The term ‘uncrowned champ’ has been used and abused throughout boxing history, but this middleweight contender earned that title the hard way.
Charley Burley was born on September 6, 1917 in Bessemer, the only boy out of a total of seven children born to a black father and an Irish mother. He would move to Pittsburg as a child following the death of his father, becoming interested in boxing at an early age. He had a successful amateur career capped by an invitation to participate in the Olympic Trials ahead of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which he refused to attend due to his objection to the Nazi regime.
He made his pro debut in 1936, fighting as a welterweight. Soon enough he would find himself fighting within the confines of what would become known as the “Murderer’s Row,” a group of Black fighters who were avoided by most other fighters on the planet – up to and including some of their own.
In an effort to escape that situation, Burley sometimes fought men much heavier than himself, being outweighed by as much as 70 pounds in a heavyweight bout at one point. Even in that hostile scenario, Burley was never stopped in his 98 bouts as a professional, even though he faced some of the best men in his era who would step in the ring with him, including names such as Fritzie Zivic, Archie Moore, Billy Soose and Ezzard Charles. Some of his best fights came against fellow Murderer’s Row members such as Cocoa Kid and Holman Williams.
The names of those who politely refused to step in with Burley is equally telling: Billy Conn, Marcel Cerdan and even the great Sugar Ray Robinson allegedly declined any and all opportunities to get in the ring with Burley, who had a reputation of being a master of defense and a solid puncher with an uncanny technical ability and a deadly pin-point accuracy.
In an era in which boxing was in the hands of the mob and some other dark forces, the sport conspired to deny Burley a title shot to any kind of world championship available at that point, both at welterweight and middleweight. He did defeat several past or future world champions including Zivic and Moore, who once called him “the greatest fighter ever,” echoing a sentiment expressed also by legendary trainer Eddie Futch and many other insiders of that era.
Burley retired in 1950, with a record of 83-12-2 and 1 no contest, with 50 wins by stoppage. Even though he was only 32 years old at that time, he moved on from a career full of frustrations, taking a menial job as a garbage collector to make ends meet.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.