Courtesy of newmexicoboxing.com
by Louie Burke
As told to Chris Cozzone & Ricardo Trujillo
Photos courtesy of Louie Burke
Compared to the boxers trying to make it in the ‘80s, the professional fighters today in New Mexico have it easy. Back then, there were no local cards. All New Mexico fighters had to go out-of-state to fight—always on someone else’s home turf. There were no padded records because every win was a hard-earned battle. The good thing was, you knew who the good fighters were. Guys like Tommy Cordova. And Louie Burke.
Louie Burke made his bones in the early days of ESPN, fighting the likes of Freddie Roach, Charlie “White Lightning” Brown and Hector Camacho. He beat Roach twice, lost a highly-disputed fight with Charlie Brown and got stopped due to a swollen eye in his bout with the Macho Man. He was on his way to a match-up with boxing legend Julio Cesar Chavez when injuries forced him to retire.
Fortunately for us, Louie Burke remained active in the sport, training and serving on the New Mexico State Athletic Commission for ten years. He continues to train fighters and his boxing philosophy has made him a sort of New Mexican version of Teddy Atlas.
We caught up with Louie at the PAL gym in Las Cruces one afternoon where he was training up-n-comin’ heavyweight from El Paso, David Rodriguez. After the training session, he took us back to the ‘80s and his time in the spotlight . . . .
We were at a post-fight interview after my first fight with Freddie Roach when somebody asked my father: “When did you know Louie was gonna become a boxer?”
His answer: “Six months before he was born.”
That kind of answers how I got into the sport: I was born into it.
My father, Sam Burke, boxed, back in the days when they’d have to hitchhike to different locations to fight. And he also boxed in the Marine Corps until he got shot in Korea. That ended his boxing career as a fighter. He had plans to turn pro, too, until he got wounded. He came back to coach and traveled all over the world with the U.S. Boxing team.
My brother Rocky boxed, too. He’s 8 years older than I am, so by the time he retired from boxing, I was just getting started. Rocky had his first amateur fight at 6 or 7 years old. He went to the Olympic trials in 1976, losing to Bruce Curry who ended up losing to Sugar Ray Leonard—and everyone knows how well he did. Rocky turned pro and had 7 pro fights (7-0) before he retired.
My dad had a problem about both of us fighting on the same pro card. He told us it’d be too stressful for him, and for us. Rocky would always worry more about me when I was fighting, and vice versa: I’d worry more about him when he was fighting.
My older sister would’ve boxed, too. She wanted to box. People don’t realize that my sister is actually the toughest one in the family. If any of us had the potential to be a world champion, it was her. If she’d been a boy, she would’ve pursued boxing but back then, there wasn’t much going on in women’s boxing. And as hard as my sister wanted to, my father wouldn’t let her. So, she missed her calling.
But I got inspiration from everybody in my family. My father, my brother, my sister, my mother . . . My brother was a real hard worker, and my father, a disciplinarian; my mom, she’s the diplomat of the family. So I took a little bit from everybody. In the ring? It’s hard to say where I drew my inspiration. My dad was a fierce competitor and so was my brother. I think we both got that from my father.
My amateur career started when I was 7 or 8. My second or third fight was with the legendary middleweight champion Gene Fullmer’s son, Bart. We fought over here at Williams Gym at NM State University, and it ended up a draw. At the time, my boxing career was sporadic. I was doing other sports: Little League baseball, football . . . Boxing was something I picked up because my father would take me to the gym. The gym served as a cheap babysitter at the time, but I got into boxing that way.
I didn’t take amateur boxing seriously until I was 14 or 15. Then, I went on to win the Silver Gloves state championship. I lost at Regionals but also won several Golden Gloves and AAU championships. I never did win a national championship but I was ranked as high as #3 in the nation. I did the Western Olympic trials in 1980, but lost there. I guess it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway, for that was the year the U.S. boycotted the Olympics. We had some good fighters but none of them got to go.
Six months later, I turned pro.
I was a little indecisive in the beginning. I’d started going to college and I’d been working. My family had a billboard company and I spent my summers digging post holes. I was tired of the manual labor and I thought there had to be an easier way to make some money to put myself through school. So, I decided to turn professional. The money I made supplemented my education. Ironically, I was so successful with boxing that I had to put my education on hold.
The New Mexico boxing scene back then was at a lull. There wasn’t a whole lot going on here and I had to travel out of state. I was fighting in everybody’s backyard, always the underdog coming in.
My first two fights were in San Antonio; I fought on the undercard of Randall Cobb-Ken Norton; the semi-main was Michael Ayala, Tony’s brother, he was the NABF champion at the time. So, I started off fighting on big cards, but all my fights were out of town, up until my 18th fight when I fought in Las Cruces.
