|"Pugilist Tommy Burns 1906. Location unknown. CHM."|
My history posts have root in a daily a lot almanac feature I began here back in 2000, they have just gotten out of hand and grown from brief snippets to often articles that are way too long. But they are usually still in some way tied to a specific date. Not this one.
This one was inspired by stumbling on to a post by Jeff Nichols on the interesting Facebook group CHICography of a picture from the collection of the Chicago Historical Museum. A cracked and damaged photo shows a muscular young man standing arms folded and stripped from the waist up peering intently directly into the camera. He stands in front of an industrial cityscape—looming dark buildings, belching smoke stacks, and even a slanting glass skylight suggesting that the picture had been taken on some rooftop. The picture was captioned simply “Pugilist Tommy Burns, 1906. Location unknown.”
|An IWW "Nuless Wonder" in a framiliar pose. He's got his shirt on.|
I vaguely remembered the Burns was the Heavyweight Champion who Jack Johnson whipped to become the first Black man to win the Belt. Beyond that I knew little about him. What first struck me about the picture was not the subject’s identity but the striking resemblance to the figures we used to call the Nutless Wonders—the macho and muscular male workers shown heroically on the illustrated covers of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) literature, Industrial Worker cartoons, and Silent Agitator stickers. They were shown only from the waist up and were frequently shirtless.
When I posted the picture to an IWW group with a snarky comment it caused someone to ask if maybe Burns had been a Wobbly. Some early 20th Century athletes including Jack Dempsey and a handful of baseball players had carried Red Cards at some time in their lives. That set me off on quick research of Burns. I uncovered no connection to the One Big Union, but I did discover that Burns was a real hero and not just for his battles in the ring.
Burns is largely a footnote in boxing history as an interim figure between the John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett era and Jack Johnson, arguably not only the first Black Champ but the first truly modern Heavyweight. But there is much more to the story.
He was born as Noah Brusso on June 17,1881in Hanover, Ontario, Canada into a large and impoverished family which included deep French roots and more recent German immigrants. Five of his siblings died in childhood. But young Noah was not only healthy, became a gifted athlete and locally well known and sought after by ice hockey and lacrosse clubs. He was tough, speedy, and resilient in the often brutal amateur and semi-pro leagues he played in.
He turned to boxing in 1900 while still participating in the team games. Income potential in hockey and lacrosse was limited, but boxing was a ticket out of poverty for many tough young men. He began with club fights around Detroit and Windsor. Still fighting under his own name, he picked up experience touring the mining camps and towns of the Minnesota Iron Range, Michigan Upper Peninsula, and Ontario working smokers and socials of fraternal organizations and unions. He barnstormed taking on all comers. Not only did he hone his skills, but the idea of taking all challenges would be carried over as he moved up the ranks as a pro.
He was fighting as a lightweight when he began getting on the cards of more prestigious events. He also began using the Scottish sounding moniker Tommy Burns for the same reason that American boxers of various nationalities fought as Irishmen—it sold more tickets, especially in his native Canada with a large Scotts population. It was the kind of shrewd business moves that the young fighter was known for. Unlike most boxers, he managed himself, including setting up matches, bookings, and publicity. Without the usual sticky fingers of managers and handlers, he was able to actually keep and save money—a real rarity in the boxing world. He was also able to steer clear of the gamblers and fixers who plagued the sport.
Burns began fighting in 1900 as a lightweight, but moved up divisions rapidly as he bulked up. By 1902 he won the Michigan Middleweight championship as a middleweight. In 1904, shortly after beginning to use the name Tommy Burns, he turned light heavyweight and was battling top contenders for the championship. He lost in Philadelphia that year to Jack O’Brien but was undeterred. He trained harder and put on more weight, determined to win the Heavyweight championship.
He made the division—barely. He was smaller and lighter than all of his heavyweight opponents but had an exceptionally long reach for his size. He was small and quick against lumbering opponents. He liked to get close in and pummel them with body blows and a wicked left jab. He could dodge many punches but also absorb punishment without going down.
Burns quickly got a big chance in his new division in 1905 when he knocked out contender Dave Barry in San Francisco. Promoter Tom McCarey proposed a matchup with World Heavyweight Champion Marvin Hart. Hart had won the vacant championship after Jim Jeffries retired in July 1905 in a fight with another top contender. He was also one of the few men who had won a decision against Jack Johnson, the most dominant heavyweight of the time. But Johnson was Black and neither Hart nor any other white fighter would give him a crack at the Championship. So when Hart had to defend his title, he picked Burns instead, probably figuring on an easy victory.
