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