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History

Gunner Moir – The fascinating story of a fight from a forgotten era

Gunner Moir
Larry Braysher
Gunner Moir was the heavyweight champion of his country when he became the first Briton to challenge for the world crown under modern rules against Tommy Burns in 1907. Simon Euan-Smith tells the fascinating story of a fight from a forgotten era and a chance meeting with Gunner’s son, Lon Moir

I STARTED following boxing seriously in 1966, and since then I’ve come across references to it in some unlikely places – but none more surprising, surely, than my local residents’ newsletter, the Selsdon Gazette! But there it was, among the recipes and the Council notes – an article on Gunner James Moir, British heavyweight champion between 1906 and 1909.

I was intrigued. I had no idea Moir was connected with Selsdon (part of South Croydon). Born in Lambeth, he had later moved as far south as Brixton, but that was all. Croydon is generally referred to as “South London,” much to the annoyance of those who live there – it’s actually still in Surrey, and Selsdon, along with neighbouring borough Sanderstead, is getting on for the Kent border. So why was the Gazette featuring a story on him? The answer quickly became clear – Moir’s son Lionel (Lon), the youngest (and then sole survivor) of his 13 children (born February 1924) – had been living in the area since the Sixties.

I read on. When I saw the address I nearly howled – at one time we had been living just a few doors apart, and in almost 10 years I’d had no inkling of it. I felt I just had to make contact. A letter, I reckoned, would be preferable to a phone-call – he was entitled to his privacy, and if he chose not to answer then clearly he wouldn’t have taken kindly to being phoned either.

I posted the letter at tea-time. About 10.30 the next morning, the phone rang. “Mr Euan-Smith? My name’s Moir.” We had a long chat, and Lon filled me in with a lot of information on his father’s life and career, including several points the article had barely touched on. Then came the words I’d been hoping to hear, but hadn’t liked even to hint at. The story had mentioned that Lon possessed a video of his father’s fight – in its entirety – with Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight title at the National Sporting Club in 1907. Would I like to come over one evening and watch it? Would I!

Over coffee, Lon told me the story behind the video. “Back in March 1999, in the run-up to Lennox Lewis’ first fight with Evander Holyfield, Channel 4 ran a programme on British world heavyweight title challengers. I watched it out of interest, to see if they mentioned my father, and was amazed when they actually showed a clip of the fight. I didn’t know the film existed.

“So I wrote to them, explaining who I was, and asked if it was possible to obtain a copy – it would be a wonderful thing to have in the family – and I got a charming letter back, enclosing the video!”

One constant source of annoyance for Lon was the way the family surname is regularly mispronounced. “It’s not ‘Mwar,’ it’s MOYER,” he said emphatically. “I had to put [BBC TV commentator] Harry Carpenter right on that.”

James Moir was born on April 17 1879, and first started boxing while serving in India with the Royal Marines. When he was discharged he didn’t immediately take to the pro game, but concentrated on wrestling instead, partnering the world-famous Georges Hackenschmidt. That partnership eventually folded in 1903, and Moir was offered a job by the promoter at Wonderland in East London. The Gunner needed to earn some money, and accepted – and won his debut in style, beating Fred Barrett inside a round.

It was a wonderful start, but sadly Moir couldn’t sustain it, and lost his next three – the last two inside the distance. It looked as though a change of profession might be in order – but Peggy Bettinson, matchmaker for the National Sporting Club, was persuaded to give the Gunner a chance, and Moir stopped the rot with an eighth-round knockout of Sergeant Harris. It was the start of a long and happy association with the NSC (at that time situated in Covent Garden) – and of a run of 11 straight wins.

Included in those was a satisfying points win over Charles “Slouch” Dixon, to avenge one of those early losses, and an eighth-round stoppage of Jim Casey. Both of these took place at the NSC, with the latter being a final eliminator for Jack Palmer’s British title. On October 29 1906 Moir got his chance against Palmer, and made the most of it. Under heavy pressure in the ninth round, Palmer sank in two blatantly low punches and was promptly disqualified.

At 27, Gunner Moir was heavyweight champion of Britain. (The contest is also listed in some books as the first-ever European heavyweight title bout, but does not appear to have been universally recognised as such.) In February 1907 he made a successful first defence, knocking out James “Tiger” Smith in the first round.

Now the NSC Committee believed their “house fighter” had a real chance of beating world champion Tommy Burns, of Canada. The match wasn’t easy to make – Burns insisted on a purse of £3,000, which amount was to be handed, in cash, to the referee once the fighters had actually entered the ring. The NSC weren’t happy with these terms, but agreed to them.

Gunner Moir

And so Burns and Moir squared off on December 2 1907, for the first-ever world heavyweight championship bout staged in Britain under modern rules.

