In 1908, world heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns was about to fight  the black  American  giant, Jack  Johnson, the son of former slaves. It was to be the Canadian born champion’s 13th defense of his title.  The location  for the bout was the then open-air  Sydney Stadium  in Rushcutters Bay. It was a bit of  coup for Australia.

The flamboyant Johnson was staying at the old Sir Joseph Banks Hotel in Botany.

Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, Botany..
Sydney base for Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson

Burns, the Canadian, chose to train in the Blue Mountains, at the luxurious Hydro Majestic Hotel. He had already spent time there in the lead-up to the  fight and the owner, Mr  Mark Foy, offered to set up a gymnasium for him.

The Hydro Majestic, where Tommy Burns trained,  was built on a grand scale.
The Hydro Majestic was built on a grand scale.

Naturally it was all great advertising for the  resort complex, which had only opened in 1904. Lists of prominent guests were published regularly;

Another visitor was the all-conquering Napoleonic ‘Fisticuffer’ Tommy Burns, with his dainty little wife. They were so enamoured of the place that they intend to return in a week, when Thomas will train for his battle with the giant Texan negro, Jack Johnston….The weather at Medlow is delightful, and the Hydro has a large number of guests from the old country and from America.

Once Tommy was installed in the gym the media came calling. They were a bit cheeky in their description of Mr Foy’s fancy  ‘Folly’ . A journalist for the Lithgow Mercury on December 4 wrote;

A wooden structure, surmounted by an iron roof, and situated at the end farthest remote from the main entrance of that conglomeration of architecture styled  Medlow Hydro Majestic, is, during four evenings a week, the scene of the world’s greatest bruiser’s training work.

You drop in in a casual way between 4 and 5 o’clock, and are astonished to find that the major portion of the group of people expectantly awaiting the arrival of Burns are ladies – visitors staying at the Hydro for the most part.

Boxer Tommy Burns
Tommy Burns, a famous guest at the Hydro.

In 1945, boxing trainer Patsy Burke remembered those days at Medlow Bath;

The Blue Mountains, with their rugged scenery and crisp, biting air, was the ideal spot for a training camp. We were quartered in Mr Mark Foy’s private cottage “Sheila”, about half a mile away from the HyroMajestic guest house, which was also owned by Mr Foy.  A little hall, standing alone in the grounds of the Hydro, was fitted up with ring and punching ball stand and used as a gym.

There Burns boxed every afternoon except Sunday. That was the day he shone as a social lion. Tommy gave a garden party for the women guests at the Hydro Majestic every Sunday afternoon, and believe me they were swell affairs. Burns never worried about a special diet. He ate plain foods especially prepared by our own cook and supervised by Mrs Burns.

Tommy himself felt he was in the best place possible to prepare. In an interview for The Referee in mid November  he said;

‘As for variety in exercise, it is all around the place in every shape and form. The hills to run down and climb up, the artificial lake to row upon, the handball court, the everything imaginable – just have a look about and you’ll see how complete my opportunities are. Get fit? Bar accidents I’LL BE FITTER THAN EVER I WAS IN MY LIFE.’

The fight went down in history as the first time a white heavyweight champion  had agreed to box a black man.  Previous holders of the title simply could not countenance the idea of such a match.  It is shocking to think that Burns only agreed to the bout because he  was offered  £30,000.  Jackson received  £5,000.   Jack Jackson was by far the bigger man, but nevertheless Burns was the favourite.  Such was the ingrained belief in  white supremacy that the public were unable to conceive of a Johnson victory.  They put their money on Tommy Burns with complete confidence.

A rare exception was David Joel, a waiter  at The Adams  Hotel, one of Johnson’s favourite  drinking spots. Joel supported  the American and wagered heavily on the ‘underdog’.

The crowds at the Sydney event were enormous. Shamefully. they jeered the black fighter and taunted him with racial slurs.

Johnson V Burns fight i Sydney 1908
It looks as though half of Sydney turned out to watch.
Tommy Burns, Jack Johnson fight 1908
In the ring!

Against all expectations  it was a very one-sided affair. Tommy Burns was receiving  a beating when the bout was stopped by  police in the 14th round.  Of course the waiter David Joel cheered; the win allowed him to leave his job and set up as a bookmaker.  The rest of crowd was silenced.  Johnson had become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World.

A post fight report in the press makes uncomfortable reading;

Now that the fight has been decided all will agree that the better man has won, and that the present heavyweight champion is, whatever his colour, entitled to the honour and glory and cash associated with victory. In their respective ways Burns and Johnson stand as the greatest heavyweight pugilists of modern times. The new champion has apparently no superior, black man though he be….The victory of the coloured man appears to have been honestly obtained. White men naturally wished  their own man to conquer, and can congratulate Burns on the game fight he put up.’

Burns v Johnson fight in Sydney 1908

There was a very  important legacy of Johnson’s  win. It was expressed in this American editorial;

‘No event in forty years has given more genuine satisfaction to the colored people of this country than has the signal victory of Jack Johnson.’   The writer was implicitly equating it  to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.

UPDATE – As someone who  reacted with horror when  Donald Trump became President of the United States, even I had to applaud  his posthumous pardon,  on May  25th 2018, of Jack Johnson.  In 1913 Johnson had been found guilty by an all-white jury of  transporting a white woman  (who later became his wife) across a  state border ‘for immoral purposes’. It breached the Mann Act, which  purported to prevent inter-racial prostitution, but was often used to simply target and criminalize  black Americans. Johnson  served 10 months in prison and his career was effectively ruined. It is now accepted that this was a racially motived charge.

I know many of us feel boxing should be banned, but if you want to watch how the 1908 contest  played out, here is an old  film of  THE  FIGHT


  1. Hi Pauline,

    Loved your article! I’m building a screen treatment around this momentous fight at the moment. Your insights were very helpful and educational. Thank You!



    • Pauline

      Thanks James, and best of luck with your project. 👍

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