How it Began - Hugh D. McIntosh and the Chinese Market Garden

sydney stadium by mike hitchenDecember 26, 1908. It was time for the start of the long awaited world heavyweight championship fight between the holder, Tommy Burns, and Jack Johnson. Johnson, however, was flatly refusing to go into the ring unless he received more money. Grabbing a revolver, promoter Hugh D. McIntosh, burst into his dressing room.

“If you’re not in the ring in two minutes,” he snarled, “I’ll blow your brains all over the floor.” Johnson rose with alacrity, his gold teeth flashing as he grinned, “Massa Mac, Ah’m on mah way.” It would have taken a shrewder man than Johnson to get the better of Hugh D. McIntosh.

Hard as nails and cunning as a fox, the bull knecked Hugh D. McIntosh, was an entrepreneurial genius. His father, a local police sergeant, was unimpressed when at the age of ten, young Hugh told him that he was going to make his fortune, and that he didn’t care how he did it. It was a philosophy that stayed with him as he made and lost several fortunes over four decades of wheeling and dealing.

A millionaire by his early thirties, “Huge Deal,” as he was aptly known, had a diverse career. Starting with a basket of pies, he became a successful restaurateur, newspaper proprietor, theatre magnate and politician. He was responsible for pulling cycling out of the mud, attracting crowds of upto fifty thousand - and always a man of style - was the first to introduce china cups to the top of Mount Kosciusko.

It was McIntosh’s vision and flair, that made Sydney Stadium possible. With the artfulness that was the hallmark of his career, he succeeded where the world’s top promoters had failed. He enticed Tommy Burns to put his world heavyweight title on the line against the gigantic Negro, Jack Johnson.

Johnson stepped into the ring and into the history books, as the first colored heavyweight champion of the world. With the world’s press, and writers such as Jack London and Damon Runyan, covering what was as much a battle of the races, as a title fight, Sydney and the open air stadium at Rushcutters Bay, became famous the world over.

McIntosh promoted some of the greatest fights ever seen in Australia. Fights, which during Australia’s Federal infancy, put the fledgling commonwealth on the sporting map of the globe. The world’s top fighters flocked to Australia, and Sydney Stadium became a Mecca for the pride of the American and European rings.

Hugh Donald McIntosh was born in 1876 in a tiny house at the bottom of Sydney’s Macquarie Street. After revealing his ambition to his father, and discovering that they did not see eye to eye on business matters, McIntosh left home. As many people would later discover, McIntosh was not one to let anybody stand in his way.

He became an assistant to a travelling tinker and for two years they wandered throughout NSW. Eventually McIntosh deserted him in Broken Hill, taking a more profitable job picking silver ore.

However, the back breaking work was not to his liking. He decided that it was better to work with his brain, than with his back. He drifted to Melbourne, where for a while he played the hind legs of a mule in pantomime. Returning to Sydney at the beginning of the booming 1890s, he became a bread carter. It was to be the last time he would work for someone else.

McIntosh set up in business as a pieman. He started with virtually nothing except a basket and six dozen pies bought on credit from a Redfern factory. Within a few months, he had an army of white coated vendors thronging Sydney’s racecourses, beaches and parks - “coining,” money for him.

No opening was ignored. He even sent his piemen knocking on the doors of the illicit two-up schools, betting clubs and houses of ill repute, that dotted Surrey Hills, Darlinghurst and Wooloomooloo. With the profits, McIntosh set up his own factory at North Sydney. From there it was an easy graduation to ownership of a chain of plush, ornate restaurants.

Always on the lookout for money making opportunities, McIntosh set his sights on cycle racing, which was then the most popular sport of the day. With his flair for showmanship and the ability if necessary to control trouble making cyclists with a spanner, McIntosh had no difficulty in making himself the king-pin cycling promoter. When the cycling boom ended, Hugh D. sought out other lucrative ventures.

In 1908, the Prime Minister, Mr. Alfred Deakin, orchestrated a goodwill visit of 16 warships of the US Navy. It was the impending arrival of The 'Great White Fleet', that planted in McIntosh’s mind, the seed that would grow into Sydney Stadium.

He had for some time thought of bringing world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns to Australia. McIntosh believed that the 12,000 American sailors would pay good money to see a world title fight. Forming a company called the Scientific Boxing and Self Defense Ltd., McIntosh cabled Burns an offer of £4000, to defend his title against the slogging Australian miner, Bill Squires.

