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Tommy Burns
Tommy Burns 1912.jpg
Tommy Burns, circa 1912
Statistics
Real name Noah Brusso
Nickname(s)
  • The Little Giant of Hanover
Rated at
Height 5 ft 7 in
Reach 73 in
Born (1881-06-17)June 17, 1881
Hanover, Ontario
Died May 10, 1955(1955-05-10) (aged 73)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Stance Orthodox
Boxing record
Total fights 61
Wins 47
Wins by KO 35
Losses 5
Draws 9

Tommy Burns (born Noah Brusso; June 17, 1881 – May 10, 1955) was a Canadian professional boxer. He is the only Canadian-born World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. The first to travel the globe in defending his title, Burns made 13 title defences against 11 different boxers, despite often being the underdog due to his size. Burns famously challenged all comers as Heavyweight Champion, leading to a celebrated bout with the American Jack Johnson. According to his biographer, Burns insisted, "I will defend my title against all comers, none barred. By this I mean white, black, Mexican, Indian, or any other nationality. I propose to be 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."

Burns was the first heavyweight champion to fight with a Jewish challenger, defeating Joseph "Jewey" Smith in a fight staged in Paris. He also fought a bout with a Native American on his way to the Championship. According to one biography, he had two black sparring partners and was married for a brief time to a black woman. Burns, like other white boxers, had half a dozen contests with black boxers before his clash with the legendary Jack Johnson.

Early life

Noah Brusso was born in Normanby Township near Hanover, Ontario, as the twelfth of thirteen children of an impoverished Italian-Canadian family. His family lived in several locations around Ontario's Grey County and Bruce County counties before moving to Galt, Ontario. Noah grew up in difficult circumstances; five of his siblings died before reaching adulthood. Brusso began his prizefighting career in 1900 in Detroit, Michigan. In June 1903, he was discovered playing lacrosse under an assumed name for a Detroit team that was playing in Chatham, Ontario.

Boxing career

After starting his boxing career under his real name, in 1904 Brusso took the Scottish-sounding name of Tommy Burns. He was 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) tall and about 175 pounds (79 kg), but his relatively small size did not stop him from becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. When Burns met Marvin Hart for the heavyweight championship of the world in Los Angeles on February 23, 1906, Burns was a 2-1 underdog and the betting was 10-7 that he would not last ten rounds. Burns won a 20-round decision and went on to defend his title eleven times within a period of less than three years.

All previous gloved world champs had been European-American U.S. citizens (except for Robert Fitzsimmons, of the United Kingdom and New Zealand), who defended their titles only against other white opponents (although Fitzsimmons fought Jack Johnson after losing the title). Burns travelled the globe, beating the champions of England, Ireland, France and Australia. He was the first heavyweight champion to fight with a Jewish challenger, defeating British boxer Joseph "Jewey" Smith, in a 1908 bout held in Paris. He also fought a bout with a Native American and won.

Burns once defended his title twice in one night, although some historians refuse to accept those wins as title defences, insisting they were exhibition bouts. But in newspapers at the time, they were advertised as heavyweight title fights. If those defences are counted in his record, he successfully defended his title 13 times.

Tommy Burns sparring
Burns (left) during a sparring session

In December 1908, Burns agreed to a bout with Jack Johnson, becoming the first fighter to agree to a heavyweight championship bout with an African American. Burns lost his title in the match held in Sydney. The fight was ended in the 14th of 20 three minute rounds with Burns failing to land a punch, and being clearly unable to continue. He had refused to fight Johnson until Australian promoter Hugh D. McIntosh paid him $30,000 for the fight (Johnson received $5,000). Burns was rumoured to be suffering from the effects from jaundice or influenza, and weighed in at 168 pounds (76 kg)—15 pounds (6.8 kg) lighter than his previous fight, and well below Johnson's 192 pounds (87 kg). The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police. Burns later claimed the disruption was due to spectators' concern he had a broken jaw. He also stated numerous right uppercuts from Johnson led to swelling on his face and the request to stop the fight. Referee Hugh McIntosh awarded the decision and the title to Johnson.

In a filmed interview, Burns ranked Johnson as the second-best boxer up to his time, after James J. Jeffries. Johnson defeated Jeffries in 1910 when Jeffries, who hadn't fought for six years, came out of retirement to fight. It is said that Jeffries was grossly out-of-shape and had lost much of his muscle. In 1909 in Vancouver, B.C., Johnson told a crowd of people that Burns deserved credit as the only white heavyweight who ever gave a black man a chance to win the title. He said, "Let me say of Mr. Burns, a Canadian and one of yourselves, that he has done what no one else ever did, he gave a black man a chance for the championship. He was beaten, but he was game."

