Born Noah Brusso in Chesley, Ontario, Canada, but because his Italian Roman Catholic mother objected to boxing, he used the Irish sounding name of Tommy Burns to hide his participation from her.
In December 1908, Tommy Burns became the first fighter to agree to a championship bout with a black boxer, Jack Johnson, to whom he lost his title in a disputed championship match held in Sydney, Australia. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police. The title was awarded to Johnson as a technical knockout by the referee.
Tommy Burns died destitute in Vancouver, British Columbia. Only four people attended his burial, and 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.
He was voted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.