A tale of a former boxer
Al Houck was a boxer for over 20 years
by Kerry Nelson | March 25, 2003
To his many friends in Wright, Cromwell, and throughout the United States, he is simply known as “Mauler.” It was a nickname he acquired in a boxing career that spanned 20-plus years, but it hardly describes the easy-going, well mannered personality of Wright resident, Al Houck.
From simple childhood days, to the bright lights inside the boxing ring, this is the story of a competitive, yet gentle, man who came back home and found peace in life’s simple pleasures.
Al grew up on a hobby farm east of Wright. His dad, Al Houck, Sr., managed a peat plant 10 miles east of Wright. A 1967 graduate of Cromwell, Al starred in basketball. Humble in nature, he is reluctant to say that he was Cromwell’s first member of the all-tri-state basketball team.
It was a fasination with another sport, boxing, that started for Al at the young age of 13. “We used to have a large AM radio when I was a kid and I can remember listening with my dad to the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight,” Al explained. “I always had it on my mind that I wanted to try boxing.” Al attended vocational school in Brainerd, following graduation from high school, and enrolled in the auto mechanic course. It was there that his journey to becoming a professional boxer would begin.
“One of the amateur boxers took me to the Brainerd YMCA, where golden glove boxers trained,” Al began. “I found out that I wasn’t as tough as I thought,” he said with a smile. “I knew how to fight but I didn’t know how to box.”
After only two practices, Al fought his first match in Hibbing, where he lost a split decision. “It really bothered me that I lost, so I came back to the gym, trained hard and defeated that guy the next time,” Al said. “Knocked him out in the first round.” Al would go on to compete in over 200 amateur fights, while also working in the construction field. When pressed, he estimated that he lost no more than 15 of the 200 bouts.
After taking a few years off, then going through a divorce, Al decided to turn professional in the late 1970’s. He would win his first professional fight in Minneapolis, in a four-round decision, earning $150. But it was soon time for a fight outside of Minneapolis. “I flew to Atlantic City, New Jersey,” Al said, “and I remember being pretty nervous. You are on television, and you want to win.” Al did, beating a fighter from Philadelphia. For the 6’ 2”, 215-pound heavyweight boxer, with “a really good left jab,” this was one of over 50 wins he would accumulate in 70-plus professional fights. Along the way, there would be many memories, and he would box or meet many of boxing’s biggest names.
“My most memorable fight was against Vinny Curtto,” Al explained. “He was three-times a world-ranked boxer, and I knocked him out in 20 seconds. I made ‘Ring’ magazine for retiring Vinny!” If there was a most memorable fight, there had to be a toughest opponent. Al didn’t hesitate.“Razor Ruddick,” he said firmly. “He beat me up for eight rounds. He could hit extremely hard, even the short punches.” The two went out for lobster and drinks following the bout, which took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Traveling to large cities and all over the world, Al would fight on the undercard of “five or six championship cards”. These cards included Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Virgil Hill. In addition to Ruddick, Al lost a decision to Buster Douglas and he also fought well-known boxers Jose Bibalta and Monte Masters. And, in Detroit, he would get a chance to meet one of boxing’s biggest names.
“I was at the weigh-in, and I ended up exchanging punches with my opponent,” said Al. After we were separated, somebody flicked the back of my ear. I turned around and it was Muhammed Ali. He was laughing hard.” Ali, Al said, was his favorite boxer. “He brought boxing back, no doubt about it. And he was the best,” Al added. “Outside of the ring, he was a very nice guy.”
Ever the competitor, and able to take punishment, Al once fought with a broken foot but, luckily, was able to knock his opponent out in the first round. He also suffered a broken jaw against Grady Daniels, yet fought all three rounds.
“I once broke both hands in one fight,” Al reminisced.” I fought the entire fight, though, and lost a split decision.”
When did Al retire from the sport and why? “I know exactly why,” said Al of his last professional fight in 1990. “I fought this up-and-coming Italian boxer, who had just won the bronze medal in the olympics. We went toe-to-toe. He broke my eardrum in the first round, but we continued until the eighth round when the fight was stopped. Both of my eyes were swollen shut,” Al explained. “I knew then it was time to quit. You don’t heal as quickly when you get older.”
Does he miss the sport that allowed him ‘to see the world, have a good time and make a little money?’ “Somedays,” he says with a smile. “For about 30 seconds.”
Now, at 53, Al has tucked away the boxing photos and clippings. In 2003, it is time to enjoy life with wife, Deb, their daughter, Star, and Al’s three daughers Cherie, Tabatha and Jamie (from his previous marriage) as well as three grandchildren. Al’s parents, Al and Evelyn, have also recently moved back to Wright after 17 years in Mission, Texas.
Retired since 2001, Al, Jr. still plays slow pitch softball. However, every chance he gets, he slips away to the tranquil surroundings of the land that he loves, 10 miles east of Cromwell. Al affectionately calls it “the hunting shack,” and it was at this 24-by-20 retreat, nestled in a 280-acre piece of land in Corona Township, where this interview took place. Built by Al, Roger Line and Roger’s son, Jacob, the hunting shack is made out of red pine logs, milled on Al’s portable sawmill. A deck was added last weekend, and he plans to build a 12x12 sauna in May. Pine flooring will be put in the shack at some point, as well as a stone fireplace.
Various trails, which meander through the woods, will be seeded with clover. “I shot my first deer on this land when I was 13,” Al recalled. “I said to myself that, someday, I would like to own this land.” A dream became reality in the late 1990’s, when Al was able to buy the property.
The hunting shack is a place for Al’s family and friends to gather and to relax.” I have a lot of friends who could care less if they leave the building once they get here,” Al said. It has been, and will continue to be, a place for card games, visiting, watching Vikings games and, above all, relaxing. The immediate area surrounding the structure is what Al called a “safe haven for animals.” These include deer, bear, wolves and moose. “The animals need a safe place to go, too,” Al said.
The words of lifelong friend, Roger Line, seem to sum up the life of Al Houck. “He’d do anything for you. You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. He’s one of a kind.”
This article first appeared in the March 25,2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.