Feared Fighters: Boxing’s Black Murderers Row

“The most exclusive men’s club the ring has ever known. They were so good and so feared that they had to have their own tournament.”

Feared, avoided and too good for their own good. Across the 1930s to 1950s, a group of eight fighters became known as ‘Black Murderers Row’.

Talented black contenders who were heavily ducked by the top champions of their era, they were forced to face each other in over 60 total gruelling fights. 

Despite their reputation and ability, none of these renowned fighters were ever given their deserved opportunity to contest for a world title in their otherwise illustrious careers. 

Those denied contenders were Charley Burley, Holman Williams, Cocoa Kid, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker, Jack Chase, Bert Lytell and Aaron Wade. Meet boxing’s ‘Black Murderers Row’.

Boxing's 'Black Murderers Row' Fighters

1. Charley Burley

Born: September 6th, 1917 

From: Bessemer, Pennsylvania, USA 

Died: October 16th, 1992 (aged 75) 

Divisions: Welterweight, Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 83-12-2, 50 KOs 

The most prominent and widely feared of the eight ‘Black Murderers Row’ names, Charley Burley is an all-time great fighter who enjoyed a Hall of Fame career but was avoided by the champions of his day.

Incredibly, that is believed to have included the greatest boxer in history too, Sugar Ray Robinson. The former welterweight and middleweight world champion’s manager, George Gainsford, would later admit his man “by-passed” the dangerous Burley during his title reign. 

Fellow champions Billy Conn, Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano were others to steer clear of him. Conn’s manager, Johnny Ray, even declared “never mention his name again” in response to a potential match-up. 

Burley was subsequently forced to battle tougher and avoided black middleweights but rallied to high-profile victories over other greats such as Fritzie Zivic, Billy Soose, Archie Moore and fellow ‘Black Murderers Row’ rivals. 

The son of a black coal miner and a white Irish immigrant, he got his hands on his era’s ‘World Coloured Welterweight and Middleweight Championships’, but Burley was never given his deserved shot at the proper belts. 

He eventually faced heavyweights later in his career in order to get meaningful contests, including future division ruler Ezzard Charles, and he is still regarded today as the best fighter to never fight for a world title. 

2. Holman Williams

Born: January 30th, 1915 

From: Pensacola, Florida, USA 

Died: July 15th, 1967 (aged 52) 

Divisions: Lightweight, Welterweight, Middleweight 

Career Record: 146-31-11, 36 KOs 

Iconic boxing trainer, Eddie Futch, once stated that he’d prefer to watch Holman Williams spar than see most fighters compete in the ring. 

Competing across three different divisions in his illustrious career, Williams honed his renowned technical and defensive skills in the same Detroit gym as the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis. 

Denied a title shot in any of the weights he starred in, Williams was hugely respected during his time and became a very popular contender among fans, who always travelled to witness his talents from ringside.

Despite a career of nearly 190 professional clashes, the Florida-native sadly never fought for a world title. 

But he was involved in many epic encounters with fellow members of Murderers Row and, while most rank Burley as the top of those eight avoided names, many argue Williams was the most outstanding boxer of the group. 

3. Herbert Lewis Hardwick

Very little video footage exists of boxing's Black Murderers Row fighters including Cocoa Kid (Image: AP).

Nickname: Cocoa Kid 

Born: May 2nd, 1914 

From: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico 

Died: December 27th, 1966 (aged 52) 

Divisions: Welterweight, Middleweight 

Career Record: 178-58-11, 48 KOs 

His real name was Herbert Lewis Hardwick Arroyo but the boxing world knew him as Cocoa Kid. 

Of the eight Murderers Row fighters, Cocoa Kid was the only one from outside of America. Born in his mother’s homeland of Puerto Rico to an African American father, he moved with his family to Atlanta, Georgia at a young age. 

Tragedy was rife early in his life. At just four years old, Hardwick’s dad, a working U.S Marine, was part of 306 crew that disappeared without a trace during World War I in what remains the single largest non-combat loss of life in Naval history. 

Shortly after, Hardwick’s mother also passed away, which saw him grow up with his maternal aunt Antonia Arroyo-Robinson and therefore grow closer to his Puerto Rican heritage. 

Years later, he began boxing under his aunt's husband as a coach and made his professional debut at just 15 years old. Being denied a title shot throughout his career, he did face off with prestigious names like Archie Moore, Lou Ambers and Chalky Wright. 

Interestingly in 1949, then welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson twice broke off an agreement to face Cocoa Kid. That same year, Hardwick is known to have dropped a prime Robinson in sparring while preparing for a title defence against Steve Belloise. 

Navy records later showed he had previously been discharged from serving in World War II for being diagnosed with pugilistic dementia by military doctors. But he kept this quiet in order to maintain a living from his boxing career. 

Sadly, Hardwick found himself broke and homeless after retiring in 1950, following a divorce which also saw him lose custody of his children. He battled with pugilistic dementia up until his death at a Veterans Hospital in 1966. 

4. Lloyd Marshall

Born: June 4th, 1914 

From: Madison County, Georgia, USA 

Died: August 4th, 1997 (aged 83) 

Divisions: Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 70-25-4, 36 KOs 

Fighting out of Cleveland, Ohio, Hall of Fame legend Lloyd Marshall began his professional career in 1936 at the age of just 17 after a reported amateur background of 200 bouts. 

Competing primarily at light-heavyweight, Marshall was able to earn a crack at the ‘Duration’ title and captured this in 1944 with victory over Nate Bolden. 

The fully recognised world titles were frozen during this time due to the ongoing World War II, meaning Marshall was never able to challenge for or earn the proper distinction of world champion that he clearly deserved. 

As well as his peak years coinciding with the war, he was blocked off from title fights by the obvious racial barriers that all members of Murderers Row faced and eventual ties with the mob who ran the sport at this time. 

Although Marshall enjoyed plenty of success regardless, earning impressive victories over eight fighters who held world titles. This included knocking out Ezzard Charles and overcoming Jake LaMotta, Joey Maxim, Freddie Mills and Tommy Farr. 

5. Eddie Booker

Eddie Booker was a heavily avoided contender during his era (Image: The Ring).

Nickname: Black Dynamite 

Born: November 5th, 1917 

From: Alto, Texas, USA 

Died: January 26th, 1975 (aged 57) 

Divisions: Welterweight, Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 66-5-8, 33 KOs 

Like all Black Murderers Row fighters, Eddie Booker was avoided by other elite names because of his skin colour and ring prowess. 

Fellow Hall of Famer Archie Moore, who Booker became the first to ever knock out, admitted: “When I was in my prime, one of my toughest had to have been against Eddie Booker, a fighting machine.

“He was one of the great fighters of my time. He had me fighting for dear life.”

Known as ‘Black Dynamite’, the Texas-born fighter was not only another victim of racism in the sport during this time but of its sleazy underworld too.

He was forced to retire early at the age of 27 after an altered pair of gloves caused severe damage to his eyes. Booker sadly lived the rest of his life blind and passed away at only 57. 

6. Jack Chase

Jack Chase was one of the members of boxing's Black Murderers Row fighters (Image: Getty).

Nickname: Young Joe Louis 

Born: January 27th, 1914 

From: Sherman, Texas, USA 

Died: March 23rd, 1972 (aged 58) 

Divisions: Welterweight, Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 81-24-12, 35 KOs 

Known as ‘Young Joe Louis’ during the early stages of his career, due to his comparable knockout power, he would later change his name to Jack Chase and enter the ring over 100 times in a sublime prize-fighting career. 

While never getting to contest for a world title, Chase did win many regional honours throughout his time, and bested some of his Murderers Row rivals. But he was also a troubled character outside of the squared-circle. 

The West Coast contender looked to be steamrolling his way towards higher recognition and a world title shot before run-ins with the law and subsequent prison stints. 

His third spell behind bars came after a crazy 1943 incident with fellow Black Murderers contender, Aaron Wade. While together in a bar, Chase was charged and arrested for shooting his future opponent in the shoulder. 