I had been intrigued beforehand by the likely quality of the film. Between 1967 and 1968, BBC television had run a series entitled “The Richest Prize in Sport,” detailing the history of the world heavyweight title over several weeks. They had started with Jack Dempsey’s title win over Jess Willard in 1919, and one of the reasons given was that films of contests prior to then were of such poor quality, with the fighters rushing around “like Keystone cops.” A few months later, I had seen the film of Jack Johnson’s famous world heavyweight title defence against Stanley Ketchel in 1909, and agreed that was a fair description.

But Lon had assured me that the film of his father’s fight was of remarkably good quality, given its age – and he was right. There was no sound, and just one, fixed camera – which meant that at least one important moment was missed. But the picture was clear, and for the most part easy to follow.

The first surprise was when Burns entered the ring in evening dress, and proceeded to change in his corner – sitting astride the ropes to remove his trousers (he had his trunks on underneath!) It was fascinating to watch the preliminaries and see such legendary figures in the ring as Peggy Bettinson (easily recognisable from photographs) and top referee Eugene Corri, who handled the bout (initially from outside the ring, as was the custom).

Burns appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest-ever world heavyweight champion – 5’ 7”. The Ring Record Book lists his weight as 12st 7lb – the light-heavyweight limit. Moir stood 5’ 9¼” and scaled around 13st 8lb, making him a cruiser by today’s standards. But he looked big compared with the champion.

Because of the size disparity, Burns had to take the fight to his challenger, and Moir had some success in the first round, trying to keep things at long range and score with the jab. But Burns managed to get close in the final stages, and the champion was grinning broadly as he went back to the corner.

Moir was still looking strong in the second, and suddenly Burns was on the floor. It looked a legitimate knockdown, but referee Corri quickly jumped into the ring to admonish Moir (it wasn’t clear why). That, as it turned out, was the challenger’s last success – Burns was getting through with head-punches in the third, and in the dying seconds Moir was put down by the ropes. The bell rang as soon as he got up.

The challenger tried to use the ring perimeter in the fourth, but took some stick in the next session – and in the sixth his face started to mark up. By the end of the session his left eye was badly cut. He managed to avoid further trouble in a relatively uneventful seventh, but by now the champion was well on top.

At the start of the eighth, referee Corri entered the ring, and handled the bout from inside the ropes until the finish. Before coming in, he removed his jacket, and the film shows him putting it down somewhere off-camera (actually over the top rope). Only when the bout was over did he remember that Burns’ purse – £3,000 in cash – was stuffed in the pockets!

Moir steamed forward bravely in the eighth, but now the right side of his face was bloody. The ninth saw the challenger still taking the fight to his tormentor, but Burns looked so much fresher, and was scoring freely with both hands.

The end came in the next session. A left-right to the head put the challenger down – when he got up he backed off, then tried to rally, but was floored again. Finally, a head-shot dropped him by the ropes, and he was counted out.

“Nowadays it would have been stopped sooner,” Lon said, and I agree with him.

It was a gallant try by Moir against an underrated world champion. Two months later, Burns defended against Moir’s old rival, Jack Palmer, in London, and won by fourth-round knockout – and five weeks after that he was in Dublin to flatten Jem Roche in 88 seconds, which stood as the shortest-ever world heavyweight title bout until Michael Dokes’ controversial 63-second stoppage of WBA champion Mike Weaver in 1982.
For his part, Moir was back in the ring exactly one week later – boxing a three-round exhibition with “Big” Ben Taylor in Camberwell. In fact, they would box exhibitions on six consecutive nights – December 9–14 inclusive. After one night off, Moir returned to the NSC for an exhibition with Frank Parkes.

It’s interesting to read Moir’s own views on the Burns fight. In his (presumably ghost-written) boxing textbook, The Complete Boxer, Moir writes in Chapter 6 (“Ring-Craft”):

“We had clinched, and Burns had trapped my arm in such a way as to give the referee the idea, from where he was sitting, that it was I who was holding. He consequently warned me on several occasions, and I permitted myself, foolishly, to become sufficiently exasperated to draw Mr Corri’s attention to the actual state of affairs, with the result that I had my face cut open in two places. This happened very early on, and was a serious handicap, as Tommy made a point of keeping these wounds open.

“I have not related this experience with any idea of explaining my defeat, but rather as an example of very sharp but perfectly legal tactics, of which I was, unfortunately, the sufferer. I might add that the trick was never repeated after Mr Corri had entered the ring, and was therefore in a position to see everything that went on.

“By the way, I might quote another little move of Tommy’s that came off very successfully on that occasion. As you are possibly aware, I rely rather extensively on my body hitting, particularly at the lower ribs. Burns had naturally studied this point, and took very particular precautions against it. He clinched a good deal, or we both did, whichever you prefer, but whenever we did so, Tommy came in well covered up, hands up in front of his face, head well down, under my chin, which, by the way, he butted once or twice (accidentally, I believe), and elbows well out to the front. And nearly every time I went for those ribs he pushed my arms down with his elbows, coming up smartly for my face immediately afterwards with the fist belonging to the arm which he had just put to such useful purpose.”

