The forgotten fight of Tommy Burns
In his latest delve into boxing history, Gary Lucken reveals a forgotten bareknuckle brawl involving none other than former heavyweight champion Tommy Burns...
The history books say that the last big fight of former World Heavyweight Champion Tommy Burns was a stoppage loss at the hands of British champ Joe Beckett – but that’s not entirely true.
Beckett may indeed have been the final pug to swap serious blows with Burns in the ring – but the pair also had a later clash outside of the roped arena which is not listed on either man’s official record.
That’s because it actually took place in the corridor of a plush English hotel and involved a spectacularly violent and bloody “all-in” bareknuckle brawl which kicked off when the men met at a swanky charity bash.
Canadian Burns, who won the heavyweight crown in 1906, is largely remembered today for his comprehensive destruction by Jack Johnson in Australia in 1908 – an historic battle because it saw Johnson become the first black heavyweight king.
Many would argue it’s an unfair legacy because in his prime Burns was a competent champion, albeit not an all-time great, who successfully defended the title 11 times and who deserves more respect than he is often afforded.
It also turns out that away from the ring he was not a man to be trifled with, even when his glory days were just a distant memory.
After losing to Johnson, Burns boxed only sporadically but in July 1920, approaching the age of 40 and sporting a noticeably thicker waistline than in his heyday, he challenged Beckett, 28, for the British Empire heavyweight title (pictured left).
The pair did battle at the Royal Albert Hall in London and although Burns showed flashes of his old skills his seconds stopped the fight at the end of the seventh round of a scheduled 20 when he began to take a beating.
Burns subsequently devoted much of his time to sports journalism and it was this occupation that sowed the seeds for a dramatic second showdown with Beckett.
In December 1920 Beckett was KO’d in just two rounds when he took on “The Pittsburgh Dentist” Frank Moran – prompting Burns to suggest in a newspaper story that he had a “yellow streak” and had “quit cold”.
The remarks infuriated Beckett, who had a reputation for being short-tempered, and trouble flared when he bumped into Burns at a Leeds hotel named “The Griffin” during a charity fund-raiser for the blind one evening in January 1921 which was attended by civic dignitaries and a host of famous boxers.
Beckett unleashed a barrage of profanities in front of stunned onlookers before sucker-punching Burns, sparking what can only be described as an impromptu “straightener”.
No reporters seem to have witnessed the fracas but rumours of the fight quickly reached the ears of the world’s media who reported what brief details they could gather in the following days and weeks.
A piece in the Washington Times, which carried the headline “Burns Pummelled British ‘Chump’”, was typical of the contemporary coverage.
It reported that “smashing blows were exchanged” after Beckett refused to shake Burns’ hand and there was “no quarter, no sparring for points”.
The paper claimed that Beckett (pictured below) was “mauled” by the former world champion and left “bespattered with blood” but eventually the pair calmed down, shook hands and went to dinner together.
In actual fact the fight appears to have been much longer, much more savage and didn’t end on the relatively good terms described in newspapers at the time.
This only became apparent much later when one particular eyewitness went into print with detailed accounts of what he had observed.
The witness was especially well qualified to comment – he was none other than the world famous Eugene Corri, long-time referee at the National Sporting Club in Covent Garden, and the scrap had taken place right outside his hotel room.
The following is an amalgamation of his recollections in The Referee publication and his 1933 book “Fifty Years in the Ring”.
Corri, who officiated at more than 2,000 bouts in his life, wrote: “I did not play my usual part of referee but I had an excellent ringside view all the same.
“It happened in this way. A big charity show had been organised in Leeds, quite the biggest affair of its kind, and as usual at charity functions the Mayor and Mayoress were the leading lights.
“All the champions, past, present, and to come, were on the bill, including (Georges) Carpentier, Bombardier Billy Wells, Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll, and our two worthies Tommy Burns and Joe Beckett.
“We were all gathered in the reception hall of the hotel and a number of ladies were present. Enter Joe Beckett, who was immediately spotted by Burns.
“Now Tommy had not actually spoken to Joe since the business of their contest at Albert Hall. He therefore extended his hand cordially to say ‘How do, Joe!’
“’You shove your hand ---- ---- ---- ----’, answered Beckett, who contemptuously refused the proffered hand.
“’Ssh!’, warned Burns, ‘there are ladies here’. And the blanks were a little unparliamentary, to say the least about Beckett’s choice of words for the occasion.
“Burns very diplomatically withdrew, and went up to his room. But Beckett was in a very pugnacious mood and evidently out for blood. At any rate he ran up to the landing, saying: ‘You called me a coward, you said I had a yellow streak, take that!’
“Beckett caught Burns a frightful crack on the jaw and floored him. While he was down Beckett jumped on him and the fight waged furiously on the floor.
“Of course, it would happen right outside my bedroom. There was a fine uproar. The manager came to me in a terrible state. Wringing his hands he implored me to stop the fight.
“’Can’t you stop them, Mr Corri?’ he asked, thinking, I suppose, that all I had to do was to say ‘Break’ and the pair would separate, just as if they were in the ring at the NSC. Fancy saying ‘Break’ to two desperate fellows fighting tooth and nail for dear life on the floor in the hotel.
“It was a terrible fight. Burns never uttered a sound. He wrestled himself on top of his adversary, and then bashed his face in the same place times without number until Beckett yelled: ‘Take him off, somebody!’
“It took quite a bunch, led by Beckett’s brother, to pull Tommy off. When they did, Tommy took off his big overcoat and started the second round.
“Burns rushed in with a wrestling grip just below the waistline and threw his man head first on the hard mosaic flooring with a sickening thud. Burns was again on top.
“I contracted a headache which lasted quite a long time through watching Burns banging Joe’s head on the floor.
“If there had not been a thick carpet, Joe’s skull must have been cracked like an egg shell (Corri seems to contradict himself on whether the floor was carpeted – unless it was only partially covered and the struggling men moved around during the encounter).
“This performance was repeated several times until all the fight was knocked out of Beckett. The English heavyweight champion was completely beaten into submission under the ‘all-in’ rules.
“’Now will you shake hands?’ asked Burns and Beckett had to comply.
“’I’ll shake hands!’ he volunteered weakly at the finish, and Burns said: ‘That’s right, Joe! Shake!’
“When they came down to dinner afterwards they looked a terrible pair, and I was asked on all sides whether I would persuade Burns to leave the company when Beckett was present.
“’Not on your life’, said Tommy when the question was put to him, ‘That big stiff will think I am afraid of him, where he goes I go too!’ And he did.
“Burns afterwards told me that Beckett was a mug to take him on at the ‘all-in’ game.
“’Why, I used to take on the toughest fellows you ever saw night after night in my place at Calgary – ‘all-in’ on the floor – so I have had plenty of practice’, he explained.”
Corri concluded: “Do not think from this story that fighters generally are belligerent thugs always ready to fly at each other. Outside the ring they are usually the mildest of men.
“Nevertheless, the fact that they are nearly always in racehorse condition makes them more temperamental than the average man.”
Describing the middle-aged Burns as being “in racehorse condition” is of course a bit of a stretch – but appearances can be deceptive.
He may have been a spent force inside the ring but his comprehensive hotel beatdown of Beckett suggests that outside the ropes he remained a formidable fighting machine when his dander was up.