The following feature appeared in some Canadian newspapers today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tommy Burns winning the world heavyweight championship ....
By MURRAY GREIG
The Little Giant. Hercules of Hanover. The Canadian Crusher.
None of the colourful nicknames Tommy Burns earned in the ring appear on the nondescript bronze plaque that marks his grave at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, B.C. – just a single line proclaiming him "Heavyweight boxing champion of the world, 1906-1908."
When I recently visited the cemetery office to ask directions to the champ’s final resting place, the matronly woman behind the desk seemed genuinely impressed. While checking an oversized diagram of more than 1,000 numbered gravesites in Section B of the sprawling property, she wanted to hear the request again. "A boxing champion? A real world champion is buried here? I had no idea …"
No matter. The legacy of Tommy Burns will survive as long as the lineal world heavyweight championship remains the most prestigious title in sport. And since today marks the 100th anniversary of the only Canadian-born champ winning that title, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the highs and lows of his extraordinary career.
For starters, Tommy Burns wasn’t his real name. He came into the world as Noah Brusso on June 13, 1881 – the second youngest of 13 children born to a cabinetmaker and his wife in tiny Hanover, Ont. An athletic prodigy as a child, "Lil’ Noah" excelled in hockey, lacrosse, long-distance running and gymnastics. In 1900 he was playing semi-pro lacrosse for a team in Detroit when a chance encounter at a professional boxing show caused him to switch vocations.
Burns and some friends were sitting ringside when one of the main event fighters, a light-heavyweight named Jack Cowan, slipped going up the steps to his corner and sprained an ankle. Not willing to refund the ticket money, the promoter frantically appealed to the crowd for a substitute fighter to face Fred Thornton, the No. 3 ranked contender in Michigan. Egged on by his pals, Burns quickly volunteered. Though he stood only five-foot-seven and weighed just 160 pounds, he put on a masterful exhibition of boxing skills and knocked out his bigger opponent in five rounds. A career was born.
Fighting as a middleweight, by 1904 Burns had reeled off 17 knockouts en route to winning 20 of 21 bouts. In his 22nd contest, he gave world-ranked contender Ben O’Grady such a severe beating that O’Grady was in a coma for five days before he recovered. With a growing reputation for paralyzing punching power, Burns, despite his small stature, relocated to the West Coast and set his sights on the heavyweight division.
After notching nine wins in 10 heavyweight encounters in Washington and California, on Feb. 23, 1906, Burns was matched against Marvin Hart at the Pacific Athletic Club in Los Angeles for the title Hart had won by knocking out Jack Root six months earlier.
A 17-to-1 betting underdog, Burns used a masterful psychological ploy to enrage Hart even before the bout started. As both men entered the ring, Hart, who stood six-foot-three and weighed 210 pounds, went over to the challenger’s corner to check the tape on his hands. When the champion demanded some of the wrapping be removed, the diminutive Burns, deliberately hunching over to make himself look even smaller, loudly replied: "Why Mr. Hart, I didn’t think a big champion like you would mind that a little man like me would use a bit of extra tape!" Burns then gave him a playful shove in the chest, and Hart exploded in rage, winging a couple of wild punches before referee James J. Jeffries separated them.
Hart’s outburst drew a loud chorus of jeers from the huge crowd – most of who hadn’t seen the Canadian’s push and assumed the bigger man was trying to bully him. Seething with rage through most of the match, Hart never got untracked and Burns was awarded a unanimous decision.
Within months, Burns became the first true "world" heavyweight champion by travelling abroad to successfully defend his crown against challengers in England, Ireland, France and Australia. His 88-second KO of Irish champ Jem Roche to this day remains the quickest end to a heavyweight title bout, and Burns is also the only champion to defend his title twice on the same night, scoring a pair of first-round knockouts over Jim O’Brien and James J. Walker in San Francisco just five weeks after defeating Hart.
Burns successfully defended his crown 13 times, scoring nine knockouts. Butt it’s for his 14th title defense – the one he lost – that the Canadian’s named is forever linked to boxing history. Arriving in Sydney, Australia, in the fall of 1908, he broke with tradition and became the object of international derision by publicly declaring that he would not adhere to the sport’s long-standing "colour line."
"I will defend my title against all comers, none barred," Burns told the astonished Australian press. "By this I mean white, black, Mexican, Indian or any other nationality. I am 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."
It was a fateful proclamation.
Two weeks later, Burns signed to fight top-ranked black American contender Jack Johnson at Rushcutter’s Bay, outside Sydney. On Dec. 26, 1908, in the first inter-racial title fight in the history of the heavyweight division, Johnson was awarded a 14th –round technical knockout.
Though he continued fighting for another 12 years, Burns never got another title shot. Mercilessly ridiculed and shunned for allowing a black man to challenge for the crown, the little Canadian hung up his gloves for good in 1920, ending his career with a record of 48-6-8, with 39 of those victories coming by KO.
In retirement, Burns tried his hand at several business ventures – including a clothing store in Calgary and a tavern in Tacoma, Washington. He also dabbled in promoting and managing other fighters. In his later years he became an ordained minister in California, and while attending a religious conference in Vancouver in 1955, he died of a heart attack just a few weeks short of his 74th birthday.
Ironically, it was only in death that Burns received the acclaim so long denied him. In 1960 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but it wasn’t until a 1961 Sports Illustrated story revealed he’d been buried in an unmarked grave that a suitable plaque was struck to mark his final resting place.
Hockey great Fred (Cyclone) Taylor, who had played lacrosse against Burns when they were teenagers in Ontario, rounded up some old teammates and raised the funds to pay for the modest 28-x-16-inch plaque and its terse inscription.
A more fitting epitaph for one of Canada’s true sports heroes might be the following assessment of Burns’s career, penned by Nat Fleischer, found of the The Ring, in 1970: "History shows that Tommy Burns, in addition to breaking the title’s colour barrier, was the first and only champion who was forced to dispose of every claimant, in every land where boxing was followed, before he received international recognition as possessor of the world heavyweight crown."
And it all started 100 years ago today.
For the little man they called the Hercules of Hanover, it was truly a gigantic achievement.