When Moir met Burns…

Luke G. Williams
23/05/2016 9:28am

As Tyson Fury prepares to defend his lineal World Heavyweight Championship against Wladimir Klitschko on 9 July in Manchester, Boxing Monthly re-examines the first ever occasion on which the gloved World Heavyweight Championship was contested in the UK – James ‘Gunner’ Moir’s 1907 challenge to Tommy Burns at the National Sporting Club in Covent Garden…

For a century and a half the greatest boxers who walked the face of the earth were, almost without exception, from the British Isles. The glory days of bare-knuckle ‘boxiana’ stretched from innovator James Figg in the early 18th century until the retirement of Jem Mace in the latter half of the 19th century.

Aside from occasional challenges from accomplished overseas fighters such as Tom Molineaux, Bill Richmond and John Heenan, British pre-eminence within the unforgiving confines of the prize ring was taken for granted. As George Borrow remarked in his 1851 novel Lavengro: “what were the gladiators of Rome, or the bull-fighters of Spain, compared to England’s bruisers?”

Bare-knuckle boxing’s decline as a major public spectacle began after the publication of the Queensbury Rules in 1867. At the same time, slowly but inexorably, the balance of boxing power was shifting to the upstart former colony of the United States.

By the late 1880s, Boston-born American-Irishman John L. Sullivan was universally regarded as the World Heavyweight Champion, and when he lost his crown to James J. Corbett in 1892, with both men clad in gloves, the transition from the bare-knuckles era to modern heavyweight boxing was complete.

For the next 100 years or so, America would dominate boxing, while British heavyweights gradually became the punchline for dozens of derogatory and demeaning jokes.

True, Cornwall-born brawler Bob Fitzsimmons would hold the heavyweight crown between 1897 and 1899 before being deposed by James Jeffries, but ‘Ruby Robert’ was largely raised in New Zealand and didn’t fight a single contest on British soil throughout his entire career.

A measure of the American dominance of boxing as the sport moved into the 20th century is the fact that after Sullivan-Corbett in 1892, the next 16 heavyweight title fights to be contested all took place in the United States. Indeed, it was not until Canadian Tommy Burns’ ascension to the status of World Heavyweight Champion that a title fight in the sport’s blue riband division would take place overseas.

Having deposed Marvin Hart in 1906, Burns took a laudable approach to being the heavyweight king – not only did he fight often, defending his title four times alone in 1906, but he also declared his willingness to take on all-comers, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, announcing:

“I propose to be the champion of the world, not the white, or the Canadian, or the American [world]."

After six quick-fire defences in California, all of which he won by KO, Burns hatched plans for an ambitious tour of title defences across Europe to begin in late 1907. First up, the National Sporting Club, then the governing body of boxing in Britain, agreed terms for Burns to put his title on the line against British champion James ‘Gunner’ Moir.

Lambeth-born Moir was a burly former Royal Marine. After an inauspicious start to his boxing career, in which he lost three of his first four fights, he entered the Burns contest on a ten-fight winning streak, including an impressive two-round KO of West Indian born former Australian champ Peter Felix, and a nine-round victory against Jack Palmer for the British title.

Moir was plastered in tattoos, then considered something of an exotic and unusual accoutrement, which added to his colourful reputation. His choice of body ink also had a decidedly patriotic edge to it, with an emblem of a British Lion tussling with a Russian bear on his chest, and the Prince of Wales’ feathers across his shoulders.

Hope reigned among British fight fans that Moir’s superior size might tell against the diminutive Burns, who stood a mere 5’7” and weighed just 12 stone 6 pounds, compared to Moir’s 13 stone 3 pound bulk.

After arriving by boat in Plymouth in October 1907, Burns set up his training camp in Wembley. British reporters noted with awe the “relish” with which the champion applied himself to his “unconventional” training methods.

Although his extensive preparations would be considered routine to a modern observer of boxing, Burns’ ten miles of roadwork a day coupled with sit-ups, leg raises and long spells of “ball-punching” while clutching miniature dumb-bells were viewed as incredible innovations at the time. Ominously for Moir, one visitor to Burns’ training camp declared that “the force” of Burns’ right-hand was “astonishing”.

