By Harry Otty (BOXSCRIBE@aol.com)
|The mention of the name Charley Burley will, more often than not, draw a blank expression from the faces of many so-called boxing buffs. While not totally unknown, Burley has not received the recognition he deserves. While fans of the sport extol the virtues of such fighters as Armstrong, Zale, Graziano, LaMotta Conn, and 'Sugar' Ray Robinson, all of who were his contemporaries, (and all of whom avoided him like the plague), Charley Burley is largely ignored and forgotten. This Pittsburgher has the distinction of being one of the finest fighters in the history of the game. But, like so many other talented black fighters, he will never be remembered as readily as many of boxings world champion's, simply because he himself was not a champion.|
Often called the greatest fighter ever by such authorities as Eddie Futch, Ray Arcel and Archie Moore and his trainer Hiawatha Grey, (who went back to the days of Johnson and Ketchel), Burley fought some of the best fighters around, beating most of them. Even though he was consistently rated in the top ten for over a decade in the welterweight and middleweight divisions he never received a shot at any world title. In a career lasting from 1936 to 1950 he compiled a record of 83-12-2 with 1 no contest and 50 knockouts.
Charles Duane Burley was born in Bessemer, Pa., on September 6th 1917. His father was a black coal miner from Virginia, his mother a feisty white Irish woman from County Cork. Together, the Burley's had seven children, six girls and one boy; Charles junior was the second youngest and a real handful for his parents and his sisters. When the mines claimed his father in 1925 Charley and his family moved to Pittsburgh.
At age 12, Charley joined the Kay Boys Club where he took up boxing under the watchful eye of local trainers Leonard Payne and Howard Turner. Charley enjoyed the boxing as much as he enjoyed baseball, another sport at which he excelled, (he once received an offer to play for the Homestead Grays), and when he wasn't playing ball or plucking chickens for pennies, (a skill he learned in Bessemer), he could be found at the gym. City, State, and National Junior titles were won with comparative ease as he won a Golden Gloves Junior title at lightweight and a Golden Gloves Senior title at welterweight. He also contested the 1936 National Senior Championship finals in Cleveland when he lost to Leo Sweeney at welterweight. In later years, Sweeney, also from Pittsburgh, became a well-respected cop in the city.
In 1936, Charley was invited to Chicago to attend the box-offs for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but declined as he objected to the racial and religious persecution taking place in Germany. Instead he received an invitation to represent his country at the 'Workers Games' which were being held in Spain. These games were offered as an alternative to the XIth Olympiad, which were being held at the same time. Unfortunately politics also became involved with these games as General Franco staged some fighting of his own and started the Spanish Civil War. The games were cancelled the day before they were due to commence. Charley returned home, having never had the chance to lace on a glove for his country, and turned to the professional ranks.
In his first twelve months as a professional fighter, from September 1936 to September 1937, Charley was fed the usual diet of local 'talent' by his manager Phil Goldstein. Matched against boxers, punchers, tough nuts and glass jaws, he compiled a record of 12 wins with 8 kayos before losing to his 13th opponent, Eddie Dolan. Most of these fights took place under the auspices of the 'Pittsburgh Fight Club' of which Charley was one of the most talented members. 1938 saw Charley improve his win tally to 16, with 10 kayos, before he lost on points to local boy Fritzie Zivic, a veteran of over 70 fights. A rematch just over two months later saw Charley reverse the decision with a clear points win.
August 1938, saw Charley win the 'Colored' Welterweight Championship from the experienced and talented Louis 'Cocoa' Kid over 15 rounds in a thriller at Hickey Park. The 'Kid' was dropped in the second for a nine count and was in trouble again in the 15th and final round, but managed to hang on for the bell. The championship belt was commissioned by New Orleans promoter and former fighter Martin Burke and his partner Lew Raymond and had initially been contested by Cocoa Kid and the great Holman Williams. Since Henry Armstrong had won the 'real' welterweight championship in May 1938, Burley's "title" was redundant and was never contested again. To close out the year Charley added yet another future world champion to his list of victims when he beat middleweight Billy Soose over 10 rounds. With these wins, Burley opened 1939 as the 4th-ranked challenger for Armstrong's title.
