How Boxing Legend Charley Burley Inspired ‘Fences’


Charley Burley was denied his shot at fame in segregated America, and ended up as a sanitation worker. But his dignity and character would end up inspiring one of the best plays about sports.

As I eye the advertisements for the film adaption of August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning masterpiece Fences, starring—and directed by—Denzel Washington, I think back to a day in 1993 when I paced around a suite in the Waldorf Astoria chatting with George Foreman.

Foreman had arrived early for his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. I was the producer of Cavett’s CNBC series, but—as Foreman’s lawyer explained when he introduced me to Big George—I’d also recently published a history of old-time boxing trainers.

“Which trainers?” Foreman asked suspiciously as his face took on the displeased expression he displayed when an opponent had the temerity to punch him in the face with a stiff left jab.

I mentioned Joe Louis’s trainers, Rocky Marciano’s trainer, and a few others, but Foreman’s mood darkened. My wife, making a rare appearance at a taping, stood in the corner snapping photos of me looking quite small and abashed beside the immense past- and future-heavyweight champion of the world.

“Archie Moore worked in your corner in the Ali fight, right?” I asked finally, breaking a weighty silence.

Moore was the former light-heavyweight champ, a fine fighter who’d fought over 200 professional fights.

“Yeah,” Foreman said.

“Did Archie ever tell you about Charley Burley?”

Burley, a boxer from the ’40s and ’50s—and a legend among boxing cognoscenti—was a natural middleweight who often fought and defeated much larger men, including the great Archie Moore.

Foreman nodded.

“Well,” I said, “I think I’m the last person who ever interviewed Charley Burley. I wrote an article about him for Ring magazine. You were on the cover of that issue.”

With that, Foreman transformed from the moody George Foreman who grunted his answers to reporters before his fight with Ali into the amiable grill salesman and American icon.

“Let me shake your hand again,” Foreman told me. “Now I respect you.”

“Don’t tell me, tell my wife.”

“I respect your husband,” he told her with his big pitchman’s smile, and I suspected for more than a moment that my life might be downhill from there.

Which brings us to Fences.

Wilson’s play tells the story a former Negro Leagues baseball star who never was allowed to cross the “color line” and compete in Major League Baseball. Burley, it turns out, was an inspiration for Troy Maxson, the hero of the play.

I learned this while chatting with Julia, Burley’s wife of 50 years. The Burleys were staying in their daughter’s home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the neighborhood which is also the location for Wilson’s 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century.

“You’re from New York,” Julia Burley said. “We go up there to see August’s plays.”

“August? August Wilson?”

“He grew up across the street.”

The parallels between Burley and Wilson’s hero were immediately apparent.

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Source: The Daily Beast | Ronald K. Fried