Boxing


The Apprentice: Archie Moore vs Charley Burley

09.01.05 - By Greg Smith: Jack Johnson’s legacy is perhaps best described as one of far reaching ambivalence and polarization. Johnson was the first black athlete to break the color barrier in the United States. Realistically, however, although breaking the color barrier is something to be respected in many ways, Johnson wasn’t exactly the kind of guy to parlay his success into a career as a legislator with a goal of achieving solidified social justice. He flaunted his success, and laughed when cops wrote him speeding tickets, and then turned around and did it again. The Mann Act was originally designed for different purposes, but it was applied to put a lid on Johnson, and ultimately resulted in Johnson’s exile to Europe and other locales.

It was a dirty, rough, and conflicted reign. It didn’t promote integration, and definitely drove race relations farther apart. Superb black fighters like Sam Langford and Harry Wills were negatively impacted right off the bat. Langford never got a rematch during Johnson’s reign, partially due to Johnson’s penchant for defending his title against white contenders only.

Many believe the ominous cloud of Johnson’s legacy played a huge role in preventing the much anticipated match between Jack Dempsey and Harry Wills. Johnson’s legacy reverberated for years in various forms, faded out, and always seems to come back in one way or another.

Inevitably, since Johnson’s tenure as heavyweight champ, the term “White Hope” has been steadfast in boxing history. Without the inscrutable class of Joe Louis, the friendly, flashy smile and style of Sugar Ray Robinson, or the authentic toughness and inhuman stamina of Henry Armstrong, the legacy of Jack Johnson might’ve stifled the careers of more black fighters for a much longer period of time. Louis effectively functioned as the anti-Johnson, and Robinson and Armstrong helped rebuild the foundation for a better future for black fighters. Where would we be without them? They came along at exactly the right time, and functioned as a catalyst in moving the sport forward.

During the same era, however, other great black fighters like Holman Williams, Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, and Cocoa Kid never got the recognition, or the title shot, they deserved. While Henry Armstrong was the reigning welterweight king, Cocoa Kid defeated Holman Williams for something called “ The Colored Welterweight Title” in 1940 before both fighters developed into middleweights. If Archie Moore didn’t have an unusual aging cycle, his name and career would likely be just a footnote in boxing history.

Archie Moore was one of the most lucid and brilliant practitioners in the history of the sport. If you believe Moore’s contention that he was born in 1913, then he didn’t get a title shot until he was 39-years-old. He spent several years as the #1 contender in the light heavyweight division before he got Maxim in the ring. Like many fighters of his era, he served a long, arduous, and unfair apprenticeship, and admitted that the legacy of Johnson proved problematic for far too many. Here is a verbatim Moore quote made in reference to Johnson: “The man was a disaster to anyone who came near him. American blacks are still paying for him."

Moore is best known as the man who will always hold the record for most knockouts by a professional prizefighter. Moore is also the only man to have fought both Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. His resume is littered with Hall of Famers and world champions. Moore’s apprenticeship was served in the early-to-mid 1940s as a middleweight, and he faced off against the very best of that era. Some feel that particular era of Americans is the best in our nation’s history. Indeed, a similar concept and moniker applies to fighters of that generation as well.

Boxing in the World War II era represents the antithesis of the contemporary boxing landscape. Today, unworthy fighters are marketed as contenders without serving a true apprenticeship, and the machinations of the sanctioning bodies and promoters create a seemingly endless array of unfortunate mismatches like Hopkins vs. Hakkar. Bernard Hopkins is a superb fighter and a vocal activist in this sport, but you kind of have to scratch your head and wonder how he would’ve done against Robinson, Williams, Burley, or the middleweight versions of Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore of the early-to-mid 1940s. A different age indeed.

In contrast, Charley Burley never got a title shot, and although he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, until recently he remained enigmatic. In an excellent new book about Burley, his career and life are spelled out beautifully by Allen Rosenfeld in an extraordinarily detailed 600 page tome entitled: Charley Burley: The Life and Hard Times of an Uncrowned Champion. Rosenfeld brilliantly sifts through the labyrinth of complexity surrounding Burley, and draws a perfect retrospective of both Burley and the era in which he fought.

