The Klondike Weekly, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Boxing in the Klondike

Part 1 - Rounds 1-5

by Darrell Hookey

Posted on March 27, 1998

Round 1

     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 show.

     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...

Round 2

      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 did.

     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...

Round 3

     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 it took.

     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 two men".

     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...

Round 4

     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...

Round 5

     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 minutes.

     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.


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