The Emmett Eliminator: The Life of Idaho Cruiserweight Kenny Keene
Intelligent fighters typically find a way to win. Yet a successful fighter sometimes emerges who doesn’t think the least bit in the ring…
Homer is widely attributed to have once said, “Art obtains the prize.” This mantra has lived on in boxing with some major exceptions, such as when Rocky Marciano brawled his way through the slick Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952, and throughout Mike Tyson’s brawny campaign of swift knockouts. Intelligent fighters typically find a way to win. Yet a successful fighter sometimes emerges who doesn’t think the least bit in the ring. Such a fighter swears off the scientific approach, and simply hammers his opponent. He doesn’t consider himself a student of boxing, and makes no claims to boxing as an art form. For sixteen years, Emmett’s Kenny Keene was that type of fighter.
“I was no boxer,” Kenny told me during our lengthy phone conversations. (I first interviewed Kenny while conducting research for a book about western Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation boxing champion Marvin Camel.) “I was not skilled. I plowed ahead. I may not have been a great boxer or puncher, but I was a good, small-town guy who always plowed ahead.”
Plowing ahead is a bit of a euphemism. Kenny Keene fought with unprotected abandon. Inside the ropes, he was a workmanlike brawler, a straightforward machine who was often impervious to pain and virtually impossible to knock out. His bravery took the form of being able to resist blows that other men could not stand. Those traits contributed to his appeal among Idahoans. As fans of the now defunct Tuesday Night Fights, my grandfather and I were always ecstatic to see Kenny Keene and his crowd-pleasing punching. Growing up around the gritty gyms and dark-alley boxing clubs in Yonkers, New York, I gravitated toward the brutal, unforgiving nature of the sport and the unique human beings who participated in it.
Born and raised in Emmett, “The Emmett Eliminator” retired in 2006, with a 51-4 record. His only losses came at the gloves of Saul Montana, Bobby Crabtree (whom Kenny defeated twice by technical knockouts), Arthur Williams, and Robert Daniels. It is no stretch to call him Idaho’s greatest boxer of all time. He won his first thirty fights and earned and defended the cruiserweight championship belts of the International Boxing Association, the International Boxing Council, and the World Boxing Federation.
His philosophy in the ring was beautiful in its simplicity, and its violence. “I provided lots of action,” he told me. “I wanted to create not just more boxing fans, but also Kenny Keene fans.” As is the case for many fighters, he misses greeting fans, posing for photographers, and just being an athlete who could stir up excitement. “I do miss the thrill and it hurts to lose that. You know, you fight all your life, and you get to the top, or near the top, and then life is a bit boring without boxing. It’s such a rush of adrenaline. Who wouldn’t miss that?”
His record includes victories over some rugged battlers known to boxing fans, including Tony Menefee, Vincent Boulware, Rob Calloway, Ricky Parkey, J.B. Williamson, James Pritchard, Rocky Gannon, Dominic Carter, and Rich LaMontagne. Outside of a referee’s stoppage in his final bout, he finished every fight of his own volition.
“You could make the case that Kenny won every one of his fights,” childhood friend and later promoter Dave Elsberry said during our February 2013 phone interview. “He beat whoever was put in front of him. He had a couple of potential fights against big names like Tommy Hearns that fell through. If he’d had those fights, he’d been greater appreciated.”
Kenny fought forty-five times in Idaho (43-2) and in fights held in Boise, he tallied a 22-2 mark. Hometown crowds of up to seven thousand routinely came out to root for the 1986 Emmett High School graduate whose father, Jim, encouraged him to start boxing at the age of fourteen. “My dad always told me it was better to be the guy in the ring than one of the people in the stands watching or sitting. To this day, I’d rather be the guy in the ring, the fighter. That’s why I could never be a trainer.”
Kenny’s father taught him that no one “plays” boxing. That fighting is not a pastime or hobby. It takes a certain aptitude, both physical and mental, to endure. Jim discovered that his son had the fighter’s sense of endurance.
Kenny and his dad had always been close. One of Kenny’s older brothers was a boxer and Kenny wanted to win a boxing trophy. “He got me started. I guess boxing was his hobby and I was his hobby, because he really enjoyed my career. He didn’t push me into it.”
In the beginning, however, the desire to fight didn’t come naturally. Keene says in his first year as a 132-pound amateur, he lost nine of his first ten fights. “I wasn’t very good. The Idaho boxing commission said that if I didn’t improve, they weren’t going to let me fight.”
Kenny soon discovered an integrity and earnestness in the rigors of training and went on to win the National Junior Olympics championship. Right from the start, he believed in the potency of punching—short, straight blows, roundhouse swings, body shots, flailing from all sides and directions—nothing calculated, all offense. At five-foot-nine, he held no delusions about what style of fighter he needed to be to succeed. He lacked versatility and wasn’t quick, but he had exceptional balance and could hit with power from either hand, although he was primarily right-handed.
He made his pro debut in August 1990 at Hawks Memorial Stadium in Boise. From that point forward, he spent little time covering up defensively, instead using all his energy to plod forward, seeking an opening for a counterpunch. He loved the fact that boxing is the ultimate rudimentary experience, not dependent on artificial components such as balls, pucks, or bats, or on the help of teammates. He saw physical distress as integral to the only sport specifically aimed at inflicting and receiving pain. He learned that the more punishment he could inflict on his body in training, the higher dividends it scored later by coming to his rescue in the ring.