What made people notice me was that I was knocking the local guys out. My first 12 out of 13 fights were won by KO. Everybody started to take notice of me and I went to Vegas to fight. Then I fought on ESPN for the first time, winning a 1st Round KO. Everybody said, “Hey maybe this kid could do something . . .” Here was this kid out of the little town of Las Cruces—from a state where there wasn’t anything happening in boxing.
Things started happening for me. I had a few fights on the USA Network when it first came out, and then I got my first big break in 1983: I got to fight Freddie Roach for the ESPN Lightweight championship. It was a 12-round fight at the Showboat, my 14th pro fight. At the time, Freddie had 33 fights; he was 30-3. And I was 14-0, undefeated.
It was a hell of a fight. We fought a war . . . they said it was one of the best fights of the year that year. When it was over, I’d won the 12-round decision and the ESPN lightweight championship. I got a lot of exposure from that and it escalated my career.
Later that year, I had the rematch with Freddie on the undercard of the Hagler-Duran fight at Caesar’s Palace. Those two fights with Freddie Roach were classics. Freddie was one of the toughest guys around.
Tommy Cordova came on the scene about 2-3 years after I started fighting. He, too, won the ESPN championship by beating Freddie Roach. I think it was about 2 years later. There was talk of the two of us fighting, somewhere down the line, but at the time, I was fighting on a different level than Tommy. When he won the ESPN championship, I would’ve had to go down for less money to fight him. And at the time, I was working on getting a shot with Julio Cesar Chavez. I was looking ahead at the time. Eventually, I’m sure it would’ve happened. We would’ve had to meet, and it would’ve been something like a Tapia-Romero fight of the ‘80s.
In July of 1984, I got to fight Charlie “White Lightning” Brown, here in Las Cruces. It was my 18th fight—and the first time I got to fight in New Mexico. We were both undefeated. I was 17-0 and Brown was 23-0.
I lost a very controversial decision. (What’s ironic is, two of my three losses happened in New Mexico.) A lot of the same factors were into play when Johnny Tapia fought Paulie Ayala: Brown had the same promoter, the same circumstances. They couldn’t afford to have Brown lose that night. I won’t elaborate more, but let’s just say a lot of people were very disappointed on the decision and I felt I won that fight. (Charlie Brown’s next fight after me was with Harry Arroyo for the IBF Lightweight Championship—he was TKO’d in Round 8.)
My next big fight was in 1985, when I went up against Hector Camacho.
It was my toughest fight so far, but I think I gave Camacho the toughest fight he’d had at that point. But, he’s such an exceptional athlete. He had such tremendous speed. He was catching me coming in and he swelled up my eye. If it had gone ten rounds, I would’ve had a better chance. My forte was the distance. I never got tired. I could go on throwing a million punches. But I got stopped in the 6th round with the swollen eye. At the time it was stopped, it was a close fight . . .
It’s funny because I’ve seen that fight maybe 5 times in the last 16 years, and I used to hate watching it. I saw it maybe two or three times just recently and one of the guys I work with got a hold of that tape. My co-workers kept asking me for that tape but I’d never give it to them. But finally, someone had a copy. They put it in one day at work and I sat down and started watching it. It’s a lot easier for me to see it now than way back in the ‘80s. I realized that I didn’t do such a bad job against this guy—this guy was one of the best fighters of his time and I gave him a hell of a fight. Now, I’m pretty proud of what I did. Before, I was ashamed. I had that competitive edge. I wanted to win. It was win or nothing.
Looking back, I went in that fight probably a little too aggressive. I had the attitude: I don’t care how bad he is, I’m gonna be badder. And to beat me, he’s gonna have to kill me. Unfortunately, they thought he was gonna kill me, because they stopped the fight.
I had one more fight: Roque Resindiz from Guadalahara, Mexico. It was pretty much a tune-up fight. I mean, I didn’t take anybody lightly, but I’d fought a lot tougher opponents before and I felt I could beat this guy. It was a 12-rounder for the Continental Americas title. But I’d trained hard for this fight because it was a tune-up towards Julio Cesar Chavez.
What ended up hurting me was myself: my lack of eating and drinking liquids. I was trying to make 130. Being a top ten contender in the 130 & 135 weight classes ended up being my downfall. Instead of moving up to 140 like I should’ve done, I stayed at the 130-135 range because you have to be rated in your class to get a shot at a title—and we were talking about a fight with Chavez. Problem was, I hadn’t legitimately made that weight for two or three years, since Freddie Roach. I’d grown out of it. I was 25 years old and had naturally grown into a man’s body, yet here I was trying to weigh less than I did as an amateur. But they were talking about a world championship, which was big money, too. A world title was a dream I’d been striving for throughout my career, all my life. I thought I could make that sacrifice and somehow make the weight. That was my demise.
It almost killed me—literally killed me.