A preview in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph on the day of the contest, Monday 2 December, aptly summarised the prevailing mood of excitement concerning the bout:

“The historic day in English pugilism has arrived. This is World Championship day, and to-night at the National Sporting Club, Covent Garden, Tommy Burns, of Canada, the undisputed champion of America and the colonies, and James (“Gunner”) Moir, of Lambeth, London, champion of England, oppose each other for the fistic supremacy of the world.

“Not alone will this be the greatest fight ever decided in England, but it is the first time … that the world’s premier boxing title has ever been disputed on an English stage with the padded fists. In the old days the battles were fought with “Nature’s weapons”, outside the precincts of any building, out on the greensward in some remote corner of the land … But once the sport became a science; once the glove was introduced, America - the country of enterprise – compelled us to take a back seat.”

Journalist John James Miller added a patriotic flourish to his preview, announcing that “all true Britons … will hope for a result showing that we still possess ‘boys of the bull-dog breed’”.

As the night of the fight arrived, the National Sporting Club was packed to the rafters, and the atmosphere “most animated and most extraordinary”. There were, reported one newspaper, “celebrities in all walks of life” present, including “distinguished members of the Lords and the Commons, merchant princes, stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, actors and other personalities – British, colonial and American.” Even the great Jem Mace, the last Briton to have been recognised as bare-knuckle world champion, was in attendance.

However, the feverish sense of patriotic expectation would gradually evaporate over ten painful rounds for the challenger. Quite simply, Moir was no match for the much more agile and scientific Burns, whose marauding attacks made the Englishman’s old-fashioned ‘stand-up’ style and nervy retreats look positively antiquated.

Moir was warned for holding in the first round and again for hitting and holding in the second stanza. The Briton appeared to stun Burns in the third round with some heavy right hands, only for the champion to rally explosively, a succession of clubbing rights of his own sending the challenger sprawling to the canvas.

Thereafter, Burns gradually broke Moir down, and by the tenth the challenger, his face a bloody mess, was exhausted and smashed to the canvas three times before the fight was finally halted.

Burns’ post-fight assessment of Moir’s performance, and British boxing as a whole, was damning, if diplomatically couched:

“What [Moir] wants is continual boxing, as in the States,” the champion remarked. “Here you give him about one real contest in a year, the rest of the time being spent in exhibition boxing against an inferior person. That sort of thing will never develop a man as he should be developed. In the States we are always at it until we reach the top. Your system is entirely wrong, and until you treat your best men differently the championship will never return to England.”

Given that there would not be another British-born lineal heavyweight champion for over a century - a long wait that was finally ended when Lennox Lewis bludgeoned Shannon Briggs to a fifth-round defeat in Atlantic City, New Jersey in November 1998 – Burns’ words couldn’t have been more prescient.

What happened next …

Tommy Burns:

Burns’ spell in Europe continued after the Moir contest. He repelled the challenges of Jack Palmer in London, Jem Roche in Dublin and Jewey Smith and Bill Squires in Paris. He then travelled to Australia where he beat Squires again as well as Bill Lang, before losing the title in his 12th defence to Jack Johnson in a historic contest in Sydney in December 1908.

Burns’ final fight, in 1920, would also be in London, a losing effort against Joe Beckett. After his retirement from the ring, the Canadian pursued an eclectic range of careers, including as a boxing manager and promoter, a publican in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, finally, as an evangelical preacher. He died in 1955, and his record of eight consecutive lineal heavyweight title defences by KO has never been bettered.

Gunner Moir:

After the Burns loss, Moir was never the same fighter again, losing seven of his next nine contests before retiring. He lost his British title to ‘Iron’ Hague in 1909 and, although he won a thrilling brawl with ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells at Olympia in 1911, he lost the return two years later and quit the ring. Thereafter Moir worked at Canterbury Music Hall and also appeared in several films, including as an executioner in the 1931 motion picture Madame Guillotine. He died in 1939.