IT says much for the social significance of boxing that monuments are being unveiled around the world to honour the fistic greats of the past 100-plus years. The latest is a plaque to commemorate the world heavyweight title fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson. It stands on a footpath in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, Australia, near the former site of the Sydney Stadium, where the bout was held in 1908.
Johnson had chased Burns around the world to get the fight. As a black man in the early 20th century, his greatest battle was outside the ring, combating widespread racism, and this made the job of securing a shot at sport’s greatest prize a gargantuan one.
Jack had followed Tommy to London, where the latter picked up some soft fights, flattening outclassed Brits Gunner Moir and Jack Palmer. Upon his arrival, Johnson visited Arthur “Peggy” Bettinson at Covent Garden’s National Sporting Club, and Peggy offered to stage a world title fight between him and Burns for a $12,500 purse. Burns, though, found the offer laughably low and demanded $30,000 to defend against Johnson.
After obliterating Wexford’s Jem Roche inside a round in Dublin, Tommy headed to Paris for a brace of fights and Jack followed him there. After KO’ing London’s Jewey Smith and Australia’s Bill Squires in the French capital, Burns was tempted into travelling to Australia for a return fight with Squires and a bout against another Australian, Bill Lang.
Aussie promoter Hugh D. (“Huge Deal”) McIntosh paid Burns handsomely for these two easy defences and set about raising the $30,000 Tommy asked for to face Johnson. With the funding in place, McIntosh wrote to Johnson in London and offered him $5,000 to challenge Burns for the world crown in Sydney. While Jack resented having to accept one sixth of what the champion was to get, the opportunity was too good to turn down.
They met on Boxing Day in 1908, in an open-air stadium originally built for the Burns-Squires bout. Twenty-thousand fans were seated inside the stadium and around 30,000 lingered outside, some climbing trees or telegraph poles for a glimpse of the action. The event enthralled the world – it was the first time a black man had fought for the world heavyweight crown – but it proved a complete mismatch. In reality, the 5ft 7in, 167lb Burns had no hope of beating his infinitely better-skilled 6ft, 192lb challenger.
After a prolonged, one-sided drubbing, Tommy was saved from further punishment when the police halted the bout in the 14th round. Johnson was declared the winner and became boxing’s first black heavyweight world titlist. Though initially conceived as a temporary structure, the Rushcutters Bay Sydney Stadium was later enlarged and roofed over. It remained an iconic boxing and entertainment venue until its demolition in 1970.
Ten-thousand miles away, another plaque has been erected in Pimlico, London, to honour Olympic boxing champion Harry Mallin. It is fixed to Peel House where Mallin spent most of his working life as a policeman. Arguably Britain’s greatest ever amateur, Harry left the sport with an unbeaten record after more than 300 bouts. He won Olympic gold medals in 1920 and 1924 and captured five ABA titles in a row (1919-23).
After leaving the ring, Harry stayed involved with boxing. He managed the British boxing teams in the 1936 and 1952 Olympics and was a life vice-president of the ABA. He stayed with the Metropolitan Police for five years beyond the normal retirement age, leaving the force in 1952 with the rank of sergeant-instructor. The Harry Mallin plaque was put up by English Heritage last year, but for some reason it seems to have slipped under the radar. It makes a worthy addition to the growing list of monuments that commemorate Britain’s boxing heroes.