Skip to content

History Hunter: Early day boxing was big in the Klondike

My files are swelling with accounts of boxing in the Yukon, going back to before the Klondike gold rush, and it would be more than I could summarize in a single column, as boxing was a big deal in Dawson City in the early days. The early theatres were very creative in arranging events that would bring in customers, and prize fights were always a good bet to attract a crowd.
Australian boxer Frank Slavin, known as “The Sydney Cornstalk,” had been the top boxer in the Yukon for several years, until he was challenged, and defeated by American Nick Burley in April of 1902. Burley knocked out Slavin in a 1907 re-match in Victoria, B.C. (Klondike Nugget April 24, 1902)

My files are swelling with accounts of boxing in the Yukon, going back to before the Klondike gold rush, and it would be more than I could summarize in a single column, as boxing was a big deal in Dawson City in the early days. The early theatres were very creative in arranging events that would bring in customers, and prize fights were always a good bet to attract a crowd.

In 1897, Wilson Mizner and Tex Rickard tended bar in the Monte Carlo saloon, one of whose owners was the notorious Swiftwater Bill Gates (no relation, by the way). Rickard once owned the Northern Saloon, but in one bad night at the gaming tables, he lost it all. Rickard worked for $20 a day at the Monte Carlo, and lost it just as quickly gambling. He later became a successful fight promoter, rebuilt Madison Square Garden in New York City, and founded the New York Rangers hockey team.

The lanky Mizner developed the reputation as one of the greatest gadabouts of his time. He became a screenplay writer with a knack for turning a good phrase, and managed Hollywood’s famed Brown Derby restaurant. He and Rickard became lifelong friends.

Rickard watched Mizner manage the stage shows and arrange the fight cards in the Monte Carlo the summer of 1897. Prize fighting was a popular attraction in Dawson City, and Mizner proved a master at making a big fight out of nothing. In one instance, he got Australian heavyweight champion Frank Slavin into a trumped-up grudge match with his close friend and business partner, Joe Boyle. Slavin, who was known as the “Sydney Cornstalk,” had once challenged the British Commonwealth champion.

Boxing matches were covered in detail, especially those involving the top pugilists of the day. Here is an depiction of the new champion, Nick Burley, facing off against a boxer named Bates in May of 1902. (Klondike Nugget, May 24, 1902)

To stimulate interest in the match, Rickard and Mizner got the men to pretend that they were enemies and sent them about town to trash talk each other about their coming fight. Their effort was successful and the match filled the house at $25 a ticket.

One time, Slavin was drinking in the Monte Carlo, when he got into an altercation with Archie Hoffman, a man who styled himself the heavyweight champion of the Pacific Coast. Hoffman knocked Slavin to the floor.

“My man,” said Slavin, “you can knock me about a saloon when I’m drunk but I’ll show you what I can do in a ring when I’m sober.” Wilson Mizner and Tex Rickard, saw an opportunity and quickly arranged a match. They set up a ring on the tiny stage of the Monte Carlo and charged $15 and $25 admission to the bout.

It wasn’t much of a fight. Slavin entered the ring wearing a pair of white flannel trousers and a long white sweater with a rolled-up collar, in contrast to his opponent, who was in boxing trunks and bare chested. It didn’t take long; in the first round, Slavin bobbed and weaved a little bit, then with a single swing, punched Hoffman in the jaw. Hoffman went down like a sack of potatoes, without ever having touched Slavin.

When Slavin got serious, the aging boxer still had the right moves. He won fights in Dawson in 1898, 1899 and 1900, but met his Waterloo when he battled a much younger American pugilist named Nick Burley in 1902. Alexander Pantages, who later became a wealthy theatre impresario, was the manager of Dawson’s Orpheum Theatre. Pantages contracted Nick Burley to meet Slavin in the ring in the Orpheum, April 24, 1902.

Burley outclassed the aging Slavin from the first bell, reported the Klondike Nugget.

“Frank still has his good right, which shot out last evening, intending to do great damage, and while he sent it directly to the point intended, the other fellow moved the target.”

Frank Slavin had been crowned Australian heavyweight champion before coming to the Klondike with Joe Boyle in 1897. He became Yukon's top boxer for several years til Nick Burley knocked him out. Slavin remained in the Yukon until he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I. (Courtesy/Gates collection)

Burley outmaneuvered the sluggish Australian, who resorted to administering shots to his opponent when they clinched. By the ninth round, Burley was administering punishing blows to Slavin at will. Finally, Slavin threw up his hands and walked to the ropes. In a low voice, he was heard to say, “Gentlemen, there is no use going on with the fight … it’s not because I want to quit, but he has outpointed me, and there’s no use going further.”

Slavin retreated to his dressing room, his face beaten to a pulp, while Burley returned to his with only a few scratches.

Thus the championship crown was passed to the younger boxer. The two remained good friends, and put on a number of sparring exhibitions in the Klondike goldfields the following year. They met again for a final matchup in Victoria in 1907. Burley won by a knock-out.

In 1903, a new contender, sponsored by the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA), arrived in Dawson on June 15 with his wife, on the Steamer Columbian. His name was Joe Choynski, and according to the Dawson Daily News, he had already battled in the ring 200 times. Choynski had battled with such ring contenders at Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Tom Sharkey and Jim Jeffries. He once KO’d Jack Johnson. He was met at the dock by a large crowd, including Frank Slavin, and Nick Burley, both of whom greeted him with a hearty handshake.

Choynski and Burley met in the ring at the D.A.A.A. building on June 25 before a crowd of nearly 2,500. Burley knocked out Choynski in less than two rounds. Choynski later claimed that he let his guard down for a moment, and that Burley took advantage of it. Choynski was convinced that, had the match continued, he would have worn down his opponent and would eventually have beaten him. In a rematch two months later, it was a different story. By the seventh round, both fighters were exhausted and covered with blood. They exchanged punches, but Choynski summoned all his strength and delivered a right cross to Burley’s chin. Burley was out like a light. Choynski then helped the groggy Burley to his feet before being escorted back to his dressing room by a cheering crowd.

Choynski reflected upon his stay in the Yukon when he returned to the United States. Sporting a 10-ounce custom-poured gold ingot, given to him as a parting gift, he described the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association as the largest and best boxing club in the world: “There is no place where a boxer is better treated than in Dawson City…. I never saw a better class of sporting people that can be found in Dawson.” The DAAA building, he stated, had an arena capable of accommodating 5,000 people (an exaggeration), and a brilliantly illuminated ring. In addition, there was a first-class gymnasium, baths, reading and reception rooms. What more could one ask for?

Other fights would follow, but the glory days of the Klondike were over, and as the population and gold production declined, so did the interest in importing big-name boxers. The wonderful gymnasium that Choynski had praised was eventually converted into a movie theatre, and it would be many years before boxing would once again assume a prominent role in the community life of Dawson City.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureqate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at