Thursday 20 October 2011

World heavyweight champion behind the bar at your local!

Seen Mike Tyson down your local recently? At first glance this might seem like a ridiculous concept. An ex-world heavyweight champion in an English pub? In 1926 one of Tyson’s predecessors, a man from Canada, didn’t just visit an English pub, he was the landlord!

Tommy Burns held the world heavyweight title for two years. After losing to Jack Johnson in Sydney on Boxing Day 1908 he retired a wealthy man, free to indulge in his interests. He dabbled as a boxing promoter in more than a few countries and was always on the look-out for a budding heavyweight champion. He maybe thought he had found one in Luther McCarty. But poor Luther died, aged 21, in a contest against Arthur Pelkey at Calgary in 1913. Tommy Burns was the unfortunate promoter. In 1920 Tommy was tempted into his final comeback in a contest with Joe Beckett, the British heavyweight champion, at Olympia, London. After losing in seven rounds Tommy hung up his gloves for good.

Six years later and Tommy is the landlord of the Forth Hotel on Pink Lane in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I grew up in this city, and Pink Lane, in the 60s and 70s, was notorious as Newcastle’s red-light district and the pub was dodgy then to say the least. Today the area has been greatly improved and the Forth Hotel is still there. I always have a pint in the place when I return, mainly because of the link the pub has to boxing’s heritage, and also because it is a great little boozer. There is nothing in the pub today to alert the casual visitor to the fact that someone so famous used to run the place. I think this is a shame.

So what on earth was Tommy doing running a pub, off the beaten track, in the industrial North? I have never quite got to the bottom of this but the question has long fascinated me. I do know that Tommy invested some of his ring earnings in property and as he had strong connections to the United Kingdom, it is not surprising that he sought to expand his property empire here. I suspect that he was not the man to be seen behind the bar every day, pulling pints, but more likely an owner who put in an occasional appearance on the proper side of the bar, hob-nobbing with the clientele.

He was certainly very visible in the Forth Hotel in 1926 as he had settled in the town and lived there, on and off, for quite some time, with his new wife, Dorothea Hall, a local lass and a singer and actress. Always keen to develop local boxing talent, Tommy was determined to continue organising boxing promotions and The Forth Hotel became the headquarters from which he arranged an important title bout between two promising local fighters.

Boxing in Newcastle at that time centred around the St James Hall, a purpose-built arena, where regular weekly and bi-weekly shows had been held for ‘donkey’s years’. The promoter at the Hall was ex-fighter Will Curley, who promoted the Hall's first show on 6 September 1909, and also the last show on 4 June 1929. Curley and his syndicate had boxing pretty much sewn up in the city. Only occasionally did anyone else attempt to breach this. In 1916 another ex-fighter, Stoker Allan, promoted a show at St James Park Football Ground, the home of Newcastle United, and 11,842 people paid to see Bombardier Billy Wells retain his British heavyweight title against Dick Smith. In 1919 Bob O’Neill ran a show at Brough Park Racecourse, but this was not a financial success and he did not repeat the attempt.

Tommy Burns became only the third person, therefore, to challenge Curley’s dominance and promote a boxing tournament within Newcastle. For the venue he chose the Hippodrome, a former skating rink located on Northumberland Road in the heart of the city. Top of the bill was a 20 (three-minute round) contest for the Northern lightweight title between Harry Pitt, the Champion Pitman of Northumberland and Durham who came from Hazelrigg, a small mining community just north of the city, and Jim Carney from Middlesbrough.

In the photograph above, which I believe may have been taken in the Forth Hotel, you can see Tommy Burns on the left, with Harry Pitt next to him, referee Eugene Corri in the centre, and then Jim Carney and his probable handler on the right. Corri was the doyen of British referees in this period. He had refereed many important matches including that between Tommy Burns and Gunner Moir for the world heavyweight title at the National Sporting Club in 1907. He had a good relationship with Tommy.

The tournament was a success and a crowded house packed the arena on the afternoon of 4 December 1926. The contest ended in a draw and so the title remained vacant. Old Tommy could not resist climbing into the ring himself, and he boxed a three-round exhibition with 17-year-old Donald Shortland of Sheffield. Within a few years Shortland had become one of Britain’s leading heavyweights but he faded from the scene at a young age, his early promise unfulfilled.

Within the year Tommy and his wife had resettled in America. He only ever promoted this one show in Newcastle and, as far as I know, did not return there again once he had left.

After the demise of the St James Hall in 1929, a new venue was built upon the site, known as the New St James Hall. This building hosted boxing from 1930 until 1967, and was finally demolished in the late 1970s. It stood directly behind the Gallowgate end, across the road from the football ground.

I have often wondered whether Tommy found the time to share a pint of ‘Newcy Broon’ with old foe Jack Palmer. The two met, for the world heavyweight title, at Wonderland, Whitechapel in 1908. In 1926 Palmer was living in Newcastle, in his native Benwell, about a mile up the road from the Forth Hotel. When I enjoy my occasional pint in the pub I often imagine Tommy and Jack, propped up at the end of the bar, reminiscing together about old battles.


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  2. Tommy had a lot of different financial interests in the early days in Canada and the UK but, like thousands of others, lost almost everything in the Great Crash of 1929. He had a special fondness for Britain and the British people.

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