Back in the 1940’s & 50’s there resided a group of men known as The Murders Row, men who were so good that they were avoided at all costs by the champions in or around their particular division, left instead in most cases to fight each other.
The men in question were Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Herbert “Cocoa Kid” Lewis Hardwick, Jack Chase, Eddie Booker, Elmer Ray, Aaron Wade and Bert Lytell, all men of African American descent, all men who were dealt a bad hand in the great scheme of things.
Calling Inmate #1
The Greatest fighter of all these men was Charley Burley. A man widely known as the most talented fighter to NEVER win a world title, one who the more memorable Archie Moore later claimed to be the greatest fighter ever, but don’t just take his word for it, the sentiment was echoed by one of boxing’s best trainers Eddie Futch calling him ‘the finest all-around fighter I ever saw.”
Due to the way in which he was avoided by the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Conn, Marcel Ceden and Jake LaMotta he was able to only capture two titles, the World Coloured Welterweight Championship and the World Coloured Middleweight Championship ending his career fighting heavyweights in a bid to find meaningful fights.
Burley was avoided because of the skill he was born with, the champions avoided him like the plague because he represented a high risk / low reward kind of contest for the men at the top.
Burley retired winning 83 contests without ever seeing a major world title fight. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 the same year of his death where for once the boxing world stood up and recognized this great fighter’s achievements and his futile attempts to get to the top.
Step Forward Inmate #2
All the men who were categorized under the banner of boxing’s “Murderers Row” held the distinction as being boxing’s most dangerous. Eddie Booker, a Light heavyweight who retired with a record of 66 wins with just 5 losses, a fighter who defeated the great Archie Moore where in his own words Eddie was only two men to do so while Moore was at his peak.
Booker was considered a gentleman in and out of the boxing ring but like all of our fighters in Murderers Row, he was subjected to racism as well as some un-sportsmanship conduct as the doctored gloves of his opponents, left Eddie with terrible injuries to his eyes, leaving him blind throughout his remaining years. He was inducted into the world boxing hall of fame.
As I found myself doing research into these men, I stumbled upon this man. one which I knew very little about, something which I am ashamed to say, Herbert “Cocoa Kid” Lewis Hardwick, a Puerto Rican who once floored the great Sugar Ray Robinson in a sparring session when the greatest was at his peak. So it becomes a little clearer to imagine why on both occasions a fight was signed between the two men, that it would break down at the negotiation stage. Herbert like each of the men on the list never fought for a world title, left out in the cold because of his God given talents.
That’s not to say he didn’t have some great wins on his record as at his retirement from the sport read 176-56-11. As in a lot of cases “Cocoa Kid” suffered from the sheer amount of fights which came to the forefront when he was honorably discharged from the Navy in World War II with Pugilistic dementia. Still he fought on with the condition wanting to keep it a secret.
Like in many cases, Boxing can be an unforgiving mistress which was the case here, retired from the sport in 1950, Herbert was left penniless, divorced from his wife, his kids too also abandoned him. He died in 1966 leaving a legacy but not much else as his name lives on in the International Boxing Hall of Fame which he was inducted to in 2012.
Please stand in Line #4
Light Heavyweight Lloyd Marshall did, in fact, win the vacant “Duration” World Light Heavyweight Title in 1944 with a victory over Nate Bolden but due to his bad luck of arriving at his peak throughout World War II when titles were frozen the sport’s biggest prize eluded him.
His claim to fame amongst many boxing historians was his eight knockdown win over Ezzard Charles in front of over 10,000 that were in attendance that night as Charles’ handlers scurried for an excuse on why their man got annihilated the way he did.
The excuse offered was that Charles had a hip problem coming into the contest, whether this is true is unknown but it was no fluke on Marshall’s part who throughout his amazing career held wins over nine world champions – names which I’m sure you will know, Charley Burley, Freddie Mills, Ken Overlin Johnny Romero, Nate Bolden, Anton Christoforidis, Joey Maxim, Holman Williams, Jake LaMotta, Lou Brouillard, and Teddy Yarosz.
His decline started after beating Freddie Mills in 1947 where thereafter he lost half of his remaining contests, coming to the reality that his career was coming to an end with the gentle persuasion from his wife, taking a much safer job in security & correctional work.
Marshall was inducted in to the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and is also in the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame.
