Burley, a welterweight and middleweight who posted an 83-12-2 record, with 50 knockout victories in a professional career that spanned from 1936 to 1950, previously was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (1992), the World Boxing Hall of Fame (1987) and The Ring magazine Hall of Fame (1983). There are those who insist that Burley is the finest boxer to have never fought for a world title. Some even say he was the best fighter of all time.
Among those who made that claim are Hall of Fame trainers Eddie Futch and Ray Arcel. The legendary Archie Moore, who was knocked down four times in losing a one-sided, 10-round decision to Burley on April 21, 1944, said that the man known as "Black Dynamite" was the best and most complete fighter he ever faced. That's quite a statement when you consider that Moore also shared the ring with, among others, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), Ezzard Charles, Floyd Patterson, Harold Johnson and Jimmy Bivins.
"It is, after all, the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame," noted John DiSanto, creator of the phillyboxinghistory.com website who in January rose to the position of director of the Pennsylvania BHOF. "The majority of the great fighters that have come out of Pennsylvania have been located in and around Philadelphia, but by no means is Philly the exclusive producer of such fighters. It is very important that we identify and give their just due to those fighters that, for whatever reason, have been overlooked."
DiSanto points out that Billy Conn, Harry Greb and Fritzie Zivic, from Pittsburgh, are already members of the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame.
For all the tributes that have come his way, many after his death (the City of Pittsburgh proclaimed Aug. 5, 2008, as "Charley Burley Day"), Burley never came close to achieving the celebrity or financial security someone of his abundant talents should have enjoyed during his time as an active fighter.
The son of a black coal miner father and a white Irish immigrant mother, he was avoided by many of the biggest-name fighters of the era. Among his contemporaries he sought out, but whom he never could entice into a match, were Henry Armstrong, Tony Zale, Marcel Cerdan, Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson. The father of three children, he helped make ends meet after - and sometimes even during - his boxing career by working as an aircraft mechanic and a garbage collector.
"I used to get down on my knees and pray for a title fight," Burley said years after his retirement from boxing. "I'd go anywhere to fight anybody if they'd just get me somebody to fight. I knew I could have held my own against anybody."
Maybe it was because he posed so distinct a threat that the superstars avoided Burley. Maybe it was because his style, once described as a "study in subtlety," was so technically proficient - the modern fighter he has often been compared to is Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins - that it was thought he would never generate enough box-office electricity to make those proposed bouts lucrative enough for the marquee guys to take the risk. And maybe it was because, as a mixed-race fighter, he was never entirely hailed as a hero by whites or blacks. In any case, Burley, who read the Bible daily, was not the sort of trash-talker and self-promoter who might have aided his cause by immersing himself in the kind of controversy that sells tickets.
In a 2005 story in thesweetscience.com, boxing writer/historian Joe Rein opined that Burley "was strictly a tactician, and no fighter or manager would want any part of him. It would be impossible to look good against Burley."
It might have been different had a 19-year-old Burley accepted an invitation to participate in the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in 1936, made the team and gone on to win a gold medal in Berlin. But he stayed away due to his objection to Germany's Nazi regime.
Only one near-complete film of a Burley fight, against Oakland Billy Smith, exists, making him more of a mystery man with each passing year. But remnants of his mystique survive, in part because of a book authored by Allen Rosenfeld, "Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion," and a song written by Barry Thomas Goldberg, "Black Dynamite," which includes these lyrics:
He was too good for his own good, now he's the last honest man
So he barnstormed up and down the Midwest
And once in a dusty tank town he almost got lynched
A song for Don Quixote and the dreamers in this world
Keep chasing the windmills, forever's the word.
Tickets for the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame Awards Dinner are $60. For more information, call John Gallagher at 215-920-8791.