FOR years Charley Burley was more or less a forgotten man – now he’s rightly respected as one of the finest boxers of his or any other time.
Burley was too good for his own good: a classy, economical boxer who knew how to feint an opponent into making mistakes and then punish him. He was one of a group of avoided black fighters in the 1940s – Holman Williams, Eddie Booker, Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall, Elmer Ray and others – and Burley was a genuine master of his craft.
He was inconsistent, temperamental, but in nearly 100 fights, nobody ever knocked him out.
When Burley outpointed future light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore over ten rounds in Los Angeles in 1944, Moore was knocked down four times. “Burley gave me a boxing lesson,” he said. “He kept his punches coming at you like a riveting gun beats a tattoo on a rivet.”
Moore was to say later: “He was the best fighter I ever fought, and the best fighter I ever saw.”
Born in Bessemer, Pittsburgh on September 6, 1917, Burley fought between 1936 and 1950. At any time in the 1940s he could have justified a shot at the middleweight title, but the war years and then the trilogy between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano kept the championship in limbo as far as anybody else was concerned. (Zale had won undisputed recognition in November 1941 by outpointing Georgie Abrams, but had not boxed because of war service for almost four years.)
Jimmy Bivins outweighed him by 7lbs and beat him on points in September 1940, Ezzard Charles, then a brilliant young middleweight, twice outpointed him in the summer of 1942, which is a measure of Charles’ talent. Mostly, though, Burley was too good for whoever they put in front of him. Between the Bivins and the first of the Charles fights, he won 20 in a row, including a decision over the graceful Holman Williams.
He could also have fought for the welterweight crown – his roughhouse Pittsburgh rival Fritzie Zivic beat Henry Armstrong to win that in October 1940, but Burley had won two out of three fights with Zivic before that. Again, the welterweight title was in abeyance while Zivic’s successor, Freddie ‘Red’ Cochrane, was away in the war.
Sugar Ray Robinson won the welterweight title in 1946, but he avoided Burley, one time doubling his price demand, knowing that in doing so he was making the fight an impossible business proposition. Either writer Walter Winchell or the legendary trainer Ray Arcel (depending on your source) suggested Robinson fight Burley and the great man replied: “I thought you were my friend!”
Gradually Burley lost interest – and the public did too. By 1950 he was appearing in a small ballroom in Pittsburgh in front of hundreds, instead of thousands of fans. He had his last ring outing in, of all places, the Peruvian capital of Lima in July 1950.
He won 17 of his last 18 fights and was still only 32, but just gave up on boxing, taking a job in his home city’s garbage collection department.
Burley died in October 1992, aged 75.
BURLEY refused to compete in the US trials for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 because of his objection to racial and religious discrimination in Nazi Germany.
Ray Arcel said in an interview with New York writer Dave Anderson: “Charley Burley was the best fighter I ever saw who not only never won a title but never got any glory. In those days, if you were a good black fighter, nobody wanted to fight you.”