Posted on March 27, 1998
They shake hands at 11:28 p.m. in the centre
of the ring. Burley standing tall and thin and Woods short and powerful.
It's Friday night, July 29, 1904. Burley hits left to the jaw but
is blocked by Woods who keeps back to study his opponent. Woods is
surprised by a right to his jaw, but he quickly recovers and retaliates
with a left to Burley's jaw staggering him. A hot mix up follows
and they clinch. Both fighters trade hits to the head and then Woods
finally tries for the body and lands a punch low causing Burley to yell
"Foul". Woods left to the head, Woods right to the head, Woods left
and right to the head. Even the blows that Burley blocks sends his
own gloves crashing into his face behind Woods' power. The Dawson
City crowd forgets they should be cheering on the local boy as Woods' performance
leaves them in awe.
It was the most exciting fight ever contested in
this city that loved the manful art of boxing.
It was 1904, and Dawson City demanded the best in
boxing entertainment. It wasn't necessary that the pugilists be championship
contenders, but they did need to be world-class and the fight had to be
a real contest between two men of equal abilities to put on a really good
Top calibre boxing matches were how the Dawson
Amateur Athletic Association raised money to afford the only enclosed rink
surfaces west of Winnipeg. It was the summer of 1902 when the three-storey
building was erected. It was 100 feet by 40 feet and housed a regulation
hockey rink and a two-sheet curling rink. It featured steam-heated
dressing rooms, a well-appointed lounge room and an upstairs private club
with modern bar.
Admission was very inexpensive and the volunteer
directors were determined to keep it that way. The youth of Dawson
City needed a sheltered rink as a place to burn off energy instead of getting
into trouble downtown.
To raise money, the DAAA hosted three major
ring attractions. One each year starting in 1903. The world
press was eager for news of these events and ran with photographs of the
winners receiving their purse in the form of a gold brick.
This fight between Woods and Burley, however,
was not one of the premiere events. It was poorly attended, but it
had all the elements of an epic battle. Billy
Woods was a contender from Los Angeles with 26 fights against the best
on the west coast and only two losses, both on fouls. Nick Burley
was the pride of Dawson City. The famous "Chrysanthemum" Joe Choynski
was brought to the Yukon just the year before to test the local favourite
and was beaten. It was the first of the premiere events.
Billy Woods was just 21 years of age and weighed
in at 154 pounds on a five foot, seven inch frame. He made double
use of his short stature by crouching even lower and drawing his stomach
in giving his opponents nothing to aim for. His head was protected
behind massive shoulders and 13-inch forearms.
Nick Burley was a mature 29 years when he faced
Woods. He was five inches taller and six pounds heavier. He
was a big man who fought a big man's fight by standing up straight and
exchanging blow for blow.
Looking at the differences of the two men offered
small promise for an exciting fight. Only 400 people sat to watch
the fight at the DAAA venue. You see, just two months earlier, Woods
had stymied another big man in the ring before a Dawson crowd. That
fight, with another contender Joe Millett, was supposed to have been 1904's
fight of the year. Instead, it was a pathetic display of what can
happen when two fighters of equal ability are mismatched in size and style...
It is Burley who strikes first with
two hard lefts to the face and then a left hook to the body before they
clinch. A clean break and Woods takes control with a hard right to
the face followed by three more lefts to the face leaving Burley's mouth
bleeding. Woods' tactics are now obvious to the crowd. He's
trying to confuse his opponent with a barrage of blows to the head.
Four more hits to the face and Woods finishes the second round by standing
still in the centre of the ring and blocks every punch thrown at him.
Woods is smiling; Burley is puzzled as he finds nothing to aim for; and
the crowd laughs.
...and the wrong man wins.
Millett was the Pacific Coast Amateur Champion
and was the top light heavyweight fighter on the West Coast. "Klondike"
Joe Boyle lured him to Dawson City to put his skills on display.
If he won this fight against Woods, as was expected, he would be in a position
to challenge Kid McCoy for the national honours.
It was a challenge to find somebody of equal
talent to make a contest of it. Boyle talked Woods' manager, Biddy
Bishop, into accepting the fight. Bishop had turned down a match
with Millett the previous fall since his fighter is a middleweight.
But he reconsidered thinking that at least 35 percent of the gate receipts
for the loser would be easy money.
Boyle, the King of the Klondike, always got
his way it seems. Woods and Millett left San Francisco three days
apart, but ended up together on the Selkirk from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
Dumbbell training, skipping rope and light
sparring on the hurricane decks of the ocean and river steamers kept the
fighters in shape on their trip. Their trainers found gymnasiums
in Seattle and Skagway during layovers for more workouts.
