Best Fights in Boxing History. Burns - Johnson: Mocking a Champion

Alisa Barladyan
03 Mar 2022
20:19

Today we will talk about the legendary fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson, which took place back in 1908 and forever inscribed itself in the history of world boxing.

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Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

This fight took place more than a hundred years ago - the day after Christmas on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia, between, strangely enough, Jack Johnson, a native American from Texas, and Tommy Burns, an equally native Canadian from Ontario.

Why is it strange? Since at that time people didn’t travel around the world as often as know. There were three decades and a bloody massacre in Europe before the first paid holidays in the world become usual practice. Weekends, when they did come, people spent not only near the house, but directly at home. Back then, curiosity was frowned upon. Especially when a person was born in a city like New York.

If they were born there, then they died in it about sixty years later, leaving behind a signature on the gravestone: “Here lies such and such. From wife and children.” A couple of years after his death, as a rule, one or two letters of his last name disappeared. Then, from the “wife and children”, “wife and children” remained, then they also disappeared, because the cemeteries were dug up. And everything started all over again.

New York, 1908
New York, 1908

The heroes of that time also didn’t live long. They came into this world, sang something about love, something uplifting, and it was time to leave. This was enough for life. Everyone felt like a happy man. God bless all people have such simple good life.

There was no television, and it was even impossible to imagine it. The only window to the world was the local cinema, and that was a great luxury.

In general, you got an idea of what a wonderful new world it was. And in this very world, in a distant corner of it, in Sydney, Australia, on the eve of the new year 1909, something happened that, after more than a hundred years, speaks of itself as a memory. And what a memory! Fight for the title of world heavyweight boxing champion. The champion was Tommy Burns. The challenger is Jack Johnson. But first, a few words about how they came to such a life.

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Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

Everything was clear about Jack Johnson. He was born in an African American family in Texas. He was very tall and healthy for his time. Growth usually, according to various sources, ranges from 184 to 186 cm. Since then, Americans have added approximately 15 cm. Now his height would be about 2 meters. He had a very powerful physique. His arm span exceeded his height and amounted to 188 cm. Weight was about 88 kg. Later it rose a little. In general, according to modern times, he was somewhere around a hundred and ten kilograms - one hundred and fifteen. Big guy. Very big.

Tommy Burns’ story was even more interesting. First, he acquired his Scottish-sounding surname Burns much later. Secondly, when born his name was Noah Brousseau. There is no reason to think that he is a Jew by origin. By the way, there were quite a few Jews among the then boxing elite. Among them was a certain Joe Choinski, a very good boxer who somehow beat Jack Johnson at the beginning of his journey, and then spent a month with him in prison (boxing was not very legal then) and taught him. Grateful Johnson remained his friend for life and always spoke of him in a friendly way.

ticket for fight
ticket for Burns-Johnson fight

But all this has nothing to do with Noah Brousseau. He was of Italian origin. Apparently from the south of the country. Then in Italy there were separate statistics - for the southerners and for the northerners. Northerners, Romans, Florentines, and especially Milanese, were considered more civilized, and in America on both sides of the Canadian border they were not really known. Noah was the twelfth of thirteen children in the family. However, apparently, his origin did not play any role for him. By the way, he looked a little like an Italian. Some kind of Central European type.

However, Noah's appearance was unusual, but not in terms of his Italian origin. For a man of that time, he was of average height - 170 cm, but the length of his arms was 188 cm. Exactly the same as that of Jack Johnson. Such a length of arms significantly concealed his relatively short stature. Of course, the fact that he struck with his hands not at his level, but from the bottom up to a certain extent, neutralized this effect, but only to a certain extent. Nobody canceled the factor of long arms.

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Tommy Burns
Tommy Burns

It was difficult time then. Several men have claimed the heavyweight title since undisputed world champion James Jefferies last defended his title in 1904. It was a really big champion. So big that we now find it difficult to imagine it. (But we still have to talk about it.).

After his departure from the big ring, Jeffries left behind a vacuum that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could fill. One of those who at least tried was Tommy Burns.

On February 23, 1906, after defeating Marvin Hart on points in a twenty-round fight, he unexpectedly became the heavyweight champion of the world. His triumph was somewhat doubtful, as he had lost the previous fight. But that fight did not solve anything, and he was quickly forgotten. In addition, then there were different systems of lost battles, and this one, according to some of them, was considered “fake”. That's what they decided on.

So, unexpectedly for himself, Tommy Burns became the world champion and was forced to defend his title.

Burns - Hart
Burns - Hart

That’s not quite how it happened. For the first almost full two years, by and large, no one needed him. They were talking about him that he set his title to an unattainable height, but there was no particular purpose in these hearsays. On the other hand, there was a challenger, and it was the same person who challenged James Jeffreys, but then he dismissed him considering it a small honor for himself. Who was that? Well, of course, Jack Johnson, who else?

Now many argue that the fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson could not take place due to the lack of a promoter. Well, of course. The promoter didn't show up. In fact, promoters were a dime a dozen. Another thing is that the conditions they put forward were no good at all.

You need to understand that then there was completely different money. Let’s suppose that a heavyweight title fight usually collected ten thousand dollars, and it was a lot then, it was difficult to even imagine such an amount. A good annual salary at that time was five hundred dollars a year. So, it was very good money, but not enough to fight for it with a member of the colored minority. I’s possible in another weight. But at heavyweight, no way.

