Rahman could take heart from Burman bid

Fellow Baltimorean had it tougher in bout vs. Louis 60 years ago


April 21, 2001|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Hasim Rahman enters the ring tonight (Eastern time) in Johannesburg, South Africa, to challenge Lennox Lewis for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation heavyweight titles, the Baltimore boxer will be a 14-1 underdog.

The odds were just as great 60 years ago for Red Burman, the last Baltimorean to fight for the heavyweight crown. But Burman faced an even more insurmountable task the night of Jan. 31, 1941, when he found himself in an 18-foot square ring at New York's Madison Square Garden with Joe Louis, then 26 and in the prime of his career.

Boxing writers of the day perceived Burman as the latest in what they cynically referred to as Louis' "Bum of the Month" Club. Louis was trying to stay as busy as possible while facing induction into the Army, fighting a procession of nondescript foes in rapid-fire order.

But Burman, in retrospect, was a more legitimate contender than Rahman, who has never beaten a formidable rival. Thanks to victories over rugged Tommy Risko and British champion Tommy Farr, Burman was ranked No. 3 in the world behind Max Baer and Arturo Godoy at a time when Ring magazine was the sole ranking authority.

On that night, fighting before a sellout crowd of 18,061, Burman, with co-manager Jack Dempsey in his corner, came close to stunning the boxing world when he staggered Louis in the third round. According to his trainer, Heinie Blaustein, a trifle more zeal and enterprise on Burman's part and he would have returned to Baltimore wearing the championship belt.

Blaustein, who guided fellow Baltimoreans Harry Jeffra and brothers Joe and Vince Dundee to world titles, would later recall the dramatic moment when Burman half-punched and half-pushed the fabled "Brown Bomber" through the ropes.

"Red could punch, and he staggered Louis early," Blaustein said. "He had him hanging over the ropes, halfway out of the ring. All he needed was to give Louis a hard shove or plant his foot behind him, and [Louis] would have fallen into press row.

"If the referee [Frank Fullam] didn't catch it, Red would have become the heavyweight king. But he was too clean a fighter. I'm not saying he was in Joe Louis' class, but Red Burman was no bum."

His big chance gone, Burman ultimately succumbed to Louis' withering attack, a brutal body shot ending the bout at 2:49 of the fifth round.

But in no way was Burman ashamed of his performance. He exhibited no fear before the fight despite Louis' intimidating power and imposing knockout record.

"Dempsey told me the only chance I had was to make the fight and stay on top of Joe," Burman recalled. "I carried the fight to him from the opening bell. I know I stunned Louis with a hook and slit his eye in the second round, and had him shook again in the third. He took my best shot. That's what made him a champion."

Burman weighed only 188 pounds - a cruiserweight by today's standards - and gave away 14 1/2 pounds to the champion. But his gutsy showing won the plaudits of the ringside reporters.

The late Sun sports editor, Jesse Linthicum, wrote: "Burman made a game and noble effort in his quest of the title. To his credit, it must be said he didn't backwater, as many other challengers have done since Louis won the title from Jim Braddock in 1937."

Linthicum's opinion was shared by sports editor Paul Menton of The Evening Sun. "Let it be said that Burman made a gallant stand for 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. And he didn't go down from one punch as did so many of Louis' opponents."

Gayle Talbot, covering for the Associated Press, wrote: "The big crowd saw Burman light into Louis like he had never heard of him, and continued to fight with everything he had until a final sickening right under the heart sent him down."

Added Rodger Pippen of the then Baltimore News-Post: "The criticism was made that Red didn't throw all his efforts into one desperate gamble early, before he had taken so many blows. But Louis never fought a better defensive fight. He blocked at least 50 of Red's shots."

Burman even received praise from the laconic Louis. "That's a good, tough boy," he said of his challenger from Baltimore. "That right to the body that ended the fight was just about the hardest punch I ever threw. He fought with all he had. That's all you can ask of a man, ain't it?"

Burman ended his professional career in 1942 with an outstanding record of 75-20-2. He would later serve his native city as a deputy sheriff and was among the initial inductees, with his trainer, Blaustein, to the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame in 1973.

But Burman, who died in 1996, will be best remembered for his battle against Louis. It hardly made him rich. He earned $12,500 - a mere pittance compared to the $1 million purse Rahman is guaranteed for his fight against Lewis.

"Sure it was worth it," he would say when anyone recalled that historic night in the Garden. "I've lived off that memory all my life. Boxing for the title against one of the greatest meant everything to me. That night made a somebody out of a nobody."

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