeated Bill Squires once again with an eighth round knockout, and against the South African Jewish boxer, Joseph Smith. His fight with Smith was the first time a champ had agreed to a bout with a Jewish boxer.
After his success in Europe, Burns set sail for Australia, arriving in August of 1908. We asked Dan why Tommy went Down Under.
DM: That's another thing that happened to Tommy Burns. It was widely reported that he was a coward who had fled around the world, who escaped from Jack Johnson. 10 months before the fight, they had secretly agreed to fight in Sydney, Australia. There was probably no American city that would host a heavyweight championship fight with a black man fighting a white man, so they did it in Australia. There was a guy named Hugh McIntosh, who was the promoter; he set the whole thing up. He even built a 30,000-seat stadium in Sydney and immediately sold out the fight. It was held there because they could get a big crowd and because it would be legal to hold it.
JA: The fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson was scheduled to take place in Sydney, Australia on Boxing Day, 1908.
Narration: "It's December 26, 1908, and world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns defends his title in Sydney, Australia against Jack Johnson. Here's Tommy Burns getting himself into the best shape of his entire career. In nine days, Tommy will defend his title against the scourge of the heavyweight ranks, Jack Johnson. Tommy knows that this is going to be the fight of his life. Johnson is training 17 miles away at Rushcutters Bay. Even the sedate Australian sportswriters have been pulling out all of the stops in describing Johnson's workouts throughout his training period.
There has been a general consensus of opinion that Johnson combines perfect defense and bouts with an offensive punching attack which leaves little to be desired in a professional fighter. This is the scene at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, Australia at one o'clock in the afternoon. It's an electric excitement that's captured the fans as they prepare to watch Burns make the 12th defense of his heavyweight championship."
JA: The challenger was 30 pounds heavier and seven inches taller than Burns, who also had come down with the flu, and had spent the week before the fight in bed. Burns tried to postpone the battle, but promoter Hugh McIntosh insisted it go on as planned, as 25,000 tickets had already been sold. The day of the fight, over 40,000 fans showed up, some even sleeping there the night before, hoping to get tickets. At 11:15 am, the bell sounded for the start of round one. The fight of the century was under way, and for the first time as champ, Burns was the betting favourite.
Fists flew. Neither man held back. Burns got knocked down to the canvas. He was up by the count of five. Got off a good punch to Johnson's chin which stunned the challenger. Burns got knocked down again in round two, and by the end of the round, his left eye was swelling and his mouth was bleeding. In round three, Burns changed tactics, getting in close and infighting, hammering Johnson in the ribs, and finally managing to win a round. The men kept trading blows. Both were bruised and bleeding. Burns hit the canvas once again in round seven. By the twelfth, the champ's jaw was badly swollen and his right eye was now cut and bleeding. Johnson was clearly ahead on points.
In round 14, Burns took a wicked punch to his head that sent him down again. Up by the count of eight, Tommy was ready to continue fighting, but he never got the chance. The police entered the ring to stop the fight, claiming he was too injured to go on. The referee pointed to Jack Johnson as the winner. The heavyweight championship of the world had passed into the hands of a black man for the first time in history.
DM: He went 14 rounds and there's not much footage of it. Only about 12 minutes of the fight is on film and the early rounds are missing. That's when Tommy did his best from what I read. I relied a lot on the Australian media because they weren't as biased as the American reporters who were there. They credited Tommy with winnings about three rounds of the 14, which is not a lot but they figured maybe another one was tied. Jack Johnson was a legitimate winner. He scored four knockdowns during the fight. It was not totally one-sided. Johnson had a cut lip, and he had broken ribs which he went to the hospital to have taped. Tommy had a tremendously badly swollen jaw, and he was bleeding from the mouth and the nose. I think the police stepped in to stop the fight and because they thought he was getting beaten too badly. They were probably correct.
JA: Immediately following the fight, there seemed to be a campaign to discredit Tommy Burns, starting with Jack Johnson. He told reporters that Burns was the worst fighter he had ever faced saying "I have forgotten more about boxing that Burns ever knew." This was an interesting comment coming from Johnson who had to spend a week in hospital after the fight, for broken ribs and other injuries. The press and former heavyweight champs also got involved in tarnishing Burns' reputation…
We asked Dan why this happened.
DM: What happened was when he agreed to fight Jack Johnson, there was widespread condemnation in the American press about this. The American former champions all blasted him saying, "You shouldn't be putting the championship at risk," as they termed it. When he lost the title to Jack Johnson, The New York Times said in the front-page editorial, "There's a need to do something about this at once." Even the very prestigious publications were ranting and raving about how terrible it was that a black person should be the champion of the world. One of the ways they decided to discredit Jack Johnson was to discredit the man Johnson had beaten.
The argument being that, if Johnson wasn't very good, the man he beat for the title must be even worse. It was described as the actual fight itself as totally one-sided which is nonsense. Tommy lasted 14 rounds. Johnson was clearly the better fighter and deserved to win the title but it was not as one-sided as it was said to be at the time. It was easy to lie those days because there's no television and if you weren't at the fight which was held in Australia, you had no idea what went on. You had to trust the reporter who's writing about it.
