Life

Johnson Dispatches His Vancouver Victim

The world champ fights a future movie star, and thanks the racist Canadian who gave him a shot at the title.

By Tom Hawthorn, 19 Aug 2004, TheTyee.ca

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Second of two parts

[Read first part: When Jack Johnson Fought in Vancouver ]

On the day of his arrival in Vancouver in 1909. world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson played a few hands of cards at the Railway Porters' Club, before attending a vaudeville show at the Pantages. He saw comedians, harmony singers, boomerang throwers, a troupe of Russian dancers, and Scottish instrumentalists called the Kilty Duo. He was soon to embark on his own six-month tour of the stages of Britain and continental Europe as a lecturer and celebrity.

Johnson and his wife took a motorcar tour of Stanley Park the following morning. He was an automobile fancier, owning as many as six at a time when a single car was an expensive luxury. Many servants worked for Johnson at his prime, but he had no use for chauffeurs. In 1910, he challenged daredevil racer Barney Oldfield at Coney Island in 1910, losing two races. Johnson would die in the wreck of a car he was driving, losing control of his vehicle on U.S. Highway 1 outside of Franklinton, N.C., on the afternoon of June 10, 1946. The champion was thrown from the car as it smashed into a lightpole and overturned. He died in hospital of internal injuries.

The drive through Stanley Park was without incident. Afterwards, Johnson returned to the docks to re-enact his arrival for the benefit of a moving-picture cameraman.

Colorado Giant ducks

The highlight of the visit was a six-round exhibition bout staged at the Vancouver Athletic Club at 130 Dunsmuir, corner of Beatty. Johnson's opponent was to be Denver Ed Martin, known as Colorado Giant, who stood three inches taller than the champion but lacked both his rival's skill as well as his ability to take a punch. The two men were well acquainted. Johnson had won a 20-round decision over Denver Ed six years earlier in Los Angeles to claim the so-called coloured world championship. The Galveston Giant then knocked out the Colorado Giant in a rematch.

Perhaps memory of those drubbings gave Martin pause, for he suddenly returned to Seattle.

Those who paid $1 or $2.50 to attend the sparring exhibition saw Johnson face a 22-year-old bishop's son named Victor McLaglen. The white boxer was more puncher than fighter, a truth he was slow to recognize. Born in England, raised in South Africa, where he ran away from home to fight in
the Boer War, McLaglen had come to Canada as a prospector and was fighting out of Tacoma, Washington, when he stepped into the ring against the formidable world champion.

Opponent Hollywood bound

The next few years would be spent with a traveling circus, where he beat on farmers and other stiffs lured into battle by the promise of a $25 payday for lasting three rounds. Few collected. McLaglen returned to England during the Great War to enlist, becoming the heavyweight champion of the British
army, undoubtedly inflicting more casualties on his own side then he did on the enemy.

After the war, McLaglen went to Hollywood, where bit roles led to star billing. He even won an Oscar as best actor for his role as Gypo Nolan, the title character of the 1935 movie "The Informer."

In Vancouver in 1909, though, he was to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the champ's right uppercut.

Johnson arrived in formal evening wear, including a black jacket over a dress shirt on which a diamond stickpin glimmered. The men in the audience, including those in the balcony overlooking the ring, wore ties, jackets and derbies. "What I would like to say to you for your kindness no tongue can utter," he said to a roar from the crowd.

Toying with his prey

Johnson had little trouble with McLaglen, tagging him in the solar plexus within the first minute of their exhibition. Like a giant cedar having received an axeman's final blow, McLaglen paused for a moment before slowing collapsing to his knees. He was winded but able to continue fighting, although the champion mostly toyed with him for the rest of the bout, showing agility, superior footwork, and a full repertoire of punches.

The coverage by Vancouver newspapers was patronizing in tone, although less explicitly racist than much of what appeared in American dailies. A headline in the News-Advertiser read: JACK JOHNSON IS TICKLED TO DEATH WITH VANCOUVER. And Hospitable Terminal City Says 'We Too' to World's Greatest Pugilist.

The champ was magnanimous in his triumph, praising Tommy Burns though only a few weeks had passed since their historic fight.

"Let me say of Mr. Burns," Johnson said, "a Canadian and one of yourselves, that he has done what no one else ever done, he gave a black man a chance for the championship. He was beaten, but he was game."

'Yellow, grizzly, grey or black'

Burns, who had been born Noah Brusso in Hanover, Ontario, found religion later in life in California. He denounced the brutality of the sweet science of bruising, and apologized publicly for having made racist comments to Johnson in the ring.

Burns was KO'd by a heart attack while visiting a friend in Vancouver on May 10, 1955. They found on his body a calling card that read, "Tom Burns, demonstrator of Universal Love." He was buried in Plot 3, Grave 451 of the Balsam Section of Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby. Only four people attended the service - a boxing fan and his wife, plus two gravediggers. The grave had no marker for six years, until a sportswriter's campaign financed a bronze plaque.

After the exhibition bout in Vancouver, Johnson and his entourage attended a banquet at the Bismarck Club, where he remarked favourably on seeing two races enjoying a meal at the same table.

"Be my next opponent yellow, grizzly, grey or black, I will fight him with the same courage and determination that I have shown in the past," he said. "It will go down in history that Jack Johnson in all his travels round the world has never yet been discouraged."

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria sports reporter who prefers yesterday's stories to today's scores.  [Tyee]

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