During a career that lasted from 1989 to 2007, welterweight Craig Houk of Greensburg, Indiana, compiled a professional record of 67-39, with 18 knockouts. Despite squaring off with world champions Julio Cesar Chavez, Meldrick Taylor, Joey Gamache, and Hector Camacho (twice), Houck’s most vivid boxing memory occurred at the Ice Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, in December 1971, when he was just 7 years old.
Houk was in his dressing room, about to engage in an amateur contest. On the other side of a tarp separating fighters by age and category, he heard what sounded to him “like bombs going off.” He peeked behind the tarp and saw Marvin Johnson hitting mitts that were being held by fabled trainer Champ Chaney.
“It was the greatest thing I ever saw or heard in boxing,” said Houk, who at age 58, still gets visibly excited when recalling the incident. Despite his young age, Houk knew he was looking at boxing greatness.
Johnson, who like Houk, hailed from Indiana, would go on to win a bronze medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. In December 1978, he defeated Mate Parlov of the former Yugoslavia for the WBC light heavyweight title, which he lost to Matthew Saad Muhammad four months later.
Although Houk excelled at cross country, baseball, and basketball, his youthful devotion to the Sweet Science took him to Florida in 1983, where he abandoned any college aspirations so he could “chase my dream” of garnering amateur boxing experience. Over the next three years, Houk won titles in the Sunshine State Games and the South Florida Golden Gloves.
In 1986, Houk returned to Indiana, where he walked into Champ Chaney’s gym in Indianapolis and said he wanted to fight. Johnson was also training there, and Houk told him about his indelible memory from 15 years prior. Johnson and Chaney took him under their wing and Houk won a 1986 state amateur championship.
Turning pro in March 1989 under the guidance of the veritable Pete Susens and Fred Berns, Houk began traversing the country. By year’s end he had fought 19 times, throughout Indiana, as well as in North Dakota and Oklahoma.
For much of the 1990s, Houk traveled in a van, along with perennial opponents such as Reggie Strickland, Marty Jakubowski, Harold Brazier, and Vernell Smith, all of whom would fight anyone, anywhere, often on short notice and with varying degrees of success. (Read more about Reggie Strickland and that band of traveling battlers from Mladinich here.)
“We might fight in Louisville, Kentucky, and be on our way in a van to fight in Oklahoma the next night,” recalled Houk. “We would wash up in gas stations. It was trial by fire, but you do learn how to fight that way.”
Houk’s debut on the big stage occurred in January 1994, when he battled Meldrick Taylor on the undercard of the first Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Frankie Randall fight and Hector Camacho vs. Felix Trinidad at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
“It was a really big show, and I was just a redneck kid from Indiana,” said Houk. “During fight week I was around Chavez, Randall, Camacho, Trinidad, Tommy Hearns, Simon Brown, and Christy Martin. It was overwhelming and a little intimidating, but in boxing at some point you have to get baptized, even if you lose.”
Despite being stopped in the third round by Taylor, Houk was undeterred.
Three months later he was back in the ring in Indiana, and would lace up the gloves eight more times, mostly in his home state, by the end of the year.
“I was a ticket seller locally in Indiana,” he said. “I fought 47 times there, which is the most of any fighter in history. One of my original goals was to fight one main event in Indiana. I wound up fighting 24 main events and 14 co-main events there during my career.”
In July 1995 Houk faced off against the legendary Chavez, who was 93-1-1 at the United Center in Chicago. On his walk to the ring, Houk remembers passing Michael Jordan and Mr. T. in the audience. Much to his chagrin, Houk was stopped in the first round.
“I waited on his jab, but he turned the jab into two hooks,” said Houk. “He knew what he was doing. He was good.”
Houk was later stopped twice by Hector Camacho, the first time at Madison Square Garden in July 1996. He did manage to drop Camacho before being stopped in the third round in their second encounter in December 2003.
An unpleasant memory is losing an 8-round decision to unheralded Jimmie “Miracle Man” Morgan of Anderson, Indiana, in June 1997. Morgan’s record was 8-17-2 going into the bout and he would retire with a ledger of 14-37-3, with 3 knockouts.
“To lose a decision to a guy with a losing record in front of my fans was very embarrassing,” recalled Houk.
Houk took some of the $10,000 he earned fighting Chavez to pay for bartending school, and he is now employed as a bartender and beverage manager at the Holiday Inn in Carmel, Indiana. He also worked with local sponsors to establish the Indiana Boxing Hall of Fame, whose inaugural 2018 inductees included Marvin Johnson, Lamon Brewster, Tony Zale, and Fred Berns.
Among the 2022 inductees were promoters Don and Carl King and J Russell Peltz, and fighters Antonio Tarver, Prince Charles Williams, Marty Jakubowski, Ron Essett, Fres Oquendo, Nate Tubbs, and Leon Spinks. The Hall of Fame boasts over 5,000 Facebook followers, as well as more than 1,300 followers on its You Tube channel. This brings Houk a tremendous amount of fulfillment and enrichment.
“I want to keep Indiana boxing alive and also continue to build my brand,” said Houk, who is married for the second time and has four children or stepchildren. “It is important to all boxers that we keep our legacies alive. I am happy to do it.”