World Heavyweight Champion: 1906-1908
If Gentleman Jim Corbett was the first scientist of the ring, Tommy Burns has been described as its first dictator. He was a shrewd operator. He knew as much about finance as he did about fighting; and when it came to laying down the terms of a contest, Burns proved himself to be an extremely smart promoter.
Burns also stands in the record books as the least impressive physical specimen to hold the heavyweight crown. He stood just 5ft 7in tall, and weighed a mere twelve-and-a-half stones. Far from making the most of his inches, Burns accentuated his diminutive frame by adopting a crouching, panther-like stance. His greatest assets were his speed – he was exceptionally quick on his feet – and enormous upper body strength. His huge shoulders gave him a 74-inch reach, greater than many men six inches taller.
Burns was born Noah Brusso on 17 June 1881. The tough French-Canadian battled his way through the middleweight ranks, then showed his hallmark astuteness by eyeing up the more lucrative heavyweight division. His timing was impeccable. When Jeffries announced his retirement, white contenders were thin on the ground. Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey were too old. The best heavyweights around were black, with Jack Johnson the pick of them. But America wasn’t about to accept a black champion. Tommy Burns saw his opportunity and grabbed it with both fists.
He took on champion Marvin Hart over 20 rounds in Los Angeles on 23 February 1906. It was Hart’s first defence after beating Jack Root for the title vacated by James J. Jeffries. Using his legendary speed, Burns comfortably picked off the champion – who was much the bigger man – while dexterously avoiding the blows coming the other way. Burns won on points and walked away with the title, while Hart was left to take his place as probably the least known and least impressive of all heavyweight champions.
String of defences
Unlike some of his predecessors, who sat on the crown for long periods, Burns’s title defences came thick and fast. In less than three years he had 13 title fights. Of the first 12 contests, the only blot on his record was a draw with light-heavyweight champion Jack O’Brien. Burns won the rematch in a fight that also went the 20-round distance.
Burns was the first man to see the commercial potential of taking championship fights on the road. After knocking out the Australian heavyweight Bill Squires in two minutes 15 seconds to win the shortest title bout on record, Burns travelled to Britain to take on the British champion, the tough, tattooed ‘Gunner’ James Moir. Moir was as tough as they come, but without the mental sharpness needed to step up to championship class. Against the cunning, polished, fleet-footed Burns, the bigger, heavier man came up short. Moir didn’t lay a glove on the champion during the fight, which ended when Burns floored his opponent with a crushing right to the jaw in the 10th round.
After a brief interlude in Dublin, where Burns disposed of that country’s top man, Jem Roche, in double-quick time, the champion moved on to Paris. There he faced a novice named Jewey Smith. The result was never in doubt, but Burns agreed to let the contest go a few rounds to give the crowd their money’s worth. The champion was as good as his word, until a photographer’s magnesium flash set fire to some of the streamers with which the hall was festooned in honour of his appearance. As panic began to spread, Burns laid out Smith with a right to the chin, then made a swift retreat to the safety of his hotel room.
From France it was on to Australia, where the pattern continued. Burns took on Bill Squires for the third time, and knocked him out for the third time. He then disposed of Bill Lang, who had claimed the Australian title in Squires’s absence.
Pursued by Johnson
On all his travels Burns was pursued by Jack Johnson. Like Burns, Johnson realised that the heavyweight crown was all that mattered if a boxer wanted the greatest prestige and, more importantly, the serious money. Burns didn’t discount the match on principle, as Sullivan and Jeffries had done. He would fight the top black heavyweight, providing the terms were favourable. Finally, the money was right. Burns was offered $25,000 to meet Johnson, the largest purse ever guaranteed to a heavyweight champion.
The two met at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney; fittingly enough, it was Boxing Day, 1908. Burns’ 13th title fight would be his last. He finally came up against a man several classes above any other heavyweight he’d met during his reign. He also bore the brunt of Johnson’s seething resentment at the way he’d been treated for so many years. It was a bloodbath.
Nickname: Noah Brusso
Born: Chesley, Ontario Canada June 17 1881
Died: May 10 1955
Record: Won 47 (39 KO’s) Lostl Drawn 4