Tommy Burns (boxer)

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Tommy Burns
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 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 also the first heavyweight champion to give a Jewish boxer a shot at the crown. Burns defeated 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 also 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[edit]

Born in Normanby Township near Hanover, Ontario, Brusso's family lived in several locations around Ontario's Grey and Bruce Counties before moving to Galt, Ontario. The twelfth of thirteen children of an impoverished German-Canadian family, Burns grew up in difficult circumstances, and five of the thirteen siblings died before reaching adulthood.[2] Burns 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[edit]

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

After starting his boxing career under his real name, Brusso took the Scottish-sounding name of Tommy Burns in 1904. Although only 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) tall and about 175 pounds (79 kg), 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 white U.S. Citizens (except for Robert Fitzsimmons, of the United Kingdom), who only defended their titles against other white opponents. Burns, however, travelled the globe, beating the champions of every nation in which boxing was legal at that time, including England, Ireland, France and Australia. Along the way he 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 actually successfully defended his title 13 times.

Burns (left) during a sparring session

In December 1908, Burns became the first fighter to agree to a heavyweight championship bout with an African American boxer, Jack Johnson, to whom he lost his title in a match held in Sydney. He refused to fight Johnson until Australian promoter Hugh D. McIntosh paid him $30,000 for the fight (Johnson only received $5,000).[3] He was rumoured to be suffering from the effects from jaundice or influenza, and weighed in at just 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 named Johnson as the second best boxer up to his time, after James J. Jeffries.

When Johnson arrived in Vancouver in 1909 he 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."

Burns continued to box occasionally after dropping the title. During the First World War he joined the Canadian army, serving as a physical fitness instructor in Canada. A month before his 39th birthday in 1920, he 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[edit]

After retirement, Burns promoted some boxing shows and in 1928 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. He then worked as an insurance salesman and security guard, among other jobs.

Burns was ordained as a minister in 1948. He was an evangelist living in Coalinga, California at the time of his death. He died while visiting a church friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, suffering a heart attack at age 73. Only four people attended his burial at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, British Columbia. He was interred in an unmarked pauper's grave until 1961 when, as the result of fundraising efforts begun by a Vancouver sports writer, a memorial plaque was finally placed on his grave.


He was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 9, 1996, and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.[4]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ Tommy Burns - Encyclopedia Brittanica- 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. 
  4. ^ "Tommy Burns". Retrieved 25 September 2014. 

External links[edit]

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