During the fight, I collapsed from dehydration. I had uremic poisoning, and my heartbeat had gone down to 12 heartbeats per minute. A priest came and gave me my last rites. I was in bad shape, but I somehow made it.
Previous to my fight with Roque, I’d had eye surgery. I had a fractured eye socket from the fight before. It wasn’t the first time: the first year I’d turned pro, I had the same surgery done with my other eye. So, between the two eye surgeries and almost dying in the ring, I decided to hang up the gloves. I was tired of getting beat up.
Did I quit too early? I was 25 years old, right at my prime. I was sparring with world champions, and believe me, they weren’t getting the best of me. I was stopping some of these guys in the gyms who were bigger than me. But coming close to dying had put something in the back of my mind that made me doubt that I could fight with the same intensity anymore. I had that question. And I always believed, if you have that question going into a fight, you’re going to get hurt. Before that, my attitude had been, “You’re gonna have to kill me to beat me.” Maybe it scared me that I thought that if I was gonna lose again, I was going to have to die.
If I could go back in time, would I have retired at the same time? Probably not. I think I would’ve stuck it out a little bit longer. I think I could’ve been world champion. According to the trainers I had—Angelo Dundee and Jesse Reid—I could have been world champ.
My final record stood at 20-3, with 13 KO’s.
I still loved the sport and I wanted to stay involved. I wanted to get in as a manager and a trainer. Training was something I always enjoyed doing. I started training kids when I was an amateur. My father always told me that if you want to become a better fighter, get a kid and train him from scratch. Only then do you truly understand why you have keep your hands up, why your balance is so important, and a million other things.
I was committed to coming back to Las Cruces. I worked at a bar I’d bought before my last fight, and enrolled in school again. It was hard to make that transition from a world class athlete to a normal working guy. It’s different. I was used to a lot of people asking me, “Hey when’s your next fight?” and saying, “Hey, good luck . . .” And getting all that attention.
In a sense, this is where my father really played an important role in my life, even though he’d passed away. My father kept me grounded. He was such a good humble guy, he’d always say, “Don’t get too big. Because there’s gonna be a day when you’re gonna have to come back home. You want to make sure people respect you for who you are. Not what you did. If you treat them bad going up, they’re gonna treat you bad coming down.”
So because of that, my transition was easier. But still difficult . . .
The bar eventually became a headache and I was able to sell it after seven years. Then I got an offer to train fighters professionally so I went to Houston to work for Ron Weathers who at that time, was managing and promoting George Foreman for his comeback career. I also hooked up with Joe Costello who had Frans Botha at the time. That was ’91.
The electricity was still there and I still loved the sport. I was still training, still traveling, and I was still involved. What was hard was when I had to quit training professionally and come back to Las Cruces a few years later to get a real job. The reason? I came back to raise my daughter, Samantha.
I take my hat off to the guys who have to go out everyday to jobs they don’t like, just to support their family. These guys are the real heroes. Athletes? They don’t realize what they’ve got. Professional athletes are doing something they’ve dreamt about since they were kids. They have a God-given talent and they’re able to capitalize on it and make tons of money, and get all this glamour. The guys I respect now are the guys who have to go and clean yards, or go up on a garbage truck to make a living for their family. And it’s probably something they don’t want to do but they have to because they’re putting someone ahead of themselves. When I came back to raise my daughter, I cleaned toilets for a year. So, real work I learned to appreciate.
In ’94, I called a buddy of mine who was involved in Toughman contests and we started a promotion company. For a year, we were putting on boxing shows—small club fights—regularly in El Paso, and running the Miss Hawaiian Tropic franchise, concerts, and all kind of promotions. But there was too much traveling involved and I had to stay here to take care of my daughter. I told my partner, “Hey, this isn’t working out. I have to be a dad, also.”
A job with the Fire Department came up and I thought I might like to do that. Sure enough, I got in and learned what it’s all about. It was like learning how to walk again. I never thought I’d want to be a fireman, and all the sudden, I had the chance to become one. I liked the adrenaline rush because it reminded me of what I had to go through in the ring. And what really made me feel good was that I was able to give back to the people of Las Cruces and that made me proud.
Someone asked me whether I’d want to see my daughter get into boxing. She’s only six now but she wants to box and I don’t want her to. I admit, I still have a hard time with women’s boxing. I’ll be honest, I don’t feel it’s feminine. I want my daughter to be feminine. I may admire the girls who get into it, but I’m not totally comfortable with it. As far as my daughter doing it, I want her to be a princess—she’ll always be a princess to me, anyway—but I have a hard time thinking about someone hitting her in the face.
If she comes to me when she’s 15 and says she’s gonna do it whether I like it or not, it’d be a different matter. I’d have to help her out. Because boxing is something I know about. There’s not a whole lot of things in this world I know a lot about, but I know a lot about boxing.
