Tommy Burns

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Name: Tommy Burns
Alias: The Little Giant of Hanover
Birth Name: Noah Brusso
Hometown: Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Birthplace: Chesley, Ontario, Canada
Died: 1955-05-10 (Age:73)
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 170cm
Reach: 188cm
Matchmaker: Record
Promoter: Record
Referee: Record
Pro Boxer: Record

Career Overview

Tommy Burns is primarily known in the United States for being the man to break the colour line and lose the heavyweight championship to Jack Johnson, who was himself the world's first black heavyweight champ. The so-called "embarrassingly-one sided pummelling" he suffered at Johnson's hands has forever scarred Burns' legacy in that country, but he was nonetheless a quality fighter who managed some significant accomplishments during his career, despite frequently being at a tremendous size disadvantage. Much of American sporting opinion on Burns is based on inept reporting by the great novelist Jack London who was at ringside. London later apologised to Burns for certain liberties with the truth. In the rest of the world Tommy Burns was regarded as one of the best men of his age, and he proved it by beating everyone put up against him.

Early Years

Born Noah Brusso on the outskirts of Hanover, Ontario, he was raised in a log cabin, the twelfth of thirteen children. His abusive and penniless father, a cabinetmaker, passed away when Noah was still a boy. A troublesome youth, he left school at a young age and spent much of his teenage years and young adulthood drifting between menial labour jobs. During a stint as a baggage handler aboard a steamer on Lake Michigan, Burns jumped ship in Detroit, where he would begin his professional boxing career.

Known for his competitive and often violent athleticism since his childhood, boxing proved the perfect outlet for young Noah. Only a lightweight when he first fought for money in 1900, he made short work of several local pugs, building a reputation throughout the Detroit era as a quick-handed scrapper with a stinging right hand punch. A middleweight by 1902, he won regard as Michigan's state champion in that division with a seventh round knockout of the otherwise forgettable Tom McCune. This led to a match up with Mike Schreck, an undefeated southpaw heavyweight from Cincinnati. Despite being at a tremendous size disadvantage, Noah managed to go the ten round distance, losing the referee's decision. Recovering well from the setback of his first defeat, Noah defended his Michigan state championship three times before the close of 1903.

On January 28, 1904, Noah nearly killed opponent Ben O'Grady, sending his foe into a coma. Though O'Grady survived, boxing was still an illicit enterprise at the time and Noah was forced to flee Detroit to avoid arrest for assault and participating in an illegal prizefight. The incident made newspapers internationally and, to protect his mother from the scandal, he subsequently changed his name to Ed Burns and, a bit later, Tommy Burns. In order to avoid further near-tragedies like the O'Grady incident, Tommy put on weight and began campaigning in the light heavyweight class, where he hoped the larger men could handle his punching power better.

Burns also abandoned Detroit locales for western cities where opposition to boxing was less organised. First Chicago and then Seattle became his home. Considered one of the sport's rising stars by now, he managed to get a fight with Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, a popular and experienced light heavyweight respected in some circles the cleverest fighter alive. O'Brien won the six round bout, but Burns was undeterred and continued to face top level opposition. Occasionally he packed on the pounds to take on heavyweights. On May 2, 1905 he won recognition as the middleweight champion of the Pacific Coast when he defeated Dave Barry during a twenty round fight in Tacoma, Washington. He continued to face top opponents for the remainder of that year, besting Barry in a rematch, drawing twice with Hugo Kelly, and losing a referee's decision in a bout with the highly regarded Jack Sullivan in a bout billed as being for the world's middleweight championship.

Meanwhile, the heavyweight division has fallen into chaos. James J. Jeffries, the most dominant heavyweight champion to come along in a generation, had retired undefeated, leaving the title vacant. Jeffries had named Marvin Hart, a 25-3-6 heavyweight from Fern Creek, Kentucky, as his successor after refereeing a bout between Hart and Jack Root in 1905. But many did not consider Hart a legitimate champion, despite having beaten top contenders like Gus Ruhlin, Sandy Ferguson and Jack Johnson. Most still considered Jeffries the champ. Because of the racism of the era, however, Jack Johnson was barred from getting near a shot at the coveted championship now held by Hart. Thus, in need of a credible opponent against whom he could prove his mettle, Hart granted the appropriately Caucasian Burns a chance.

Burns, though a considerable underdog according to odds-makers, was already regarded as a master of ring psychology by the time of the Hart fight. In order to upset his opponent on fight night, February 23, 1906, at the Pacific Athletic Club in Los Angeles, California, Tommy came into the ring with an inordinate amount of tape on his hands. His intention was to anger his opponent and the strategy worked. The champion demanded his challenger's hands be re taped, to which Burns replied, "Why Mr. Hart, I didn't think a big champion like you would mind a little man like me wearing a little tape." This sparked a vicious argument resulting in Hart's taking a swing at Burns. When the fight finally got under way, Hart could not control his rage and lost all of what little boxing technique he knew. He continually bull-rushed his smaller opponent, who effortlessly stepped out of the way and counter-punched beautifully for twenty rounds. Referee Charlie Eyton was quick to point to Burns as the winner and the title changed hands on a decision for the first time in history. Tommy was paid the magnificent sum of $1,650 for his efforts, while Hart, who had insisted that the winner get 70% of the purse, received $750.

