Normally, throwing punches in front of the local courthouse is not the best idea.
But that has become a common sight in Emmett.
Reilly Erskine, 18, delivers a string of right-left combos while Kenny Keene holds the mitts, as curious drivers and their cars slow down to see the jabs, hooks, crosses and sweat. There isn’t a boxing gym in Emmett, so these two do their work on the concrete plaza in front of the Gem County Courthouse.
“We do the Rocky thing,” Keene said with a laugh.
Everyone here knows Keene, the hometown hero who went 51-4 as a pro from 1990-2006 and held three world championship cruiserweight belts. The kid, who is more than eager to get in an extra round of work, is not yet as well-known, but both have found a bond in their uncommon roots.
Erskine is Keene’s protege, tough and stubborn like his mentor. He’s also the newly crowned 141-pound Golden Gloves Rocky Mountain region champion. Next up is the national tournament, which begins Monday in Salt Lake City.
Keene likes to take advantage of what’s around him. There isn’t a Siberian mountain to climb like in Rocky IV, big slabs of meat as heavy bag stand-ins, or even the 72 steps leading to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But, like Rocky Balboa, Keene and Erskine let their surroundings be their training ground, sparring outside the courthouse or running up the nearby foothills.
“There’s only three steps into the (Gem County) courthouse, so that doesn’t quite work,” Keene said. “People come by, want to see who this guy is, and you can really get into shape working outdoors.”
Said Erskine: “At least when I get to the top of the hill, I do the Rocky pose.’’
The duo started working together last year, and Erskine has quickly put up a 12-2 record as an amateur since his first bout in September. Keene has worked with a few other young boxers since he retired, but he said Erskine’s level of talent and desire is different.
“From day one, he kept saying he wanted to be a fighter, and I thought, ‘We’ll see, let’s wait until you get hit,’ ” Keene said. “But he’s the only one that I’ve said to myself, ‘He’s going to go places.’ I’m not sure I thought he’d be this good this quick.”
Soon after meeting one another, Keene brought Erskine to JR Mendoza, co-owner/coach at Alpha Boxing in Meridian, the gym where the young boxer gets in work almost daily.
“If it wasn’t for Kenny, we obviously wouldn’t have known about him,” Mendoza said. “If only everyone had Reilly’s passion. He’s willing to learn. He’s got the heart and the drive.”
Keene’s confidence is backed up by results, but he is the first to know immediate success doesn’t always mean long-term guarantees.
“I started 1-9,” Keene said about his amateur career.
“That’s funny; I was 9-1,” Erskine quickly responded.
Occasional verbal jabs like that are sprinkled in with real ones. Keene said, “He’s listened to everything I’ve said, for the most part. ... We’ve had our spats. I’ve wanted to fire him a few times.”
After Erskine’s first loss, he called Keene, who asked the name of the kid who beat him. Three times, Erskine said the opponent’s name. Finally, Keene said the correct answer was “Reilly Erskine.”
“He got beat because he was out of gas,” Keene said. “I told him I was going to be the only person who wouldn’t lie to him, and we worked on building his stamina, getting him in the right shape, and he’s been great since.”
In boxing, Erskine has found an outlet to release the anger of personal hardships. His mother died when he was 9 years old, and his grandfather, who introduced him to boxing, died two years ago.
A native of Kingston, Wash., Erskine was attending a military school in Montana, sometimes putting on the gloves in the gym. An instructor there knew of a place where he could box and possibly learn from a former world champion.
That place was Novitas Academy in Emmett, and that boxer was Keene.
My grandpa used to tell me about this fighter from Idaho he really liked, and as soon as I heard about Kenny, I was like, ‘That’s the guy.’ Kenny’s the reason I came out here.
“My grandpa used to tell me about this fighter from Idaho he really liked, and as soon as I heard about Kenny, I was like, ‘That’s the guy,’ ” Erskine said. “Kenny’s the reason I came out here.”
Keene laughs when Erskine excitedly talks about the biggest names in the sport today. He says he doesn’t know any of the current stars and doesn’t follow the sport much anymore. He was more than eager to help last week, though, and went on YouTube and found the 1952 bout between Rocky Marciano and Harry Matthews, who was raised in tiny Ola, also in Gem County.
Erskine showed more than a passing interest.
“Anyone I worked with before, I never pressed it on them, just wanted to mentor, help out,” Keene said. “Reilly wants to make a career out of it. He’s a long shot, but he’s good. There’s a life after boxing — I’m still working on that part with him.”
Post-boxing life has been good for Keene. He has a son, Spencer, who was an All-Idaho first-team linebacker for Emmett High last season as a sophomore. He also played basketball at Emmett, but “(boxing) wasn’t going to happen” for him, knowing the toll it takes on a young man, Dad said.
He owns Kenny Keene’s Bail Bonds in Emmett and works security twice a week at Saint Alphonsus in Eagle. There, the former phlebotomist is taking part in a program to help people with brain injuries.
Keene’s speech is slurred, and he sometimes has memory problems. He plans to donate his brain to Boston College researchers upon his death.
“I know when people hear about brain injuries, they think someone’s a vegetable or whatever, but that’s not the case,” Keene said. “I’m able to do everything just fine. If I get pulled over and the officer hears me talk, they think I’ve been drinking, but I don’t drink at all.
“But I’d absolutely do it all again.”
Said Mendoza, who has known Keene for more than a dozen years: “I don’t think Kenny’s ever going to totally step out. He’ll always be involved in some way.”
However long Erskine can carve out a career as a boxer, Keene is eager to help along the way. He has put out calls to former trainers and former fighters who own gyms around the West to help train Erskine as he considers becoming a pro.
He reminds me a lot of how I was when I was that age. I truly care about him, and I want him to do well.
KENNY KEENE, on Reilly Erskine
Kenny Keene boxing bio
- Pro debut: Aug. 11, 1990, def. Ray Pacheco, decision, Memorial Stadium
- Last fight: July 29, 2006, lost to Arthur Williams, TKO, 10th round, CenturyLink Arena (undercard of a Roy Jones Jr. fight)
- Most hyped fight: March 1, 1997, fought in front of 10,000-plus fans in Atlantic City, N.J., on the undercard of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Macho Camacho card. Lost IBC title to Robert Daniels in a split decision that was booed by fans.
- Record: 51-4 (WBF, IBC, IBA world championships)
- On retirement: “I don’t need to do this for a living. I just had fun doing it while I could.’’
- Noteworthy: Began amateur career (106 fights) at age 14. ... Former national Junior Olympics champion (knocked out five opponents in five nights as a 15-year-old). ... Two-time national Golden Gloves runner-up. ... Won his first 30 professional bouts.
Gem State contingent
Reilly Erskine is one of four Idaho boxers who won regional titles and will compete at the Golden Gloves national tournament. The other three:
- Onero Gallegos, Caldwell, 132 pounds
- Richard Druliner, Post Falls, 201
- Jeremy Broncho, Fort Hall, 201-and-up