With the contest arranged, Hugh D. now had to find somewhere to stage it. He initially chose the Exhibition Building, which was situated in Prince Alfred Park, near the Railway Station. However, when he went to view it, McIntosh found barriers erected. and a large man, making unmistakable signs with his huge fingers. McIntosh decided to seek out an alternative venue.

He wandered down to Rushcutters Bay in an old shabby suit selected for the occasion, and gazed over a waste where once a Chinese market garden had bloomed. While he looked and nosed around, the owner approached him and asked McIntosh what he wanted.

McIntosh looked sadly at the site of the garden. He told him he was looking for a place to put up a nice two man show with a view to making a bob or two during Fleet Week. After some negotiation, McIntosh agreed to rent the land. The rent was £2 per week for two years, with the right to renewal for the same term at £4 per week!

A few days later the owner was astounded to see vast piles of building material being dumped on the land. When he made inquiries he was taken to the man he had met in patched pants, but who was now resplendent in an expensive suit. “Huge Deal” handed him a cigar and said, “It’s for my two man show - the Burns - Squires fight.”

At a cost of £2000, McIntosh quickly erected a huge unroofed timber stadium, that was destined to become, “The Old Tin Shed.”

The fight was a huge success, but not because of the American Sailors. They stayed away in thousands. It is said that only two sailors were present and both were drunk, staggering down to the ring, offering to fight anybody for two dollars. Twenty thousand Sydneysiders, however, paid the unprecedented gate of £13,600 to see Burns win easily.

The success of that fight spurred him to renew his lease and stage the biggest boxing match in Australian history.

For years Jack Johnson had been trying to get into a ring with Tommy Burns, but the champion had persistently dodged him. McIntosh asked Burns what he would want to meet Johnson. Believing that McIntosh would never pay it, Burns demanded £6000. The Australian promoter accepted on the spot and Tommy was trapped.

The jubilant Johnson was satisfied with £1000 as his payment, (later raised to £1500), and the fight was on.

For Burns it was the end of the road. It is now ring history how Johnson cruelly and methodically carved him to pieces, and won the title that he was to hold for the next seven years.

With ringside seats at £10, McIntosh made his greatest financial killing. The gate receipts were £26000, then a world record. From these boxing promotions and others over the next few years, Hugh D. McIntosh raked in more than a quarter million pounds.

McIntosh went to England and America and made a name for himself in London as a fight promoter. When he returned to Australia, he was followed by a crowd of the world’s best boxing talent.

Boxing was lifted to a high level. The only thing that prevented it being completely respectable was the “Fear of The Dark”. McIntosh introduced a stream of colored fighters to the white boxing world, helping to make heavyweights like Sam Langford and Sam McVea world famous.

Until McIntosh, promoters believed there was little money to be made by putting two colored fighters in the same ring. However, Australia gazed with mingled awe and delight at the spectacle of McVea and Langford knocking corners of each other.

It was also under his management that Jimmy Clabby, Billy Papke, Cyclone Johnny Thompson and a team of French boxers, descended on Sydney and Australia.

McIntosh decided to expand. The first thing was to put a roof over the Stadium. The arena was entirely transformed. From having an exterior consisting of hideous poster hoarding, it became an elegant castellated structure. Solid concrete foundations were put in to support the weight of the roof and when it was finished, it was possible to have boxing, or any other sport there all the year round. On August 3rd, 1912, Sam Langford outpointed Sam McVea, in the first fight held under cover.

Later that year, McIntosh thought it was time to develop the more artistic side of his entrepreneurial genius. One morning, Sydneysiders awoke and learned with amazement that Hugh D. McIntosh had paid £100,000 to take over the huge Rickards theatre circuit.

For a brief while he ran both establishments, but on December 2nd 1912, the Stadium was taken over on approval by Reginald (Snowy) L. Baker. In March 1913, he bought the business lock, stock and barrel and Hugh D. McIntosh ceased to have any but sentimental interest in the great stadium he had created.

McIntosh began to live the role of the successful tycoon, buying a mansion, “Bellhaven,” at Bellevue Hill and a fleet of Pierce-Arrow cars with his crest prominently displayed on the doors.

A personal friend of the Premier, W.A. Holman, he was elected to a seat in the NSW Legislative Council, which he held till he was made bankrupt in 1932.

Hugh D. entertained on a fabulous scale. Many visiting celebrities, enjoyed his hospitality. He made his money easily and he squandered it the same way. His gifts of motor cars to friends, diamond studded wrist watches to chorus girls and gold cigarette cases to mere acquaintances, became the talk of the town.

Hankering for fresh fields, McIntosh now bought the Sydney Sunday Times the oldest Sunday newspaper in Australia. It was a vehicle he would later use to persecute the great Les Darcy.