Chase was later released on bail and claimed the shooting was an accident. In another wild turn of events, Chase would knock Wade out inside 10 rounds when the pair met in the ring the following year. 

Earlier in his career, before changing his name, Chase was also involved in an unfortunately fatal fight with Roy ‘Jack’ Gillespie. His opponent tragically died from injuries sustained from his knockout defeat. 

Chase retired in 1948 with a clear absence of any of the big-name white fighters across his divisions on his record. He made a career mainly out of continuous battles with fellow Black Murderers Row foes. 

7. Bert Lytell

Nicknames: Chocolate Kid, The Beast of Stillman's Gym 

Born: January 24th, 1924 

From: Victoria, Texas, USA 

Died: January 26th, 1990 (aged 66) 

Divisions: Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 71-23-7, 24 KOs 

While his real name was believed to be Calvin Coolidge Lytle, it was Bert Lytell and ‘Chocolate Kid’ that he was more widely recognised as in the ring. 

As was the theme, Lytell was avoided like a plague by the top white fighters and champions of his day, forcing him to contest fellow black contenders regularly. 

Also known as ‘The Beast of Stillman's Gym’ during his rise to prominence on the scene, he more often than not came up on the winning side against stern opposition in the era. 

His record includes famous victories over Murderers Row contemporaries Charley Burley, Cocoa Kid and Holman Williams, as well as Charley Doc Williams, Archie Moore and Sam Baroudi. 

Two years after enlisting in the Naval reserves in 1942, where he learned to box with over 30 bouts in countries like Panama and Cuba, he was discharged and began his professional prize-fighting career. 

Lytell was always somewhat of an enigma, even during his time. There was a lot of confusion surrounding who the talented southpaw actually was due to varying background stories and aliases. 

Reports from the time suggest Lytell was another top black contender who Sugar Ray Robinson wasn’t keen on meeting in the ring. 

Robinson's conqueror and then middleweight champion, Randy Turpin, later used Lytell as a sparring partner for their rematch in 1951. Turpin would go on to lose his crown to Robinson and this would prove to be Lytell’s final year in the sport. 

Sadly, Chocolate Kid’s exit from boxing was as mysterious as his entrance. After retiring, his name rarely appeared in press cuttings unless it was for “police matters”. He died from liver cancer in 1990. 

8. Aaron Wade

Aaron Wade was a sparring partner and eventual opponent for Sugar Ray Robinson (Image: Top Class Boxing).

Nickname: Tiger 

Born: March 17th, 1916 

From: Trenton, Tennessee, USA 

Died: February 15th, 1985 (aged 68) 

Divisions: Welterweight, Middleweight, Light-Heavyweight 

Career Record: 64-16-6, 32 KOs 

Before carving out an esteemed professional career, Aaron Wade is believed to have enjoyed a decorated amateur background too. 

He is credited with becoming the first African American Golden Gloves champion in Illinois and reportedly had more than 600 fights. 

Despite standing at just 5 ft 5 in and beginning his career at 140 pounds, he would go on to become a dangerous and feared contender from welterweight to light-heavyweight. 

As well as wins over Black Murderers Row rivals Cocoa Kid and Bert Lytell, ‘Tiger’ Wade got the better of Archie Moore and Oakland Billy Smith too. 

Notably, Wade was another avoided contender who had a history with the great Sugar Ray Robinson. 

Wade became a sparring partner for the all-time great in 1948 but severely injured his ribs and forced him to cancel upcoming bouts following a dispute over payment for his services in camp. 

Unlike other Murderers Row fighters, Robinson did finally step into the ring with Wade in a non-title fight, albeit very late in his career.

But evidence later uncovered by Springs Toledo, in his book 'Murderers Row: In Search of Boxing's Greatest Outcasts', shows that ‘Tiger’ took a dive in that match-up after being paid hundreds of dollars to throw the fight. This was unknown to Robinson.

Despite descending into alcoholism in retirement, Wade fought back from it and devoted the rest of his life to helping those less fortunate as a Christian minister in San Francisco.