A Maclean's Flashback

When little Tommy Burns outslugged the biggest brutes in boxing

A cocky loner, a lethal puncher and stridently Canadian, he fought under the name of Tommy Burns to spare his mother from worry. For a heavyweight, he was preposterously small, but for 19 years he flattened giants, lost only four of 60 bouts and was never kayoed till his very last fight.

A Maclean's Flashback

When little Tommy Burns outslugged the biggest brutes in boxing

A cocky loner, a lethal puncher and stridently Canadian, he fought under the name of Tommy Burns to spare his mother from worry. For a heavyweight, he was preposterously small, but for 19 years he flattened giants, lost only four of 60 bouts and was never kayoed till his very last fight.


When little Tommy Burns outslugged the biggest brutes in boxing

As HE HAD DONE at the start and finish of a dozen previous bouts, the granite-jawed boxer with the vicious leer thumped his chest, leaned over the ropes and snarled in his deep bass voice, “I’m Joe Grim! I fear no man on earth!”

His fans, who could see no reason why he should, roared their approval, then settled back to watch the slaughter.

Some of them had attended an earlier match to see the great Bob Fitzsimmons pound away at Grim's unyielding body with his supposedly lethal fists. In the end they had cheered the sight of Joe Grim, soaked in blood and (some said) spitting teeth, but still upright, roaring his familiar declaration of indestructibility.

Fitzsimmons’ frustration throughout the earlier fight had been amusing. This time. Grim's opponent was more to be pitied. Grim thought so. too, and he laughed derisively at the short stocky little figure in the opposite corner as they waited for round one.

But at the signal the little man sprang at Grim with surprising speed, ducked easily under Grim's upraised fists and with telling effect scored blow after blow. For two rounds Grim managed to hang on. Then, in the third round, a crushing right smashed into Grim’s jaw, and he crumpled to the canvas.

Joe Grim had joined a growing list of tough and skillful fighters who found it easy to underestimate the punch, the speed and the fierce killer's instinct of a squat little man from Hanover, Ont., who ruled as world heavyweight champion under the name Tommy Burns.

Other Canadians have held world boxing titles—George Dixon of Nova Scotia. Jack Delaney (Ovila C'hapdelaine) of Quebec. Eddie Coulson of Ontario, and “Frcnchy” Belanger and Jimmy McLaren of British Columbia. But none of these took constant pains, as Burns did, to remind the world they were Canadians, and few men of any nationality ever matched his performance in the ring.

In sixty bouts from 1901 to 1920, Burns lost only four times, scored thirty-six knockouts and was never kayoed himself until his very last fight.

But ring records don't really tell his story, for Burns was the smallest man ever to win the heavyweight title. Many of his victories were over ferocious cavemen and grizzled giants who outweighed him by twenty to fifty pounds and dwarfed him by nearly a head. Nat Fleischer, the renowned boxing authority, has rated Burns a harder puncher than either “Gentleman Jim” Corbett or Gene Tunney. For his penetration as an infighter, some devotees rate Burns as the deadliest, along with Jack Dempsey.

Burns’ Canadian upbringing, of which he was almost fanatically proud, had a lot to do with his prowess in the ring. At five foot seven and a customary fighting weight of 162 pounds, he seemed hopelessly small compared to other heavyweights. Part of his secret were his remarkably powerful legs—developed during years of playing outdoor lacrosse in days when the game was a fair imitation of an Indian war.

Like most great champions, Burns could concentrate every fibre in his body and every thought in his mind on one objective—to win. His fans delighted in him as living — and winning — proof that the best defense is offense. Burns always carried the fight to his opponent

A cocky loner, a lethal puncher and stridently Canadian, he fought under the name of Tommy Burns to spare his mother from worry. For a heavyweight, he was preposterously small, but for 19 years he flattened giants, lost only four of 60 bouts and was never kayoed till his very last fight.

A Maclean's Flashback


and seldom took so much as a single backward step. And psychological attack was an art he used w'ith masterful cunning. In some bouts his mockery was almost as devastating as his right cross. At one weigh-in he taunted an opponent with such infuriating effect that several trainers had to restrain the man from starting the match right then and there.

Behind the taunts was a hard core of selfconfidence that made Burns an unusual boxer in another way: he was a loner. Inside the nng he was his own strategist. Outside it he was his own matchmaker. And he w'as the only world champion boxer who never had a manager.