Reporters covering this big story regretted
that the Selkirk didn't hit any sandbars on the way. They could have
benefitted from further training by shifting the cargo and wood and helping
pull the steamer over. But as uneventful as the trip was, they both
arrived in excellent shape. Respective trainers hustled them off
to bed since their workouts would begin early the next morning.
The Japanese-Russian war and gold output had
to share the front pages with these two new visitors. All people
seemed to care about was what Woods and Millett ate, thought, said and
Millett trained at Grand Forks and impressed
everyone who watched. For a 170-pound man, he boxed with amazing
speed. He built his endurance with a fast 10-mile run each morning
and his workouts were non-stop. With his longer reach and impressive
credentials, the Grand Forks people were confident enough to put up huge
sums of cash and favourable odds to anyone gullible enough to bet on Woods.
But Woods was not without his own admirers.
He trained in Dawson City and proved to everyone that he was going to do
more than just put up a good fight for the sake of the show ... he was
going to beat Millett.
Being a black man in America in the early 1900s,
Woods had been refused many fights. He was determined to make the
most of this high-profile bout. He trained intensely and would pass
out two-ounce gloves to the biggest men in the ever-present crowd to lay
a beating on him as he blocked with eight-ounce gloves.
But he didn't brag. He barely talked
to reporters causing one to comment that Woods "was much less afraid of
a man with boxing gloves on than one with a pencil".
As the fight day got closer, so did the odds.
On July 4, 1904, the rivalry between Grand Forks and Dawson City was as
intense as the rivallry was to be inside the ring. So imagine the
disappointment of the 600 fans...
They clinch immediately at the gong and Referee
Barney Sugrue calls for a clean break. Woods lands a light left and
a hard right to the head and neither is blocked. Burley is moving
more now to dodge blows that are breaking down his guard and lands his
most effective punch to the jaw. Woods retaliates threefold before
going into another clinch. On the break Woods slips and appears defenceless.
He sticks out his tongue at Burley enticing him to strike. Burley
senses a trap and goes into a clinch instead. He pushes Woods' chin
up for something, anything, to hit at but is instantly rebuked by the home
crowd. "I didn't mean that, old pal," he is heard to say. "No
sir, I didn't mean it."
...when the fight is called in the third round on a foul.
Joe Boyle's gift to the boxing fans of Dawson
City lasted only three rounds. It was called the "most unsatisfactory
fight on record" and paled in comparison to the dressing room confrontation
that followed between Millett and Boyle.
At the beginning of this fight, Referee Sugrue
had announced to the crowd that half clinches were allowed. Being
able to hit with one arm free favoured the shorter Woods who was powerful
enough to master this style of in-fighting. Millett was rattled by
Woods' quickness and his stomach was pink from the relentless pounding
Millett cried "foul" over and over, but Referee
Sugrue saw none of it. Finally, in the third round, Millett flailed
wildly hitting Woods three times in the right groin.
Sugrue placed himself between the fighters
and cried out, "The decision goes to Woods on a foul!" The crowd
was dumbfounded, but they had to support Sugrue's call as it was obvious.
Shame-facedly, Millett climbed through the
ropes as the crowd hissed and jeered and hooted. Woods yelled at
him, "Come back and fight!"
Joe Boyle stood and called for quiet.
He announced that the DAAA was satisfied that a decision was rendered that
decided all bets. But, he continued, he was not satisfied that the
crowd received its money's worth and was going to do something about it.
He turned and followed Millett into his dressing room while Woods waited
in the ring.
Boyle found Millett with his ring togs already
off. He told him that he would not receive a dime for his performance
that night. Millett argued that he fought and lost and there was
no precedence for not paying the agreed sum to the loser.
But Millett wasn't in San Francisco that night.
He was in Joe Boyle's town and he had embarrassed his host. The DAAA
facilities were top-notch and the interest in boxing was keen. If
Millett thought he was dealing with a back-woods club he was about to get
a re-education he would not soon forget.
Boyle was relentless. He told him blankly
that he had not fought fair and the DAAA will not pay him unless he resumed
the fight. "He's down there waiting for you," Boyle pressed.
"I'll give you just ten minutes to get back into the ring."
Millett returned in the allotted time refreshed
from the break and in a cooler frame of mind. It was announced that
this second contest was "merely to determine the relative merits of the
The crowd knew that Millett was at a disadvantage
from the drama of the occasion and cheered him whenever he made the slightest
bit of a showing. But the hits he landed could be counted on one
hand. He was roundly beaten, but stayed on his feet the entire 20
rounds although he could have feigned a knockout from one of many convincing
blows to his head.
