Flashback Friday: Australia’s Biggest Ever Prize Fight – Burns v Johnson 1908

This Flashback Friday we take a look back Boxing Day 1908 and the biggest prize fight ever staged in Australia.

Sydney, Boxing Day 1908.

While we have long become accustomed to Boxing Day being headlined in Australia by Test Cricket, in 1908 it was a far different story. On this day, excited Australian sports fans swarmed upon Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay to watch Tommy Burns defend the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World against Jack Johnson. The crowd so large in fact that police were called into action to fend off countless numbers of eager fans trying to gain entrance illegally via the long grass that surrounded Sydney Stadium. Still perhaps the biggest Prize Fight contested in this country, Burns v Johnson is unquestionably the most significant, with it marking the first time the Heavyweight World Championship was contested by a non-white fighter.

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For Johnson, nicknamed the Galveston Giant due to his imposing physical presence, this was the culmination of a two-year long crusade to have his challenge accepted by Burns. The brash, confident, Texan followed the champion around the world in his efforts, even purchasing ring side seats and taking prominent positions in the crowd during Burns’ fights to goad him. It was this relentless pursuit of Burns that brought Johnson to Australia, where Burns had defended his title twice against Australia’s Bill Squires and Bill Lang in Sydney and Melbourne respectively.

His relentless pursuit of the champion had sparked much interest and attention from Australian crowds, but he was fighting against a system that had no interest in seeing him win. An insight into this can be seen in comments from Jim Jeffries, a predecessor to Burns as Heavyweight Champion, speaking after Burns and Johnson met in Sydney. “I refused time and again to meet Johnson while I was holding the title, even though I knew I could beat him,” he wrote in a column in the Scone Advocate. “I would never allow a Negro a chance to fight for the world’s championship, and I advise all other champions to follow the same course.”


How it came about.

In the end, as it so often does with such issues, cold hard cash was what saw Burns drop any problem he may have otherwise had with an African American fighting for the belt. The financial success of Burns’ two Australian title defences provided Johnson with his most powerful ally of all, the promoter of both fights – Hugh D. ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh.

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Pie Man to Fight Promoter: Hugh ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh.

The entrepreneurial McIntosh,  a millionaire by age 30, had amassed his fortune from humble beginnings. With one eye always open for opportunity, the one time silver miner and pie salesman, saw dollar signs when Prime Minister Alfred Deakin announced the 1908 goodwill visit of the US Navy.

Having had earlier success with his ventures in bringing out US Sprint Cycling World Champion Marshall Taylor, McIntosh correctly believed that ‘The Great White Fleet’ would pay big money to watch Heavyweight Boxing. So to that end he erected Sydney Stadium, at the time the largest boxing arena in the world, and he enticed Burns to Australia to defend his belt against a pair of local hopes.

With £13,600 in gate takings in his pocket from the Burns-Squires bout, the promoter saw an even bigger payday on offer if he could answer the public’s desire to see Burns square off against Johnson. He sought out the champion and asked him what it would take to get him in the ring, to which Burns responded glibly with £6000 (or roughly $2mil today) a figure he believed too absurd for McIntosh to agree. To his surprise, and his bank managers delight, the promoter quickly acceded and just like that Johnson had the fight he had gone to the four corners of the globe to obtain.


The Challenger.

The third of nine children born to former slaves Henry and Tina, John Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson came into the world in Galveston Texas on March 31st 1878. The financial plight of his family, like most others in Galveston at the time, saw a young Johnson forced to leave school in the fifth grade to join the workforce to supplement the family’s income.

A tall and physically imposing youth, he discovered boxing and made his first foray into the career in which he would make his name with a first professional bout in 1898. With prize fighting still illegal in Texas at this time, it wasn’t long before he ran foul of the law. In 1901 after a knockout defeat at the hands of Joe Choynski, both men were arrested and spent 23 days in jail. It would prove a fortuitous sentence with Johnson later claiming that the time he spent with Choynski was a building block in his later successes.

With the World Championship open only to white contenders, until the Burns Johnson Boxing Day bout, an unofficial  World Coloured Title was contested by those fighters excluded from the official title. Johnson became the 11th title holder when he defeated Ed Martin in Los Angeles in 1903. He would successfully defend his title 17 times, including against Australian Peter Felix in Sydney in 1907, while improving his professional record to 46-5-8 before earning his title shot against Burns.


