Tommy Burns (boxer)

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Tommy Burns
File:Tommy Burns 1912.jpg
Tommy Burns, circa 1912
Real name Noah Brusso
Nickname(s) "The Little Giant of Hanover"
Rated at Heavyweight
Height 5 ft 7 in (1.70 m)
Reach 73 in (185 cm)
Nationality Canada
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 62
Wins 48
Wins by KO 39
Losses 5
Draws 8

Tommy Burns (June 17, 1881 – May 10, 1955), born Noah Brusso, is the only Canadian-born World Heavyweight Champion boxer. The first to travel the globe in defending his title, Tommy made 11 title defences 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.[1] 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. At a time when most white fighters adhered to the so-called "color-line", refusing to fight African Americans, Burns had half a dozen contests with black boxers prior to 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 German-Canadian family. His family lived in several locations around Ontario's Grey and Bruce counties before moving to Galt, Ontario. Noah grew up in difficult circumstances; five of his siblings died before reaching adulthood.[2] 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

Film of the 1907 heavyweight championship prize fight with Squires, shot by the Miles Brothers

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 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, and went on to defend his title eleven times within a period of less than two years.

All previous gloved world champs had been European-American U.S. Citizens (except for Robert Fitzsimmons, of the United Kingdom), who defended their titles only against other white opponents. Burns travelled the globe, beating the champions of every nation in which boxing was legal at that time, including 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.

Along the way Burns set records for the fastest knockout (one minute and 28 seconds) and the most consecutive wins by knockout (eight) by a heavyweight champion. He was the shortest heavyweight champion in history and the second lightest after Bob Fitzsimmons. He 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.

File:Tommy Burns sparring.jpg
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. He had refused to fight Johnson until Australian promoter Hugh D. McIntosh paid him $30,000 for the fight (Johnson received $5,000).[3] 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. 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.

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."[citation needed]

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. A month before his 39th birthday in 1920, Burns challenged British champion Joe Beckett. Burns lost the fight in what was officially his only knockout loss, but took in one last big payday before retiring.

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.


Burns has since been posthumously inducted into 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.[4]

See also


  1. Tommy Burns - Encyclopædia Britannica; Retrieved 2011-07-21
  2. Dan McCaffery. Tommy Burns: Canada's Unknown World Heavyweight Champion. 2000, page 11-2
  3. "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson". PBS. Retrieved 2014-05-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Tommy Burns". Retrieved 25 September 2014. External link in |website= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Marvin Hart
World Heavyweight Champion
February 23, 1906 – December 26, 1908
Succeeded by
Jack Johnson
Preceded by
James J. Jeffries
Oldest Living Heavyweight Champion
March 3, 1953 – May 10, 1955
Succeeded by
Jess Willard