McIntosh had his own ideas on how to increase circulation. One such example was an offer to a notorious murderer named Simpson on the eve of his execution. Simpson would be paid £5000, if he would endeavor to come back from the dead and appear at the Sunday Times office before witnesses.

Visited in his cell, Simpson accepted the proposition eagerly. He jotted down the address of the newspaper office, so he would not “get lost on the way,” and promised to do his best to solve “the age old riddle of whether the dead could return.” Forty people gathered in McIntosh’s office on the night following Simpson’s execution. Simpson, however, was not one of them.

By such stunts, McIntosh did more harm than good to the paper, which had previously enjoyed a valuable prestige. It became one of his financial failures.

In 1928 Hugh D. McIntosh tried his luck in England. He bought Broome Park, a seventeenth century mansion set in 600 acres and formerly owned by Lord Kitchener.

In association with C.B. Cochran, he promoted a few fights in the Olympia Annex in London and also at stadiums in Paris. None of them earned enough to keep him in cigars.

For four years, McIntosh lived a fantastic round of pleasure in England. He poured out his money entertaining the rich, the famous, the titled, and beggared himself in the process.

In 1932 he returned to Australia broke. Bankruptcy proceedings were instituted against him. His liabilities were proved at a staggering figure.

But Hugh D. McIntosh could not be kept down for long. He was soon staging a comeback, promoting fights at the Sydney Stadium. Full of enthusiasm, he imported the American heavyweight Young Stribling and matched him with the Australian heavyweight Ambrose Palmer, hoping to repeat his 1908 clean up with Burns and Johnson.

It was not to be. The takings amounted to only £3800 and Stribling alone had been guaranteed £3000. Another financial body blow followed with the failure of a boomed match between Ron Richards and Fred Henneberry.

The now aging promoter was down - but he was not out. He threw himself into the flotation of a chain of cake shops and opened a large guest house in the Blue Mountains.

In 1935 he sailed once more for England, where on August 1 he opened what was to be the first of a chain of 500 McIntosh milk bars throughout the country.

With an excess of ballyhoo, a company was floated which McIntosh said would soon be disposing of the milk output of a million cows, to two million customers a week.

McIntosh opened a dozen milk bars in London, and it seemed he was on the right foot again. However, lack of capital and cut-throat competition beat him.

When he died in 1942, he was penniless. His old time friends had to contribute to a fund to defray his funeral expenses.

Copyright Mike Hitchen, Lane Cove, NSW, Australia. All rights reserved

Jack Hassen

Jack Hassen knocks Archie Kemp's head back with a right hand blow in their bout at Rushcutter's Bay Stadium on Sept. 19th, 1949

Watching the Geale-Mundine fight the other night, I began thinking of some of the great Aboriginal boxers of the past.

The first that sprang to mind was not surprisingly, Lionel Rose, although I remember my disappointment when he beat Alan Rudkin! Other names quickly followed; Tony Mundine, Jerome Jerome, Elley Bennett, Wally Carr, the great Dave Sands and his brothers.

One boxer often overlooked, is lightweight Jack Hassen.

I was fortunate enough to have access to footage of his fights. He was darn good, though he lost to a great Mexican boxer - Rudy Cruz. I spoke to Jack while researching the old Sydney Stadium, a really nice gent.

He seemed destined for greatness, but then came the night he fought Archie Kemp

Archie was in trouble - a lot of trouble. Jack asked the referee to stop the fight, the ref ordered him to continue. Joe Wallis was like that. The next day Archie died.

Jack was never the same after that fight, it hit him hard and his boxing career went downhill. It was reported that in the weeks following Archie's tragic death, and receiving threats, Jack lost 71 pounds in weight. Six of his eight defeats came after his fight with Archie.

Jack was an active unionist fighting for the rights of waterside workers with the same zest as at the peak of his career. He passed away 2002. None of the old timers I have spoken to had a bad word to say about him. He was a boxer who talked with the tools of his often cruel trade.

Copyright Mike Hitchen, Lane Cove, NSW, Australia. All rights reserved

Tommy Burns

Eugene Corri, the famous English boxing referee, once described Tommy Burns as being unpopular, insolent and arrogant; his attitude earning him the titles “Emperor Burns.” or “Napoleon.” However, whatever personal qualities he may have lacked, for two years he reigned as heavyweight champion of the world.