The bout took place in Los Angeles in 1906 retired heavyweight champ Jeffries refereed. Burns out boxed Hart in twenty rounds and took the championship and a purse of $15,000.
In short order Burns knocked out Fireman Jim Flynn, won a grueling 20 round re-match decision against Barry, and scored a first round KO of Australian Bill Squires. Burns was the shortest man ever to hold the Heavyweight crown standing just 5”7’ tall and second lightest weight coming in at just 175 lbs.
Even though he was the beneficiary of racism just to get the title fight ahead of Johnson, he had already shown himself to be far less prejudiced than most White fighters. He had employed at least two Black sparing partners and was either briefly married to or co-habituated with a Black woman. He also had won a high profile fight with a Native American opponent.
|Burns with his Championship Belt.|
The pressure was on from some for a match with Johnson in some circles, but most of the boxing establishment and press were against it. Burns, ever the businessman, knew he would have to fight Johnson, but wanted to defend his title a few times first. That was where the money was. And he knew that the mighty Johnson would likely crush him in the rings. So he became the first champ to tour the world defending his title 11, 13 times, depending on how the fights were counted. In keeping with his announced take-on-all-challengers policy he once fought and won twice in one day. Some critics and boxing historians consider those two fights as exhibitions because fighters were not top-flight contenders; others count them because they were billed as championship fights.
Burns brought Squires, who had become a close friend, with him on the tour as sparring partner but also defended his title against him in three cities where no worthy local opponent could be found. He fought in London, Dublin, and Paris. In the French capital made history by defending his title against British boxer Joseph “Jewey” Smith. During this run of title defenses he set records for the fastest knockout—one minute and 28 seconds—and the most consecutive wins by knockout—eight—by a heavyweight champion.
But after Paris it was on to Australia and a rendezvous with destiny.
Jack Johnson had famously crossed the Atlantic to chase Burns down in an attempt to get a shot at the title. Burns had skillfully dodged him while raking in appearance fees and purses. In Sydney he finally accepted the challenge but only after demanding and getting an unheard of $30,000 guarantee. Johnson only got half that.
Attacked in the American press for even considering the fight, Burns said, “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.”
|An Australian newspaper spread on the Great Boxing Day Championship fight.|
When time for the fight came on Boxing Day, December 26, 1908 Burns had been ill, reportedly with dysentery but the heavily promoted fight could not be postponed. He weighed in at only 168 lbs, a full 15 lbs. below his last title defense. The much larger Johnson weighed 192 and odds makers had made him the heavy favorite. Burns survived a beating for 14 rounds before police stepped in and stopped the fight to prevent serious injury.
The lopsided nature of that fight and Burns’s string of defenses against second string fighters has made some boxing historians dismiss him. But Johnson was grateful for the opportunity Burns finally gave him. In 1909 Johnson told a Canadian audience in Vancouver “Let me say of Mr. Burns, a Canadian and one of yourselves, that he has done what no one else ever did, he gave a black man a chance for the championship. He was beaten, but he was game.”
After taking a year off to recover from the severe beating he took from Johnson, Burn’s came back to win the British Empire Championship from Bill Lang. He held the title for a year. He fought four more times before Canada and the rest of the Empire were plunged into The Great War. The overage Burns enlisted in the Army and spent the war in Canada as a physical fitness instructor for recruits.
|Burns may be forgotten in the U.S., but he is a national hero in Canada.|
In 1920 at the age of 38 he fought one last time—a loosing challenge to British Heavyweight Champion Joe Becket in his only loss by a knockout. But he had earned another hefty payday from Canadians eager to see their national hero fight one last time.
Because he had managed his own affairs wisely, Burns was able to retire a wealthy man. In the 1920’s he moved to New York City where he operated a very successful and popular speakeasy. In fact it was the success of Burns’s joint that convinced Jack Dempsey to launch his own successful restaurant.
But the Crash of ’29 and subsequent Great Depression wiped Burns out. Having lost everything he took a succession of jobs from insurance salesman when no one could afford to buy to a lowly security guard.
In the ‘40’s he was a forgotten figure, but he found religion. He was ordained as a minister in 1948 and spent his last years as a small time evangelist and pastor of church in Coalinga, California.
On May 10, 1955 at the age of 76 Burns suffered a heart attack and died while visiting a church friend in Vancouver, British Columbia. Only four people attended his funeral and he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, B.C. It wasn’t until 1971 that a Canadian sports writer raised money for a commemorative plaque to be placed on the grave.