World Champion

Taking six months to enjoy his newfound money and notoriety, Burns did not make his first defence of the championship until October 2, 1906, when he took on Fireman Jim Flynn, a rough-edged up-and-comer known primarily for his raw punching power. Burns felled him in the fifteenth round after a brutal slugging match and then secured a rematch with Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, the future hall of famer who was by this time the reigning light heavyweight champion. This time the pair battled to a twenty-round draw in the eyes of referee Jeffries, who prior to the fight had publicly declared O'Brien the better man. But there were many who felt that Burns got the best of the action and, during negotiations for a third fight, O'Brien refused to fight unless Burns would agree to avoid his usual in-fighting tactics. In order to get O'Brien to sign the contract, Burns agreed but then double-crossed the arrangement by telling all to promoter Tom McCarey on fight night, May 8, 1907. McCarey subsequently went before the audience and declared that all bets were off, revealing the plot. Stunned by the change of events, O'Brien, already sitting on his stool in his corner, had to be shoved out into the ring to fight. He subsequently backpedalled away from the oncoming champion for a full twenty rounds until referee Charles Eyton granted Burns his decision. Again Burns' psychological tricks had helped earn him an important victory.

Despite being the world's champion, Burns was considered the underdog when he faced Australia's unbeaten popular national champ, Bill Squires on July 4, 1907 in Colma, California. Twenty thousand people attended, spurred into buying tickets by the rave write ups that reporters were granting Squires and the mounting odds against the Canadian. Come fight time, though, the fight belonged indisputably to the champion. A hard right cross delivered halfway into the opening frame sent the challenger to the deck for the full count in one of the quickest knockouts in heavyweight title fight history. Squires subsequently became a member of Burns' team of sparring partners and helped him prepare for his next match, against Gunner Moir, England's national champion. Again Burns was installed as the underdog and again he beat the odds, flattening his much larger opponent inside of ten rounds.

By this time the champion was being frequently hounded by Jack Johnson, who was recognised in many American circles as the leading challenger for heavyweight laurels in the field. Johnson, as mentioned before, was black, however, and there were many opponents to the making of an interracial heavyweight title bout. Burns, who was known to be a sharp negotiator and promoter, let it be known that for a guarantee of $30,000, a figure he knew he could eventually command, he would fight Johnson or Sam Langford or even Stan Ketchel. Meanwhile, he reinforced his claim to the World championship by actually going out and fighting the best other countries had to offer, becoming the first true international heavyweight champion and the first heavyweight champion to defend the title outside the United States. He took on and beat: Jack Palmer in London; Jem Roche in Dublin; Jewey Smith and Bill Squires (again) in Paris; Bill Squires (a third time) in Sydney; and Bill Lang in Melbourne.

The Johnson Fight

While in Australia, Burns was introduced to fledgling boxing promoter Hugh McIntosh, who actually offered Tommy the $30,000 he required to face outstanding contender Jack Johnson. That amount was twice as much as anything a fight had been paid previously for any single match and the champion, now confronted with a mountain of cash, happily signed the contracts to face Johnson. Burns drew a storm of criticism from conservatives in the USA frightened by the prospect of a black man being given a shot at the title, but the champion went on with plans for the fight. On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), 1908, Burns met Johnson, who stood more than six inches taller than him and outweighed him by almost thirty pounds. A defensive marvel, Johnson used his greater size to every advantage, using his weight to wear down Burns in clinches, using his reach to keep Burns at bay, and using his muscular frame to land devastating punches on the inside. The champion, still recovering from a battle with influenza, fought a brave fight. He battled into the fourteenth round until police rushed into the ring to stop the fight, despite his insistence that he could carry on. As per previous agreement, Johnson was awarded the decision by referee McIntosh and declared the new champion. (Many days later, Rudy Unholz, a trainer in Johnson's camp, admitted that, because he disliked Burns, he and an accomplice had crawled under the ring and hidden there, shouted to the police constable seated nearby to stop the fight.)

Having suffered a damaging and humiliating defeat and having alienated many racist American fans by allowing the title to fall into the hands of a black man, Burns did not return to the ring until April 7, 1910, when he fought a rematch with Bill Lang, who was by this time recognized as both the British Empire champion and Australian champion. [1] Though Lang was the younger and larger man, Burns won a twenty-round decision. This was the last notable victory of his career, as he fought only sporadically for the next decade. His final bout, against young Joe Beckett, for the British Empire title, took place on July 16, 1920 and ended in the seventh, when the thirty-nine year old Burns could take no more.

As he faded away from the boxing ring, Burns enjoyed several different pursuits. He managed the careers of several boxers, promoted the sport in Calgary and New Orleans[2], owned and operated a successful clothing emporium in Calgary, Alberta. He bought and ran a pub in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1921, and eventually became an evangelist preacher. He died in Vancouver of a heart attack at age seventy-three. In 1996 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. To this day, he remains the only heavyweight champion to win eight consecutive title defenses by knockout.

Tommy Burns is buried in Ocean View Cemetery, Burnaby, Canada.


  • December 15, 1910 Spokane Press mentions Burns had been severely injured in a Seattle-Tacoma Interurban wreck. [3] As did the San Francisco Call. [4] Burns was a Seattle citizen at this time. [5] He later sued the Puget Sound Electric Company. [6]
  • Per the Sept. 9, 1911 Tacoma Daily News, Burns was living in Calgary, Alberta, where he was running a furnishing goods store. Meanwhile, the boxer he thought he was managing by proxy, Jack Lester, then in Australia, thought otherwise. So Burns hied himself to Australia to straighten things out between the two.
  • Per the Jan. 27, 1915 Tacoma Daily News, Burns had become the father of twin girls. By Feb. 17, he was running a boxing club in New Orleans, LA.
  • Inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame
  • Inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame 1955

Professional record

Championship Record

Reference sources

Newspaper Articles

  • Ex-Heavyweight Champ, Tommy Burns, Dies at 74, Windsor Daily Star, May 11, 1955 [7]

External Links

Preceded by:
Marvin Hart
World Heavyweight Champion
1906 Feb 23 – 1908 Dec 26
Succeeded by:
Jack Johnson