Burns continued to box occasionally after dropping the title. During the Great War he joined the Canadian army, serving as a physical fitness instructor for troops in Canada. In 1920, and a month after his 39th birthday, Burns challenged British champion Joe Beckett. Burns was stopped in the seventh round when, after suffering two knockdowns, his corner threw in the towel to end the fight.

Life after boxing

After retirement, Burns promoted some boxing shows. In 1928 he moved to New York City where he ran a speakeasy. Although he was wealthy at the end of his boxing career, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression wiped out his fortune. Burns went to work as an insurance salesman and security guard, among other jobs.

In 1948 Burns was ordained as a minister. At the time of his death, he was an evangelist living in Coalinga, California. He died while visiting a church friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, suffering a heart attack at age 73. Four people attended his burial at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, British Columbia. He was interred in an unmarked pauper's grave. In 1961 a Vancouver sports writer raised funds to commission a memorial plaque for Burns' grave.

Legacy

Burns is one of the more over-looked heavyweight champions in history, best remembered today as the man whom Jack Johnson beat to become the first black heavyweight champion. Yet Burns was the first truly international heavyweight champion, defending his title in America, England, Ireland, France and Australia. His 1907 title defence against Gunner Moir in London was the first World Heavyweight championship fight of the gloved era to be held outside of The United States. Standing at just 5'7", Burns is the shortest heavyweight champion in history, while only Bob Fitzsimmons weighed less in a world heavyweight title fight than Burns' 168½ lbs when losing the championship to Jack Johnson. During his championship reign, Burns typically weighed between 170-180Ibs. His reach was 74", which is three inches longer than Mike Tyson's.

Burns' 8 consecutive title defences by knockout or stoppage is equalled only by Larry Holmes and remains a record for the heavyweight division. Burns was also the first World Heavyweight champion to win the title on points. Although physically over-matched against Johnson, who handed him his first stoppage loss, it is notable that Burns did not lose inside the distance again until the final fight of his career, at the age of 39. It should be noted, however, that some sources record the result as Johnson having won the title on points after the bout was stopped by the police. The filming of the fight was stopped due to the one-sided nature of the contest, however, and regardless of the official ruling, is generally considered by historians to be a stoppage victory for Johnson.

Burns' reign as heavyweight champion lasted for two years, ten months and three days, the 19th-longest reign in heavyweight history. His eleven consecutive successful title defences is the joint-fourth highest total in heavyweight history, alongside Vitali Klitschko and behind Wladimir Klitschko (18 defences), Larry Holmes (20 defences) and Joe Louis (25 defences). Many of Burns' title challengers, however, were not of World Championship quality, as he frequently defended against the best available local heavyweights while touring the world. In Burns' first defense of the title, for instance, he knocked out James J. Walker in the first round. Walker's record going into the bout was 1-5 and he had lost by stoppage in five of his previous six bouts prior to challenging Burns.

Burns also defended the title three times against Bill Squires. Squires, the Australian heavyweight champion, was actually a 10-9 favourite to defeat Burns, yet lost in the first round. Nevertheless, Squires obtained two further shots at Burns' title, despite losing two of his next three fights following their first bout. His trilogy with Burns is notable, however, as their title fights took place across three different continents (America, Europe and Australia). This remains the only instance in history where two boxers have fought three times for a World title with each fight taking place on a different continent. Burns' best win as champion was a 20-round points decision over Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, who two years previously had stopped Bob Fitzsimmons to claim the World light-Heavyweight championship.

Despite his impressive statistics, Burns is not considered one of the great heavyweight champions. This can be attributed to the poor quality of the majority of his challengers, as well as his unimposing physique and small dimensions. The current (as of June 2020) WBC and lineal heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury, for instance, stands 14 inches taller than Burns did, has an eleven inch longer reach and would have outweighed him by approximately 95 pounds. These factors makes it difficult for boxing historians to imagine Burns competing with later heavyweight champions, who would have held significant physical advantages. His one-sided loss to Johnson in his most famous fight demonstrates this fact, and perhaps contributes to Burns' poor historical standing. Yet Burns was a world class fighter who probably would have been a super-middleweight today, where his punching power and relatively long reach would have been far more effective. Footage of his 1907 title defence against Bill Lang shows Burns to have been an aggressive counter-puncher, who was strong on the inside and a good finisher.

Although Trevor Berbick and Bermane Stiverne have also won a version of the World Heavyweight Championship while Canadian citizens, Burns remains the only Canadian-born heavyweight champion in history. (Berbick and Stiverne were born in Jamaica and Haiti respectively.)

