At the age of 27, Mike Mahoney was already a legendary figure in the Alaska of the early 1900s. Six feet two and a hard 200 pounds, he gained undying fame one night in Skagway by cleaning out Soapy Smith's joint singlehanded. At another time he got the unofficial title of King of the Packers by backpacking a small piano up the steep 1,200-foot ice stairway of Chilkoot Pass. He was, in addition, a skilled white-water pilot on the Yukon and a champion dog musher.
All sourdoughs knew these things about the man they later called Klondike Mike, but it took a slick saloonkeeper named Tex Rickard to think of him as a professional prizefighter. Six years before he went to Reno to stage the Johnson-Jeffries bout, Rickard was in Nome running the first of his several Great Northern Saloons, a chain of which he was later to operate in a series of gold-rush towns. When Mike Mahoney, temporarily down on his luck, asked for a job, Tex—always with an eye for an angle—signed him on as a bouncer. But he had no intention of letting things stand at that. Ordaining Mike as "the champion of Alaska," Rickard set about matching him against all comers in the Great Northern's back-room "athletic club."
No exact records of these impromptu bouts were kept, but oldtimers recall that Mike was unbeaten in at least 20 brawls and that he won as many with his feet as with his fists. As a boy working in lumber camps, Mike had learned the deadly art of la savate from French-Canadian lumberjacks and later used this skill to belt out a 250-pound woods bully who tried to rough him up.
At the time Mike was defending his Alaskan championship against all comers, a crack light-heavyweight boxer named Tommy Burns was barnstorming his way across the U.S. He reached Seattle in May 1904 and dropped in on a pal, gambler Brocky Bray. Brocky had just bought a claim near Nome, sight unseen, from a bewhiskered character who announced that he was fresh in from the gold fields. He had promised Bray that he would accompany him back to Nome to inspect the purchase but—predictably—had disappeared once he got his hands on the money. Somehow Bray managed to persuade the reluctant Burns to go to Nome with him and claim his property. "I'll go with you," declared Tommy, "but you might as well admit right now that you've been had."
Upon their arrival in the hectic new diggings on the Bering Sea, Bray discovered that Burns was right; his thousand-dollar "claim" was nonexistent, and in an effort to recoup his loss Brocky turned to Tex Rickard's poker tables. Since Burns was no gambler, Tex seized the opportunity to talk the bored pugilist into fighting his "champion" for $100. This was coffee-and-cake money to Burns. But, figuring Mahoney for just another saloon brawler, a pushover for a clever boxer like himself, he accepted the match as a diversion.
Rickard's back room at the Great Northern was jammed on the night of the fight. Most of the sourdoughs bet heavily on Mike; those lately arrived from the States and familiar with Burns' excellent record backed Tommy. No odds were asked or given; it was even money and pick 'em.
Big Mike, looking at his shorter and lighter opponent in the opposite corner, brooded darkly before the bell for the first round. Suddenly he appeared to reach a momentous decision. "I'll fight him with fists alone," he loudly announced. "Tis the only honorable thing to do, seein' that I've height and weight and reach on him."
"Get in there, you big ox, and kick his head off!" hissed his chief second, Jimmy (the Goat) Quinn, Mike's close friend and Nome's leading professional gambler, who had $5,000 riding on Mahoney.
Before Mike could say more, the bell sounded. Mike rushed from his corner swinging roundhouse rights that would have annihilated Burns had they landed. Tommy ducked, sidestepped and started the blood streaming from Mike's nose with left jabs. Mahoney blinked, lowered his head like a bull moose and charged. Again Burns ducked away from a terrific swing and jabbed Mike with his left. Then he opened up with both fists and had Mahoney bloody at the bell. The slick pro was grinning as he went to his corner at the end of the round.
"This big bull couldn't fight his way out of a barnyard!" he told Brocky Bray. But Brocky urged caution. "This guy is tough as rawhide," he warned. "Better wear him down for a few rounds and make sure of him. I got my roll on you, or what's left of it."
In Mahoney's corner Quinn was close to having a fit. "Please, Mike, use your feet!" he implored. "All the boys are betting their pokes on you. You'll bust the whole damn town if you lose!"
Mike shook his head. "Nah, I can lick him with my fists. If I could only hit him square—just once!"
At that point, Rickard came over to add his entreaties to those of Jimmy the Goat. "Don't be a goddam fool, son," he told Mike. "This feller will cut you to pieces if you don't quit tryin' to fistfight him. Boxing's his game, not yours. Go out there in this round and kick hell out of him."
Mahoney grunted but said nothing. Burns moved out confidently for the second round. He jabbed Mike twice with his left, crossed a right hard to the big man's jaw. Mahoney wobbled but kept boring in, trying desperately to land a punch, while the sourdoughs urged him on with bellowed cries. The round ended as Mahoney stood still in the center of the ring, with Burns weaving before him, hitting him at will.
A few seconds later, as Mahoney rested, Quinn's pleas as well as his own dawning sense of defeat took sudden effect on the battered local champion. "All right, goddam it," he muttered, "I'll use me feet!"
Up to the closing 30 seconds the third round was practically a replay of the second. Then Burns missed an overhand right that threw him momentarily off balance. Instantly Mike's right foot lashed upward into Burns' stomach. Tommy's breath whooshed out in a great gasp and he dropped as if shot. The 10 count was a mere formality. Burns was paralyzed for three minutes, and Mike was once again secure in his mythical "championship."
"It has always been my honest opinion," said Burns many years later, "that Klondike Mike would have been a world heavyweight champion if he had followed the boxing game."