The best that ever wasn’t: Charley Burley and the hidden knights of the Black Murderer’s Row


I’m coming to the realization on exactly why boxing is truly one of the greatest human achievements, but also one of the most wicked in sports history. Boxing is one of the most revered individual sport and is a competition so purely distilled in skill and ambition; however, even racehorses are treated with more dignity in retirement. Legends of the past are kept alive orally but legends of the present are stifled by money, their own management, or even the media. That’s why its even more of a responsibility to stay critical of the sport as fans, because sometimes the impact of a single boxing match has world-changing implications, and would unfairly sway conversations on who was the best and who wasn’t the best. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we fans should honor all fighters who step in the ring, and give due to legends of the past, but recognize that the history of the sport largely stands undocumented, unless we all accept that boxing is as diverse and multifaceted as society itself, where for every rock, there’s paper, and for every scissor, there’s rock.

Conversations of TBE in the today’s world is as disconcerting to the present state of boxing. Sure, Floyd Mayweather Jr. calls himself TBE. Why not? He retired at the top of boxing world on his terms. We might still be coming into grips of that in the next 10 years, but why all incessant debate, and why muddle the economics of matchups with legacy. Just a quick trip to frequent tropes of TBE debates grinds to a halt with Sugar Ray Robinson, where I went even further and hunted down information beyond that. I found that the art and science of boxing shouldn’t be judged only on performances on the big stage but also what was forged in the backrooms of gyms at dusk, where the thudding of heavy bags would stop, the rattle of speedbags pause for all to check out who was sparring in the middle of the ring. Where the science was debated and the state of the art was pushed even further. This is where legends are made, but also where the sport bloomed into the sweet science fans today are still being deprived from. This type of understanding of the sport is direly needed, and the only way to achieve it is through the spirit of competition.

Between 1936-1950, Charley Burley was the uncrowned king of The Black Murderer’s Row, the most avoided fraternity of black boxers who fought each other 61 times in search of quiet in their own frustrated ambition. No one of fame, including Sugar Ray Robinson, would fight them because of their fearsome durability and sublime skill. Sugar Ray was already avoided in the height of his reign, but these guys had to settle for the “Colored” middleweight title or other similar lower titles. In the height of the Golden Age of boxing, there were 9 extremely talented and feared boxers (Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall, Cocoa Kid, Eddie Booker, Elmer Ray, Jack Chase, Aaron Wade, & Bert Lytell) that fought each other and became even better. Compared to the 2008 achievement of Manny Pacquiao disposing of 3 hall of famers in one year, The Black Murderers’ Row would fight that many times in a month. 

Reading deep into Charley Burley is exciting, but also deeply depressing because of the possibility of forgetting some of the legends of today that thrived in competition, cared about improving their game, and stood toe-to-toe on wars every second of every round of the fights they were able to arrange on their professional record. Sure, it’s nice to have debates on who’s the best and have thought experiments on who they would have beaten but why? Why can’t we have tournaments that mandated the spirit of competition inspired by the Black Murderers’ Row?

I find I may have to just do my part in preserving and honoring current fighters who hold up that spirit of competition. Here’s to the unofficial rounds of Robert Guerrero in Gilroy, Brandon Rios in Oxnard, Manny Pacquiao in Manila, Roman Gonzales in Panama, and many many others currently carving their legacies. Here’s to the unofficial rounds going on in gyms everywhere, may they never be forgotten and may that add to the future of boxing.

1 Comment

  1. in Britain during the same great period was Manchester/Rochdale’s Jock McAvoy and his own rival Glasgow’s Bert Gilroy.

    Both great feared, cheated & denied middleweights.

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