13/3/1942 - JD Turner, 220lbs; Charley Burley 150lbs - Charley Burley TKO 7 JD Turner

09.09.08 - By Matt McGrain: JD Turner was not a great heavyweight - but he was a white one. What that meant, in 1942, was that he didn’t need to win to be given another chance, and James D had plenty of them. His record was a winning one, both upon his retirement (he lost 8 of his last 9) and when the idea - the strange, even frightening idea - that he should share a ring with Burley, the Pittsburgh welterweight first surfaced. Indeed, despite a record that contained almost as many losses as wins, Turner found himself involved in boxing at the highest level.. Just over a month before he was to tangle with Burley, Turner had been out pointed in a close fight with another great Pittsburgh fighter, Billy Conn. The ten rounds saw Conn edge home, and although there was no stink about the decision, Turner’s impressive performance at the highest level had astoundingly led to his potentially having a say in the race to face Joe Louis for the Heavyweight title. If Turner was able to get past Charley Burley, there was talk that he would be matched with Bob Pastor who had twice fought Joe Louis - and hoped to be matched with him again. To this end, Pastor hoped to be seen to do a better job on Turner than Conn had, hopefully bringing him closer to another crack at the title. Turner himself had scored a third round knockout in the fight immediately after the slender loss to Conn, and, of course, had aspirations of his own. If a slender loss against Conn had him on the outskirts of the title picture, what could a win over Pastor do?

Turner, despite his limitations, did have more going for him than his colour. Described as having a smooth style, and although ponderous, he seems not to have been totally lacking in skills, and certainly, he had enough to keep things close with Conn. He was also a big heavyweight, weighing in at 215-225lbs and standing at 6 feet three inches. But for all his considerable strength, he was only a good hitter, not a great one, and was himself vulnerable to punching heavyweights - he was stopped by perennial contender Elmer Ray and two time Joe Louis victim Abe Simpson, for example. But he was to become the Heavyweight Champion of Texas, his home state, and he had something to fight for, that chance at Bob Pastor, - he also held a win over Neville Beech, at the time a ranked heavy, though Beech got the better of their series. By no means contender material, he was a journeyman elevated to the status of a stepping-stone fighter by virtue of his colour. Although big, and at the peak of his powers, he certainly wouldn’t have been considered a threat to any world class heavyweight.


The fight was the brain-child of promoter Tommy O’Loughlin, who had been ringside to see the 183 Conn eek out a decision over Turner, and hit upon the idea of setting up a fight between the giant Texan and Charley Burley. It should be noted at this point that Fritzie Zivic, also of Pittsburgh, was the same size as Charley and was not expected to fight heavyweights (though Fritzie certainly would have been up for it). Unfortunately such a match could not legally be made, and it required special permission from the Athletic Commission of Minnesota to go ahead - granted on the grounds that Charley was suffering form “a shortage of opponent’s in [Burley’s] own weight class”. And how. Charley was probably already one of the most dodged fighters in history and all kinds of trickery was employed to keep champions and even top contenders out of Burley’s ring. Henry Armstrong, Red Cochrane and Fritzie Zivic, had already made moves to avoid putting titles and reputations on the line against Charley and some say Conn’s name should also be on that list - later Jake LaMotta, who would fight almost anyone and Marcel Cerdan would decline invitations to the dance, and Archie Moore, who would absorb the beating of a lifetime at the hands of Burley, certainly wanted no part of any rematch. Sugar Ray Robinson, who many regard as the greatest of all time, made perhaps the most blatant duck of all, turning down a career’s best payday before he came to the title, and refusing point-blank to even entertain the notion once he had it in his possession. As the saying goes, “beggar’s can’t be choosers”, and Burley and O’Loughlin certainly were begging by this stage. History doesn’t record Charley’s reaction to the match being made, but there is a story that the two had almost come to blows outside the ring some months before. Broadcaster Harold Branson, who considered Burley the best fighter in history, claims Turner called Charley a racist name in the gym whilst Charley was sparring. The smaller man, not given to violence outside of the ring, reportedly had to be restrained. Whether or not this is true is unknown, but Charley did make a couple of “moves”, uncharacteristic of him. Firstly, he announced in the press that he’d “noticed that referees around here don’t strictly enforce the rule against holding a man [and] hitting him. It’s as much a foul as hitting below the belt. All I’m asking is that the rules be enforced.“ Burley almost never used the press in this manner, but it can be imagined that he was concerned what might happen to him should Turner be allowed to hold, lean and punch. Secondly, he got involved over the issue of gloves. As a welter and sometime middleweight, Burley was used to boxing with 6 ounce gloves, whilst Turner, as a heavyweight, generally fought in 8 ounce gloves. Burley wanted to be allowed to wear the smaller gloves whilst Turner fought in the heavier ones. But it was not to be. The Commission ruled that “It would obviously be unfair to allow the men to wear different gloves…Turner is a heavyweight, this is to be considered a heavyweight fight.” Charley Burley, heavyweight.