The Champion.

The 12th of 13th children, Tommy Burns was in fact born Noah Brusso on June 17 1881 in Ontario, Canada. It was a difficult childhood with the Brusso’s suffering great hardship and tragedy with five of his siblings not surviving into adulthood.

At 19 he discovered Prize Fighting and, despite being a natural middle-weight, the Little Giant of Hannover found success at Heavyweight. Still the smallest man to hold the Heavyweight Championship, Burns would overcome size, reach and weight advantages, with fast feet and a counter-punching approach.

After claiming the title with a points victory over Marvin Hart in February 1906, Burns became the first heavyweight champion to defend the title outside of the USA, taking on all comers at home or abroad. He was also a highly active champion, in the two years 10 months between defeating Hart and facing Johnson, Burns successfully defended the title more often than his five predecessors combined in the 24 year history of the championship.


Preparations for ‘Boxing Day’.

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The Hydro-Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath was the headquarters of Burns’ fight preparations.  “The Blue Mountains, with their rugged scenery and crisp, biting air, was the ideal spot for a training camp,” his trainer Patsy Burke recalled in 1945. Six days a week Burns trained in a hall modified to act as a boxing gymnasium.

Burns himself was effusive of his training location when speaking with The Referee in November 1908. “As for variety in exercise, it is all around the place in every shape and form,” Burns explained. “The hills to run down and climb up, the artificial lake to row upon, the handball court, the everything imaginable – just have a look about and you’ll see how complete my opportunities are.”

Just how beneficial did he think the base would be for him in his efforts to defend his title? “Get fit?” he rhetorically asked. “Bar accidents, I’ll be fitter than ever I was in my life.” It wasn’t all work and no play though.

Sunday was his day off and Burke remembered how he spent his day of rest. “That was the day he shone as a social lion,” the trainer would recount. “Tommy gave a garden party for the women guests at the Hydro Majestic every Sunday afternoon, and believe me they were swell affairs. Burns never worried about a special diet. He ate plain foods especially prepared by our own cook and supervised by Mrs Burns.”

With Sydney hungry for details about the preparations being made for the fight the media were drawn to the more gregarious Johnson who had set up camp much closer to the city in Botany. Interspersed with training tales and stunts such as chasing a wallaby around an enclosure until the hapless marsupial collapsed from exhaustion, were salacious stories regarding his after dark exploits.

Despite having set up camp with Hattie McClay, the first of many unofficial Mrs Johnsons, rumours persisted of an affair between Johnson and Sydney woman Lola Toy. The reports of the alleged romance that scandalised Sydney, saw The Referee newspaper sued by Toy for $200,000 in today’s money.

With the fight coming just seven years after the implementation of the White Australia Policy, it shouldn’t surprise that, despite the interest and countless inches of column space devoted to Johnson, there was an unhidden racist edge to the coverage. While Norman Lindsay was depicting Burns as a Napoleonic figure, The Illustrated Sporting News expressed a prevailing desire in its direction for its readers to pray that he “belt that coon into oblivion.”

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With a small fortune a possibility if he could build enough interest in the fight, McIntosh was not adverse to stoking race tensions. Using a gift for hyperbole that many a promoter that followed him would attempt to replicate, the former pie-man would tell all that listened that the bout “represented the champions of the white and black races who will determine the racial superiority of their race.”

It was perhaps this thinking that saw the weight of money see Burns enter the fight a short price favourite despite prevailing expert opinion. Two former heavyweight champions—James J. Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons—along with other ring greats including Tom Sharkey, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, and Battling Nelson, were all on the record that Johnson would win.

Burns prefight comments seemed to be of a man entirely confident of his chances. “I’ll beat this n….r or my name’s not Tommy Burns,” he said. With the knowledge that his name wasn’t Tommy Burns, perhaps he wasn’t as confident as he wanted the world to think he was.

With the fight set, there was just the small matter of nominating a referee to oversee the contest. When Former Champion Jim Jeffries, who had officiated an earlier Burns title defence, declined a sum in excess of what the Challenger Johnson was set to receive, Huge Deal McIntosh appointed himself to referee the match. With that the stage was set for the most highly anticipated Heavyweight Title Fight the world had seen.

<<<CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT THE FIGHT AND ITS AFTERMATH>>>


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