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Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson

The beginning of this approach was laid by the great John L. Sullivan, the first official heavyweight champion of the world (we don’t know exactly when he won it but lost it in 1892). He did not hide behind any subterfuge. He simply stated that the heavyweight belt of the world

champion is such a value that any colored person cannot afford. And many believed him. They really believed. Remember this. Because in just a few years, John L. will be saying something completely different. And they believe him again. Sullivan was a smart man. He was the first to realize that time was changing and realized that he had to change with it.

So, for the first year and a half, Tommy Burns didn't get enough lucrative offers. No, he did, but they were simply not profitable enough for him. Even for double the fee, one should not put his priceless title on the line. What if the amount was tripled? And at four? So far they haven't been offered. But the situation was changing rapidly.

Tommy Burns
Tommy Burns

By 1907, it was fundamentally different. On December 2 of that year, almost two years after he won the title, Tommy Burns did the unthinkable: he went to Covent Garden, UK, to defend his title against a man with the sonorous name Gunner Moir. It was another achievement. Of the ten fights that have passed since that day, Gunner “shot past” eight times! His gun was useless. It turned out he couldn’t win Tommy. Gunner lasted only ten rounds against him and fell.

During 1908, Burns entered the ring six more times, and almost every time in a new country: once in England, once in Ireland, twice in Paris and (oh, Lord) in Australia. There was a rich selection. And in a few decades, no one did anything like that. Tommy Burns was way ahead of his time.

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Tommy Burns
Tommy Burns

In Australia, Jack Johnson got him, he all this time pursued him around the world. Each time his offers became more and more profitable. Until, finally, prominent businessman Hugh Mackintosh made Tommy Burns an offer he couldn't refuse.

He offered Tommy Burns $30,000 (there was a very clear rumor for a while about $35,000, but apparently not true). Johnson received only five thousand. One sixth. That’s okey! He agreed to everything. Just to fight a champion. Burns, by hook or by crook, sought some more advantages for himself, Johnson, gritting his teeth, went for it. Everything was subject to the final result.

So, as already mentioned, the battle took place on December 26, 1908. As always, the future crept up unnoticed. People did not yet understand that they would go to sleep in one world, and they would have to wake up in another. In quite different one.

Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

The fight got off to a slow start. It was not at all like the brave fight of Tommy Burns, who had recently sparred with Al Kaufman. In that training fight, Kaufman, by the way, was a very good boxer, he easily fought with Tommy Burns and got up very hard. Burns in the absence of Johnson looked like a real fine fellow.

But here it was different. Johnson walked from corner to corner, tirelessly hit Burns and smiled at the audience like Cinderella. He seemed to know what Tommy Burns was going to do in this fight, judging by the way that, in turn, only approached him with a blow. He saw everything in advance, and Burns' unusually long arms were predictable for him.

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Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

When Johnson stopped smiling, he punched his right hand with sudden brutality, and Tommy Burns stopped dead. He plunged into the ropes, but for some reason, instead of finishing him off, Johnson suddenly stepped back and continued to play the fool. He was in no hurry.

In the last seconds of the first round, Johnson powerfully struck a left hook, Burns again pumped, and he said goodbye to him during the pause between rounds. No, it wasn't a fight. Not

even training sparring, it was just a beating. Most importantly, Burns worked the best he could. He really was a good boxer, but nothing helped in this fight.

From the second round, Burns looked like a pitiful blind kitten in the ring. As they said many times later, he didn’t win a single minute of a single round. Johnson didn’t strike at full force and also asked, imitating the sympathetic voice of a plantation negro: “Well, Mr. Burns, how are you feeling? Maybe you can do something, otherwise you haven’t shown me anything until now.”

Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

At times, Johnson began to speak in a kind of wailing woman's voice with distinct female intonations: “Poor little Tommy! Poor Tommy! Nothing works, right? Well, come here, little one, I'll teach you."

At times, he frightened Burns, exhausted into oblivion, with false attacks, followed not by attacks, but by regular bullying. Finishing the round, he said goodbye to Tommy with the words: “Good afternoon, Mr. Burns. See you". He could have ended this fight much earlier, but instead he continued it. In the fourteenth round, sensing where everything was going, the fight was stopped by the police. The public, by the way, was on the side of the law adv order and on the side of Johnson.

So, Jack Johnson became the world champion. Tommy Burns paid the price for every bad word he ever said about Johnson. Later, looking back on his journey, Jack once said: "Burns was the only person in my life that I truly hated." It is unlikely that this was the case. He hated a lot of people, but he hated Burns, apparently, most of all.

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Burns-Johnson
Burns-Johnson

On the other hand, Johnson, in general, treated him well. He said, “Let me say a few words about Mr. Burns, the Canadian, and one of you. He did what no other person would ever do. He made it possible for a black man to become a world champion. He was beaten, but he was brave."

Both statements are by Johnson. Both are spoken out loud. Most likely, he treated Burns tolerably, but this does not exclude the fact that on December 26, 1908 he hated him. But during the fight everything was different.

As you might guess, Johnson was not allowed to be the world champion for a long time and with impunity. Who was Tommy Burns? None. He was not a champion at all. There was only one champion. James Jeffries! Great and invincible! And here we have to admit that our favorite writer Jack London played his shabby role in his challenge to the ring.

But that's another story.

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