Sunday 17 June 2012

Story behind this picture – Frankie Burns

By Gilbert Odd

This article and the accompanying photo are reproduced here with the kind permission of Derek O'Dell, to whom they were entrusted by the late Gilbert Odd for publication at a later date. 

The boxer on the floor has just been knocked out in a championship contest. A few days earlier he had saved someone from drowning. Did his heroic act cause his defeat?

Early in 1922 Charlie Lucas, a slim-built, balding Australian, arrived in London with two fighters. One was George Cook, who claimed the heavyweight championship of his country, the other was Albert Lloyd, who was light-heavy titleholder.

They hadn’t been invited by a promoter; there were no promised fights. But Europe was enjoying a post-war boom in boxing, so they hoped to cash in on the situation.

Young Cook was tough as teak but he was too short to make a formidable heavyweight, and what’s more, he did not possess a payoff punch. He had to rely on getting to close quarters, where his short arms were ideal for body-punching. But in the course of getting there, he had to take considerable punishment.

Lloyd, a much older man, was a good, upstanding boxer, but he too lacked punching power. He had plenty of science, but no devil. You could write him down as a plodder.

Lucas could not expect to do much with a pair of this calibre. Perhaps pick up a few sizeable purses and get their passage paid home? That wasn’t Charlie’s idea. He knew his boxers’ limitations, but he also had great confidence in his own powers of eloquence.

Fights with Carpentier and Smith

A gifted speaker, Lucas talked Major Arnold Wilson into matching Cook with Georges Carpentier for the Aussie’s first fight in this country.

Actually George had no right in the same ring as the talented Frenchman. But he stayed almost four rounds before succumbing to a spectacular knockout defeat and won many friends for his game showing.

Lloyd opened his programme with a match at the National Sporting club against Dick Smith, the former British light-heavyweight champion. The Australian lost on points over 20 rounds, but like Cook, he made himself very popular. Lucas thus found it easy to get matches for both his men. So he sent a cable to Frankie Burns, inviting him to join them.

Burns was middleweight champion of his country, a good-looking young man of 21, pleasant and well-mannered. When I went to see him work out in the gymnasium soon after his arrival, he did not strike me as being anything sensational, in fact, he looked just another boxer.

“That’s not his true form,” Charlie Lucas assured me. “When he has got his land legs again, he’ll be dynamite. Don’t tell anybody, but he has a right-hand punch that can break a man’s jaw. He knocked out Tommy Uren and Jimmy Clabby just before leaving home.”

I was young then, but I knew enough to know that both Uren and Clabby were old-timers who it wouldn’t take much to knock over. But I respected Charlie’s request and told no one, although the papers were full of it the next day.

Quiet and unassuming

In contrast with Lucas, Frankie was very quiet and unassuming. He told me he had come from Temora where he had been a blacksmith. He loved boxing, but might have remained unnoticed had it not been for the visit to his town of Dave Smith, a former heavyweight champion of Australia, who persuaded Burns to try his luck in the big cities.

“I was very shy about boxing in front of a big crowd,” he said. “And for that matter I still haven’t got used to it. But I am hoping to make good in England, my ambition being to win the Empire middleweight title.”

“You’ll have to fight Ted (Kid) Lewis for that,” I said.

“He’s washed up,” snorted Lucas. “Carpentier knocked him for a row of skittles the other day. He’s supposed to be a big puncher, well, if he is, I’ve yet to see it. Wait until I get Frankie into the ring with him.”

Try-out match

Smart as he was, Charlie could not get Burns immediately into a match with Lewis. But he persuaded the NSC to give Frankie a try-out with ex-shoeing-Smith Fred Davies, a former Imperial Services champion, who had boxed the best at his weight.

The Club members were disappointed. They watched carefully throughout the 15 rounds to see Burns put over his terrific right, but nothing happened.

The Australian champion showed them he was a clever mover who used the ring to advantage; he also demonstrated a neat left jab and a weighty hook from the same hand. But  they saw little from the vaunted right.

Davies caught a good one in the opening round and another in the fifth that had him staggering, but after that Burns put his dexterous hand in cold storage, being content to win a points verdict with his left.

After the contest Lucas lost no time in telling all and sundry that Frankie had knocked up his right in the fifth round and on his instructions, had refrained from using it for the remainder of the contest.

“There was no sense in making the damage worse, when he could lick Davis with one hand,” explained Charlie. “Lewis will know all about that right when it knocks him silly.”