Burns, whose real name w'as Noah Brusso. was just a boy when he learned how to go it alone. Born in 1881 in the southern Ontario town of Hanover, he was one of a large family of German descent, and had to leave school at ten. His first job w'as running errands for a grocer. As he moved on to other jobs in Hanover, polishing furniture in a factory, working in a yarn-and-wool mill, he learned to use his fists in back-alley fights and to play hockey and lacrosse on local teams. He was playing both games professionally by the time he was twenty.

By then, however, he had decided to try for the big money that boxers were getting in the United States.

To get near the action, he moved to Detroit. As a spectator at a match there, young Noah Brusso got his fight career started in the classic fashion. One of the scheduled fighters failed to appear, and the ring announcer appealed to the crowd for a volunteer substitute. Noah stepped into the ring and in the fifth round knocked out a fighter named Fred Thornton.

Still as Noah Brusso. he joined the Detroit Athletic Club and began training. He soon turned pro, and after five fights he was middleweight champion of Michigan. That fifth fight had unforeseen effects on his personal life. To win it. he knocked out Ed Sholtreau in the first round. Sholtreau lay in the ring, unresponsive to treatment. He was taken to hospital, and Noah was arrested for assault and battery. The following day Sholtreau came out of his coma, and the charges against Noah were dropped. News of the incident, however, got back to Hanover. Noah's mother was seriously shaken by the thought of her son inflicting such injury. To soothe her, Noah promised he would never fight again.

But, as middleweight champion of Michigan, he had commitments—and ambitions. He decided to change his name to keep his mother from hearing of his further exploits. He selected the name of a famous jockey ot the day—Tommy Burns.

He continued his career with a tour, fighting a series of skillful bouts that included a bizarre encounter in Nome. Alaska, with the legendary “Klondike Mike" Mahoney. Mahoney, a trail driver famous for his exploits in Klondike gold rush, such as carrying a piano over the Chilkoot Pass, had brawled with and beaten most of the bullies in his part of the world. Nowhe was anxious to tangle with a pro fighter like Burns, whose reputation was beginning to grow'.

Since Mahoney was on his home ground, he insisted on fighting lumberjack style — with boots as well as fists.

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American fans were aghast—not only was the champ a runt, he was Canadian

Though Mahoney towered over him and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, Burns cockily agreed. According to Mahoney's own published account, the contest never really determined who was the better man. Burns took the initiative in the first two rounds, as was his custom in every fight, and gave Mahoney an impressive pounding. Then, in the third round, Mahoney stepped back and landed a brutal kick on Burns’ jaw. Burns was left stunned but standing—and the fight stopped right there. Without any declarations about a w'inner, the two men parted friends.

Soon after he returned from his tour. Burns found the route leading to his first world championship. The year was 1905, and the heavyweight title belonged to Jim Jeffries. Jeffries, making a great show of looking for worthy opponents and finding none, announced his retirement. His announcement brought jeers from fight fans all over the continent. They knew' that the ferocious Negro fighter. Jack Johnson, billed as "The Black Panther.” w'ould sooner or later demand a match with Jeffries— and, in all probability, beat him. Now it looked suspiciously as though Jeffries was retiring to avoid fighting Johnson. But Jeffries went through with his plans and refereed a match between Marvin Hart and Jack Root to determine who would hold the vacant title.

When Hart emerged the winner by a knockoüt in the twelfth round, heavyweights all over the continent, including Burns, began clamoring for the chance to challenge Hart. Hart looked over the field and decided that the little runt Tommy Burns would provide the best chance for an easy victory. Burns weighed 162; Hart, 196.

Underestimating Burns was Hart's first big mistake. His second was in listening to Burns’ taunts at the weigh-in preceding their fight on February 23, 1906, in Los Angeles.

Burns quickly spotted Hart for what he was — a belligerent Kentucky hillbilly with a wild temper. With his abrasive laugh and taunting remarks, Burns soon had Hart wild with fury. If Hart’s trainers hadn't restrained him, he would have attacked Burns right there.

Hart was still seething when they reached the ring, and Burns used Hart’s own anger as a powerful weapon against him. For round after round Hart plunged blindly toward his tormentor, while Burns expertly registered blow after blow. Both men were standing at the end of the scheduled twenty rounds, but press accounts of the bout credit Burns with winning eighteen rounds. With the last round over, referee Jim Jeffries proclaimed a new heavyweight champion of the world — Tommy Burns.

American boxing fans were aghast. It was bad enough having a runt wear the heavyweight crown of the

world. But he kept adding a national insult by proclaiming himself a Canadian. He insisted that the only really tough athletes in the world were Canadians who played lacrosse as roughly and toughly as the Mohawks ever did.

