Last Dance for Flathead’s Prize Fighter

By Beacon Staff

Shelley Burton’s pain had little to do with her broken nose or the lingering tingle in her head from Laila Ali’s flurry of powerful hooks and jabs. She could handle those nuisances. What she couldn’t handle – what still pains her today – was watching the referee hold up Ali’s arm in victory and believing the fight wasn’t over yet.

A year later, the 31-year-old Burton is ready to take another shot at a world title, if for nothing else, so she can accomplish one last goal and retire with all the pieces in place.

“(A title fight) is going to be my last one and I’m ready to announce that,” Burton said last week. “I’m ready to make a world title my last fight.”

It would be easy for Burton to retire right now. She has a WIBA Women’s Intercontinental Super Middleweight Championship belt encased in glass in her house. She fulfilled her career-long goal of stepping into the ring with Ali, going toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali’s famous daughter in the limelight of Madison Square Garden. But after nearly a year away from boxing, something began nagging at Burton.

“I just had this urge that I’m not done with this yet,” she said.

So she stepped back into the gym in October and has been there since.

The 5-foot-6 Burton, who usually fights at about 160 pounds, has been a professional boxer for five years, after spending two years pounding opponents in the amateur circuit en route to an undefeated pre-professional career. Though she considers her intercontinental belt a world title, boxing’s sanctioning bodies don’t, which is surely a factor in Burton’s desire to get one more shot at an undisputed world championship. Her record as a professional is 8-3-1, including three title bouts. She’s ranked No. 3 in the world in the women’s middleweight division.

Burton’s story is not Rocky’s, though she concedes, “I’ve watched a lot of Rocky Balboa movies.” She didn’t spend years of her prime punching her way through shady amateur circuits and grimy club bouts. That phase was merely a two-year, in-and-out operation for her that began when she was 24 years old. At the time, she was bored and broke, so she threw on some gloves for the first time and stepped into the ring at a Toughman boxing competition in Butte. That was the beginning of her dominant amateur career.

“I needed some extra cash,” Burton said, “and then I couldn’t believe how tough (boxing) was.”

Sports have always come natural, almost easy, to Burton, she said. For this reason, she loved the challenge of boxing, explaining that the difficulty isn’t “the part of being hit in the face – it’s the technique part.” And aside from the sport’s degree of difficulty, something else drew her to boxing.

“I saw an opportunity to become a professional athlete,” she said.

Growing up in Kalispell and attending Bigfork High School, Burton played every sport available to her. Her dream was to become a professional athlete. She played basketball, volleyball, rugby, and anything that required an opponent, a score and physical contact. Any sport would work for her dreams – she just wanted to be a pro in something.

After high school, Burton took a scholarship to play basketball at Irvine Valley College in California. She broke her ankle the first week of practice and immediately headed back to Montana. Her basketball career was over and, as it seemed at the time, so was her pursuit of professional stardom. She decided to do what many young people do: bounce around from place to place, job to job, focusing on the now and not worrying about the future.

“I came back and became a little slacker,” Burton said. “I worked at a gas station, didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. Then I thought, ‘I don’t want to live my life like this. I want to do something.’”

But boxing still wasn’t on the life agenda until the fateful Butte bout. Following that fight and a series of other dominating amateur fights, Burton decided to go pro, an interesting career choice for her parents. Vickie, her mother, recalls Shelley breaking the news to the family.

“We weren’t really thrilled,” the understated Vickie said.

Shelley’s boxing career is difficult for Vickie. On one hand, she loves to see her daughter accomplish her dreams. On the other hand, she hates to see her daughter get hit in the face. She said she will support her daughter’s pursuit of one last title bout, but she doesn’t think she’ll be able to attend. After the Ali fight, she said she swore off going to matches. She has skipped fights in the past.

“There were times when I, quite honestly, was not emotionally capable of going,” Vickie said. “Having her mother down there blubbering in the stands was not something she needed to deal with.”

Vickie points out that her absence says nothing about her support.

“(Shelley) took a dream and made it a reality,” Vickie said. “How many parents can say that about their children? I’m proud of that.”

If Vickie was surprised by her daughter’s decision to become a professional boxer, maybe she shouldn’t have been. Vickie said Shelley has always been full of surprises, beginning with her birth. On an October day in 1976, Vickie was in a hospital room expecting to have a daughter, Kelley. No tests, with the technology of the time, had indicated Vickie would have twins. But with Kelley, came Shelley.

“The Lord blessed us with Shelley,” Vickie said. “She was a complete surprise and has continued to surprise us to date.”

In the 13 months since her fight with Ali, Burton said she has heard plenty of gossip about her career, including speculation over her retirement. For the most part, she deflects the comments like poorly placed jabs, but it’s clear some hit home. In particular, she scoffs at persistent mumblings that Ali defeated her handily. Burton, who is soft-spoken but hard-edged at the same time, said she was far from finished when the ref called the Ali fight in the fourth round, suggesting it might not be a coincidence that the ref called the fight prematurely on the 35th anniversary of the first match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

“Laila’s a dancer,” Burton said. “She dances like her father. But my nose, as anyone who knows me can say, sticks out a little bit and a hook can catch it. They shouldn’t have stopped that fight.”

Vickie is quick to remind, however, that Shelley was victorious in her own way that night in New York City: She fulfilled her dream of fighting Ali. Vickie recalls when her daughter called after watching an Ali fight several years ago.

“The first time she ever watched Laila box, she called me very late at night and said, ‘Mom that’s what I want to do – I want to box Laila Ali,’” Vickie said.

Burton has stayed happily under the radar the past year. She works at Leland’s Honda and Suzuki dealership in Kalispell, selling ATVs and motorcycles, a job she said she loves. It’s peaceful. She doesn’t get punched or heckled. But over the past year, maybe the tranquility got to her.

Down at Flathead Boxing, a newly established boxing club in Kalispell’s industrial zone off of West Idaho Street, Burton trains almost nightly, already back down to her trim and fit boxing self after falling out of shape during her prolonged break. She recently wrapped up a paid week of sparring in Germany with undefeated Natascha Ragosina, one of the highest ranked super middleweights in the world. Now she can only continue training while she waits for her chance to become the middleweight champion of the world.

Vickie, even if she would rather see her daughter pursue a career that’s “less damaging physically,” said she understands Shelley’s desire – her need – to pursue one last fight.

“Having been hugged by her,” Vickie said, “I understand the fire.”

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