Honours

Australian boxer and Welterweight champion Geoffrey Mostyn Murphy would fight under the ring name "Tommy Burns", in honour of his Canadian namesake.

Burns has since been posthumously inducted into the following sporting institutions: the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 9, 1996, and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

Professional boxing record

Professional record summary
61 fights 47 wins 5 losses
By knockout 35 1
By decision 10 4
By disqualification 2 0
Draws 9
No contests 0
No. Result Record Opponent Type Round, time Date Location Notes
61 Loss 47–5–9 United Kingdom Joe Beckett RTD 7 (20) 16 Jul 1920 Canada Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada For Commonwealth heavyweight title
60 Win 47–4–9 Canada Bob Bracken KO 4 (10) 19 Sep 1918 Canada Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada
59 Win 46–4–9 United States Battling Brandt KO 4 (10) 26 Jan 1914 United States Taft, California, U.S.
58 Draw 45–4–9 Canada Arthur Pelkey PTS 6 2 Apr 1913 Canada Manchester Arena, Calgary, Canada
57 Win 45–4–8 Canada Bill Rickard TKO 6 (15) 8 Aug 1912 Canada Saskatchewan, Canada Won vacant Canadian heavyweight title
56 Win 44–4–8 Australia Bill Lang PTS 20 11 Apr 1910 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Won Commonwealth and Australian heavyweight titles
55 Loss 43–4–8 United States Jack Johnson PTS 14 (20) 26 Dec 1908 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Lost world heavyweight title
54 Win 43–3–8 Australia Bill Lang KO 6 (20) 3 Sep 1908 Australia West Melbourne Stadium, Melbourne, Australia Retained world heavyweight title
53 Win 42–3–8 Australia Bill Squires KO 13 (20) 24 Aug 1908 Australia Sydney Stadium, Sydney, Australia Retained world heavyweight title
52 Win 41–3–8 Australia Bill Squires KO 5 (10) 13 Jun 1908 France Neuilly Bowling Palace, Paris, France Retained world heavyweight title
51 Win 40–3–8 United Kingdom Jewey Smith KO 5 (10) 18 Apr 1908 France Neuilly Bowling Palace, Paris, France Retained world heavyweight title
50 Win 39–3–8 Ireland Jem Roche KO 1 (20), 1:28 17 Mar 1908 Ireland Theatre Royal, Dublin, Ireland Retained world heavyweight title
49 Win 38–3–8 United Kingdom Jack Palmer KO 4 (20) 10 Feb 1908 United Kingdom Wonderland London, England Retained world heavyweight title
48 Win 37–3–8 United Kingdom Gunner Moir KO 10 (20) 2 Dec 1907 United Kingdom National Sporting Club, London, England Retained world heavyweight title
47 Win 36–3–8 Australia Bill Squires KO 1 (45), 1:28 4 Jul 1907 United States Mission Street Arena, Coma, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
46 Win 35–3–8 United States Philadelphia Jack O'Brien PTS 20 8 May 1907 United States Naud Junction Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
45 Draw 34–3–8 United States Philadelphia Jack O'Brien PTS 20 28 Nov 1906 United States Naud Junction Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
44 Win 34–3–7 United States Fireman Jim Flynn KO 15 (20) 2 Oct 1906 United States Naud Junction Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
43 Win 33–3–7 United States James J Walker KO 1 (10), 2:55 28 Mar 1906 United States National Athletic Club, San Diego, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
42 Win 32–3–7 United States Jim O'Brien KO 1 (10), 2:18 28 Mar 1906 United States National Athletic Club, San Diego, California, U.S. Retained world heavyweight title
41 Win 31–3–7 United States Marvin Hart PTS 20 23 Feb 1906 United States Pacific Athletic Club, Los Angeles, California, U.S. Won world heavyweight title
40 Loss 30–3–7 United States Jack Twin Sullivan PTS 20 17 Oct 1905 United States Pacific Athletic Club, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
39 Win 30–2–7 United States Dave Barry TKO 20 (20), 2:18 31 Aug 1905 United States Woodward's Pavilion, San Francisco, California, U.S. Retained Pacific Coast middleweight title
38 Draw 29–2–7 Italy Hugo Kelly PTS 20 28 Jul 1905 United States Light Guard Armory, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
37 Draw 29–2–6 Italy Hugo Kelly PTS 10 7 Jun 1905 United States Light Guard Armory, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
36 Win 29–2–5 United States Dave Barry PTS 20 2 May 1905 United States Germania Hall, Tacoma, Washington, U.S. Won Pacific Coast middleweight title
35 Draw 28–2–5 United States Jack Twin Sullivan PTS 20 7 Mar 1905 United States Tacoma Athletic Club, Tacoma, Washington U.S.
