Merely the thought of facing Joe Louis was known to induce panic. Leaving the dressing room at Madison Square Garden to travel the long aisle leading to the ring, amid the din and clamor of an impatient crowd, could tighten the emotional knot. With each step, the intimidation factor fueled an infamous case of muscular paralysis.
Louis, the "Brown Bomber," carried dynamite in his fists and had the quickness of a cat. Fifty years ago, Clarence "Red" Burman made that ominous walk and, to his everlasting credit, unlike so many other boxers, before and after, couldn't wait to get there.
There was no trauma in his eyes or fright in his heart as he became the first and only Baltimore challenger to contend for the world heavyweight boxing championship. Burman was there to make a fight, not to fall over in quick surrender. "I wanted the title," he said. "That was my only thought. I trained hard, got in great shape and was there to give it my best shot because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Burman stayed around until 2:49 of the fifth round with Louis and never retreated. "I answered the opening bell and tried to bust him up," he said. "I think I ripped his eye. I never lost confidence. I wasn't nervous. I trained for 60 days at Madam Bay's Camp in Chatham, N.J. Road work, sparring, proper rest, watching fight movies and talking boxing all the time."
A pronounced slow starter, trainers Eddie Ross and Harry "Heine" Blaustein had him shadow-box at a rapid pace for 30 minutes in the locker room. Red was ready. As a 10-to-1 underdog, he quickly got the attention of the 18,061 spectators who recognized how intent he was to engage the champion. Not a power hitter, but a wearing, relentless workman, his strategy had been defined by co-managers Jack Dempsey and Max Waxman.
"Dempsey told me to make the fight, to stay right on top of him and never let up. That's exactly what I did." Louis, at 202 1/2 , had a 14 1/2 -pound advantage over the Baltimore-born battler. In the third round, Louis went down and the roar was deafening. Referee Art Donovan, however, ruled it a slip but Red insisted he had dropped him with a left to the chin.
Burman earned compliments from the press and public for a courageous effort, even if he got counted out in the fifth round. Gayle Talbot, of the Associated Press, wrote: "The big crowd saw Burman light into Louis like he never had heard of him, and continued to fight with everything he had until a final sickening right under the heart sent him down.
"That was about the round that generally had been picked for the Redhead's exit, but no one had foreseen the excitement he was to generate. He went across to throw himself at Louis before the sound of the opening bell died away and never took a backward step."
Sports editor Paul Menton, of The Evening Sun, offered this ringside opinion: "Let it be said that Burman made a gallant stand as long as he was able. He didn't quit as did Max Baer. He didn't run away as did Bob Pastor. He didn't attempt to hold off the champion and box as did Tommy Farr. He didn't go down with one punch as did so many of Louis' opponents."
Rodger Pippen, sports editor of the Baltimore News-Post, observed: "The criticism was made that Red didn't throw all his efforts into one desperate gamble early, before he had taken so many blows. Red did try, but Louis never fought a better defensive fight. He blocked at least 50 of Red's shots."
Jack Cuddy, of United Press International, described Burman as "entirely fearless, pursuing the champion -- bobbing and weaving in Jack Dempsey style, the style the Old Manassa Mauler taught him."
Burman, a half-century ago, was the world's third-ranked contender behind Max Baer and Arturo Godoy. Louis, always generous, praised the game loser. "I hit him the hardest I ever hit a man. He fought with all he had. That's all you can ask a man to do, ain't it?"
Burman, now 74, hasn't been feeling his best but isn't one to complain. He says the bout with Louis brought a measure of fame and, for that, he's eternally grateful . . . even if the champion put him down and out. "You know, there's not a night in my life I don't say a prayer for Joe. Boxing for the title, even though I lost to one of the greatest, meant a lot to me."
Clarence "Red" Burman looked the champion in the eye, never blinked, flinched or clinched. He made it a fight and created a lasting identity. It was an honorable defeat.