Burke had come to the United States in 1834, no longer able to find an opponent in Britain after he killed the Irish champion, Simon Byrne, in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted three hours and 16 minutes. He fought a few bouts in the North, and then arranged to fight the new Irish champion, Sam O'Rourke, in New Orleans on May 6, 1837, outside the city. Each fighter had an army of supporters, most of them armed with pistols and bowie knives. The following is from Fred Henning, Fights for the Championship: The Men and Their Times, vol. 2 (London: "Licensed Victuallers’ Gazette" Office, 1903), pp. 232-33:
A friend put a bowie knife into Burke's hand and he cut his way through the crowd until he got to his horse. After riding back to town, he hid out in a police station for three days until he could be smuggled aboard a Mississippi steamboat heading north.There were only three rounds fought. In the second Mickey Carson, who was seconding O'Rourke, slipped behind the Deaf 'Un whilst he was fighting and pushed him into the arms of his opponent, who threw him. The Deaf 'Un was indignant, and swore that if he did it again he'd knock him down. At this, Mickey, producing a bowie knife from his belt, declared with an oath that if Burke came near to him he'd rip him up from his navel to his chin.
In the third round the Deaf 'Un caught O'Rourke one or two smashing blows in the mouth, and there is little doubt that he would have very soon knocked the great, blustering, half-trained bully out had not Mickey Carson again got in the way. Jim could keep his temper no longer, with a straight hit with the left he caught the second full on the nose, and down he went like a ninepin. Then the fat was in the fire. The wild Irish mob cut the ropes in a dozen places and entered the ring. The Deaf 'Un stood his ground for a minute, knocking over two or three, including O'Rourke's other second, MacSweeney, when Jim Phelan cried, “Run, Burke, run; they mean to have your life.”
The riot must have appalled Burke. In England, using a knife in a fight was despised as cowardly, villainous, and revoltingly Italian. “The ruffian's clenched fist is undoubtedly a lesser evil than the assassin's drawn knife,” editorialized the London Times. A proper Englishman fought fairly, with his fists, or if dealing with ruffians from whom fair play could not be expected, he might thrash them with a stout walking stick.
Upon his return home, Burke delivered speeches in which he held up a bowie knife and declared he would rather be hanged in this world and go to hell in the next than see such a weapon in the hands of an Englishman.
In 1841, during a campaign against prizefighting, Burke was summoned to appear in court. He defended pugilism to the magistrates [“beaks”] with a lengthy poem which argued that without training in the manly art of self-defense, men will stoop to fighting with knives, inflicting ghastly wounds rather than lumps and bruises. It concluded with the following verses:
I love fair English boxing as my life,
But dread the Arkansas blade and bowie-knife;
Those weapons deadly, cowardly, and keen,
Which in a Briton's hand should ne'er be seen,
But which if beaks conspire the ring to crush
Will make the blood of many a Briton gush,
And driving manly fair play from our Isle,
Stamp us a nation of assassins vile!