By Tracy Callis
"HE OF THE TERRIBLE RIGHT HAND"
Tommy Burns was a short, squat, muscular man. In the ring, he was a bouncy, quick-moving fighter who darted to and fro. He carried a sharp right-hand punch along with a good left and was willing to trade punches. He was more of a light heavyweight than heavyweight but was such a gifted hitter that he captured the heavyweight championship.
Lardner (1972 p.173) said, "He was a short, extremely compact man with a reach that belied his height. Facially he resembled Napoleon Bonaparte, and his hair lay in triangular fashion over his forehead to add to the impression. Burns was five feet seven inches, and his best fighting weight was 175 pounds. He turned to boxing after acquiring a reputation in lacrosse and hockey. He soon showed himself to be quick on his feet, a wise ring general who was able to throw a powerful punch with either hand."
Dan Cuoco, Director of IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization) wrote (2003): "Tommy Burns was remarkably fast and a good, solid puncher, standing only five feet seven inches and weighing between 158 pounds and 184 pounds. His best fighting weight was 174 pounds. Burns was the smallest man ever to hold the heavyweight title. During his prime years, 1906 to 1909, he knocked out a number of fairly good fighters and outpointed all-time great "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien in defense of his heavyweight championship."
Mullan (1996 p.19) recorded, "Burns was the smallest of all the heavyweight champions, standing only five feet seven inches, but he compensated for his lack of height with a remarkably long reach and a decent punch." Roberts (1983 p.47) called him "a rugged boxer with a deceptively hard punch."
Weston and Farhood (1993 p.16) described him as "more suited to battles at middleweight and light heavyweight, but his quickness and intelligence enabled him to record a respectable reign."
Burns traveled the world defending his crown and earned the title of world champion. According to Mullan (1990 p.18), "[Burns] became the first truly international champion, taking on anyone who could find a backer for a challenge, regardless of the opponent's qualifications or lack of them."
Andre and Fleischer (1991 p.84) reported: "He challenged and cleaned up the field, taking on all comers in various parts of the world. Through his triumphs he received universal recognition as champion."
Bert Sugar (1982 p.62) wrote that "Most fight fans did not accept Burns" and "his dubious claim to the championship was greeted by an overwhelming apathy that rivaled the sound of one hand clapping." Mullan (1990 p.19) asserted, however, that "Such comments are [...] a shade unfair to a man who, by bringing the title to England, France, Ireland, and Australia, did much to make it a world title rather than just the American championship."
One reason Burns may not have been very popular was that he refused to draw the line. He fought anyone he thought was deserving, black or white. McCaffery (2000 Introduction) contended: "Burns was one of the most influential athletes of the past hundred years—the man who broke the infamous 'colour line' in big-time sports and the father of the mega-money athletic events we know today. Yet he's been discarded by history, the victim of a cruel and unfair smear campaign that has gone unchallenged for almost a century." He added (2000 p.4), "[Burns] announced he'd fight all comers, regardless of race or religion. 'I draw no colour line, nor bar any man in the world,' he said in a public statement issued at the height of his career."
McCallum (1974 pp.62-63) was very critical of Tommy and stated that he was "truly a chump among champs, and a champ among chumps." He went on to say, "While there may be room for argument as to who was the greatest heavyweight champion up to the retirement of Gene Tunney in 1928, there's no question that Burns was the worst."
But, in fairness to Burns, these men were very tough acts to follow and, over the years, there have been a number of heavyweight champs who were worse than those up to the time Tunney retired. As to Burns' competition, a man can only fight those who are available to fight.
Roberts and Skutt (2002 p.70) said, "A largely forgotten and sometimes belittled champion, Tommy Burns held the heavyweight title for nearly three years and set a record for the most consecutive defenses by knockout."
McCaffery (2000 p.238) pointed out that a look at the records of the champions shows Burns to be "at or near the top of just about any heavyweight record you care to name. He's fifth, for example, in the number of successful title defenses, behind only Ali, Louis, Larry Holmes, and Tyson. He defeated more challengers in the two years and 10 months he held the crown than Sullivan, Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Jeffries, and Hart put together. And those five gentlemen were on the throne for a combined total of 24 years. In terms of knockout victories by a champion defending his title, Burns trails only Ali and Louis. And the Canadian still holds the record for most consecutive knockouts by a reigning champion."