For a heavyweight who stood only 5’7” and weighed just 175 pounds (79 kg), Burns had a remarkable record. In a career spanning twenty years, Tommy Burns (real name Noah Brusso,) lost only five times; winning forty-five of his fifty-nine bouts. He won the title in 1906, in Los Angeles, by outpointing Marvin Hart[1], who before becoming champion in 1905, had earlier outpointed Jack Johnson.

Burns was born in Hanover, Canada, on June 17 1881. His father being French and his mother German, he became the first world heavyweight champion who was not of English, Irish or American descent.

Young Tommy was a first rate, all round sportsman, excelling at lacrosse, football, skating, swimming, basketball, and hockey. Burns took up boxing by accident. One night, he was a spectator at a special boxing night arranged by The Detroit Athletic Club, of which he was a member. One of the entrants failed to turn up and Burns volunteered to help out by taking his place. He went on to win his first public fight in the fifth round.

Spurred on by his success, Burns decided to concentrate on boxing. His first two official fights were against Frank Thornton, whom he knocked out on both occasions.

For a couple of years Burns continued to win, suffering his first defeat in Detroit in 1902 at the hands of Mike Schreck, who was considered a future world champion. Burns went undefeated in his next 18 fights and it was nearly two years before he suffered his second defeat against “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien. Burns continued his winning ways, losing only to “Twin” Sullivan in 1905. Incredibly, he would lose only two more fights before he retired in 1920.

[1] There has been some considerable discussion concerning Hart’s claim to the title.

When Jim Jeffries retired as champion in March 1905. He named Marvin Hart and Jack Root as leading contenders and agreed to referee their fight in Reno, Nevada., on July 3, 1905, with the stipulation that he would term the winner the champion. Hart, knocked out Root, in the 12th round.

Jeffries right to make such a stipulation has been called into question by many boxing writers, but at the time, Hart was generally considered world champion.

After Hart won the title, Burns began clamoring for a fight with the new champion. Hart considered Burns an easier opponent for his first title defence, than the likes of Jack Johnson and Gus Ruhlin, who were also pressing their claims. Hart paid the price for underestimating Burns and Tommy won easily on points.

Between February 1906 and August 1908, Burns defended his title 11 times. As well as two knockouts over Bill Squires, he also claimed the scalp of British champion Gunner Moir and knocked out the Irishman Jem Roche in one round.

After beating Bill Squires at Sydney Stadium, Burns went to Melbourne, accounting for Australia’s Bill Lang in six rounds. It was the last time Burns successfully defended his title. He returned to Sydney for his historic Boxing Day encounter with Jack Johnson. How Johnson taunted him and methodically pounded him to defeat, will be told later.

After his defeat by Johnson, Burns did not fight again until April 1910, when he was given a controversial points' decision over Bill Lang at Sydney Stadium. Over the next ten years, Tommy fought only five more times, before retiring in 1920. Of those he won three and fought a no decision contest with Canadian Arthur Pelkey. In London, in July 1920, he was knocked out in seven rounds by Britain’s Joe Beckett. Though Burns would later beat Beckett in a brawl, in a hotel corridor in Leeds, his official fighting career was over.

He became a manager, taking Jack Lester and Arthur Pelkey under his wing. Pelkey was beaten by Bill Lang at Sydney Stadium in 1914. He retired after Luther McCarthy died as a result of his bout with him.

Lester had several fights at the Stadium with mixed success. On one occasion he was billed to fight at the Stadium, whilst Burns was in Melbourne. At this time the Stadium was unroofed. Concerned about the size of the gate, Burns asked Lester to wire him as to how the crowd “rolled up." Soon after 8 o’clock, Tommy received a message from Lester that just said, “Thousands turned away.”

A delighted Burns retired to contemplate his percentage of a full house. Next morning he read in a newspaper, that a last minute thunderstorm had caused the postponement of the fight and that “thousands had been turned away.”

Burns tried his hand at many other ventures. At various times he owned a string of hotels in the north of England, became an insurance agent, a lacrosse promoter, cafĂ© proprietor, a hockey player and owner of a New York “speakeasy.”

In the early thirties, Tommy became plagued with arthritis and thought he would never walk again. He turned to religion for comfort and gradually his legs strengthened Drifting to the West Coast, he became a Pastor with the Church of Brotherhood of Universal Love, and began preaching in a little church in Seattle.

In 1946 Burns moved to California. He met a woman he had first fell in love with, 43 years earlier in Detroit. Their love was rekindled and they married in July that year.

Tommy Burns died from a heart condition in Vancouver, in May 1955. He had travelled to Vancouver from his home in California two weeks earlier, to enter a religious order.

Copyright Mike Hitchen, Lane Cove, NSW, Australia. All rights reserved