The plague of all big punches, hand trouble, came to visit Charley during, and after, his January 1939 fight with Sonny Jones. After stopping the Canadian in the seventh round, Charley was forced to rest for five months after undergoing bone graft surgery. On his return to the ring he lost over 10 un-eventful rounds to grisly veteran Jimmy Leto at the Millvale arena, (a loss he later avenged).
By the following month Burley was back in action for a third and final meeting with Fritzie Zivic, (July 17th 1939). This fight would see Charley winning by the proverbial mile, prompting one newspaper reporter to state that 'Zivic was so far behind a telescope would be needed to see him.' It was Zivic however that went on to contest and win the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong even though he was ranked behind Charley in the ratings. In what can only be considered a smart business move Zivic and his manager Luke Carney took advantage of Burley and Goldsteins strained relationship and bought out Burley's contract. This not only prevented the two from meeting again in the ring it effectively froze Charley out of the world picture.
After 1940, a year when he would lose only once in nine outings, to Jimmy Bivins on points, Charley was beginning to outgrow Pittsburgh and the confines of his contract with Zivic and his manager. After going 8-0 with 6 kayos in 1941, he moved with his wife and daughter to Minnesota. It was here that his new manager, Bobby Eton, and promoter Tommy O'Loughlin would attempt to gain Charley universal recognition as a legitimate title challenger. With a little help from the State Boxing Commission, who gave Charley special dispensation to compete in any weight division above his own, he embarked upon the busiest year of his career.
While Charley got 1942 off to a flying start beating everyone that was put in front of him, fighters that included the Hogue brothers 'Shorty' and 'Big Boy', the great Holman Williams and the heavyweight J.D. Turner, his promoter sent legitimate offers to the current champions. Title challenges to Freddie 'Red' Cochran at welterweight, Tony Zale at Middleweight all proved fruitless, since those titles were frozen for the duration of WW II. One proposed offer to Cochran was that Charley would fight for free, with his percentage going to the war fund, still no deal. Johnny Ray was offered $10,000 plus a percentage of the gate for Billy Conn, again no deal. Zale's management had other plans for their man, so again, no deal.
During this busy year Charley, (while weighing no more than 150 lbs.), was forced to battle the likes of Ezzard Charles, Lloyd Marshal, (L10), the Hogue brothers, (KO 10 and KO 6), Joe Sutka, (KO 4), Phil McQuillan, (KO1), and the aforementioned Jay Turner. All genuine middleweights, light-heavyweights and heavyweights. The giant Texan had a few months previous been the full 10 rounds with Billy Conn. However, on this occasion a weight advantage of a staggering 70 lbs. could not prevent him from being bust up and stopped cold by Burley inside of 6 rounds. The two fights with Ezzard Charles were held in a five-week period with a points win over Holman Williams six days before the second fight!
A chance meeting with Ray Robinson in the lobby of a hotel in New York, when Charley was in town to fight Phil McQuillan, (April 20, 1942) led to the two meeting on the same bill at the Minneapolis Armoury. Charley kayoed Sammy Wilson of Detroit in two rounds while Ray beat Dick Banner in the same number of rounds, (April 30th 1942). Watching from ringside the 'Sugar Man' told his manager, "I'm too pretty to fight Charley Burley".
Despite great efforts to make the match the two would never meet in the ring, although it nearly happened twice and dates were set. Robinson signed for a May 1946 fight, but raised the price to close to $25,000 when he wanted an out. Although he wanted to fight Robinson in the worst possible way Charley was never bitter about the way Sugar Ray avoided him because he knew that he was the better man and that he would have beaten Robinson. Though never boastful Charley Burley had the utmost confidence in his own ability and when he did lose he made no bones about it he could always tell the truth.
Following a points defeat by Lloyd Marshall, (who Charley rated as his toughest opponent), Charley was close to exhaustion. He had covered close to 19,000 miles on the road fighting 17 times with not a soft touch amongst them. Tommy O'Loughlin, who was now Charlie's manager, decided that a move to California, which boasted such greats as Jack Chase, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker, Billy Smith, Archie Moore and Aaron Wade, would be beneficial to Burley's career. After defeating the likes of Harvey Massey, 'Tiger' Wade and Bobby Birch, Charley received a chance to fight for the California State Middleweight title which was held by Jack Chase, whom Charley had previously beaten over 10 rounds, (February 1943). Chase, who had never been stopped in 55 bouts, was kayoed in the 9th, (April 3rd 1944). Charley repeated this feat five months later, this time putting Chase away in the 12th. In between he won four other fights, three of which came via the short route. The man who stayed the distance in a losing effort was Archie Moore.
