Uncrowned Champion #3

By Ted Sares on November 17, 2013
Uncrowned Champion #3
Burley's name was ever-present among the leaders of the golden age of middleweights.

“He could feint you crazy with his eyes, shoulders, head, even his pectoral muscles. If you threw a punch at Charley Burley, you had better hit him…”

“Burley was un-hittable. He didn’t even make elusive moves … he was just not touched by anything. The only other fighter I’ve ever seen who had that same radar was Marcel Cerdan. When Pep and Whitaker did it, you wanted to applaud their skill. With Burley, he just wasn’t being hit ... and he didn’t avoid the punches. (It was the damnedest thing.)”—The late Joe Rein (The Sweet Science)

This is the third in a series in which I have already covered Lloyd Marshall and Eddie Booker.

Charley Burley was probably the best fighter of Murderers’ Row, a group of black boxers who were avoided by elite white fighters because of their skills and sadly because of racial barriers that then existed. The group included Hall of Famer Lloyd Marshall, Hall of Famer Holman Williams, Hall of Famer Herbert “Cocoa Kid” Lewis Hardwick, the edgy Jack Chase, powerful Elmer “Violent” Ray, Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, Bert Lytell (Chocolate Kid), Charley Williams, Eddie Booker, and others depending on which source one chooses to use.

Charley was “Too good for his own good,” a statement that was made by many boxing managers and promoters when referring to Pittsburgh’s Burley. He went 83-12-2 without ever being stopped, but more importantly beat every great fighter of his era that he was able to fight. His opponents included Fritzie Zivic (twice) and the legendary Holman Williams (against whom he tallied 3-3-0-1), and everybody in between.

Burley was a tactician and defensive genius but lacked flash. He was an economical puncher, and rarely punched in combination. Nevertheless, he was avoided by Henry Armstrong, Tony Zale, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Billy Conn, so he was forced to fight out of his weight class, yet KO’d opponents from welterweight to heavyweight between 1936 and 1950. It was just not possible to look good against him.  Burley beat three world champions in three different weight categories, but never got the chance to fight for any world title.

But curiously, Burley may not have been the victim of racism as much as something less obvious. Ed Gavilan puts his finger on it in this salient comment: “Burley wasn’t all that exciting to watch. He was a safety first guy who was hard to tag and hard to beat, but he wasn’t the type of fighter who inspired the masses. Like Griffith and Pernell Whitaker, he attracted the keen eye of purists, and that gave bigger gate attraction fighters and champions the excuse not to fight him. In truth, I really think Burley resembled a slightly watered down version of Roy Jones. He moved like him, and punched like him, but not in combination. Moreover, as an added detriment, Burley was reported to be a deeply religious, extremely soft-spoken, and honest man. In boxing, nice guys often don’t finish first, and if you’re not the loquacious type, it’s more of a strike against you in landing that title shot when you have the stylistic deck stacked against you a bit in the first place. Lack of charisma and a safety first style can you hurt you no matter how effective you really are. Fighters know the truth, but spectators don’t know the truth as well.” In some ways, the same might be said for today’s Andre Ward.

Archie Moore had this to say about this uncrowned champion, “If anyone was the perfect fighter it was Burley. When I fought Burley, I was no greenhorn. I’d had nearly 80 fights at the time. Burley was already a legend. He could feint you crazy with his eyes, shoulders, head, even his pectoral muscles. If you threw a punch at Charley Burley, you had better hit him; if you didn’t he would counter your head off. Hitting Burley with a solid punch was near impossible.”

Suffice to say Charley Burley’s name was ever-present among the leaders of the golden age of middleweights. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.

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Uncrowned Champion #3

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Larry Link 01:54pm, 11/18/2013


  2. Ted 01:52pm, 11/18/2013

    Joe, may God rest his soul, was lucky to see him fight. Best I can say is that I once saw Holman Williams fight when I was nine years old. And believe it or not, he lost!! But, I must say I am beginning to get the historian fever and am now tracking back into the early 40’s. It’s fun.

  3. Tex Hassler 01:50pm, 11/18/2013

    George Abrams gave Charlie Burley just about all the fight that he wanted but that can be said for every one else Abrams fought. This is said not to take away from Burley’s skill but just to say Abrams was no soft touch. In fact he rates right up there with Burley and the others.

