As an African-American male growing up, a lot of what I saw through media was…white. White superheroes in cartoons, white drama T.V. shows or scary movie’s with 8 white characters and 1 person of color who might die in the beginning of the movie – or only live until the end if the character is played by someone with extreme star power, i.e Will Smith. The true impact of slavery and how it affects me isn’t discussed in history class, more so it’s just discussed as a part of history, I will never know what land or language my ancestors originally came from & spoke, and would’ve never known about any kings or queens or many of the numerous wonders/influences that have come out of Africa pre-colonization and by Europeans. History. That is what I lacked, history of the greatness I come from, history of why I’m important and matter to many sectors of society today. I loved boxing for these reasons, I feel confident seeing so many champions of color, seeing how great we can be or can go. Despite his antics or personal attitude, like Michael Jordan – Floyd Mayweather is undeniably a source of inspiration for African-American youth & boosts our self-confidence in seeing how great we can be DESPITE a majority having something negative to say about you or wanting to see you fail. Yet, I was still surprised when I did to boxing what I did with the other aspects of my life I have lived through or experienced – went back in history. Already knowing people of color’s contributions to the sport in the Modern day, I would’ve never known about the Murderer’s Row, the heavily avoided group of black boxers, from the 1940’s-50’s, and the part they played in boxing history. Talking about black excellence – one HAS to mention the group. Providing some context, like many other sectors in America at the time, American boxing was segregated with the color bar – examples are champions like Charley Burley who held the World Colored Middleweight title or Ed Martin who held the World Colored Heavyweight title. As a result of the above many these highly ranked boxers of color who had skills to compete with or beat champions holding full world recognized titles, were never given a chance or shot to make history & leave their mark – outside of the little bit they’re talked about now. Their lack of access to the fair title shots, are part of the reason that some of the champions in history are champions now..their lack of access to fair title shots is the reasons some boxing history IS boxing history, as many could argue that members of the Murderer’s Row could’ve beat many of the champions at the time (therefore they wouldn’t have been champions we talk about in history now). That’s why I feel like they’ve played such an important role in shaping what is boxing today, and am proud to highlight what makes a few of these men so great.
When thinking of modern African-American boxer’s who’ve went to prison and came out to gain notary through boxing – we often think of Bernard Hopkins, going back to the 1940’s however one could exchange the name for Isaiah James Chase or Jack Chase; released from prison in 1935. While his boxing record lacks big name ‘white’ champions (see the above in reference segregated World Boxing titles) Isaiah was able to win the California State Middleweight title and would go on to win the California State Light Heavyweight as well. Archie Moore, Eddie Booker, Tiger Wade & Charley Burley were some of the top rated names on Isaiah’s ledger, all of whom were members of the Murderer’s Row themselves.
Holman Williams is another member of the Murderer’s Row who obtained World Colored Championship belts (Lightweight & Middleweight), but never got the shot he deserved at a major world recognized title – who started the pro ranks as a featherweight in 1932 and found himself a top rated welterweight 4-5 years later. Holman’s skills were so top-notch that the great trainer Eddie Futch said Holman was one of the greatest fighters he had the privilege of seeing and also that he’d rather watch Holman shadowbox than watch other fighters fight. Holman is also cited as having a hand in training one of the greatest, if not the greatest boxer of our time…Joe Louis. The last statement alone is enough to mention Holman in conversation’s held today regarding the influential or meaningful boxers of all time.
Lastly, there is Charley Burley. Outside of Holman Williams, Eddie Futch stated that Charley Burley was one of the finest boxers he’d ever seen – a compliment of the highest order. Charley’s resume boasts wins over Aaron Wade, Bert Lytell, Billy Smith, Fritzie Zivic, Archie Moore, Jack Chase, Cocoa Kid & many others; Charley fought middleweights, light-heavyweights & heavyweights and more than often won if not held his own yet never got a shot at the world title he deserved. For example, Charley beat Fritzie Zivic on July 17th 1939 & was rater higher than him, however Zivic was the one who went on to get a title shot in his next fight against Henry Armstrong. It is often also believed that Billy Conn, Marcel Cerdan & Sugar Ray Robinson attempted to dodge fighting Charley (and a few other members of the Murderer’s Row as well), a testament to his skills and ring prowess. Just the fight schedule Charley maintained shows one of a person on a blazing trail, between 1940 and 1946 for example, he fought 60 times. Comparing that to a boxer who fights 3-4 times a year now, and Charley puts them to shame! Charley Burley is a true testament of one who’s recognition came far after the fighter was in the prime. The RING magazine placed Charley Burley in the # 86 spot in their top 100 list of greatest punchers, made the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1983 & the International Boxing Hall of Fame the same year he died, 1992.
Though great, many of the Murderer’s Row aren’t discussed today or even brought up in conversations relevant to them. For that reason, I felt it necessary to make the appropriately titled “Murderer’ Row” song for this year’s Black History Month, as well as writing this article having been given the chance. I hope I am able to shed some light on a few of the forgotten heroes of Black history & boxing history all the same.