Home Boxing History Puncher from the Past: The Legendary Charley Burley

Puncher from the Past: The Legendary Charley Burley

Born: 6 September 1917
Died: 16 October 1992 aged 75
Record: 98 fights, 83 wins (50 by KO/TKO) lost 12, drew 2
Began boxing at the age of twelve at a Pittsburgh Boy’s Club
Won gold medals at Junior and Senior National Golden Gloves and silver at the UA National Championships
First professional fight: 29 September 1936 as a welterweight.
Major Fights: Was 2-1 in three fights against future world champion Fritzie Zivic. Outpointed Cocoa Kid to win the Coloured welterweight title. Outpointed future world champion Billy Soose. Lost on points to Jimmy Bivins (who went on to kayo Archie Moore). Scored 20 wins in a row before losing twice to future world heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles*. Outpointed future light heavyweight champion Archie Moore flooring Moore four times. Lost split decision to Lloyd Marshall, which was Burley’s seventeenth fight in 1942. Was then 24-1-1,1ND in his next 26 fights. Won the Coloured middleweight title with stoppage of Holman Williams**
Last fight: July 1950.
*The two losses against Charles were part of a three-bout series where he lost to Charles on 25 May 42, outpointed Holman Williams on 23 June 42 then lost to Charles 29 June 42 so Burley had those three major fight in six weeks.
**He was 3-3, 1ND in fights against Holman Williams with the ND having both thrown out in the tenth round for “not trying”.

Burley Background
Charley who? That would be the reaction to most people when hearing Burley’s name. I doubt if one in a thousand boxing fans knows anything about Burley and yet by his peers he was hailed as one of greatest fighters of all time despite never winning a world title.
His father was a black miner and his mother an Irish immigrant. Charley was the lone boy in a family of seven children. He had the possibility of a career in baseball but stuck to boxing. His success in the amateur ranks in 1936 led to him qualifying to enter the US Trials for the Berlin Olympics but Charley refused to participate due to the Nazi racist politics and instead he turned professional.

Although he beat some future world champions he was dodged by some of the top boxers and was a member of what was called “Murderer’s Row” a group of black fighters who were too good for their own good and were dodged. Amongst those who allegedly avoided fights with Burley were Billy Conn, Marcel Cerdan and even Sugar Ray Robinson. Burley had to fight anyone anywhere giving away weight and at times fighting with hand injuries. Apart from the Californian State title the only other titles Burley won were the welterweight and middleweight Coloured titles for non-white boxers and those fell into misuse when Henry Armstrong and Ray Robinson won world titles.
The Ring Record Book and Encyclopaedia contained composite Ratings for the years when Burley was active and he was usually No 2 or No 3 at either welterweight or middleweight in the composite ratings but in the monthly ratings he held the No 1 spots in both divisions. Despite this, he never landed a title fight. He did not have the right connections and was a craftsman rather than a slashing, crashing, bashing fighter. He needed to fight often but even then needed a real job in an aircraft factory to earn money late in this career. A perforated eardrum ruled him out of active service during the Second World War and after retirement, he was working as a garbage man.

It is impossible now to assess how good Burley was. There was no social media in those days. As far as I know the only example of Burley in action is a very shaky film of him fighting Billy Smith from which it is impossible to assess Burley. Since Burley was at his peak in the late 1930s’ to the end of the 1940’s there very few alive today who will have seen Burley in the flesh so we have to go with the words of those who did see Burley but are no longer with us:

Eddie Futch described Burley as “ The finest all-around fighter I ever saw”
Trainer Ray Arcel shared Futch’s opinion of Burley
Archie Moore called Burley “ The greatest fighter ever ”
Boxing Editor Rusty Rubin perhaps summed up the enigma of Burley’s lack of recognition:
“ The greatest fighter never to have won a world title and never to have fought for a world title”.
Charley Burley was inaugurated into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 but died earlier in the year so did not live to see his career honoured.