As other dedicated journalists and boxing historians have pointed out in fragments over the years, Rosenfeld did a great job showing us how Pittsburgh counterparts Billy Conn, Fritzie Zivic, and even college-educated middleweight, Billy Soose, often overshadowed Burley in a variety of ways. Burley’s style can best be characterized as subtle brilliance, but that didn’t help him from a business standpoint. Bad timing, bad business decisions, and a quiet demeanor certainly held Burley back. It is well known that Fritzie Zivic’s management team, led by Luke Carney, purchased Burley’s contract after Zivic lost 2 out of 3 to Burley in the late 1930s. In 1940, Zivic ended Armstrong’s string of 19 successful title defenses while Burley continued to wait on the sidelines. To add to Burley’s plight, he possessed an effective style appealing to the hardcore, but not necessarily the casual fan, and that kept Burley from reaching the heights he was capable of scaling as well.

Archie Moore had no such luck sifting through Burley’s subtle brilliance when they finally crossed paths. Moore met Burley on April 21, 1944 in Hollywood, California. According to most sources, both fighters had turned pro at about the same time in 1936. Interestingly, both allotted exactly 72 professional fights at the time they met. Some say Burley had two more fights than Moore, but it’s possible that Moore had several undocumented fights as well. Depending on whom you believe, Moore was either 27 or 30-years-old at the time of the fight. Burley was 26. Moore weighed 161, and Burley weighed 156. Burley was a slight betting favorite. Rosenfeld and a few other sources helped put an end to the mystery regarding both what occurred on that night, and why Archie Moore said Burley was the best fighter he ever fought.

As with many great match-ups, controversy surrounded Moore vs. Burley. In this fight, however, the only controversy surrounding the bout revolved around what happened before the bout took place. Indeed, on the day of the fight, it has been generally accepted by many noted sources that Burley, who had moved west just like Moore, was actually in San Diego working in an aircraft factory, and was over 100 miles away from Hollywood just hours before the fight. Burley reportedly got a call at the factory mentioning that Moore’s scheduled opponent had fallen out, and they were looking for a substitute. Burley then packed his gear, took a bus to Hollywood, wrapped his hands, and got in the ring.

Other sources claim Burley knew about the bout two weeks prior to 4/21/44, and was actually in Hollywood with ample notice. Moreover, much to the chagrin of Moore, some later claimed Burley, who was known by many to be God-fearing and humble, was actually up late the night before the bout, drinking whiskey and playing cards. It is also noted that Burley really didn’t train hard for the Moore bout because he knew he would win regardless of pre-fight preparation. All told, to this day, we may never know the full truth regarding what happened prior to the bout, but we do know what occurred once the two combatants stepped into the ring.

Burley completely dominated Moore and won a ten round decision. Newspaper sources claim Burley knocked Moore down in rounds one, three, four, and eight. Most of the knockdowns were a result of Burley’s fastball---the right hand. The knockdown in the eighth was reportedly the result of a jab. I’ve seen film of Burley, and it was a hard, rising jab somewhat like Bennie Briscoe’s unorthodox “Neckbender.” Burley was adept at feinting opponents out of position, and in this context, it’s completely understood why Moore would hit the deck.

Sources close to Burley believe Charley actually carried Moore just for the sake of punishing him. Rosenfeld quotes eyewitness Howard Branson: “This fight was really no contest. Burley didn’t like cocky fighters and Moore was a little cocky in those days. Burley could’ve knocked Moore out anytime he wanted. Burley would hit Moore hard and Moore was going down and Burley would walk to Moore and hold him up. This happened five or six times in the fight. Burley just wanted to torment Moore.”

Moore reportedly ended up in the hospital for three days after the fight. He told Branson it was the worst beating he took in his entire career. The fight made an indelible impression on Moore, and to his credit, he emerged a better fighter and ran off an impressive win streak after being dominated by Burley. Hard times breed hard men.

“Very few people could make me fight out of my system….Burley was one. Charley Burley tricked me. We both boxed and did things….similar. Mine was an apparent forward movement whereas Burley’s was a continuous serpentine movement. He’d swivel his hips and his body would sometimes lean over towards you, and he’d pull it back fast, just in time. His head would be flying like a threshing machine, and any angle he got into he could punch from that angle. He was never off balance but he seemed to be off balance on many occasions.”

Moore was the apprentice on that night in 1944, and the legacy of Burley lives on.

Article posted on 09.01.2005



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