He won the World Boxing Federation’s cruiserweight belt in 1994, after he defeated Bobby Crabtree at the O’Conner Fieldhouse in Caldwell. In July 1995, after an unintentional head butt stopped the fight, Kenny was awarded a unanimous decision over Terry Ray in Boise, and claimed the Intercontinental Boxing Council’s vacant cruiserweight title. (He eventually lost that title, but regained it in 1998.) The scheduled twelve-round bout was halted in the fifth round, after Ray accidentally butted Keene, opening a cut over his own left eye. Under IBC rules, the decision was left to the three judges, who all had Kenny ahead on their cards.
For the first fourteen years of his career, Kenny’s routine rarely changed. He would wait for his dad to finish work at the sawmill. “He’d get off about four and we’d go work out at five at the gym. Rain, snow or shine.” There was one interruption in 1990, when Jim Keene had pneumonia. Kenny was supposed to box at the Olympic Festival but canceled because of his dad’s health. “Once he got out of the hospital he told me never to cancel like that. I promised him I wouldn’t.”
In November 1996, Keene chose not to break that promise when he boxed on a five-bout card at the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Bingo/Casino in Worley, twelve days after his dad’s fatal heart attack in their hometown. Kenny had been sleeping when a policeman friend arrived at his house. Jim was traveling to work when his heart failed. An officer happened to be behind his car. CPR was administered immediately, but Jim couldn’t be revived. “It was something I knew might be coming, but you can never prepare for something like that,” Kenny told me. “I kind of went into shock.”
Kenny and two older brothers live within a mile of their mother’s house in Emmett, “a tiny sawmill town” about thirty miles from Boise. The family had dealt with tragedy before. His older sister died in an auto accident in 1986. “Tragedy pulls a family closer together.” Less than two weeks after burying his father, he was back where he felt most comfortable, staying on the attack in front of a packed home-state crowd. “I had to be the aggressor. I had to make the fight. I moved forward and my opponent that night (Gary Steiger) did the same, so it turned into a good fight.”
Kenny entered the ring still coming to grips with his father’s death. “It didn’t seem like he was actually gone. I kept thinking he would be flying in to watch. I kept thinking things would be back to normal. Straight up to when he died, he was getting ready to come to that fight.” The loss of his father did not affect his boxing nor diminish his passion for it. “I didn’t just fight for my dad. I fought because I loved the sport, too.”
Five fights later, in October 1997, Saul Montana cut Kenny (the defending IBA champion) in the first round and then landed thundering shots throughout for a unanimous twelve-round decision. It was the main event of the USA Network’s Tuesday Night Fights. “Saul Montana was probably the hardest puncher I’ve ever faced. The man hit hard.” In front of a home-state crowd at the new Bank of America Centre, Kenny tried to open up an avenue with short left jabs and body blows, but Montana kept his distance and sent in continual long-range punches to the head. Montana, a Mexican who was then twenty-six, had twenty-four knockouts to his credit. Kenny spent all twelve rounds trying to work inside with rapid left jabs and unload his right, but the challenger paid him back with resounding blows to the head. They traded combinations in the seventh and eighth rounds. Kenny appeared to be wearing out while Montana remained energetic. Montana opened a gash above Keene’s right eye in the opening round, and then did the same above and beneath his eyes and his nose.
Kenny’s trainer, Dave Thomas, said it was unusual for his fighter (then twenty-nine), known for his capacity to take a punch, to bleed so much. Kenny made one last rush at Montana in the closing round, connecting on several left jabs and staggering him with a right, but time elapsed.
Within a few months, Kenny returned to ring and he went on to win his next eleven fights, including a 1998 victory over Rocky Gannon for the vacant IBA cruiserweight title. Following a loss in 2006 to Arthur Williams, he called it a career. In 2010, Payette Mayor Jeff Williams presented Keene with a plaque at the Payette Historical Museum commemorating his induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame.
“Kenny Keene is the best boxer Idaho has ever had,” boxing promoter Elsberry told me. “The interest is boxing in Idaho started with Kenny, peaked with Kenny, and vanished after Kenny retired. He had so many offers and opportunities to leave the state, but he always chose to stay close to home. He was a great fighter and he was always proud to exhibit the sport in Idaho.”
These days, Keene—who is fully aware of the trap of old boxers unable to think past their glories— busies himself with the joys of family, as well as his bail bond business. “In my work, crime pays,” he jokes. At forty-four, he stays in peak physical condition. He raises money for an anti-drug charity by doing hundreds of push-ups. He even tossed his hat into the ring for a legislative position last year.
“In the end, I have no regrets. Maybe I’d go back and take fewer punches. But I did my best to represent Idaho as tough and well as I could.” While he laments the steady decline of boxing’s popularity among American sports, he is optimistic that the sport he once represented so fiercely will one day resurface as the talk of the town. “The MMA stuff has put a big hurt on boxing. Idaho’s next boxer is out there. It may be a few years away. But he’s out there. Someone has to come along and create that spark again.”
Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana.