Martin 'Farmer' Burns: Devoted to Excellence
by Mike Chapman
Martin Burns was born in a log cabin in Cedar County, Iowa, on February 15, 1861 – and forever changed the entire landscape of wrestling in America! Even today, some eight decades after his death, he is spoken of in a manner bordering on awe.
“I remember when I was just 19 years old,” said the great Lou Thesz, legendary world heavyweight champion, in 1998. “A bunch of us young wrestlers were in a workout session, and in came Farmer Burns. We were in awe, having heard so much about him for so long.”
At an early age, Martin Burns learned to work hard and appreciate the rugged sport of wrestling. When Martin was 11 years old, his father died and he toiled on local farms for $12 a month. He developed lean, hard muscles and a deep respect for clean living in the outdoors.
He began wrestling at about the same time and soon fell in love with the sport. By the age of 19, he was well known in many parts of Iowa for his catch-as-catch-can abilities.
In 1889, he took a load of hogs to Chicago for sale and then wandered over to a sports hall where two wrestlers were taking on all comers, promising $25 to anyone who could last 15 minutes with either. He walked onto the stage wearing baggy overalls and was introduced as ‘Farmer’ Burns...and he took the audience by storm.
The two seasoned matmen failed to throw him in the required time and Burns walked away with $50, a hefty sum for those days. His opponents were Jack Carkeek and Evan Lewis, already well known for their skill and toughness, and Farmer Burns became a hot commodity.
He went on tour with a group of performers and racked up a long string of victories, never losing once in three years. Tiring of the travel, he then opened a wrestling school in Rock Island, Illinois.
However, Burns continued his wrestling career, and went on to win the American heavyweight championship on April 20, 1895, by whipping Evan Lewis, known as ‘The Strangler’.
One of the key points in his life came on December 19, 1898, when he met another Iowa farmer, the much younger Frank Gotch, in a match in Fort Dodge, Iowa. After a long tussle, Burns won but he was so impressed by the strong fellow from Humboldt, Iowa, that he began to train him.
Gotch went on to become American and then world heavyweight champion, and in the opinion of many, the greatest professional star of all time. Burns also trained Earl Caddock, another Iowa product who was world heavyweight champion from 1917-1920; Fred Beell, a highly regarded champion of the era, and Jack Reynolds, one of the finest middleweight matmen of all time.
His reputation as a trainer extended into other areas of sport as well. In 1910, James Jeffries was lured out of retirement to take on Jack Johnson in one of the most celebrated fights in boxing history and Jeffries hired Burns to get him into top shape for the bout. A legendary showdown occurred in Jeffries’ camp when Burns and former middleweight boxing champion Billy Papke got into a verbal battle and decided to settle their differences in a bitter no-holds-barred bout. Though much older at the time, Burns made the tough pugilist tap out quickly.