34 Win 28–2–4 United States Joe Schildt KO 6 31 Jan 1905 United States Ballard, Seattle, Washington U.S.
33 Loss 27–2–4 United States Philadelphia Jack O'Brien NWS 6 7 Oct 1904 United States Panorama Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
32 Draw 27–1–4 United States Billy Woods PTS 15 16 Sep 1904 United States Seattle Theater, Seattle, Washington, U.S.
31 Win 27–1–3 United States Cyclone Kelly KO 4 (20) 19 Aug 1904 United States Germania Hall, Tacoma, Washington, U.S.
30 Win 26–1–3 United States Hans Erickson KO 3 9 Jul 1904 United States Kemmerer, Wyoming, U.S.
29 Win 25–1–3 United States Joe Wardinski KO 1 1 Jul 1904 United States Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.
28 Win 24–1–3 United States Tony Caponi PTS 6 9 Apr 1904 United States Chicago Athletic Association, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
27 Draw 23–1–3 United States Tony Caponi PTS 6 18 Mar 1904 United States Battery D Armory, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
26 Draw 23–1–2 United States Mike Schreck PTS 6 27 Feb 1904 United States Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
25 Win 23–1–1 United States George Shrosbree KO 5 26 Feb 1904 United States Battery D Armory, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
24 Win 22–1–1 United States Ben O'Grady KO 3 (10) 28 Jan 1904 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
23 Win 21–1–1 United States Tom McCune PTS 10 31 Dec 1903 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S. Retained Michigan State middleweight title
22 Win 20–1–1 United States Jack O'Donnell KO 11 25 Nov 1903 United States Evanston, Illinois, U.S. Retained Michigan State middleweight title
21 Win 19–1–1 United States Jack Butler KO 2 8 Nov 1903 United States Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, U.S. Retained Michigan State middleweight title
20 Draw 18–1–1 United States Billy Moore PTS 10 24 Oct 1903 United States Amphidrome, Houghton, Michigan, U.S. Retained Michigan State middleweight title
19 Win 18–1 United States Jack Hammond KO 3 (10) 12 Oct 1903 United States Soo Opera House, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, U.S. Retained Michigan State middleweight title
18 Win 17–1 United States Jim Duggan KO 9 25 Sep 1903 United States Amphidrome, Houghton, Michigan, U.S. Won Michigan State middleweight title
17 Win 16–1 United States Earl Thompson KO 3 18 Apr 1903 United States Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
16 Win 15–1 United States Dick Smith KO 3 (6) 25 Mar 1903 United States Delray Athletic Club, Delray, Michigan, U.S.
15 Win 14–1 United States Reddy Phillips DQ 2 (6) 25 Mar 1903 United States Delray Athletic Club, Delray, Michigan, U.S.
14 Win 13–1 United States Jim O'Brien PTS 10 13 Feb 1903 United States Handloser Hall, Delray, Michigan, U.S.
13 Loss 12–1 United States Mike Schreck PTS 10 16 Jan 1903 United States Light Guard Armory, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
12 Win 12–0 United States Tom McCune KO 7 (10) 26 Dec 1902 United States Light Guard Armory, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
11 Win 11–0 United States Reddy Phillips TKO 9 (10) 6 Nov 1902 United States Lansing, Michigan, U.S.
10 Win 10–0 United States Jack O'Donnell KO 11 19 Sep 1902 United States Butler, Indiana, U.S.
9 Win 9–0 United States Dick Smith PTS 10 8 Jul 1902 United States Mount Clemens, Michigan, U.S.
8 Win 8–0 United States Dick Smith KO 2 27 Jun 1902 United States Nelson's Opera House, Mount Clemens, Michigan, U.S.
7 Win 7–0 United States Ed Sholtreau PTS 10 16 May 1902 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
6 Win 6–0 United States Ed Sholtreau TKO 1 (10), 1:35 18 Apr 1902 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
5 Win 5–0 United States Billy Walsh PTS 6 4 Apr 1902 United States Handloser Hall, Delray, Michigan, U.S.
4 Win 4–0 United States Archie Steele DQ 2 (6) 5 Mar 1902 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
3 Win 3–0 United States Harry Peppers RTD 2 (8) 3 Mar 1902 United States Weyler's Hall, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
2 Win 2–0 United States Billy Walsh TKO 5 (8) 5 Feb 1902 United States Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
1 Win 1–0 Canada Fred Thornton TKO 5 (10) 16 Jan 1902 United States Handloser Hall, Delray, Michigan, U.S.
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