From The Argus (1908)

The American writer Jack London and his wife sailed across the Pacific from San Francisco to Sydney in his ketch the Snark in 1907-08. While in Sydney he reported on the world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns.




Full credit for the big fight must be given to Mr McIntosh, who has done the unprecedented, and had the nerve to carry it through. But equal credit must be given to Australia, for without her splendid sport-loving men not a hundred McIntoshes could have pulled off the great contest of Saturday.

The stadium is a magnificent arena and so was the crowd magnificent. It was managed by that happy aptitude which the English have for handling big crowds. The spirit of the stadium crowd inside and out with its fair-minded and sporting squareness was a joy to behold. It was hard to realise that those fifty or sixty thousand men were descended from the generations that attended the old bare-knuckles fights in England, where partisan crowds swarmed the ringside, slugging each other, smashing the top hats of the gentlemen promoters and backers, and swattting away with clubs at the heads of the poor devils of fighters whenever they came near to the ropes.

Never in my life have I seen a finer, fairer, and more orderly ringside crowd, and in this connection it must be remembered that the majority were in favour of the man who was losing. That many thousands of men could sit quietly for forty minutes and watch their chosen champion hopelessly and remorselessly beaten down and not make the slightest demonstration is a remarkable display of inhibition. There is no use minimising Johnson’s victory in order to soothe Burns’s feelings. It is part of the game to take punishment in the ring, and it is just as much part of the game to take unbiassed criticism afterward in the columns of the press. Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win. Put the case to Johnson. Ask him if he were spectator to a fight between a white man and a black man which he would like to see win, and Johnson’s black skin will dictate a desire parallel to the one dictated by my white skin…


Burns was a little man against a big man, a clever man against a cleverer man, a quick man against a quicker man, and a gritty, gamey man all the way through. But all men are not born equal and neither are pugilists. If grit and gameness should win by the decree of natural law then Burns, I dare to say, would have won on Saturday and in a thousand additional fights with Johnson he would win. But unfortunately for Burns, what did win on Saturday was bigness, coolness, quickness, cleverness, and vast physical superiority.

From any standpoint the fight between Cripps  and Griffith last Wednesday night was a far better contest. The men were evenly matched and the result was in doubt from round to round and from moment to moment. And this delicate balance was due to their being equally matched. Each man had opportunity to show the best that was in him. That opportunity was denied Burns…


The fight. The word is a misnomer. There was no fight. No Armenian massacre would compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place in the Stadium. It was not a case of too much Johnson, but of all Johnson. A golden smile tells the story, and the golden smile was Johnson’s. The fight, if fight it can be called, was like unto that between a colossus and a toy automaton; it had all the seeming of a playful ethiopian at loggerheads with a small and futile white man, of a grown man cuffing a naughty child; of a monologue by one Johnson, who made a noise with his fists like a lullaby, tucking one Burns into his little crib in sleepy hollow; of a funeral, with Burns for the late deceased and Johnson for the undertaker, grave-digger, and sexton.

Twenty thousand men were at the ring side, and twice twenty thousand lingered outside. Johnson, first at the ring, showed in magnificent condition. When he smiled a dazzling flash of gold filled the wide aperture between his open lips. And he smiled all the time. He had not a trouble in the world. When asked what he was going to do after the light, he said he was going to the races. It was a happy prophecy. He was immediately followed into the ring by Bums, who had no smile whatever. He looked pale and sallow, as if he had not slept all night, or as if he had just pulled through a bout with fever. He received a heartier greeting than Johnson, and was the favourite with the crowd….

Lindsay Johnson Burns

The Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns fight, 1908 by Norman Lindsay, cover of ‘The Lone Hand’ (State Library of NSW)


Burns never struck a body blow that would compare with Johnson’s, nor a cross, nor a straight, nor an uppercut; while, as for kidney blows Johnson’s most frivolous and pensive taps were like thunderbolts as measured against Burns’s butterfly flutterings in that painful locality…

The mouth fighting on the part of both men must have seemed bizarre to the Australian audience. Nevertheless mouth fighting as a ring tactic has won more than one battle. But Saturday it neither won nor lost anything. Burns’s remarks failed to ruffle his opponent’s complacence in the slightest: while there was no need for Johnson’s airy verbal irritations, for Burns was as angry as could be from the stroke of the gong. And though Johnson proved a past master in the art of mouth fighting, even his pre-eminent ability in that direction failed to make Burns angrier by one jot or tittle…

One criticism, and only one, can be passed upon Johnson. In the thirteenth round he made the mistake of his life. He should have put Burns out. He could have put him out. It would have been child’s play. Instead of which he smiled, and deliberately let Burns live until the gong sounded.

And in the opening of the fourteenth round the police stopped the fight, and Johnson lost the credit of a knock-out.

But one thing remains. Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. And, Mclntosh, it’s up to you to get the fight for Australia. Both you and Australia certainly deserve it.

            -Jack London, American, 1876-1916