The series I’m currently writing ranking all the former lineal Heavyweight Champions of the World has forced me to re-evaluate several of the former titlists. I’ve written recently about why I believe Gene Tunney to be a hugely under-rated champ, referring to him as “perhaps the most under-rated heavyweight champion of them all”. However after penning this effusive statement I realised that, as under-rated as Gene is, there’s a former heavyweight champion who’s even more under-rated – Tommy Burns.
History has not been kind to the only Canadian-born lineal Heavyweight Champion. His physical and mental humiliation at the hands of the great Jack Johnson in 1908 is all most people recall when they hear Burns’ name (if they hear his name at all). This defeat, it seems to me, is a major reason for Burns’ low historical standing: taking into account the widespread racial prejudice of the early 1900s, it undoubtedly suited white boxing fans who were disgusted by the ascension of a black man to the status of Heavyweight Champion to dismiss Burns as a worthless champion - thus Johnson’s amazing achievement could be denied as much validity and credit as possible. Burns had failed his 'fellow white men’ and was therefore fair game to be mocked.
Today, Burns and his fascinating life and career are definitely ripe for a re-appraisal. An extensive article in a future volume of Boxiana is going to look at him, and his time in England more specifically, but for now, here’s four reasons why Tommy Burns is vastly under-rated ...
1. He was Heavyweight Champion of the whole World and broke the 'colour bar':
The former might seem a strange statement to make, but let’s not forget that Burns was a pioneer in spreading the popularity of the Heavyweight division around the world. Prior to him becoming champ every gloved Heavyweight Championship contest had taken place in North America – but Burns, as well as fighting in the USA, also defended his title in England, Ireland, France and Australia before, of course, also losing his crown Down Under against Johnson.
Furthermore, unlike his predecessors and some of his successors, Burns was willing to fight anyone, as he once stressed: “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.” His motives for giving Jack Johnson a shot may have been more financial than altruistic or liberal, but let’s not forget that he did give Johnson his shot, changing the landscape of the boxing and sporting world forever and, albeit inadvertently on Burns' part, leading to massive socio-cultural changes and developments in the USA and beyond.
2. He was a fighting champion:
James Corbett won the title in 1892, defended it in 1894 and then lost it in 1897; that’s three fights in just under five years. Jim Jeffries was somewhat more active, becoming champ in 1899 and defending a respectable seven times over the next five years. In contrast, later titlists such as Jess Willard and Jack Dempsey sometimes went as long as three years without defending their crown. Burns? He became champ in February 1906 and had a further 12 title fights before 1908 was over. Such a frenzied schedule was admirable. You could accuse Burns of many things – but inactivity isn’t once of them. As he once stressed, it was only through “continual boxing” that a fighter would improve.
3. He was small and brave:
Burns was the shortest Heavyweight Champion of all time, at just 5’7”. He regularly conceded massive disadvantages in height, weight and reach, yet was only bested five times (one a newspaper decision) in 60 fights, mainly against bigger, stronger men. Against Johnson he absorbed fearful and sustained punishment, and the fight was only halted on the insistence of the police; Burns, although he had no chance of winning, was happy to fight on. The racial slurs he hurled at Johnson were vile, but Burns had physical courage in abundance.
4. In the end, he tried to make a difference:
Accounts of the final few years of Burns’ life are sketchy, but it seems like he made something of an effort to atone for his hideous verbal taunting of Johnson. In later years he became an evangelical Christian minister and self-styled “demonstrator of Universal Love”. He even admitted: “I actually lost that [Johnson] battle – through hate – before it started. How great is the power of a man’s thought and feeling to either build or destroy himself.”
The message inscribed on the business card that he used to hand out while preaching also suggests a radical transformation from the loud-mouthed vulgarian who had taunted Johnson remorselessly:
“My philosophy of life for health, wealth and happiness is: To think constructively. Never worry or become angry. Feel kindly toward all, no matter what they say or do to you. Silence is a power! Relax; keep smiling. Simplicity is the keynote to success. You cannot fail if you mean business. Be calm, weigh every word before you speak. Eat slowly and chew your food properly. This will give you a good circulation of blood and will prevent all ailments."
You’re no doubt now wondering where exactly I place Burns in my all-time ranking of the World Heavyweight Champions. Well, I’ve already revealed that I rate Hart 37th, Briggs 36th and Leon Spinks 35th, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out where Burns ends up – some of you may be surprised when it’s revealed.
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N.B. For the purposes of consistency, this website uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.
Luke G. Williams