When these disparaging remarks reached Aldgate, the “Kid” was more than peeved, and when the NSC approached him to meet Burns under championship conditions for its annual Derby Week promotion, he lost no time in signing the contract.

Too big for the NSC

It was far too big a fight for the Club and a large skating rink in Holland Park, near Shepherd’s Bush, was hired for the occasion. It would seat up to 10,000, and to pay the purse the Kid demanded, plus the high figure suggested by Lucas, the tickets were priced at 11 guineas ringside, ranging back to 10 bob for the wide-open spaces.

Lewis, who had trained at Harrow for the ill-fated match with Carpentier that lasted less than a single round, decided to change his luck by moving back to his old quarters at the Norfolk Arms, Wembley.

The Australians, who had been training at High Beech, accepted the invitation of the New Vaudeville Club at Thames Ditton. Here they were comfortably housed in ideal surroundings, but as it happened, it was a bad thing for Burns.

Heroic act

Four nights before the fight he was sound asleep in bed when he was awakened by cries for help. Scrambling out of the blankets, he ran down to the towing path where he saw that two men were struggling in the water beside an upturned canoe.

Without hesitating Frankie jumped in and grabbed one man by the hair as he was sinking. He tried to catch hold of the other without success, so swam back to the bank and managed to pull the half-drowned man out of the water.

He yelled loudly for help then dived in again and searched around for the second canoeist, while his manager danced on the toe-path, imploring him to come out. Only when he knew that there were others to continue the search was Burns persuaded to leave the river.

He was wrapped in a blanket and rushed back to bed. It had been a pretty brave thing for Burns to do, for the Australian had no knowledge of the river currents, nor had he given a thought to the risk he was taking in getting a chill that might seriously interfere with his forthcoming championship fight.

The man he had rescued was Capt. Alphonso Austin Smith who, four years later, was to be acquitted of the capital murder charge in the famous ‘Stella Maris’ murder case.

The Royal Humane Society awarded Frankie a medal, but he should have got one for facing Lewis, who entered the Holland Park ring in a most warlike and destructive mood.

The crashing, bashing Kid

It was the famous crashing, bashing Kid at his very best and poor Burns hardly got a look in. True, he fought gamely and to the utmost of his ability, but Lewis was in championship form and kept his man on the strict defensive from the opening bell.

Try as he might, Frankie could not keep his aggressive rival at bay. Lewis would wade in, swinging with both hands and once he had got to close range, he would pound at the body in non-stop fashion.

These tactics gave the Australian little opportunity to exploit his boxing skill, moreover, although he met the Kid with some well-placed punches as he came in, there didn’t seem sufficient power to stop the Londoner.

After five rounds Lewis had established a long lead, but in the sixth he slowed down from his own exertions and Burns made up a lot of leeway.

He did well in the next two rounds, making Lewis miss with some clever evasive work. But the Kid came to life again in the ninth and suddenly landed a full-arm left swing to the chin.

Down went the Australian to a yell from the fans that drowned the voice of the timekeeper. Frankie was so dazed that he rose without taking advantage of the count and stood there swaying – an open target for a finisher.

In tore Lewis, eager to plant a knockout wallop on his rival’s unprotected chin. But at that moment the bell rang out to end the round and Burns was saved.

But only temporarily! He managed to coast through the tenth, but Lewis gave him no rest and although he escaped another damaging delivery, he was a very weary warrior as he went back to his corner.

The Kid had made up his mind to finish things off and tore into Burns at the opening of the eleventh, working him into a neutral corner. Here he bombarded the Australian’s ribs with some hefty digs from each hand then, as Frankie brought his gloves down to protect his midsection, the Kid switched to the head.

Bang! Bang! Left and right hooks rattled Frankie’s teeth and he fell forward into a clinch. Lewis wrenched himself free, stepped back and then whipped in a right hook that carried his full power and strength.

The punch had ‘winner’ written all over it. Burns staggered three paces sideways, then hit the canvas like a picture falling from a wall.

A bizarre finish

He crashed on his back, his legs waving convulsively in the air. Finally, the soles of his boots contacted the ring post and he seemed to be trying to walk up it.

In all my experience of watching and reporting fights, I have never seen anything quite so remarkable either before or since. Burns was out to the wide, yet instinctively he was trying to get away from his rival while upside-down.

There was never a chance of him beating the count and as he finally slithered to the canvas, the Kid walked to his corner and held out his gloves to be untied. He knew it was all over.

It was interesting to note that while Frankie Burns failed in his effort to win an Empire title, his son George Barnes became welterweight king of the Commonwealth. 


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