Photo Credits: Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art
Many people regard “Sugar” Ray Robinson as the greatest fighter of all time, largely because of the speed and power he showcased in the ring beating many hall of famers handily and coming back to avenge every loss he suffered. Ray was a “special” fighter who moved up and down weight classes, displaying power in both hands, great footwork, amazing head movement and a granite chin (having been down but never out in over 200 professional contests).
In 1997 Ring Magazine named him the best pound for pound fighter of all time. What if I told you there was a group of fighters that Sugar Ray Robinson avoided and never fought during his career. Its said that Robinson pulled out of over 20 agreements to fight most of these fighters though he would face the smallest member of the group at one point. This is the story of the Black Murderers Row(BMR).
THE BMR AND BOXING IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
The name Black Murderers Row came from a boxing reporter turned screenwriter by the name of Budd Schulberg. Schulberg wrote for various boxing and media outlets in his day before going on to write the screen play for the critically acclaimed film On The Waterfront (look it up). Schulberg gave the seven fighters the BMR moniker largely because of how good they were and the fact that they were so avoided. The fighters in the BMR would ruin their foes, several weren’t the same after competing with them and there is one death reported from injuries an opponent sustained in a fight against one of the BMR members, more on that later.
Though the fighters in the BMR were some of the best ever to lace up the gloves they and languished professionally for several reasons. One is that they were simply TOO good and no one wanted to fight them, the other was racism. Many white fighters didn’t want to face the BMR simply because they were black and defeat at the hands of a black fighter in those days wouldn’t have been well received as it would have challenged the myth of racial superiority.
One of the exceptions to this was Jake LaMotta who fought several of the BMR fighters. During the time that the BMR fighters fought there were still “colored” boxing champions and fight cards that pitted white fighters against black, for example if there were six fights on a card and black fighters won four of the matches often that fact wouldn’t be reported on individually instead it would be said that the blacks beat the whites 4-2.
The fighters in the BMR needed to stay active and as true competitors they wanted to face the best opposition so who did they fight in some of their best fights? Each other. The seven members of the BMR faced each other a combined total of 61 times. Here is a brief look at the seven men that made up the BMR
The BMR consisted of seven fighters (though some argue that others can be included in this group). They were Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, Louis “Coco Kid” Hardwick, Hollman Williams, Burt Lytell, Jack Chase and Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade (the only fighter in the group whom Robinson did eventually face). Collectively they fought as professionals from the early 20’s through the early 50”s.
What made these men unique was their unparalleled boxing skill, durability and tenacity inside the ring. Each of these men had the ability to do what it took to get the win, in some fights they boxed in others they brawled and on occasion they would do both. Lets take a brief look at each fighter individually
CHARLEY BURLEY (83W-12L-50KO)- Burley was the most popular and said to be the most talented of the group, Burley was a top 10 ranked middleweight for an entire decade. He beat the best fighters he could including future hall of fame boxer Archie Moore. He was scheduled to fight Sugar Ray Robinson on more than one occasion however Robinson would pull out of the fights for various reasons. In an effort to get a shot at a title and fight the best fighters available Burley would campaign as high as Heavyweight. Though he never got a title shot.
Eddie Booker (66W-5L-8D-34KO)- Booker was one of the harder punchers in the group. He was a boxer puncher that would go on to defeat a prime Archie Moore who said that Booker was one of the best fighters he ever faced. Booker fought mainly as a Light Heavyweight. It was later revealed that booker was partially blind from an injury sustained in competition but even with impaired vision he would go on to beat Moore, Frankie Nelson & Hollman Williams
Hollman Williams(146W-31L-11D-36KO)— A defensive mastermind who would put on spectacular performances, outboxing his opponent in bouts so lopsided that Hollman was often said to receive standing ovations at the end of a fight. Williams trained in the same gym as Joe Louis and was trained by the Legend Eddie Futch.
Jack Chase (81W–24L-12D-36KO)- Chase was dubbed the “Young Joe Louis” as he dominated his opponents and won his first 60 fights! chase was described as poetry in motion, his footwork was sublime. He had a slick style but packed a hell of a punch! In 1941 he beat Roy Gillespie in a dominant performance. Sadly, Gillespie would later die from injuries sustained in the fight.
Lewis “Coco Kid” Hardwick (177W-56L-11D-44KO)- Hardwick was said to be the second best fighter in the group. He is said to have fought unofficially over 300 times as a pro with signature wins over solid fighters like Kid Azteca, Eddie Dolan and Earl Turner to name a few. A dominant and skilled fighter he would be brought in to help Ray Robinson as he prepared for a few fights, the sparring matches were said to be heated at times with the kid besting Robinson on occasion, even sending Robinson to the canvas in 1949 with a well placed overhand right.
Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade (60W-16L-6D-31KO)- The smallest of the group wade stood just 5’5” but what he lacked in height he made up for in determination. Wade like the rest of the BMR was a skilled fighter, so much so that he was one of Ray Robinsons’ chief sparring partners during his time at welterweight. Wade is the only BMR fighter that fought Ray Robinson in a sanctioned bout, a fight that he would lose in what some deemed as shady circumstances
Bert Lytell(71W-23D-7D-24KO)- One of the most rugged opponents in the BMR. Even if you beat Lytell, he would leave his mark on you, often the fighters that beat him would go on to lose to him in a rematch. Lytell had a great match against Jake LaMotta that he would go on to lose in the 10th round.
What made all of these fighter special are all of the things I mentioned about Ray Robinson at the start of this piece. In addition to the fact that they truly faced the best in their weight classes and sometimes two weight classes above where they originally competed on many occasions.
This piece is a brief look at The Black Murderers row but it doesn’t do the accomplishments of these men justice. Please, do yourself a favor and read one of the books written on these gladiators and look them up on YouTube.
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