Friday, June 24, 2011

Louie Burke, Longtime Las Cruces trainer, boxer earns his way into California Hall of Fame

 (Courtesy of Vanessa Monsisvais / El Paso Times)


By Bill Knight

He was introduced to that sweetest of sciences as a small boy, simply tagging along with dad and big brother....the heavy bag his hobby horse, a pair of gloves his teddy bear.

Life in and around the boxing ring has moments of exhilaration, but it is hardly for the timid, the meek, the weak of heart or spirit. But it is Louie Burke's life.

On Saturday, Burke, now 50, will be inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in ceremonies in Los Angeles. The journey has been joyful, but it has been a boxing journey so it has been filled with plenty of hard knocks and even a near-death experience. Still, it is Burke's passion....his life's journey....his life.

"My brother Rocky and I were raised in the gym," said Burke, who is a Las Cruces firefighter and one of the top boxing trainers in the country. "My dad (Sammy) was a boxing coach in Las Cruces. He fought before he went into the service and used to tell stories about hitchhiking to El Paso to box. My brother Rocky and I would tag along to the gym at the local Boys Club. It's just what I can remember since being out of diapers." Burke said he still remembers his first time in the ring.

"We had a little gymnasium in the Boys Club that used to be a church," he said. "I hadn't done any formal training, just hitting the bags. My dad came up and said he had me a fight. I just said, 'well, OK.' I was seven. I did all right and I won. My second fight was when I was in the third grade. They were having a Battle of Champions. Danny 'Little Red' Lopez was coming in and some more fighters. As an added attraction, they were bringing in former world champion Gene Fullmer. As an exhibition, I fought his son. They ruled it a draw.

"This makes next Saturday even more special," Burke added. "Gene Fullmer is being inducted into the California Hall of Fame Saturday, too." Burke had a strong amateur career, but his real skills - strength, stamina, a rock-solid chin and a huge heart - were better suited to the professional ranks.

"I lost in the Western Olympic Trials," he said. "It was 1980 and we boycotted that year anyway. But I waited a few months, started college at New Mexico State. It was right before my 19th birthday and I decided to go ahead and turn pro. I wanted something to help me pay for school. It's funny ... my professional career just kind of took off, way better than my amateur career. My endurance helped me outlast guys, overcome them in the later rounds. My ability to take a punch helped me walk through a lot of guys."

Burke trained under his father and Larry Renio in his early career. At one point, though, dad told son he needed to move on, that he had taught him all he could. Burke worked under Beto Martinez in Tucson and then moved to Los Angeles to train under Jimmy Montoya.

"There were six of us living in a one-bedroom apartment," Burke said with a chuckle. "We slept on the floor, shared towels. It was just a bit of the rough part of boxing that a lot of fighters go through. I'd never been on a bus before in my life and I remember getting lost a couple of times, trying to come home tired and dehydrated and not knowing where I was going."

Burke was going to the top.

He trained under famous trainers like Jesse Reid and legendary trainers like Angelo Dundee. He got to 18-0 before it all went wrong.

He lost a controversial decision to Charlie "White Lightning" Brown. Television commentators Tim Ryan, Gil Clancy and Sugar Ray Leonard all had Burke winning that fight. He got stopped in a mini-war by Hector Camacho, one in which he had Camacho in trouble. And then came the near-death experience.

"It was my fault," Burke said. "Angelo (Dundee) had no idea what I was doing. I was trying to make 130 pounds because they told me I could get a shot at a world championship with Julio Cesar Chavez at 130. I should have been fighting at 140. I would get up early, run six miles, come back and drink a diet drink, something like a Slim-Fast. I would have a Lean Cuisine for lunch. I'd go train - I was training in Miami at that time - and go a hard 20 rounds. Then in the evening I'd run another four miles and just have a Slim-Fast. I dropped from 160 to 130 pounds in one month."

Burke came home to Las Cruces to fight Rosendo Alonso and had nothing, absolutely nothing to take into that ring. He was stopped in the sixth round, rushed to the hospital completely dehydrated. His potassium level was at zero, his kidneys were shutting down and his heartbeat was down to 12 beats a minute. He was given last rites of the Catholic Church.

Burke never fought again, finishing his career at 19-3.

"Sure, I have a few regrets," Burke said with a shrug. "My career was cut too short. I should have gone up in weight. I would have liked to have had a world title shot. But it was pretty good. I lost to Camacho and he was just better than I was ... but he was better than a lot of guys at that time. I lost my last fight and it was my fault."

Burke paused, then said, "But Saturday will be an extremely special time for me. I'm humbled and truly honored by this."

Rocky Burke, Louie's older brother, had an outstanding amateur career of his own, going 63-8 and is now a highly respected referee. Boxing is simply in the Burke blood.

"Louie was always just a tough kid," Rocky said. "He was always just tough. Then he developed his skills. He was quick. He had a lot of knockouts just because he hit guys so many times. In California, he would go into these guys' hometown, no promoter, just facing the undefeated hometown favorite and he would beat them. He had two great fights against Freddie Roach (now a legendary trainer) and Louie won them both by unanimous decision. Louie was world rated and I'm just really proud of him."

Burke is now best-known as a trainer, working with undefeated world champion Austin Trout (23-0) and up-and-coming undefeated Abie Han (13-0). They appreciate his boxing journey perhaps more than anyone else can.

"I can confidently say Louie is one of the best trainers in America," Trout said. "I've had Olympic coaches and Louie is just really good. He's the best at taking a fighter's style and making it better. He was a fighter and he knows fighters. He knows the emotions you go through - grumpy, happy, losing weight, dealing with promoters. All that experience is priceless."

Han said, "I wouldn't be 13-0 without Louie. Every coach knows a jab, a cross, how to slip a punch. But how will you motivate your fighter? Louie has made me a believer. I just feel that as long as I follow his formula, his game plan, I'm going to win. I believe it. A lot of trainers take guys who have already been raised. Louie got Austin and I at zero-zero (records). Austin made it to the top. I might not get there like Austin did, but I know Louie will give me my best chance."

And so the boxing journey of Louie Burke continues - moving from center ring to corner. On Saturday he will join an elite group in the California Boxing Hall of Fame ... just another step in a beautiful journey in that sweetest of sciences.

Courtesy: El Paso Times

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