Jim Amato Columnist: Inside Boxing and IBRO member
Clay Moyle Author of 'Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion' and Book dealer and collector and IBRO member
REVIEWS FROM AMAZON.CO.UK and AMAZON.com
There are many respected boxing authorities who consider Charley Burley not Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest ever fighter pound for pound. This admirably detailed and meticulously researched book presents his case for consideration.
Burley was one of a small group of outstanding coloured fighters of the thirties and forties who were never allowed the opportunities they deserved to fight for the highest honour of a world title. Harry Otty refers to them as the "Black Murderers Row" and the predominantly "white" champions in their respective weight divisions avoided them like the plague! Charley Burley was probably the best of the bunch. At his peak, he weighed little more than a light-middleweight but fought middles, light-heavys and heavyweights, beating most of them in the process. The full details of his extraordinary career are herein described and I will quote just three remarkable snippets. Fritzie Zivic and Sugar Ray Robinson (the nonpareil) made it perfectly clear that they wanted no part of Burley. Archie Moore who Burley outclassed when the "Old Mongoose" was in his prime described him as being "as slippery as lard and twice as greasy". Moore described Ezzard Charles ("Snooks")as the hardest puncher he had ever met but always considered Burley as the most complete fighter. Oakland Billy Smith was a dangerous punching light heavyweight who would go on to kayo the superb Harold Johnson in a mere two rounds in 1955. But he was outclassed by Charley Burley in their two fights. The second time so badly that Smith later admitted, "he could have killed me". Charley Burley has since passed into the realm of fistic legend. Tragically there is virtually no surviving visual record of him in action. Only a single grainy film of him in the ring. So little, it is impossible to recognise the extent of his genius. We owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Otty for producing a vibrant account of an outstanding man and of the state of the fight game at that time: heavily influenced by mob involvement. It stands as a worthy testimony to this very great but sadly neglected and forgotten fighter. The book is essential reading for all who like me, have an enduring interest in the truly great fighters of yesteryear. Harry Otty has done us an immense service with this book and I unreservedly recommend it.
As for the complaint made by fellow reviewer 'Peter' that "the mystery why Burley didn't get a world title shot is not solved", well, Peter, it was. Harry Otty actually points out several reasons why Burley (who fought from 1936 to 1950 and was in his prime from about 1941 to 1945) never fought for either the welterweight or middleweight title, including the following: two weeks after winning the welterweight title in 1940, Fritzie Zivic and his manager bought Burley's contract so that Zivic wouldn't have to give his two-time conqueror a title shot and, after he lost the championship in 1941, Zivic held onto the contract in order to prevent Burley from coming between him and another title try; after the United States entered World War II, the world titles were 'frozen' so that the boxing champs could contribute to the war effort, so NO ONE was given a welterweight or middleweight title shot from 1942 to 1946; before the 'alphabet' title organizations (like the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO, etc, etc) came along (and ruined boxing), there were no such things as 'mandatory title defenses', so champions were free to avoid any contender they chose to ('big fights' simply came about as the result of fan demand i.e. $!); and the fight game and many of its champions were controlled by the mob, and contenders, like Burley, who refused to bow down to these thugs, were denied title shots (for example, Jake LaMotta had to throw a fight with Billy Fox before he received his long overdue try for middleweight laurels). Add to all that the fact that Burley was a great fighter and that several of the post-war champs had been ducking him since before the war, and its not hard to see why he never challenged for a title, which is a pity because Charley Burley was a hell of a fighter.
To the question of why these great fighters never got a shot at the title, or at most of the top contenders, the answer is both overt and covert racism. The overt racism is primarily based on the false notion many promoters had that white fans (the ones with the money) wouldn't pay to watch black fighters. Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong had already disproven this myth, as Ray Robinson would later.
The more covert form of racism was the fact that black fighters were so underpaid and so limited in the bouts they could get that they usually ended up fighting very often and usually fighting each other. There developed an ethic among these fighters that they generally would not try to knock each other out. There were two reasons for this: (1) Promoters were less likely to match you with someone you had beaten badly before; and (2) A fighter who had been knocked out might not be able to find another fight again soon, and if knocked out too often may not find fights at all.
Archie Moore discussed this phenomenon in later life, and even talked about how he and other black fighters would be ostracized, and perhaps "punished," by their colleagues if they knocked one of them out. This was, in large part, a consequence of the economic realities black fighters faced during that era. Consequently, they tended to fight safer, and hence more boring, fights out of a sense of economic self-preservation. An unintended consequence of this is that they were less attractive to boxing promoters as a drawing card.
Henry Armstrong never bought into this philosophy and was a big drawing card, as was Louis, of course. The economics of the fight game worked to their advantage, even as it worked against Burley, Booker, Williams, et al.
1. Burley was good. No, GREAT. He was a maximum risk, minimal gain proposition for the champions and best avoided if they wanted to keep their titles.