By now Burns was almost insufferably self-confident about his ability to beat all challengers, and he decided he would prove himself in a spectacular way. He would tour the world, accept all challenges. It was a plan that would see him defending his title oftencr in two years than any other heavyweight title-holder has done in the same length of time, before or since. But it was also a tour that would lead him to one man who would prove to he more than a match for him.

Two fights in one night

Burns hit on an idea for getting the world tour off to a dramatic start. He put his title on the line with two men, in two separate fights, on the one night of March 28, 1906. The two fights, each scheduled for twenty rounds, would follow one after the other without intermission. But Burns made it a short evening after all. The first contender was Jim O'Brien. Burns knocked him out in less than two minutes. Next came Jim Walker. He, too, failed to last through the first round.

Burns’ next opponent was formidible heavyweight and one-time locomotive fireman named Jim Flynn. (Flynn was later to gain fame by becoming the only man who ever knocked out Jack Dempsey.) It was

a fight that could make Burns’ reputation as champion. There were still fans around who were skeptical about Burns’ ability. If he could beat Flynn, who outweighed him by thirty pounds and was known to be a solid puncher, some skeptics, at least, would be silenced.

From the opening gong Burns bore in on Flynn. Flynn fought back fiercely, and the fans agreed they were getting their money’s worth. Then in the fifteenth round Burns followed a swift feint with a shattering right that smashed Flynn to the floor and ended the fight. At last Burns had defended his title in a real demonstration of staying power. A few more doubters had been silenced.

Burns’ next fight proved even more significant. His opponent, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien was not only one of the cleverest boxers who ever lived and a man of lightning-fast footw'ork and a defensive technique that made him almost unhittable; he was also light - heavyweight champ of the world, with a list of victims that included former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons.

The two men fought twenty rounds in Los Angeles on November 28, 1906. It was one of the classic ring battles of all time. Officially, it ended in a draw, but newspapermen said Burns should have been declared winner. Their view' was supported later by eastern newspapermen who were shown movies of the fight— the first motion pictures ever made of an entire prize fight. “Burns beat O'Brien in every minute of their twenty - round fight,” wrote one sportswriter. “Jack was nearly out

on his feet as he sped away from the savage onslaughts of the Canadian. As Tommy rushed in O’Brien actually turned his back and ran. It’s beyond me how the fight ended in a draw. Burns won hands down.”

It was after his encounter w-ith O’Brien that Burns vanquished his most colorful opponent of all — the histrionic Joe Grim, who feared “no man on earth.”

The newspapermen's insistence that Burns had won the fight with O'Brien carried even more credence after the two men met in a rematch. This time they had agreed that one or the other must emerge the victor. If a draw w'as declared after twenty rounds, the fight would continue. But this arrangement proved unnecessary. Burns gave O'Brien such a pounding that there was no question about the decision after twenty rounds.

Like Bob Fitzsimmons before him. Burns was well below the lightheavyweight limit (175 pounds) and so held that title and the heavyweight title as well.

By early 1907 North Americans began hearing of an Australian who seemed unbeatable. He had a string of twenty-six victories and had knocked out every one of his last eighteen opponents. His name was Bill Squires and he was heavyweight champion of Australia.

Burns quickly agreed to meet Squires, and the fight was set for July 4. 1907, in San Francisco.

For the fight promoters this was the cue to give Squires the kind of publicity buildup that Sonny Liston was to get, half a century later, before his first encounter with Cassius Clay. By the night of the fight the whole continent was so impressed with Squires’ fighting record and fearsome appearance that the betting favored him at 10 to 7.

Even without the buildup, lesser men than Burns would have been intimidated just by the sight of the scowling, hairy - chested Squires sitting resolutely in his corner, waiting for the signal to begin the kill. But the stocky Burns, thirty pounds lighter than Squires and without a hair on his chest, grinned confidently.

At the bell, Burns fairly leaped across the ring at the big Australian. In a flash he was inside Squires' defense and pummeling hard. Then Burns feinted with his left and sent a right cross smashing into Squires’ chin. Squires crashed to the floor. At the count of nine he had struggled to his feet. Burns smashed into him like a pile driver. Squires was finished. The time: 2:28 of the first round.

Burns couldn't resist a derisive laugh at the ring-siders who had been betting he would lose. But by now all the sentiment, at least, was on his side. Little Tommy was the hero who swatted one giant after another into oblivion.

By now, as a public figure, Burns was a model of flamboyant elegance. His wardrobe included a silk top hat, velvet-collared coats, a gold-headed

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walking stick and fifty-dollar silk shirts impregnated with metal which shimmered in strong light with the reddish brilliance of a forest fire.

