James (Deaf) Burke was the first British champion to fight on American soil. He was also the most active champion of his day, fighting twenty bouts, some of grueling duration. Burke learned to box while working as a waterman on the Thames River. An older boxer gave Burke instruction and put him in the ring against Ned Murphy in 1828. The two battled for 50 rounds, until the match was called a draw because of darkness. Burke fought more marathon bouts in the next few years, including a three-hour victory over Bill Fitzmaurice and a two-hour-and-fifty-minute loss to Bill Cousens.
Burke was unsuccessful in attempts to be matched against champion Jem Ward, but when Ward retired, Burke fought Harry Macone for the title. In a brutal match, Burke triumphed in 59 rounds. The next year, Burke battled challenger Simon Byrne. By the nineteenth round, Burke was on the ground and his ear had been bitten through. The two men fought doggedly for more than three hours, however. Burke finally tapped an exhausted Byrne to the ground in the 99th round. Byrne died three days after the fight. Burke was not blamed, but he avoided competitions and fought only exhibitions for a time.
The Irish champion Sam O’Rourke challenged Burke for the title, but Burke declined when O’Rourke insisted that the fight be held in Ireland. O’Rourke then traveled to America, where he constantly denigrated Burke’s abilities and courage. On hearing of the insults, Burke decided to meet his challenger in New Orleans in 1836. In the first round, Burke threw O’Rourke to the ground with a cross-buttock hold. In the next round, one of O’Rourke’s seconds threw Burke into O’Rourke’s grasp. By the third round, the fight had degenerated into a violent free-for-all. The crowd surged into the ring, and Burke was forced to flee the scene on horseback in fear for his life.
On his return to England, Burke faced Bendigo Thompson in the first championship match conducted under the more stringent London Prize Ring Rules, adopted in 1838. Thompson won on a foul in the tenth round. Burke fought twice more before retiring in 1843. Penniless, he died of tuberculosis less than two years later.
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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.
Born: Dec. 8, 1809
Died: Jan. 8, 1845