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Born in Chesley, Ontario, Brusso grew up in Hanover, Ontario and was a lacrosse player in Galt. From an impoverished family of thirteen children, he travelled to Detroit, Michigan where he began his prizefighting career in 1900. In June 1903, he was discovered playing lacrosse under an assumed name for a Detroit team that was playing in Chatham, Ontario.
After starting his boxing career under his real name, Brusso took the Irish-sounding name of Tommy Burns in 1904. Although only 5 feet 7 inches tall and about 175 pounds, size did not stop him from becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. When Burns met Marvin Hart for the heavyweight championship of the world on February 23, 1906, Burns was a 2:1 underdog and the betting was 10:7 that he would not last ten rounds. Burns won, and would go on to defend his title eleven times within a period of less than two years.
In December 1908, Burns became the first fighter to agree to a heavyweight championship bout with a black boxer, Jack Johnson, to whom he lost his title in a match held in Sydney, Australia. He was rumoured to be suffering from the effects from jaundice or influenza, and weighed in at just 168 pounds—15 pounds lighter than his previous fight, and well below Johnson's 192. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police. Referee Hugh McIntosh awarded the decision and the title to Johnson. In a filmed interview, Burns named Johnson as the second best boxer up to his time, after James J. Jeffries.
Burns continued to box occasionally after dropping the title. A month before his 39th birthday in 1920, he challenged British champion Joe Beckett. Burns lost the fight in what was officially his only knockout loss, but took in one last big payday before retiring.
After retirement, Burns promoted some boxing shows and in 1928 moved to New York City where he ran a speakeasy. Although he was wealthy at the end of his boxing career, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression wiped out his fortune. He then worked as an insurance salesman and security guard, among other jobs.
Burns was ordained as a minister in 1948. He was an evangelist living in Coalinga, California at the time of his death. He died while visiting a church friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, suffering a heart attack at age 73. Only four people attended his burial at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, British Columbia. He was interred in an unmarked pauper's grave until 1961 when, as the result of fundraising efforts begun by a Vancouver sports writer, a memorial plaque was finally placed on his grave.
Heavyweight boxing champion