2. Management/connections. Burley didn't have good connections in his career and had a habit of changing managers.
The above mentioned reasons are why many fighters throughout history never received a title shot or a chance at a fight with another great. A more recent example would be Mike McCallum who, like Burley, changed managers often and also represented a max. risk/min. gain proposition. But luckily for McCallum he was able to benifit from the multiple "championship" belts floating around and snagged one. Had there been only one, as was the case in Burley's day, he may have found himself shut-out of the title picture as well.
The only place I disagree with historians regarding Burley was his race being a factor. Blacks had been fighting for world titles since the 1800s(Joe Walcott, George Dixon, etc) and there were black titleholders at the time of Burley's prime. So I don't see race being a factor here. The problem is that when a white titleholder ducks a black it's called "racism". When a black champ does it(as Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson, Henry Armstrong and Joe Louis all did) it's called "smart business".
What shines through mostly in this work is the author's love of his subject, which is always nice in the case of a bio. If you're interested in Burley, the fighters and the climate of the times then you will enjoy this opus enormously. I highly recommend it.
You will not be disappointed with this work, it really is that good.
Reviewer: Simon Fox from(Doncaster, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom
There are 2 prominant biographies around at the moment about Charley Burley, this is the better of the 2. The biographer met the boxer and actually spoke to his family and friends. the reader does get a sense of who the man was and also a grasp of his ability, frustrations and of how american society was. This is also an easier read than the other biography. this book is worth reading.
A huge service to boxing history, December 29, 2005
||Reviewer: Alister Scott Ottesen from Oslo, Norway|
"Charley Burley was a great fighter whom was worthy of a biography decades ago.
When "Charley Burley & The Black Murderers Row" finally arrived in 2002, it was well worth the extra wait.
Author and boxing historian, Harry Otty, gives us a complete picture of not only this great fighter's life and career but also a much more complete look at the era in which Burley fought. Thus, it is more than just a brilliant biography on Charley Burley, it is also an excellent contribution to boxing history.
"Charley Burley & The Black Murderers Row" is a masterpiece of a book which sets a new standard for boxing biograpies. A classic."
A tremendous read, July 12, 2005 Reviewer: pcubbon from Kirk Michael, Isle of Man United Kingdom.
I have read many boxing books and this is up there with the best. The work that has gone into the book is first rate and like the previous reviewers I did not realise how good this guy was. I would definately recommend this book.
An excellent read, April 24, 2005 Reviewer: tosti16 from London England.
With the majority of Boxing books covering the Heavyweight division, particularly the Ali era, this book proved to be both an enlightening and refreshingly personal account of Burley and his contemporaries. The level of research and knowledge was excellent, and the book opens up many avenues of interest for boxing history enthusiasts. However the text is not 'weighed down' by facts and figures and the personal quotes from family members and friends gives a well formed character background for Burley himself. By the time Burley's career was on the downward trend, and he was evidently not going to get a crack at the World crown, you started to feel a small part of the frustration that Burley and other black fighters of his and other era's must have felt.
ONE OF THE BEST BOXING BOOKS EVER, January 23, 2005 Reviewer: jsh5876 from Rhyl, Denbighshire United Kingdom.
I have recently sold all of my boxing books but this is one I will not sell. This excellent book is a must have for any boxing fan. The book is well researched and expertly written. The boxers featured are unheralded fighters who are unknown even to some ardent boxing fans. Avoided by all the champions of the time, including the great Sugar Ray Robinson, Charley Burley and The other boxers in the Black Murderers Row would all be, without doubt, multi weight long reigning World Champions if they were fighting today and not in the era when boxers could be so blatantly sidestepped. This book is a long overdue credit to these amazing fighters and Uncrowned Champions.
A must read book, June 19, 2004 Reviewer: Anthony Evans from Wales
This is a fantastic book, a real eye opener in so much as exposing a few forgotten facts. Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong are usually referred to as fearless fighters only too eager to have fought anybody in their day, but these two, and many more of the well-known fighters of their day avoided all the long forgotten fighters that made up the `Black murderers row`. Charley Burley may be the better known of the avoided few, but this book also gives details on the other fighters avoided, names I had never heard of before, but looking through their records, that are included in the book, gives an indication of why they were so carefully sidestepped and frozen out. A fantastic book that everybody with an interest in boxing should read. I have read many, many boxing books and this one is one of the best.
REVIEW FROM THE CYBERBOXINGZONE
In a time when hard-core research has about as much appeal as asparagus ice cream, boxing historian Harry Otty has scoured the record and produced one of the best boxing books of the past 50 years. Since this review is going to be read by hardcore boxing fans, the name Harry Otty needs no introduction. It is undisputed that Burley was an excellent technician who is one of the two or three best fighters never to have won a title belt. Longtime readers of the CBZ will recall that as we developed our Black Dynamite section, Mr. Otty provided an amazing bio for Burley's Web page. Now, five years later, Otty has expanded his research and his scope and presents the story of Burley and several other top black fighters in a truly compelling way. Burley comes to life in these pages. Although obviously Otty thinks highly of Burley both as a man and as a fighter, he never crosses the line to uncritical hero worship. The book uses both archival newspaper reports and interviews conducted with Burley, his family and his friends, to reveal the story of a man whose talents should not be forgotten. This book is a classic of its kind and no good boxing library should be without a copy.
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