Fighting for a world title has always been every boxer’s dream. It was much more so in the days where there was only one world champion at each weight. Failure takes different fighters different ways. Some come back determined to land another shot, and get it right – others never get back to where they were before. That seems to have been the case with Moir.

In fact, there’s some confusion over Moir’s record since the Burns fight. I have seen two different versions. My old friend Harold Alderman is recognised as one of the top boxing historians in Britain – quite possibly the very best – and he has 10 further bouts for him, with just two wins, one No Decision and seven defeats. That’s not to say he was idle – during his career Moir engaged in a staggering 232 exhibitions!

He took part in a phenomenal number of those following the Burns defeat, and his next actual bout wasn’t until April 19 1909 – more than 16 months afterwards. Two days after his 30th birthday, Moir defended his British title against William “Iron” Hague at the NSC – and was knocked out in just 2min 47secs.

It did look as though his career was over, at least as far as the big-time was concerned, but there would be more opportunities. Hague was knocked out in 15 rounds by Petty Officer Matthew Curran, though as the bout wasn’t staged at the NSC it wasn’t recognised as a title bout. But when Moir was offered a fight with Curran, he eagerly accepted – a win would obviously have put him back in the title mix. Sadly, he was disqualified for carrying on punching after the bell to end the second session. Ironically, his previous bout had ended in a disqualification win – he had received an offer to go to Australia to meet up-and-coming Arthur Cripps, and caused an upset by winning on a foul in seven rounds.

In January 1911 he was matched with another prospect, somewhat nearer home – Bombardier Billy Wells, at Earl’s Court. Wells’ backers reckoned Moir was ready for the taking, and would be a good name on their man’s CV. It looked like that for two rounds, with Moir unable to cope with Wells’ better boxing – but things changed dramatically in the third, when the Gunner started to target the Bombardier’s body. Wells was dramatically counted out, and Moir was back in the frame.

But that was the Gunner’s last shout. He was disqualified against Porky Flynn, and stopped in the first by old foe Curran – and finally, in September 1913, he was offered a return with Billy Wells, who wanted to avenge his earlier KO defeat. By this time Wells had become British champion, but the Moir return wasn’t recognised as for the title as it wasn’t staged at the NSC. Not that it made any difference to the Gunner – he was knocked out in five rounds, and never boxed again. His record stood at 17 wins, 11 losses and one No Decision.

Some boxers find themselves at a loose end when they retire, and find it hard to get paid work. That wasn’t the case with Moir. He had done a lot of music-hall work during his career, and carried on with that – and he also became manager of the Canterbury Music Hall, in Kennington, and later the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle. He also appeared in a number of films (“usually playing, rough, tough-looking men!” Lon said). Moir appeared in The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935) and also the 1936 Will Hay comedy, Windbag the Sailor, (playing a crew member of the “Rob Roy”).

“I don’t remember my father that well – I never really got to know him,” Lon said. “He was nearly 45 when I was born, and he was away from home a lot, with his touring and his film work.

“I do remember him sitting on a dining-room chair, showing me how to make a fist and telling me to keep my guard up. He always wanted at least one of his sons to take up boxing, but things didn’t work out.

“My eldest brother, Jim, rebelled against the training, and it resulted in a total rift – Jim changed his name by deed poll, and never had anything more to do with my father. I later went and worked with Jim, but he was never reconciled with Dad.

“My next brother, Stan, took the opposite view – if Dad could do it, he could! He trained hard, and really worked at it – but when it came to actual combat, he took a few beatings and decided it wasn’t for him. I did a bit of boxing in the army, but that was all.”

There was one other boxing connection, though. “My aunt, Ada Moir, married Tom Snow, a pro from Kennington,” Lon said. “But she made him give it up! She said: ‘There’s already one professional boxer in the family, and that’s one too many!’ She was a formidable lady, my Aunt Ada – she said, give it up, and he gave it up!”

The “Gunner” died at Sutton Hospital on June 12, 1939, aged 60, after a wasting illness that lasted around two years. “It was very sad,” Lon said. “He was found wandering around the streets one day, and that was that. That’s one memory I have – cycling over to Sutton to visit him in hospital.”

Meeting Lon was a fascinating experience. There’s always a thrill in watching black-and-white film of famous fights of the past – featuring fighters we’ve read about, and heard about, and who are now long dead. There’s a real feeling of stepping back in time. But to be watching such a fight at the home of, and as the guest of, the son of one of the fighters gave it a whole new dimension – something I can’t really put into words. Let’s just say that I felt very moved as I drove home at the end of the evening.

  • Many thanks to Harold Alderman, MBE, for providing Moir’s record and additional information on his career.
  • Lon Moir has died since this article was first written.

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