No Time for Sleeping Inmate #5 Step forward
One of the most talented Welterweights & Middleweights of his day Holman Williams like the trend that resides in this article, never was able to capture a major world title but beat some of the world’s best in the likes of Cocoa Kid, Charley Burley, Kid Tunero, Lloyd Marshall, Eddie Booker, Steve Belloise, Bob Satterfield, and Archie Moore but after losing back to back losses to Marcel Ceden & Jake LaMotta he retired shortly after in 1948.
Upon retiring, he relocated to Akron, OH and trained young fighters there. On July 15, 1967 Williams was killed in a fire while asleep in the club where he worked
Fighting throughout the 1930’s & 40’s Jack Chase or should I say Young Joe Lewis which is the name he went by in those earlier stages of his professional career, fighting mainly on the west coast he took several regional titles but a major one evaded his grasp even though being ranked number two for long spells of his career.
Chase which is the name he changed to in 1942, not only chased (excuse the pun) trouble inside a boxing ring, he had his fair few tussles with the law outside it also, spending a few lonely nights in a jail cell once for shooting fellow Murderers Row fighter Aaron Wade before retiring from boxing in 1948.
Not much is recorded in the history books about how Elmer Ray started in the sport but what is known is the fact that he made his impact in the heavyweight division sitting just behind the champion of the time Joe Louis who was fighting for land and country, Elmer was a devastating puncher which is mirrored on the Ring Magazines 100 greatest where Elmer stood at 44.
The ending to his career is also cloudy with not much ready information regarding his situation. He retired in 1949 having lost by knockout to John Holman with a record of 85-17-5 (64 coming by way of knockout)
#8 Please get in Line
The look of amazement comes over each and every fight fan when looking at the extensive amateur backgrounds of the likes of Vasyl Lomachenko or perhaps Guillermo Rigondeaux but take the man in question here, Aaron Wade is reported as having over 600 amateur contests before turning pro in 1935. I think we will all agree is some feat.
Following in the footsteps of his brother who was also a boxer, Aaron went a couple of steps further as he fought in the Welterweight / Middleweight and Light Heavyweight divisions which are another great feat considering that he only stood at 5’5.
Most known for his infamous dive that he took in the last fight of his career against Sugar Ray Robinson, Wade’s personal life after retirement spiralled out of control as he become more interested in seeing the bottom of a bottle as alcohol took a hold of him. Still like he did with many an opponent he beat the addiction, finding a more worthwhile activity in helping the less fortunate. Wade lived into his 60’s where after suffering a heart attack, he was unable to return to his feet, this time he had lost the biggest fight of his life but left people like myself wondering if he had got that shot at a world title would he have been able to capture it, thus freeing himself from this Murderers row category.
Last but not least – Please state your name #9
Conflicting stories of how Bert Lytell started out was argued between him learning his craft in the Navy whilst others thought that the Army should be credited with giving skill to this great fighter.
Bert or “Chocolate Kid” was a very confident young man who it is reported walked into the Stillman gym where upon seeing two men sparring said to the man shouting tactics from ringside of his opinion that he could beat both men. Alerted perhaps to the bravado of Bert, the gym gave him his first taste of professional boxing, not a winning one but a start which would soon reap benefits as he beat some of the best fighters in the Middleweight & Light Heavyweight divisions in the 1940’s / 50’s.
Always ranked very highly he fought some of his fellow murderers row inmates due to the fact the white fighters at the time were uninterested in fighting him, which may have been for good reason.
Lytel was involved in two tussles with Jackie Dathard starting in 1948 where after drawing the first encounter he rematched Jackie this time with dire circumstances as Dathard never regained consciousness after being knocked out in the seventh round.
The result played on his mind as it would any fighter but after an unsuccessful last two years of his career finding wins ever elusive, he mysteriously disappeared from the sport and from life for that reason.
So in my brief summary of each of these men it becomes clear on why they were avoided, champions who had made it to the top of their respective divisions looked upon each, some with disdain for their colour, others with jealousy of the skills that each possessed.
Amongst boxing fans these are fighters who have been left behind in the archives, each with their unique story to tell, it is from doing the research leading up to writing this article that I found myself embroiled by each man’s story.
I found myself laughing at the actions of some, angered at others but on the whole felt sorrow that each didn’t get the adulation they so rightly deserved. We all know instantly who the likes of Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis are, but ask a fight fan who Charley Burley was I guarantee you will get a long pause.
The nine men on murderers row have since got credited for their sacrifices for our sport as we continue to wonder which of the men could have become a household name to the fights fans of today, I guess we will never know.
The cell door closes as Roll call is wound up for this one – Murderers Row – The Inmates forgotten by many, live on through others.