The Boxers of Long Beach

Claudine Burnett
Burns (R) versus Johnson

African Americans were hit hard by the Great Depression. By 1934 black unemployment rates reached 50%, a higher rate than among white Americans. But in October 1930, employment opportunities for local African Americans took a novel turn.

Columbia Pictures needed black extras to shoot a convict scene in “The Criminal Code,” a gangster and prison story, parts of which were set in Long Beach. In this film, African Americans portrayed convicts working a big cotton gin and were also used in scenes reflecting prison breaks, gun battles and gang feuds. Though not happy about the stereotypical roles they were being asked to play, they were pleased that John Lester Johnson, a nationally known African American heavyweight boxer had a bit part in the picture and they had the chance to meet him.

Many remembered Johnson’s boxing career, which lasted from 1912-1929 and how he decided to retire from the sport following his defeat by Long Beach fighter Les Kennedy at the Wilmington Bowl. Johnson took up a film career appearing in several movies including the Our Gang comedies, Three Stooges and other films.

Long Beach had a long love of boxing, even though city fathers banned the sport in 1919.

The love affair blossomed in the fall of 1906 when the city ripped out a palm garden on the beach and built a boxing ring so visitors could watch Canadian-born Tommy Burns train for his much-touted November 28 fight with Jack O’Brien. Born Noah Brusso, the 12th of 13 children, Burns grew up in an impoverished household, with five of his 13 siblings dying before they reached adulthood.

After starting his boxing career in 1904, 22-year-old Noah changed his name to the Scottish sounding name of Tommy Burns. Being only 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing about 175 pounds did not stop him from becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion when he beat Marvin Hart on Feb. 23, 1906. This success, and the money that followed, allowed him to marry 22-year-old Julia Keating of Portland, Oregon, in Long Beach on May 1, 1906.

Old timers remembered their romance; it was like something out of a novel – the handsome champion of the world, with a convent girl sweetheart.

The two had met a year earlier when Burns was in Portland training for his battle with Jack Sullivan. It was love at first sight. As soon as Julia graduated from school she traveled to Southern California to marry Tommy.

Upon her arrival in late April 1906, the ardent Tommy hurried her to the rectory of the Catholic priest at Long Beach and asked that the two be married. Imagine his dismay when the good father refused. Tommy wasn’t Catholic and the marriage ceremony could not be performed without a dispensation.

The marriage was postponed until the dispensation came through, which Tommy learned could be a long time in coming. He was finding it hard to wait. When his agent arranged a match between him and another contender in Philadelphia, Tommy was in despair. He couldn’t leave Julia behind and it was unthinkable that she would travel with him if they weren’t married. As the time approached for him to leave, his pleadings grew stronger. At last Julia gave in and consented to be married before a justice of the peace.

Justice Young of Long Beach performed the ceremony and Mr. and Mrs. Burns took the evening train for the east.

Returning to Southern California, the couple decided to make Long Beach their home, setting up a training ring on the beach. It was a real coup for local business. After all, what other city on the entire planet had the world heavyweight boxer not only living but training on its shore. Tourists descended in droves.

Burns’ Thanksgiving Day Eve bout with Jack O’Brien turned out to be a draw, but another match between the two fighters was scheduled for the following year.

Tommy was anxious to help the families of those who had died in Long Beach’s Nov. 9, 1906, Hotel Bixby collapse. Burns and some of his boxing friends volunteered to do a benefit performance to raise money for the victim’s families. Tommy Burns, George Memsic and Abe Attell planned on performing at the auditorium, but that was not to be.

At a special meeting on Nov. 15, the city trustees turned down the petition of 50 citizens asking that permission be given to use the auditorium for the boxing benefit, which Trustee Sam Lent said probably would raise $5,000 ($143,000 today). Mayor Downs and Trustee Benson voted against the proposition. The evangelistic work of Reverend E. J. Bulgin, was supposed to have had something to do with the decision.

The Nov. 15, 1906 Los Angeles Herald quoted Bulgin as saying it was a disgrace that prize fighters were allowed.

Despite attacks by Bulgin, in April 1907, Burns again agreed to set up a training camp in Long Beach, privately owned and not subject to the whims of the local council. Again, influenced by the evangelical Bulgin, Mayor Downs did what he could to stop the boxing demonstrations. Downs stated that if Tommy Burns trained in the Long Beach Skating Rink, and the rink owner charged admission for people to see him train, the rink owners would have to pay $50 ($1,430) a day for a business license.

The rink management tried to square things with the mayor since the rink owners were already renting Burns a house and providing him with a chef. In addition, they had installed a shower in the rink and a rubbing room. None of this worried Burns. He had just bought a piano for his home at 915 East Ocean Avenue and hired a piano player to play it. Burns said he planned on having lots of company and musical parties that would “make the house ring.”

The April 26, 1907 Los Angeles Herald reported: “Tommy Burns is certainly working as though he had thoroughly made up his mind to attain perfect condition for his battle with O’Brien. Down at Long Beach one of the skating rinks has been placed at his disposal. A ring has been erected in the middle of the floor and at 3 o’clock the skaters leave, the band stops playing with a final flourish and the Long Beach favorite stalks into the ring followed by Frank Lewis carrying the training paraphernalia, Hilly Woods looking lean and lithe and Jimmy Burns carrying the water jug.