Charley took the Moore fight on very short notice. On the day of the fight he was at work in an aircraft factory in his (then) hometown of San Diego, (Charley had a burst eardrum and was considered un-fit for the military). He received news of the opportunity, finished his shift, got on a bus to Hollywood and bounced Archie off the canvas three times on the way to an emphatic points victory. A couple of Charlie's friends have stated that Charley didn't like 'cocky' fighters and that he allowed Moore, and another boastful fighter Billy Smith, to go the distance. The 'Old Mongoose' often cites Charley as the greatest fighter he ever fought, calling Burley "as slick as lard and twice as greasy." Very impressive when you consider the names on Moore's record.
Charley campaigned from 1943 through 1946 with only one loss, over 12 rounds to Holman Williams. That meeting between the two, (July 11th 1945), would be the last of seven meetings, with the final tally being three wins each with one no contest. Charley scored the only kayo of the series, winning in the 9th round in 1942. Other victims during this 26-fight period included, Joe Carter, (W10), Aaron 'Tiger' Wade, (W10), Charley Banks, (W10), Dave Clark, (KO1), the often-avoided Bert Lytel, (W10), and 'Oakland' Billy Smith, (W10, W10). Speaking of Smith, the only, near complete, film of a Charley Burley fight that exists is his second meeting with the light-heavyweight contender, (April 24th 1946).
From January 1940 up to August 1946 Charley Burley fought 60 times. He scored 31 stoppages, won 20 times over the distance, had 2 draws and 1 no-contest. The only fighter close to his own weight to beat him during this period was Holman Williams, (L15 L12). His other losses were to Charles, (twice), Jimmy Bivins, and Lloyd Marshall, and we all know how good they were, even without weight advantages of ten pounds and over!
Despite such good form, the big money and high profile fights against many of the top rated white fighters of the day still eluded Charley. Many years later Charley, who read the bible everyday, was quoted as saying, "I used to get down on my knees and pray for a title fight". Sadly, it was not to be, and while the so-called world champions played their games and did their deals and plenty of lesser fighters got their shot, Charley Burley went to work for the City of Pittsburgh as a garbage collector.
Eight fights in four years just weren't enough and the garbage truck eventually became his new career. After beating Pilar Bastidas in Peru in 1950 Charley travelled to Europe for a series of bouts that failed to materialize. On his return home Tommy O'Loughlin took him on the road to earn some extra cash. A 'barnstorming' tour of mid-west tank towns appearing as 'the masked marvel' almost led to him being lynched on one occasion.
By now Charley had had enough and concentrated on honest work to keep regular money coming in. He forgot about boxing and, for many years, boxing forgot about him. Only now, nearly 50 years after his retirement, has Charley Burley started to receive recognition. In 1983, he was elected to the Ring Hall of Fame. He was, at long last remembered and honoured by his peers and by the boxing public. Accolades that were, unfortunately, a little late as Charley Burley died in 1992, the year of his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The mystery that is Charley Burley's fighting career has often been explained away as 'not flashy or entertaining enough', 'too many changes in management', (Charley had at least five), or 'too good for his own good'. One could argue that there is definitely a ring of truth to that last statement, Charley had beaten some of the best around and feared no man. A good measure of his gameness and ability is the fact that he was a regular sparing partner of the Pittsburgh heavyweight Harry Bobo, a contender for Joe Louis's title. Many people in Pittsburgh felt that Bobo could give Joe Louis a good fight yet didn't think he could beat Burley in the ring. He had kayoed Elmer 'Violent' Ray and 'Jersey' Joe Walcott in sparring sessions and forced middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan out of the gym, (Charley was supposed to be Cerdan's first opponent in America!).
The real reason why Charley never became champion of the world may be simply that he was an honest man and an honest prizefighter. Many fighters with no flash or substance have fought for many titles over the years. Inept or un-connected management never stopped these guys. A kind and humble man Charley never trash-talked anyone and he most definitely knew his own. As with everything else it boils down to 'what is you price'. The truth is, these guys couldn't afford a class act like Charley Burley.