A largely forgotten and some-times belittled champion, Tommy Burns held the heavy-weight title for nearly three years and set a record for the most consecutive defenses by knockout. Burns, who acted as his own manager, also made a lot of money, an accomplishment that distinguishes him from many top fighters. When, badly overmatched, he finally fell to Jack Johnson, there was no question that he displayed great courage.
Burns was a French-Canadian who excelled as a lacrosse and hockey player in his youth. He polished his boxing skills in mining camps and turned professional in 1900, first fighting as a lightweight. Two years later he won the Michigan state middleweight title, which he successfully defended three times. Burns was small and fast, holding his hands low and darting in and out to score punches. It was a technique that often worked against larger, slower men. He had a fairly long reach for his height-he was only 5'7"-and preferred to score on the inside, especially with left hooks.
In a light heavyweight match in 1904, Hall of Famer Philadelphia Jack O'Brien proved too much for him, but Burns continued to beef up, heading for the heavyweight division. In 1905, when he knocked out Dave Barry in San Francisco, promoter Tom McCarey proposed matching him with heavyweight champ Marvin Hart. Although Johnson and some other black fighters may have been better qualified, the color bar was still very strong, and McCarey was looking for white contenders. The fight with Hart took place in Los Angeles in 1906, with retired heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries refereeing. Burns outboxed Hart in twenty rounds and took the championship and a purse of $15,000.
Burns then launched his series of defenses. He KO'd Fireman Jim Flynn, then fought O'Brien to a draw before winning a twenty-round decision in the rematch. He scored a one-round knockout of Australian contender Bill Squires, then added Squires to his camp as a sparring partner. With Johnson on his heels, Burns took his title on a world tour, recording knockout victories in London, Dublin, Paris, Sydney, and Melbourne. Three times, he put Squires in the ring as his opponent.
Johnson, who had followed Burns to London and Paris, finally secured a title bout in Sydney the day after Christmas, 1908. Promoted by canny Australian entrepreneur Hugh D. ("Huge Deal") McIntosh, the fight was timed to coincide with the arrival in Sydney of the American fleet. Johnson was to receive $5,000 and Burns $30,000, the largest amount ever earned by a boxer for a single fight up to that time. Burns was the three-to-one favorite, but Johnson was unquestionably the superior fighter. He was bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled as a boxer. He took revenge for the racist insults he had endured, battering and taunting Burns, who though bloodied and bruised, hung on for fourteen rounds. When police finally entered the ring, McIntosh, who was refereeing, conceded that Johnson had won.
Burns took a year off, then beat Bill Lang for the vacant British Empire heavyweight title, which he relinquished the next year. He fought only five more times, ending his career with a failed comeback effort against Joe Beckett in London in 1920. In retirement, Burns owned a tavern in Bremerton, Washington before becoming an evangelist. He died of a heart attack in 1955.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.