My daughter is my priority right now. Her, and a fighter named David Rodriguez. I think everything happens for a reason. And when I had to come back to Cruces to raise my daughter, I think I was also meant to meet and train David.
I was training a kid for the Toughman contests a few years ago and I needed sparring partners. I met David and I could see he had a lot of potential—a lot of speed but no basics . . . he was a kid who was very raw. He had determination, he had physical attributes that could make him a good fighter, but he needed basic work, a lot of work. So, at that time, the guy I was working with, Rocky Galarza, a trainer out of El Paso, asked me if I’d help him out with David. Shortly afterward, David started coming up to train here in Cruces. Unfortunately, Rocky was murdered in El Paso, but David and I developed a close relationship. He’s more than just a fighter to me; he’s more like a younger brother. I think he’s gonna go places. I strongly feel that. I wish I’d had his natural talent when I was younger. I’m convinced he’s going to be Heavyweight Champion of the World. That’s exciting for me, because I see a lot of me in him. I don’t want to see him make the same mistakes I made. I made a lot of mistakes when I was young, in the business aspect as well as the physical part of it.
That’s what I want out of boxing right now. My main focus is David Rodriguez.
There’s a lot of talent here in the Southwest. In New Mexico, the fight scene has picked up. I’m talking about the grass roots of boxing, the club fights . . . we need them. There’s more activity now than in a long time. There was a period last summer when we were having fights every month. And then Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero would come in and do some big shows occasionally. The boxing scene has picked up, and I have to contribute a lot of that to Tapia and Romero. They’ve made boxing exciting again in New Mexico. A lot of kids—they don’t probably realize it—they’re starting to getting noticed now. It used to be that New Mexico kids were just cannon fodder, like some of the fighters you hear about out of Mexico. They used to have to fight in everyone else’s backyard, like the way I started. We actually have some talent and some tough kids. And now we’re beginning to get people who can move ‘em. Before, you were the underdog going in and it was very hard to get a decision. That’s what motivated me to knock out so many of my early opponents. I knew I wasn’t going to get a decision in their hometown. Unfortunately, that’s been the case in New Mexico for so many years. I think because of Johnny and Danny, they opened up boxing here and made people realize that we’ve got some talent.
In addition to training fighters, I’ve also served 10 years on the New Mexico State Athletic Commission. But there’s a two-term limit in New Mexico, and my term ran out in July of last year. Since then, I’ve worked as the interim events coordinator with the state, helping put the fights together, checking out the fighters, whether there are good match-ups or not, and on safety aspects. I also applied for that position but it went to Max Abeyta.
At this time, the Commission is a very green commission. They have a lot of enthusiasm which I admire, but they don’t know boxing. It’s a different sport . . . it’s a brutal business. It’s not an ethical business and you have to know who you can trust in the sport. That’s where I have a leg up on everybody. You can’t believe what you read on paper—sometimes even records are very deceiving. Take a guy like Quirino Garcia. He started off 0-18. If that guy would try to fight in the U.S. nobody would allow him . .. but he’s turned his record around and fought, and beat, some good opponents and former world champs. He’s a world contender now, not only a worthy opponent, rated 6th in the world in the WBC. Sometimes you get guys who are 40-0, who fight no one but tomato cans found off the street. A boxing person has a big advantage over someone who wants to be involved but who don’t know the ins and outs.
Boxing in New Mexico has a long way to go. Boxing, in general, does, too. There’s too much influence from the big promoters. They influence the judges, they influence the TV, and they’ve turned Boxing almost into Wrestling. You almost know who’s gonna win beforehand. I think that needs to be regulated. The different organizations: they need one champion. We don’t need 5 Super Bowl champions. No one would recognize them. It waters it down. Loses legitimacy. If you have one champion that everyone recognizes, you’re gonna get Joe Public back into boxing. The public can’t keep up with 10 different organizations. You got what? 4 major organizations now? Just too much. If you get one organization, you get one legitimate champ. You can have regional champions. I could go for that. That’s a good idea. But world champs? Just one
Another thing that needs some changing: Bad decisions. People are turned off by so many bad decisions. You need something like you have in the NFL or pro basketball: a group of top notch judges who are always regulated, always going through tests, always going through seminars. Pay ‘em good money but base it on their performance level. That determines whether they do major fights or not.
The people know. They say boxing’s so subjective. Well, let me tell you something—they are just insulting the public’s intelligence. People know who won a fight. You get someone who keeps screwing up like that, hey, send ‘em back down to the minors, or the 4-rounders. Or the amateurs. Send ‘em back to school. Let’s keep a good solid group of officials out there who aren’t intimidated or influenced by the big promoters or big TV or big name fighters.
Start at a national level and let it trickle down. If the US can adopt a system like that, the world will adopt it. The influence and the money and the TV, it’s all here.
Louie Burke & Jesse Reid