For his effort, Millett earned close to $1100.
And Joe Boyle maintained his integrity in the world of boxing that he loved.
All the more important to him since if it weren't for boxing...
Burley is frustrated as the crouching Woods
shows only gloves before massive shoulders. His head is tiny in comparison
and his stomach is drawn in beyond reach. Woods is frustrated because
he can't land a knockout blow. The mutual respect slows the pace
as they spar for an opening. Burley leads with a right but it's a
left that is sprung to the body followed by a right and left punch to the
face. Woods proves the hits had no effect as he allows a smile to
cross his face. Burley's head snaps back from a Woods' jarring
left. A second swing misses, but Woods is pumping wildly now aggravating
Burley's bleeding mouth. With defence forgotten, only momentarily,
Burley sends an uppercut to Woods face, bloodying his nose and ending the
barrage. Many more swings and many are blocked. It's going
to be a long night.
....Boyle may never had made it to Dawson City.
He was sitting in Seattle in 1896 with very
little money. He had with him a friend, Frank Slavin, the former
Australian boxing champion and until recently, a placer miner in Australia.
Yet he had less money than Boyle.
It was Boyle, as was usually the case in this
friendship, who said their destiny was in Alaska. So they bought
passage to Juneau leaving $10 between them and scanty personal belongings.
By now, they knew they must make it to
Skagway and further north to Dawson City. That would take more money.
Boyle had an idea and he acted on it quickly. He rented the only
hall in town and enlisted the services of a printing office. He advertised
Frank Slavin, the world-famous pugilist, would give a "red-hot boxing exhibition".
The challenger would be Boyle himself.
On the afternoon of the fight, 100 tickets
had been sold at $5 each to the entertainment-starved miners about town.
Boyle's and Slavin's tickets to Skagway were assured. All they had
to do was fight in the ring and catch the next steamer.
But no good story is complete without an antagonist...
Burley throws a left to the body and is blocked,
but not the right to the head. Woods delivers a left to Burley's
head and then feins another left only to bring a near devastating right
to the head. The ruse is appreciated by Burley nonetheless as he
smiles to his formidable opponent. Another right from Woods spoils
the moment and Burley misses with an undercut. They spar cautiously,
the small man can't be hit and the big man can't be knocked down.
...and this story now features a stick-in-the-mud soldier.
Alaska was a territory controlled by Washington
and was administered by the military which had instructions to condone
no disorderliness. The military commander of the area brought a file
of men into the hall at the hour of the fight and announced that he considered
boxing, bare fisted or gloved it didn't matter, to be disorderliness and
he would not allow it.
The rough and ready miners booed but could
not dissuade the stict commandant.
Boyle owed money on the hall and the printing
and was facing financial and possiblly physical ruin. He stepped
out in front of the stage and announced:
"Gentlemen, you have all heard what the commandant
says. I didn't know that there was any regulation against boxing
in this camp or I wouldn't have sold you the tickets. It is clear
that there can be no exhitition, but I see a piano in that corner, and
if you will kindly excuse me a few minutes, Mr. Slavin will give an exhibition
of bag-punching. After that, it will be up to me and the piano.
And I beg to state that if any gentleman desires to have his money back,
he can get it."
With that, Slavin went to work on the bag and
Boyle changed into his street clothes. He was back with the piano
and rolled it into the footlights and sat down to play, tell stories and
jokes and sing with a rich baritone voice. The miners laughed and
applauded from the first key surprising nobody more than Frank Slavin,
who didn't even know Boyle could play the piano.
Slavin found a seat in the audience and enjoyed
the 90-minute performance knowing within the first couple of minutes that
they would make it all the way to Dawson City.
At the end of the performance the miners stood
and, to a man, offered to pay another $5 if he would keep playing.
Boyle refused to take another cent, and sat down to perform another 20
Considering the goodwill these men can garner
in just a scant few minutes on the strength of their personalities, it
should have been obvious to Nick Burley not to make an enemy of them.
But a year before his big fight with Billy Woods, he made the biggest mistake
of his career...
To Boxing in the Klondike - Rounds 6-10
To Boxing in the Klondike - Rounds 11-14
© 1998-2009 by Darrell Hookey
This article has been provided by Darrell Hookey and The Yukon Reader
The Yukon Reader is available at many Yukon locations, or by mail.