Tommy began fighting in 1900 as a middleweight and won the middleweight championship of Michigan in 1902 by defeating the talented Tom McCune. Four years later he defeated Marvin Hart at Los Angeles to win the most prestigious of championships, the heavyweight title. He defended it regularly, 12 times through 1908, until he lost it to Jack Johnson. In his defenses, he scored nine knockouts.
In 1910 he defeated Bill Lang to win the heavyweight championship of the British Empire. During his career, Burns won 46 of 60 bouts, mostly against larger and heavier men, and he scored 37 knockouts. Brooke-Ball (1992 p.38) described Burns, "He beat men far taller and heavier than himself with apparent ease." McCaffery (2000 p.10) called Burns the "quintessential underdog, a real-life Rocky Balboa who continually overcame the odds to become a world champion."
During his career, Burns defeated such men as Harry Peppers, Jack Hammond, Jack Butler, Tom McCune, Tony Caponi, "Cyclone" Kelly, Dave Barry, Marvin Hart, "Fireman" Jim Flynn, and "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien, He also had exhibition bouts with ring legends Jim Corbett, Larry Foley, and Snowy Baker (of Australia).
In his exhibition bout with Jim Corbett in Detroit in 1902, Burns landed a stinging blow to the chin of the former champion. Although it's true that it was only an exhibition and that Corbett was older and in "cruise mode," it nevertheless earned the great fighter's attention and respect. He very much liked Burns' style and urged him not to be a slugger type of fighter like so many others of the day but to take advantage of his quick reflexes and perfect his movement on offense and defense.
Tommy got his chance at the heavyweight title in 1906 and beat Marvin Hart in 20 rather dull rounds. (Hart was not pretty to watch, but he was tough.) Burns followed this with a rowdy bout against "Fireman" Jim Flynn that went 15 rounds before Tommy was declared the winner by knockout. This bout also took place in 1906.
Burns fought "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien three times. O'Brien won the first bout in Milwaukee in 1904. The second was a title defense by Burns in Los Angeles in 1906. The verdict was an official draw and ended with Burns chasing O'Brien around the ring. Burns won the third contest, also a title defense, in 1907 at Los Angeles.
Following his bouts with O'Brien, Tommy beat the top-rated Australian, Bill Squires, stretching him out in one round. Then he went on a "lights out" tour of Europe and Australia from 1907 to 1908, where he defended his heavyweight crown and flattened the best he could find, one after another, James "Gunner" Moir, Jack Palmer, Jem Roche, Joseph "Jewey" Smith, Bill Squires two more times, and Bill Lang.
Jack Johnson trailed Burns around the world in an effort to get a title bout. Finally, on December 26, 1908, in Australia, Burns met Johnson for the heavyweight championship. It was no contest. Johnson was too big and too good for Tommy. Although the contest lasted into the 14th round, Johnson won easily. He mocked Burns and toyed with him throughout the match.
Brooke-Ball (1992 p.39) described the bout: "[Burns] put up a courageous fight but was regarded as a plaything by Johnson, who taunted him with verbal abuse as well as stinging punches."
Larry "Cap" Roberts, outstanding boxing historian, reported (2003) that Tommy was recovering from a bout with influenza when he fought Johnson and stated: "In his prime, the 'Little Giant of Hanover' feared no man, supremely confident in his strength, power and ring craft. During this period, he lost only once, and that to a fighter many still believe was the greatest boxer of them all, Jack Johnson. Who knows, if Tommy had been in full fighting trim, he might have been the one to put Johnson on the floor, as Ketchel later did."
Cuoco (2003) pointed out: "One could argue that Burns tried to evade Jack Johnson but, unlike his predecessors, he did eventually give a dominant black fighter a shot at the heavyweight title. Johnson, at six foot one with a 30-pound weight advantage and considerable reach, was just too much for the game Burns. The police stopped the one-sided fight in the 14th round, but the courageous Burns never stopped trying and never once considered taking the easy way out by quitting."