One of the worst was Jack London, the famous novelist. He painted a picture of Tommy as the biggest loser in history. It was accepted and down through the years, he was vilified for having fought a black man and losing the title to a black man. He was generally listed as the worst heavyweight champion in history, which is frankly preposterous because he'd beaten Marvin Hart who must have been better than him. I did a study of all the heavyweight champions up to the year 2000. My opinion is looking at his record in there, he was about the middle of the pack. For a little guy, that's pretty impressive. He's better than about 17 of the heavyweight champions in history.
JA: How many heavyweight champs have there been?
DM: I counted 35. Nowadays, it's impossible to say because there's four different governing bodies and it's ridiculous. At any one time, you can have three or four heavyweight champions. There's something called the lineal championship. The man who beat the man from John L. Sullivan's time right up until now. I believe there's 35 of them.
JA: Burns' reign as heavyweight champion lasted for two years, ten months and three days. His 14 consecutive successful title defenses is the fourth highest total in heavyweight history
We asked Dan what life was like for Burns after the loss.
DM: After that, he was emotionally crushed because the title had meant everything to him. Of course, he was humiliated in the newspapers. He tried fighting from time to time. I think, that was 1908, the next 12 years, he fought seven times.
He didn't really do well. He had a lot of money, so he was okay financially until 1929 when the stock market crashed, started the Great Depression and he lost most of his money. A lot of people committed suicide in that sort of position but Tommy just picked himself up and took any job he could find including a security guard and went to Seattle, Washington. He became a minister of religion where he went around preaching about love. He even then went to a black Baptist church in Oakland where he heavily praised Jack Johnson and said that Johnson was a terrific fighter who deserved to win the fight. He came back to Canada in 1955 just to visit a friend and he died of a heart attack there. He's buried in Vancouver.
JA: What is his reputation now that over 100 years have passed? Did he ever gain respect?
DM: Well, in the few books, there'll be the odd laudatory comment but there really was nothing until my book came along. I have noticed in boxing forums and on the Internet and Internet blogs that his reputation does seem to be restored, and it is accepted that he was a much better fighter than he was believed to be back in 1908. So he has been restored somewhat although, of course, boxing itself is a dying sport, and probably for the best. It's outrageous, knowing what we know now about blows to the head and concussions. It's a sport that's time has passed.
I just like to think of him as a great athlete and a trailblazer. He broke the colour line in major league sports. He also demanded big money for athletes.
He made $30,000 for his fight in Sydney against Jack Johnson and that was back when people were making $3,000 or $4,000 a year. He got big money for athletes. He changed the training methods. He broke the colour line. He was a very important athlete. Being an important boxer, I don't think it matters much anymore but he was a very influential and important athlete.
JA: Burns has since been posthumously inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and in 2012, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1908, just before he lost the title, Burns published a book entitled Scientific Boxing and Self Defense (Burns, Tommy. 1908. Scientific Boxing and Self Defence. London: "Health & Strength"). This rare book includes details on the 'scientific' basis of boxing, ring strategy and tactics, proper diet and conditioning. Burns also writes about his childhood and how he got his start in boxing, as well as commenting on certain opponents he faced over the years. LAC also holds Tommy Burns' war record. That's right! In 1914, Burns, at the age of 33, volunteered in the Canadian Army. Although he never saw combat, he was given the rank of Sergeant-Major and made a physical fitness instructor. For four years, Burns helped train Canadian soldiers for the physical demands the war in Europe would demand of them. To view Tommy's war record, go to the related links section on the podcast page. There you'll see a link to his 42-page military record. You could also find it using LAC's Collection Search tool by typing in 'Noah Brusso'.
LAC recently digitized two films from its collection showing Tommy Burns in action that are now available to watch online! They are silent films of two of his famous fights. The first is his November 1906 fight against Philadelphia Jack O'Brien in Los Angeles. The hour-long film shows the news coverage of the match, plus the complete ten rounds and the aftermath. The second is a shorter, two-minute clip of his 1907 fight against Australian Bill Squires at Ocean View, California. In both films, Tommy successfully defends his heavyweight title. You can view these films by following the links in the related resources.
Tommy Burns ended his career with a record of 48 wins, five losses, nine draws and one no-decision. He also holds numerous records still to this day, over 100 years after his reign as champ ended. Dan tells us about them…
DM: Tommy actually has four records. He's the only heavyweight champion to fight two boxers in one night. At 5'7", he is the shortest in history. He has the fastest knockout in history of a champion defending his title when he took out the Irish champion in one minute and 28 seconds. He had the record of eight consecutive knockouts by a champion defending his title. Larry Holmes, in the late 20th century, tied that record and he chortled, "I'm going to make Tommy Burns famous," because he was going to break the record and Tommy would get mentioned in the newspapers. But Larry Holmes failed to do it and Tommy shares that record with Holmes. So he has four records, 100 years after he stopped fighting.
No, if he'd been American, he'd be celebrated as the little guy who constantly found a way to win in big upsets. He's a real-life Rocky Balboa and he would also be celebrated for giving black people a chance to fight and for setting all these records against what appeared to be impossible odds. But Canada has always been reluctant to celebrate its heroes, and this is one of the more shameful examples of that.
JA: If you'd like to learn more about Tommy Burns at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On the episode page for this podcast, you will find a number of links related to Tommy Burns' life and legacy, including our Flickr album, which highlights a selection of photos from our collection.
Thank you for being with us. I'm Josée Arnold, your host. You've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you." A special thank-you to our guests today, Dan McCaffery. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque, Normand Laplante, Théo Martin and Steve Moore for their contributions to this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
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