“Tommy’s first stunt is to spread his dressing gown on the floor of the ring like a Moslem’s prayer carpet. He then lies down on his back upon the gown with his feet projecting a short way over the edge. Then he places his arms above his head and raises himself to a sitting posture about a dozen times. The crowd laughs. After that he goes through some very funny looking but probably very useful exercises. He raises his right arm up and down with a quick motion, at the same time moving his left leg in the same manner. The effect is quite ludicrous, and the crowd laughed heartily yesterday when they saw this stunt for the first time.

“But Tommy is very far from being self-conscious and he continued his work as though not a soul was watching him. After the physical culture exercises, Tommy goes for the bag and the leather does well to be new and strong, for he hits it with sledgehammer blows and keeps it up in a tireless manner. At a word from Lewis, he takes the skipping rope and skips for about ten minutes without stopping. Here is a surprise.

“To look at Tommy one would never think that he could be graceful, yet his skipping work is a revelation. He has perfected himself in a number of new steps and to watch him one would think it was Jack Twin Sullivan pattering the floor with a series of rhythmic steps. First one foot, then the other, both feet alternately, forward and backward goes the heavyweight fighter at times merely jumping high enough to allow the rope to pass and at others working in little shuffles and clog steps that ring musically on the solid floor of the ring.

“After the skipping comes the Whitely exerciser (a pulley driven exercise machine) and then Billy Woods for three rounds of sparring. This last is, of course, the piece de resistance and there is a gentle flutter of excitement in the watching crowd, especially among the members of the fair sex of Long Beach who are very loyal to their champion and take keen pleasure in watching him work.

“He then mixes with Billy Woods. Both men wear very heavily padded gloves and Woods has reason to be thankful for it. They go after each other as though trying for a knockout and when they clinch, remarkable as it may sound, the heavier man seems to have the better of the exchange of short arm jolts. Burns’ wind is apparently in plendid condition. He breathes quite easily all the time in spite of the hard work he does. He goes through all his training stunts with a vim and determination as though he were doing it for his life and the ten days to elapse before the fight should be plenty of time in which to gain the tiptop of condition.

“A small fee is charged for admittance to the rink, to train on the Sabbath. He regretted that he lived in a town where men could knock the blood out of each other “for the sake of suffering humanity,” as in the proposed boxing benefit and said such men should be tarred and feathered and shown the city limits.”

Long Beach was crazy about Burns. Everybody read the articles in the sporting pages of the local papers and it was whispered that even the most conservative element in the city devoured every item concerning the Canadian.

However, the May 8, 1907, rematch with Jack O’Brien was a disappointment to those who had paid good money to see the bout. O’Brien was hooted and hissed at for not standing up to Burns, who was declared the winner after 20 rounds.

In 1908, Burns and his wife left Long Beach for Sydney, Australia. At a time when most white American fighters refused to fight African Americans, Burns agreed to a contest with Jack Johnson, becoming the first white fighter to consent to a heavyweight championship bout with an African American. It was an exhausting, bloody battle lasting 14 rounds. Police stopped the match because of the declining physical condition of both opponents. The decision and the title were given to Johnson. Johnson later said Burns deserved credit as the only white heavyweight who ever gave a black man a chance to win the title.

When the religious element in Long Beach gained enough support to ban boxing matches in 1919, Tommy Burns left for Huntington Beach where he established the Burns Health Farm at the Huntington Inn on Ocean (later renamed Pacific Coast Highway) and Eighth Street. His was an impressive career. During his boxing days, Tommy Burns set records for the fastest knockout (one minute and 28 seconds) and the most consecutive wins by knockout (eight) by a heavyweight champion. This amazing fighter, the shortest heavyweight champion in history, once defended his title twice in one night. Burns continued to box occasionally after losing the title, earning enough money to be called wealthy.

However, the Wall Street tumble of 1929 wiped out his fortune. Perhaps some of the rhetoric Long Beach’s evangelical Reverend Bulgin stayed with him. In 1948 Burns decided to become an ordained evangelical minister. It was while visiting a church friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, that the 73-year-old former heavyweight boxing champion of the world died on May 10, 1955, of a heart attack.

The influx of new residents to Long Beach following the discovery of oil on Signal Hill in 1921 brought new thoughts and values to the city, but the religious element still prevailed in keeping a proposed boxing arena from being built north of the city limits in 1923. Instead, boxing promoters looked for other locations. The Wilmington Bowl opened in August 1924 and the Los Angeles

Olympic auditorium in August 1925. Boxing was so popular it attracted 4,200 spectators on

Wilmington Bowl’s opening day in 1924, with another 1,500 reportedly turned away. Soon Long

Beach radio station KFOX began live broadcasting from the Wilmington Bowl, a practice considered novel at the time.

Though they were only allowed to train in gyms and not have audience attended contests, several boxers continued to call Long Beach home. There was Ferris Brown, Kid Mack and Les Kennedy who fought African American Ernest Bendy, whose ring name was Dynamite Jackson, several times. In February 1930, Kennedy lost to Jackson at the Olympic Auditorium. In a January 1931 rematch Kennedy defeated Jackson winning the Pacific Coast title. In June 1931, Jackson again beat Kennedy with Jackson winning the state heavyweight crown.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index. In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California which she has published in 11 books as well as in monthly blogs. She has been busy working on a new book – “African Americans in Long Beach and Southern California: A History,” which tells the story of Long Beach’s African American population and intertwines the legislation that has affected racism in this country. She hopes to have it out soon. You can access information about her books and read her blogs at www.claudineburnettbooks.com.

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