Tommy was a "brainy" man who acted as his own promoter and manager and was successful later on as a business entrepreneur. Roberts (2003) observed: "Burns was pretty well off when he first retired, worth the modern equivalent of a couple of million bucks. He invested some in property, spent lavishly on close friends, and owned a pub in Newcastle after the first World War. (During the war, he was a physical-education instructor in the Canadian army.) He tried his hand at boxing promotion with the tragic Arthur Pelkey vs. Luther McCarty fight. In 1920, he promoted his last fight with Joe Beckett and turned a handsome profit. In 1928, he moved to New York City and opened a "speak." When the crash came in 1929, he lost almost everything and it took him several years to get back on his feet, in even a modest way. He sold insurance for a time in Texas before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. Unable to find steady employment there, he moved to Bremerton, Washington, and found a job as a security guard at a shipyard. It was later in life that he turned to religion and became a minister."
Brooke-Ball (1992 p.39) stated that "Burns was a shrewd businessman as well as a cunning boxer. He had a hand in promoting many of his own championship fights, and he always insisted on seeing his purse money before he got into the ring with an opponent. He invested his considerable fortune wisely and became a wealthy man before being ordained a preacher in 1948."
Roberts (2003) commented: "When I think of Tommy Burns, I'm often reminded of the scene at the start of his supposed three-round exhibition with the 'Italian Rubber Man,' Joe Grim. Joe, who had tangled with some very heavy hitters, looked across the ring at this little man in the colorful robe and likely wondered how anyone could possibly mistake him for the heavyweight champion of the world. Then, Burns stripped off his robe and grinned like a wolf with a fat deer in his sights. As the story goes, Joe grabbed the ref's arm and told him the rounds should be shortened to one minute instead of three."
Over the years, Burns has been compared to "Sailor" Tom Sharkey of the 1890s. Tommy was quick and shifty on his feet and carried a solid wallop in each hand. No doubt, he was faster on his feet than Sharkey. But, his advantages end here. "Sailor Tom" was somewhat bigger and had a dynamite punch of his own. He was also much rougher and tougher and possessed greater stamina.
John Lardner wrote (Newsweek 1956): "Tommy Burns has come down in tradition as one of the minor heavyweight champions, but it's likely he was better than anyone who has held the title since Gene Tunney, with the exception of Joe Louis and, perhaps, Rocky Marciano. Burns was not big, but he was strong, fast, and he could hit" (see McCaffery 2000 p.238).
Rex Lardner (1972 p.173) recorded that Burns "was a much better fighter than he has been given credit for." McCaffery (2000 p.8) called Tommy "one of the best pound-for-pound boxers who ever lived."
Burns was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1960 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.
In the opinion of this writer, Burns ranks highly as a light heavyweight and is among its hardest hitters. He possibly deserves to be included among the all-time top 10 light heavies. He also deserves strong consideration for pound-for-pound recognition, because throughout his career, he tangled with larger and heavier men and was quite successful.
A splendid book by Dan McCaffery titled Tommy Burns (Canada's Unknown World Heavyweight Champion) covers the life and ring career of Burns. It was published in 2000 by James Lorimer & Company, Ltd., Publishers of Toronto, Canada.
Andre, S. and Fleischer, N. 1991. A Pictorial History of Boxing. New York: Citadel Press.
Brooke-Ball, P. 1992. The Boxing Album: An Illustrated History. New York: Smithmark Publishers, Inc.
Cuoco, D. 2003. Private correspondence.
Lardner, R. 1972. The Legendary Champions. New York" American Heritage Press.
McCaffery, D. 2000. Tommy Burns (Canada's Unknown World Heavyweight Champion). Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Ltd.
McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company.
McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company.
Mullan, H. 1990. The Great Book of Boxing. New York: Crescent Books.
Mullan, H. 1996. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books.
Roberts, J. and Skutt, A. 2002. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press.
Roberts, L. 2003. Private correspondence.
Roberts, R. 1983. Papa Jack. New York: The Free Press.
Sugar, B. 1982. 100 Years of Boxing. New York: Galley Press.
Weston, S. and Farhood, S. 1993. The Ring Chronicle of Boxing. London: Hamlyn