That he fought for the world heavyweight championship, when it was boxing's most coveted title, gave Clarence "Red" Burman a distinction that he carried for more than 50 years . . . or until his death yesterday after a prolonged battle with Pagett's disease.
Funeral services will be private.
Burman, a Baltimore native, reached that high point in his life when he fought Joe Louis in 1941 Burmanat Madison Square Garden and put on a courageous effort before losing on a fifth-round knockout.
The bout brought Burman high praise. Louis said that his opponent connected with some authoritative punches while rarely going into a defensive mode.
"Without Joe giving me a chance at the title, the world never would have heard of me," Burman always told friends. "I'm indebted to him, and in my nightly prayers I never forgot to include his name."
Burman died yesterday at a nursing home at age 80. He had been in declining health for the past 10 years. Although he became Baltimore's premier heavyweight and was ranked among the top three contenders, he never intended to become a fighter.
"I was a schoolboy in 1928 when Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president, was campaigning against Herbert Hoover," he said.
"It was a bitter election with a lot of religious bias. I came from an Irish Catholic family that talked about Smith all the time, and kids in those days pretty much reflected what they heard their parents say at the dinner table.
"Coming home from school, some of the non-Catholic kids would taunt me about Al Smith. Arguments would start, frequently turning into punches being thrown. I won so many of those street battles that people said I should become a boxer."
Burman was a courageous campaigner. He knew how to move and counterpunch, but was not considered a knockout artist.
He put up a record of 56-14-2 from 1934 to 1942. In addition to meeting Louis, he fought and lost to light heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis in 1936.
At the time, he was trained and managed by Max Waxman and Jack Dempsey, as the country's boxing promoters searched for a "white hope" to meet Louis.
Against Louis, Burman gave a spirited performance before being stopped in the fifth round. Earlier in the bout, Burman had Louis on the floor, though not in apparently serious trouble.
Among the ranking boxers Burman defeated were such notables as Tommy Farr and Steve Dudas.
Burman met his wife, the former Marie Eleanor Dinfelder, in New York in 1936, while under the tutelage of Dempsey and Waxman. "I met her coming out of Blessed Sacrament Church, up near Central Park, right there on the steps," he said. "I can't think of meeting at a better place. I was 19, Marie was 15. We went on to marry and have a great family."
Near the end of his boxing career, Burman opened a neighborhood tavern in West Baltimore. Later, he served as a sheriff for Baltimore city before retiring and then heading security at Towsontown Plaza.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, James and Richard; a daughter, Judith Moran, and three sisters, Thelma Stephens, Irene Zaccari and Concetta Wilson.