Vow'ing he would vanquish all comers, Burns set sail for Europe. In England, matched with English heavyweight champion Gunner Moir, Burns donned a false mustache and sneaked undetected into Moir's training quarters. After watching his opponent in action, he hustled to a bookmaker's and bet twenty thousand dollars on himself. Ele knocked out Moir in the tenth. In Ireland he made March 17, 1908, an unhappy St. Patrick’s Day for Dublin by knocking out Jem Roche, the national champion, in the shortest contest ever held for the world’s heavyweight title — 1:28 of the first round. Some said Burns would never had made it to the boat if they hadn’t thought he was Irish Canadian. In Paris, Burns knocked out the South African champion, Jewey Smith.

Then he headed for Australia, where an old foe, Bill Squires, was anxious for a rematch. Even with every boxing fan in Sydney to cheer him on, Squires succumbed to the Burns treatment and sank unconscious in the thirteenth round.

To meet Johnson: $30,000

Burns stayed on to take care of another Australian. Bill Lang, in less than six rounds and was negotiating to fight Stanley Ketchell. “The Michigan Assassin.” in the U. S. when Jack Johnson arrived in Australia.

Johnson was an awesome giant of enormous proportions. He had a terrible pair of fists and a defense that was almost impregnable. Even today some authorities rate him as the greatest heavyweight w'ho ever lived.

Little Tommy Burns may well have known from the start that he could never beat Johnson. But promoters in Australia offered Burns thirty thousand dollars to stay and face the burly Negro in the ring. Burns, w'ho had entered the heavyweight division in the first place because the money was there, couldn’t resist.

Thirty thousand fans were on hand for the bout in Sydney on December 26, 1908. As the two men shook hands, it seemed as though a boy was about to fight a man. Johnson towered seven inches over Burns, was forty-eight pounds heavier, had an advantage in arm length that seemed almost cruel. Johnson had the longest reach of any heavyweighttitle contender; Burns had the shortest.

Even so, Burns took the opening bell as his cue to go to work confidently. Repeatedly, he charged the colored man, trying to break through that skillful defense. But time after time the big black arms hit him or held him back before he could get close enough to strike more than an occasional body blow.

Then, around the midw'ay point of the fight. Burns’ persistence paid a dividend. (Crashing suddenly through Johnson’s defense, he landed a crushing right hook that broke two of the challenger’s ribs. But Johnson got back at him. All along the tw'o men had taunted each other with lurid insults, and Johnson delighted in making his opponent look as bad as

possible. Three times he knocked Burns to floor, and each time he flashed a dazzling smile of gold teeth. But Burns wouldn’t quit. He was still boring in, almost hopelessly, in the fourteenth round when the police stepped in and stopped the fight.

Eyewitnesses' reports are confused and contradictory, but some insist it was Johnson’s handlers who wanted the fight stopped. One of his seconds, Rudy Unholtz, is said to have started shouting, “Stop it! Stop it!”

Whatever the reason the fight was ended, and Johnson was awarded the title. Burns got a wild ovation as he left the ring—the Australians rated his stand against Johnson as nothing short of heroic. This opinion was pointed up soon after that, when Jim Jeffries challenged Johnson but proved almost powerless against him and Johnson knocked him out in the fifteenth round.

Burns fought and won several other fights after that but he never regained the heavyweight championship. In 1912 he became a boxing promoter and manager. One of his most notable promotions was the ill - fated contest between Luther McCarthy and Arthur Pelky, in Calgary in 1913. In the first round McCarthy took a blow that snapped his spinal cord. Oldtimers still talk of the eerie phenomenon that occurred as McCarthy lay dying in the ring. It was a dark rainy day, but the moment McCarthy died, a strong beam of sunlight burst through an aperture in the roof of the old arena. Seconds later, it had vanished.

In a return to the ring, Burns scored his last knockout in Prince Rupert, B.C., in 1918, when he was thirty-seven. Two years later, as an old man by the standards of the fight game, Burns was knocked out for the first time of his career. It was time to hang up his gloves forever.

After that, as a coach and adviser, Burns helped Primo Camera develop the right uppercut with which he won the heavyweight championship, by a knockout, from Jack Sharkey.

Until his death on May 10, 1955, he remained a familiar and highly popular figure. In fact those final years — before his burial in Ocean View Burial Park in Vancouver—revealed yet another remarkable side to his character. For little Tommy Burns, rated even today as one of the most violent and fearsome heavyweights ever to step into the ring, spent the rest of his active days on tour as a peaceful, God - fearing evangelist. ★