KO’d by the Colour Line

Canadian boxer Tommy Burns was eager to take on all comers, regardless of their race. But in 1908, he lost his world heavyweight title to a Black boxer — infuriating white society. The groundbreaking choice to fight Jack Johnson ended up costing Burns his boxing career.

Posted February 8, 2021

Few Canadians today have heard of Tommy Burns and his remarkable accomplishments. The only Canadian-born fighter ever to hold the world heavyweight title, he reigned over the division for close to three years, defending his title more often than the five previous heavyweight champions combined had done in a twenty-four-year period.

His heavyweight milestones include the most consecutive knockout victories by a reigning champion (eight) and the second-fastest knockout in a title bout (eighty-eight seconds). His thirteen consecutive title defences still rank him fourth, behind only Americans Joe Louis and Larry Holmes and Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine.

However, his fame eroded quickly, and by the time of his death in 1955 his sporting exploits had faded from public memory. This reversal of fortune is tied to a racially charged event that took place in Australia in 1908.

Big money had lured Burns to Australia in August 1908. He was offered fifteen thousand dollars to fight the nation’s top two heavyweights — Bill Lang and Bill Squires. Burns’ international tour was a novelty for his day. No previous heavyweight champion had ever defended the title outside of the United States. He stiffened both of them in an eleven-day span and then settled back to await an even larger payday.

It was then that promoter Hugh “Huge Deal” McIntosh offered Burns thirty thousand Australian dollars to defend his title against black heavyweight Jack Johnson. That was more than twice as much as any boxer had ever been paid for a fight. Burns agreed to the bout, which was set for December 26, 1908, in an outdoor stadium that McIntosh constructed for the event in the Sydney suburb of Rushcutter’s Bay.

Johnson would only receive $5,000 for the fight, but it was a chance to make history as the first black champion.

Although Burns delivered a few solid blows early on, he could not effectively penetrate Johnson’s masterful defence. By the fourteenth round, Johnson was hammering Burns at will, driving him around in circles. Suddenly, as Burns began to stagger, the police stormed the ring, shut off the camera, and halted the fight to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of a black fighter knocking out a white champion. McIntosh, who was serving as referee, declared Johnson the winner.

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This text has been excerpted from the article “Lonely Warrior” in the February-March 2021 issue of Canada’s History.

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