Tommy Burns: Hard Luck Champion

18.12.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: At a glance, the story of Tommy “Tiny” Burns is a sad one that plays like a somber lament for a doomed warrior. He was born in poverty and, after fighting his way bravely out, died penniless near to the very place of his wretched birth. However, his story is not one that should be remembered as only tragic. Tommy Burns was the heavyweight champion of the world in an era that could reasonably identify the rightful king of a division, and there were no alphabet sanctioning bodies. Standing only five-foot-seven, he defended his title eleven times against some of the biggest and fiercest men of his day.

Tommy Burns was an Italian, born Noah Brusso in 1881, who took on the fighting alias Tommy Burns to conceal his involvement in boxing from his mother who objected to the brutal give-and-take of the ring. His upbringing was in total poverty in Chesley, Ontario, Canada where he lived with thirteen brothers and sisters. The Brusso’s lacked even the most basic comforts, and were reduced to relying on the state for food and clothing.

Tommy soon left Canada and migrated south across the border where he settled in Detroit, hoping to find work and support himself. It was not long after his arrival in the United States that he entered the prize ring in 1902 and met with immediate success. Campaigning then as a middleweight, he rattled off a string of victories that was only interrupted by a pair of early losses to the tough veteran Mike Schreck, after which he picked up the Michigan State Middleweight Title.

Burns soon lost the title to “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien who fought the likes of Joe Walcott, Bob Fitzsimmons, Young Peter Jackson, Jack Blackburn, Stanley Ketchel, Jack Johnson, and Sam Langford. Burns rebounded after his loss and won the Pacific Coast Middleweight Title in a tough twenty-round battle with Dave Barry. Burns won the fight comfortably on points.

Burns’ next loss also marked the end of his campaign as a middleweight. He dropped a twenty-round decision to Jack “Twin” Sullivan, and after Sullivan claimed the middleweight title, Burns decided to go after the bigger opponents and bigger fight purses.

Tommy was a broad, well-built man with powerful shoulders and a barrel-chest. Despite being well under six-feet-tall he was able to handle the extra weight that a campaign as a heavyweight demanded. It is also important to bear in mind that many top-heavyweights at the beginning of the twentieth century weighed between 180 and 190-pounds

His first fight in the new division was for the world heavyweight title in 1906. He went up against Marvin Hart who was, at the time, considered to be a full-sized heavyweight standing five-foot-eleven and weighing around 190-pounds. By current standards, Hart would barely be an average-sized cruiserweight. Before the fight Hart’s corner complained that Burns hands were excessively taped, and Burns responded directly to the champion saying, “Mr. Hart, I didn't think that a big champion like you would mind that a little man like me would wear a little tape.” Hart, incensed by Tommy’s insults, fought like a raging bull, and was subsequently careless and sloppy throughout the fight. Burns maintained his composure, picked his spots, and cruised to an easy decision victory.

Burns first two title defenses came nearly simultaneously as he brutally knocked out Jim O’Brien and James Walker in back to back fights on the same card just one month after dethroning Hart. O’Brien and Walker were novices, punching bags at best, who hadn’t a win between them when they challenged Burns, but even so, the idea of defending a title twice in one night makes a bold comment about how different the game was in the early years of the twentieth century. There was an all-or-nothing, blood-and-guts air about the fight game that has long vanished or at lest been largely-muted.

Burns had a solid run as champion avenging his loss to Philadelphia Jack O’Brien by first fighting the veteran brawler to a draw to maintain his title and then cleverly outpointing him, winning on points over twenty-rounds to even the score in their trilogy at one win, one draw, and one loss for each man.

In 1908, Burns became the first man in the history of the prize ring to offer a black fighter the chance to challenge for a world title. Previously, enduring racism had barred even the most talented black boxers from taking aim at championship status. However, Burns was no champion of civil rights. And it would be incorrect to credit him as being in any way noble or progressive for agreeing to fight Jack Johnson. In fact, his decision to offer Johnson a title shot came when Burns’ frustration overpowered his prejudicial leanings. It is thus impossible to say whether Burns was an angry xenophobe or a product of his era.

Johnson, known as an outspoken self-promoter, was ringside at several of Burns’ title defenses and took the opportunity to call out the champion and publicly question his courage and his boxing ability. In addition, Burns came under a great deal of pressure from the public to fight “The Galveston Giant,” and so the contracts were signed.

The fight was held in Sydney, Austrailia where Burns was able to secure the most lucrative win-or-lose purse-guarantee. Tommy was promised 7,500-pounds, which was, at the time, the most ever guaranteed to a fighter for a single bout. It was ultimately a wise decision for Burns to secure such a warranty because he seemed doomed before the hammer struck the opening bell. Burns entered the ring weighing only 168-pounds, more than 15-pounds less than in his last outing. He gave twenty-four-pounds to the bigger, stronger, better-conditioned Johnson and stood five-full-inches shorter.

Johnson floored Burns in the first round with a thunderous overhand-right, and Burns would have been wiser to be counted-out where he fell, but rose instead to continue. Johnson pounded Burns for fourteen rounds, hitting him at will with clean, solid shots. Johnson’s gold-toothed grin gleamed under the lights as he posed, dismantling the champion with ease.

After watching the rugged and determined Burns take untold punishment, the police stormed the ring and stopped the fight in the fourteenth-round. Tommy had no answer for Jack’s nonstop assault. By the time of the stoppage, Johnson, who seemed intent on knocking Burns out, had reduced the champion to a bloody, swollen wreck. “The Galveston Giant” was awarded the championship belt, and so became the first black fighter to hold a universally recognized world title.

Burns was effectively broken in that bruising loss to Johnson. He fought on, but was a shadow of his former self. He held regional titles and faded in and out of the ring, sometimes languishing in periods of inactivity. He fought for the last time in 1920, and was stopped in the seventh-round of a heavyweight contest against a young Joe Beckett for the British Commonwealth Heavyweight Championship.

After his fighting days were over Burns quickly ran through what money he had made in the ring, and became insolvent on the streets of Vancouver, Canada. His situation was such that he was buried in an unmarked grave upon his death in 1955.

A stone marker was installed in 1981 after a boxing journalist led a fundraising effort in Tommy’s memory.

Tommy “Tiny” Burns was not a man of outstanding character or a champion of good will. No legends exist of his charitable nature or grand integrity. However, Burns combined true-grit with clever boxing instincts and hard hands to become a world champion. He was a great fighter, a true warrior that hung-tough with some of the best heavyweights of his era despite his diminutive stature. And for that he should not be forgotten.

Article posted on 18.12.2005

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