Charley Burley
Author:  Paul Hindley

At number two on our countdown we find one of my favourite fighters of all time and perhaps the best of the fighters commonly grouped together as the Black Murderers Row, Charley Burley. At the age of 13 Charley began his amateur career at the Kay’s Boxing club in his hometown of Pittsburgh. His progress through the amateur ranks and by 1936 he as good enough to compete in the National Golden Gloves tournament, although he was to lose out in the final Charley impressed enough to be invited to try for a place on the American Olympic team for the upcoming Berlin Games. However in what was to be a forerunner to the fierce principles Burley was to display throughout his career Burley refused to participate in protest at the Nazi regime in power in Germany at the time. Some consolation was provided when Burley was invited to compete in the Workers Games arranged in Barcelona, although these ended quickly with the outbreak of civil war in Spain and Burley returned to the states without having laced a glove up.
On his return to the States Charley decided to turn pro and in his first 17 fights he was to lose only one, this to the decent contender Eddie Dolan. Charley’s first major fight came in 1938 when he was matched against fellow Pittsburgh fighter and world ranked welter weight Fritzie Zivic. Zivic has gone down in history as one of the dirtiest fighters ever to lace up the gloves and in their first fight seemed intent on living up to his reputation. Despite this most observers felt Burley had given Zivic a boxing lesson and the reaction at ringside when Fritzie was given the decision was one of incredulity. However Charley was not going to have to wait long for his revenge and when the pair was matched again in June Charley beat him even more convincingly and crucially got the decision this time.
Charley’s career was now up and running and he appeared for the first time in the Ring top ten, wins over the brilliant Cocoa Kid and future middleweight champion Billy Soose consolidated both his ranking and status as a definite one to watch. During this time he lost some momentum through a hand injury that needed attention and on his return he dropped a decision to the well rated Jimmy Leto. This was to be a temporary setback though as Charley beat Zivic for the second time as well as whipping Leto in a rematch, wins which earned him status as number one contender to welterweight champion Henry Armstrong.
With the exception of a close loss to the excellent Holman Williams Charley’s good form continued through this period. So high was Charley’s reputation at the time that Fritzie Zivic and his manager bought out Charley’s contract thus ensuring it would be Fritzie who would get the next crack at Armstrong, which is how it came to pass with Zivic taking both the shot and title that should really have been Burley’s. Based on the outcome of their three fights it was pretty obvious Charley was not going to get a crack at Zivic any time soon and so he fought as often as he could, frequently against other members of the black murderers row such as Williams, Lloyd Marshall, and the great Ezzard Charles. Whilst Burley lost a few in this period it tended to be only against the true greats of the era and in nearly all instances when giving away significant weight advantages and the period was not without its notable wins against such excellent fighters as Jack Chase, Aaron Wade and both Hogue Twins.
During this period Burley also made offers to both welterweight champion Freddie Red Cochran and Sugar Ray Robinson, neither of which were accepted. Burley’s rivalry with Robinson has become the stuff of legends, depending which conspiracy theory you choose to believe Robinson either agreed to the fight until he sat at ringside for one of Burley’s fights and got cold feet when he say Burley despatch his opponent in a round or Robinson offered Charley a fight only on the condition they fought three times and Charley agree to throw the first fight. Charley was said to have refused this offer point blank as he refused to ever take part in a fixed fight.
1944 was to be a good year for Charley which saw him stop the excellent Jack Chase to win the California middleweight title. His first challenger for the title was to be the great Archie Moore, the rumour is Charley considered Moore to be arrogant and it certainly appeared he cared little for Archie dumping him on the canvas three times en route to a 10 round shut out that perhaps represented the biggest beating of Archie’s career. On the back of this beating Archie was certainly in no doubt about Charley’s ability saying in later years the following:
“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”
No small praise when coming from a fighter of over 200 fights whose record is a genuine who’s who of his era. It should also be noted at this point that Moore was not the only one to be so fulsome in his praise of Burley, legendary trainer Eddie Futch and all-time great heavyweight Joe Louis were also members of the Burley fan club.
Charley finished 1944 ranked as number one middleweight contender in the world but was finding fights increasingly tough to come by and he was reduced to fighting many of the opponents he had fought and beat several times previously. Charley took a break of a few months to care for his ailing mother but on his return his situation did little to improve, offers were made to Robinson again and new middleweight sensation Jake LaMotta but again Charley found these offers went unanswered.
Charley was to fight on for a few more years but by now it was becoming apparent his title opportunity was not going to come and his appearances in the ring became increasingly infrequent before he retired in 1950. Despite being ranked in the top ten at either welter or middle for a full ten year period Charley was never to receive a title shot. Whilst his ability was an obvious factor in this it should be said that as a counter puncher Charley was not always a joy to watch because unless his opponent led his fights could be dull affairs. However this should not be read as a criticism of his ability or mitigation for how widely he was avoided. Whilst his record may show a few more losses than some others on the list it should always be remembered Burley was a welterweight forced to fight truly great light heavyweights, under such circumstances that he could even compete and could finish his career with not one stoppage loss tells you everything you need to know of the man’s genius.