  4. Matt McGrain 01:27pm, 11/18/2013

    Joe Rein saw Burley bounce Phil McQuillan around the ring in New York.  He felt bad for Phil.

  5. GlennR 01:22pm, 11/18/2013

    Great article, and Burley is fast becoming my favourite old time fighter.

    And how in any way, shape or form is CB boring?

    If you have a penchant for a guy who swings wildly and is happy to trade with little disregard for his own face, no, you wont admire Burley.

    But if you do see boxing as a skill, even art perhaps, he’s right up there with the best.
    Just imagine what he could show you in just one hour

  6. Matt McGrain 01:11pm, 11/18/2013

    Defo a beast.
    I think that video is misleading though - in that fight, Burley was facing THE light-heavyweight puncher of the moment.  Smith was utterly brutal.  So you have a natural light-middleweight taking on the hardest hitting LHW going.  His strategy was to slow him down, minimise exchanges and action.  Imagine Emile Griffith boxing Bob Foster?
    But I don’t accept that it was definitive of his boxing.

  7. Ted 12:05pm, 11/18/2013

    Matt, the first video does show that he was so good, he was a tad boring (not to me but to non-purists).

    Curiously, Burley, though the premier member of Black Murderer’s Row, was half white. His mother was a white Irish immigrant. 

    Now even though he was 17-3 after 1945, I did not witness any of his fights so unfortunately, I cannot count him on my Top 25 list, but he would rate high on any all time list I did.

  8. Ted 11:50am, 11/18/2013

    I’ve been on the road and just got back. I’ll tell you this. My research on Burley has made me a BIG fan of his.

    Thanks for your comments gents

  9. Matt McGrain 10:42am, 11/18/2013

    I think Burley’s being “boring” or “unexciting” gets over-stated a bit.  He knocked out fifty guys after all, and in some fights, such as his surreal scrap with the JD Turner or his celebrated thrashing of Archie Moore where he seems to have thrown a LOT of punches.  I do agree that he demonstrated that throwback style against a lot of the bigger men he faced though, or in a very busy month.
    BTW, that “AnalzingGenius” video has some of the best observations of fighters anywhere on the internet (bit hard on old Oscar though!).

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:58am, 11/18/2013

    Ted Sares-Zivic beat Eddie Booker as well….in fact he fought more than enough black fighters in his career win, lose or draw (whether they were on “Murderer’s Row” or not) to make up for the other fighters both black and white that were ducking. While we’re on the subject just how many black fighters did Sugar Ray Robinson fight anyway?....seems to me he got a bit of a culture shock when he hooked up with Turpin the first time (if he wasn’t in shape and ready for Randy that was all on him).

  11. Mike Casey 03:04am, 11/18/2013

    Just the ticket for a Monday morning read! Well written, Ted. Good point about Charley being a quiet fighter so to speak. He was very spare, very understated and much of his magic was missed by those who didn’t look close enough. Moore couldn’t believe where Burley could hit you from. He would appear to be way out of range and then deck you before you knew it.

  12. Mohummad Humza Elahi 02:32am, 11/18/2013

    I was just listening to last week’s Buncey’s Boxing Podcast and they had a competition for exactly that phrase “Too good for his own good” and Charley Burley was one of the names that was given (but didn’t win), it’s always interesting to discover new fighters even if they fought 70 years a

  13. The Tache 02:13am, 11/18/2013

    Makes no sense to me though. Riddick Bowe fought Holyfield three times, Lennox Lewis fought him twice, but I didn’t get to see Bowe vs Lewis by proxy or otherwise.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:16pm, 11/17/2013

    Ted Sares-I guess Armstrong, LaMotta and Robinson could in a sense (by proxy) say they fought Burley because Fritzie fought Burley at least three times and they in turn fought Fritzie….makes sense to me.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:05pm, 11/17/2013

    Ted Sares-Years ago my Dad and I ran into Fritzie Zivic at a gas station in Carnegie, Pa. and had a brief chat with him…..my most indelible impression from that encounter was Fritzie lifting his foot to show us the holes in the sole of his shoe to demonstrate to us how his fortunes had changed since those long ago days when he beat up Henry Armstrong and yes….defeated Charley Burley too.

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