Charley Burley: Great Fighter No One Knows
By Tom Donaldson
(This is another excerpt of my upcoming book, “Boxing in the Shadow” and details the career of Charlie Burley one of boxing great fighters.)
A friend of mine mentioned to me that when discussing the great fighters, no lists would be complete without a mention of Charley Burley. Ring Sports editor Rusty Rubin told me that in his opinion, Burley was the greatest fighter never to have won a championship or for that matter fight for a world title.
Legendary trainer Eddie Futch declared that Charley Burley the greatest all round fighter he ever witnessed and considering that Futch’s career in boxing span eight decades, that is high compliment. While campaigning as welterweight or middleweight, Burley was denied his shot at glory and today is a forgotten fighter except by hardcore fans.
Burley established himself as contender early in his career when he defeated Billy Soose, a future middleweight champion and he also split two fights with Fritzie Zivic, a future welterweight champion to show that his victory over Soose was no fluke. In 1942, Burley lost two decisions to the future heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles in a five-week period but he managed to squeeze in a knockout victory over Holman Williams. Today, a fighter fights one fight in three months, it is consider a heavy load and yet Burley fought three fights in less than six weeks against topnotch candidates! In 1944, he decisions the future light heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
Burley fought in a golden period of the welterweight and middleweight divisions when fighters like Tony Zale, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson strode atop of these divisions. A Pittsburgh native, Burley was excellent fighter who could easily be mention in the same breath as these other great fighters but like many great black fighters, he is now lost in history black hole. With no championship belt, Burley might as well not exist.
Archie Moore considered his rival one of boxing’s greats along with long time trainer such as Ray Arcel and Eddie Futch. Burley’s trainer Hiawatha Grey, who lineage went back to the days of Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchel, considered his protégé one of boxing great fighters, if not greatest. In the decade of the 40’s, Burley was ranked in the top 10 in both the welterweight and middleweight and yet there was no title shot. He won 83 fights and knocked out 50 fighters. Born in 1917, his father was a black coal miner from Virginia and his mother was a white Irish woman. When Burley’s father died in 1925, Burley moved to Pittsburgh and in 1929, he took up boxing. Boxing became a passion even over baseball, another sport that he excelled. (The Homestead Grays, one of Negro baseball league great teams, offered him a contract.)
Burley had an excellent amateur career and even had a chance to compete in the 1936 Olympics but declined due to Germany racist policies but chose to participate in an alternative Olympics in Spain, dubbed the ‘Workers Games.” The alternative Olympics began at the time the Spanish Civil War started and the Workers Games were canceled. After these games were canceled, Burley started his professional career. In 1938, Burley split two fights against Zivic, who was a veteran of 70 fights as opposed to Burley’s seventeen fights. That same year, Burley won the ‘Colored’ Welterweight Championship against veteran Louis ‘Cocoa’ Kid. Burley dominated the fight as he knocked down the ‘Cocoa’ Kid in the second round and almost finished the job in the fifteenth found but Cocoa kid managed to survive the Burley onslaught.
Henry Armstrong won the real welterweight and the Colored championship was never contested again as an African-American held the real title. After splitting Zivic and winning the ‘Colored’ Welterweight championship, he concluded the 1938 year by beating Soose. In 1939, Burley was one of the top welterweights and he began 1939 year by beating Sonny Jones but this victory had its price. He was force to undergo bone graft surgery and promptly lost to Jimmy Leto after he returned to the ring.
Burley defeated Zivic for a second time in easy fashion later that year but Zivic was rewarded with a title shot and Burley was relegated to the sideline. Zivic won the welterweight championship from Henry Armstrong. After the Zivic fight, Burley broke with his manager and Zivic’s manager, Luke Carney, bought Burley contract. In a bit of conflict of interest, Carney’s purchase of Burley ensured that his other fighter, welterweight champion Zivic, never fought Burley for Zivic’s title.
Burley eventually left Carney and new promoter Tommy O’ Loughlin attempted to gain Burley a championship bout. After coming to California, Burley beat almost everyone in front of him including heavyweight J.D. Turner as well as Holman Williams. (The exception being Ezzard Charles.) Burley’s people challenged current champions but the pleas were ignored. While searching for a title shot, the 150 pound Burley fought heavyweights Ezzard Charles, and other heavier fighters including Lloyd Marshal and the Hogue brothers. J.D. Turner outweighed Burley by 70 pounds but was busted up within six rounds by the lighter fighter.
Burley wanted great Sugar Ray Robinson but the great Sugar Ray wanted no part of him. Robinson, supposedly watching Burley ringside, told his manager, “I’m too pretty to fight Charley Burley.” Robinson avoided Burley and Burley always believed that he was the better fighter and of course, we would never know if Burley was right.
O’ Loughlin moved Burley to California with the idea of getting Burley better opponents and higher purses. Burley became the California middleweight champion by knocking out Jack Chase, who previously never ended a fight on the canvas. In 1944, he added a victory over Archie Moore to his resume- a fight that he took on short notice. The day that he defeated Moore, he was busy making aircraft at the local factory. (Burley was rejected by the military due to a busted eardrum.)
By 1946, Burley had 60 fights, mostly with heavier fighters but he could not get the big money fights against many of the top rate white fighters. Plenty of inferior fighters gain their shots whereas Burley had to work as a garbage collector to pay the bills. By 1950, Burley’s career was on the down side and yet no one would fight him. Burley decided to retire and just go to work. Burley walked away from the sport that for the previous decade ignored him. In 1992, the International Boxing Hall of Fame inducted him but Burley died earlier in the year- thus missing out on his career being honored.
So why did Burley fail to gain a shot of the title? Was it the various changes in management or was it due to the lack of flash in his fighting style? Burley beat many of the best fighters, so racism played a role. Other black fighters did gain their opportunity, including Sugar Ray Robinson and Ezzard Charles while Burley fail to get his. Burley’s biggest sin may have been that he was an honest fighter and maybe he just didn’t know the right person. Many of these fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson were in no hurry to give Burley a shot at their titles. In the 40 and 50’s, connection with the right people including the mob was important and Burley did not have appeared to have those connections. At least one of his managers bought his contract to keep Burley from fighting his other fighters! Burley never received his deserve shot and the real pity is that many boxing fans were denied a chance to see a great fighter practice his craft at the highest level.