Saturday, June 28, 2008
Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion by Allen S. Rosenfeld
This book is not so easily defined. It is a biography but it is so much more than that. It is more akin to a documentary. It covers a period of time in boxing that is almost past the memory of fans of the Sweet Science. To some degree, It is also a primer on race relations in America, in a time when racial prejudice was widely accepted as the norm, both in sports and society as a whole. This book could also be used as a textbook for a course on boxing history at any level. It not only covers the middleweight division but the welterweights and light heavyweight divisions as well, albeit to a lesser degree.
Charley Burley, The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion, is author Allen S. Rosenfeld’s opus. That his blood, sweat and tears went into this book is obvious from the onset. What sets this book apart from most books is his inclusion of historic articles from the various sports writers and newspapers across the country, as opposed to an occasional quote. No stone was left unturned in the telling of Charley Burley’s story.
The following paragraph’s from page 173 of the book says a lot about Burley’s character, especially considering the times in which he lived and fought.
With all the action swirling around Pittsburgh, Burley got involved. He signed to take a turn with tough Kenny LaSalle. The Pittsburgh Press acknowledged Charley had been underrated. But it warned that if LaSalle hit Burley as often as he had Zivic he might kayo Burley. And Burley made one of his rare pronouncements:
“I beat Zivic twice-and even if he should beat Angott, I should be the one in there with Armstrong. And if Zivic is at ringside tonight, I’ll show him how to knock out the fellow who beat him here two weeks ago but failed to get the decision”. Quite a pronouncement!
The book does not sugar coat Burley’s career and gives us an honest snapshot at what some sports writers thought of him as shown by these two opposing views written by Regis M. Walsh, sports writer for The Pittsburgh Press: Following Burley’s win over the Cocoa Kid, Welsh wrote: “Move over - John Henry Lewis - move over and make room for another negro “champion” who calls the Hill District his home. Not a bona-fide, genuine titleholder like you are, but a vigorous, willing lad, today the possessor of a rather synthetic crown labeled “Colored Welterweight Champion”
A year later after his fight with Jimmy Leto, Welsh writes: “Burley’s retrogression in form is more or less pitiable. His win over Leto in ten boo-producing rounds was his third successive bad performance. He beat Fritzie Zivic in one of them, lost to Leto earlier in another-and last night’s was no better. The crowd was not bashful in venting venom in this one. Both leto and burley, 149, had better stay away from Henry Armstrong or who ever is welter champion” Pretty strong words.
In a career that spanned from 1936 to 1950, Burley’s career is marked as much by those he did not fight as much as it was by those he did. He beat Archie Moore but lost to Ezzard Charles twice. He had a fierce rivalry with Frtitzie Zivic that is well covered in the book. He never fought Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta , and most notably Sugar Ray Robinson. With 83 wins and 50 knockouts, 12 losses and 2 draws, Burley’s record is not perfect but it is a damned good one.
There is a section in the book entitled: Remembering a Friend by Frank E. Bolden. Bolden says this about Robinson and Burley: "Some of the local and national sportswriters said that Burley was afraid to fight Robinson. This is not true. In fact just the opposite is the case. When I was working in Detroit in 1946, Sugar Ray was there to fight Cecil Hudson. One evening at dinner Sugar Ray in answer to my question said he would never fight Charley because "I have seen him fight and I don't think I can beat him at this time". Ultimately, you will have to draw your own conclusions.
There are a few historic photos scattered throughout the book, and they are appreciated. Some are not as clear as I might have liked but it takes nothing away from the book.
I recommend Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion to anyone that loves boxing, it’s history and it’s rich collection of characters, and to any one that enjoys a good read. Rosenfeld’s heartfelt book brings them back into our consciousness.
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