Murderers' Row (boxing)
Murderers' Row refers to a group of middleweight boxing contenders in the United States competing in the 1940s and 1950s, primarily of an African-American background. Renowned for their toughness and great boxing ability, at the time they were feared throughout the boxing world and are categorised as being the most avoided fighters of their generation. According to boxing pundit Jim Murray, the Murderers’ Row were “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”. The term ‘Black Murderers’ Row’ was coined by writer Budd Schulberg, screenwriter of 'On the Waterfront'.
Fighters recognised under the Murderers’ Row banner include Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, Herbert "Cocoa Kid" Lewis Hardwick, Jack Chase, Eddie Booker, Aaron Wade, Bert Lytell and Elmer Ray . Avoided by many of the famous names of the day, the nine Murderers’ Row fighters faced each other a total of 61 times, the fights often classics and grueling contests. None of the fighters would ever compete for a title, despite being at the top of the rankings for many years and widespread admiration in the world of boxing.
The Murderers’ Row fighters
The greatest fighter in Murderers’ Row was probably Charley Burley, regarded by many in the boxing community as the most talented fighter never to compete for a world title. Fight writer Tom Archdeacon, wrote of Burley, “(he was) kept from title shots and ducked by many of the top fighters, he was reduced to fighting other tough - and avoided - black middleweights”. For nearly a decade Burely defeated everyone put in front of him. In the mid-1940s, world champions in Fritzie Zivic, Billy Soose and the great Archie Moore counted as Burley’s conquests. He was ranked in the top 10 in the Welterweight and Middleweight divisions for most of the 1940s, without receiving a title shot. (Burley did hold the World Colored Welterweight and World Colored Middleweight Championship titles.) Near the end of his career Burley took to fighting Heavyweights in a bid to find meaningful contests, including J.D. Turner and future Heavyweight champ Ezzard Charles. Eventually, Burley would retire after winning 83 bouts, without ever being able to meet in the ring the champions of the time, such as Rocky Graziano, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. Burley was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Another member, Eddie Booker campaigned primarily at Light Heavyweight in the 1940s. Based in California, Booker blazed a path through the division, he would be victorious in 67 bouts, only losing on 5 occasions. A physically muscular and durable fighter, he was a blend of boxing skill and formidable punching power. In his autobiography, Light Heavyweight world champion, Archie Moore, stated that Booker was one of only two boxers who beat him in his prime and rated him as the best fighter he ever faced. Booker would compete in 80 bouts without ever being stopped. Fellow International Hall of Famer, Holman Williams fought across three weight divisions. Graduating from the same Detroit gym as Joe Louis, Williams was famed for his sublime defensive skills and stylish technique. Highly respected boxing coach Eddie Futch stated he would rather watch Williams spar than most fighters box in the ring. A popular and exciting fighter, the local New Orleans paper and Ring Magazine both reported on the large crowds that would attend Williams’ fights and that he received standing ovations for his performances. Williams would eventually compete in over 180 bouts, without ever getting a shot at the title.
Fellow member Jack Chase, also known as the ‘Young Joe Louis’, frequently in trouble with the law (he was imprisoned several times and at one point was arrested for shooting fellow Black Murderer’s row fighter Aaron Wade, although both men later claimed the incident was an accident), became famous due to his demolition of highly rated Heavyweight contender Lee Savold. Subsequently, he struggled to arrange fights against the title holders. This was despite being ranked second in the world at Middleweight for several years. The San Francisco Chronicle sports correspondent of the time, Eddie Muller, wrote that Chase moved around the ring with speed and skill “every move a picture.” It is reported that he had at least 48 bouts in the 1930s which are not included in the official record, but little is known of his career during this time.
Many of these fighters would only receive the official recognition they deserved years after their careers. Five of the members of Murderers’ Row have since become International or World Hall of Famers.