By Isabel Larocque
In 1906, as American boxers took turns being world heavyweight champions, no one could have predicted the victory of Canadian Tommy Burns. At 170 cm tall, this boxer was not only the shortest ever to win the title of world champion, but also the only Canadian to do so. Often underestimated by his opponents because of his size, Burns had exemplary technique that allowed him to crush even the toughest of adversaries. Born Noah Brusso in Hanover, Ontario, Tommy Burns was the 12th child in a family of 13 children. He grew up in a modest environment and, at a very young age, was taken out of school by his mother following a fight with a classmate.
She completely disapproved of boxing. That is why, as an adult, after a fight that put one of his opponents in a coma, Noah chose to change his name. He believed that, by doing so, his mother would not be able to follow his exploits. Since Irish boxers had an excellent reputation, he chose an Irish-sounding name, Tommy Burns, in the hope of boosting his career.
In the ring, Tommy Burns used strategy; each of his actions was calculated. He insulted his opponents to put them off balance. He avoided being hit. When he attacked, he managed to eliminate them through his speed and hook. His many years of hockey and lacrosse training had given him strong legs, while his long arms gave him a reach that surprised his opponents. His amazing technique won him many victories, as most of his competitors relied only on physical strength.
Burns considered boxing technique a science unto itself. He even wrote a book on this topic, Scientific Boxing and Self Defence. Published in 1908, the book is part of the Library and Archives Canada collection.
However, what distinguished Tommy Burns most from the boxers of his time was his willingness to fight opponents of all nationalities. While most boxers refused to compete against athletes of different backgrounds, Burns saw this as an opportunity to gain experience and prove that he was the very best. He was the first heavyweight champion to defend his title against an African-American.
As Burns climbed to the top, he faced champions from around the world. Becoming the best white or Canadian boxer was not enough for him: he wanted to be the best in the world. That is why, in 1908, he chose to fight Jack Johnson, a boxer of imposing stature. Burns lost the fight, and Johnson became the first black boxer in history to win the world champion title. Burns’s bold performance won him a standing ovation when he left the arena.
Tommy Burns had a few fights after this battle, but he was never be able to reclaim his title as world champion. After his boxing career, he became a promoter and coach, before turning to religion and converting to evangelism. He died in 1955 in Vancouver from heart disease. His legendary confidence and daring make him one of the most famous boxers of all time.
To find out more about Tommy Burns’ achievements, consult Legendary world champion boxer Tommy Burns.
Isabel Larocque is a project officer in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.