On the night of the fight, Charley would be giving up around 70lb, weighing 150 to JD’s 220, and six inches in height. He would be fighting in unfamiliar gloves designed to take the edge of a heavyweight’s concussive punches, to protect his bigger hands. But, seemingly overlooked by all aside from perhaps Burley himself, JD Turner had no advantage in reach. Burley’s freakishly long arms gave him a reach of 75 or 76 inches depending upon who you believe, and Turner’s reach was around the same. And then there was the attitude of Charley himself. In the run up to the battle, he seemed cool and calm, sure of himself, in fact. Dick Callum of the Minneapolis Times wrote: “How can the little fellow possibly hurt the big fellow? How can the big fellow fail to get a destructive punch home somewhere through the ten rounds? But Charley is so sure of himself, speaks of ways and means with such confidence that we are compelled to take his word for it.” Burley’s coolness in the light of what he was facing speaks to us of the type of man he was. Never good copy, loud or obnoxious, Burley was absolutely fearless and even in that golden age of boxing, may have been peerless in terms of skills in pound for pound terms - or if he had peers they were few and far between, and not keen on fighting him. Burley himself was not so reticent: “I never worried about heavyweights. You could pick your spots”, he told Sports Illustrated years later.

The fight itself was a massacre. Burley out jabbed, out-sped and out-boxed the giant Texan. From The Star Journal: “Burley was a jumping kangaroo as he stabbed Turner’s mouth to ribbons with a nasty left hand. Left hooks to the body and a long overhand right to the jaw were called into play just to make life more miserable for the huge Texan…Burley was jabbing him to death.” The few minutes of precious film which exist of Charley Burley - from the second fight with Oakland Billy Smith, a murderous punching and seemingly quite crazed light heavyweight contender - shows a fighter who pounced from steel springs to deliver lighting punches then retreat out of range. His hands were to low, he retreated in straight lines, and yes, he got away with it against Smith. And he would certainly have gotten away with it against the slower Turner. What the bigger man endured sounds like a kind of torture, flashing at something that wasn’t there before being repeatedly stabbed by it. From The Daily Tribune: “Burley’s leaping left hand, never missing, had mashed [Turner’s] mouth and lips into a sodden pulp. His own best punches had missed…Burley was brilliant in his manoeuvres against his big, heavy-handed opponent. He came in quickly.” At the end of the fifth round, Turner “wanted to quit, saying his stomach was full of blood, but his handlers made him try one more round. After that round he was sure he wanted to quit and no amount of urging could get him off his stool.”

Eddie Futch, who is quite clear in his opinion that Burley is one of the best to have ever fought, spoke with JD Turner, many, many years later about the night Charley Burley destroyed him, and Turner told him, “that little sucker knocked me out cold. I woke up in the dressing room.” Of course, no film exists of the night Burley fought Turner, but what always strikes me when reading about the fight is how one sided it seemed. Burley is an all time great fighter, and Turner wasn’t one of the top heavies of his day, as we have seen, but for Burley to have retired him on his stool having hardly taken a clean punch - imagine Miguel Cotto dishing out this sort of hammering to Matt Skelton or Shane Cameron. It doesn’t seem plausible. A great, and forgotten fight, it deserves to be recalled on occasion, I feel, and certainly it should be cherished as a part of the Burley legend, which continues to grow despite a dearth of footage and eye-ball witnesses

Directly after the fight JD Turner left for the military. Upon returning he re-embarked upon his professional career, and would again fail to make the impact at the highest level, against Elmer Ray, who stopped him in 5. He would win some, lose some, he would lift the Texas state title.

For Burley, the future looked momentarily brighter. An New York city benefit dinner was approaching and the welterweight champion Red Cochrane was to fight at it. Burley’s management were hopeful that with a win over a heavyweight under his belt, Burley might be good for a slot at the show, perhaps even in the opposite corner to Red. O’Loughlin wired New York, offering Charley Burley’s services free of charge.

He received no reply.

Article posted on 09.09.2008

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