REAL NAME: Leonce Cormier
BORN: June 29, 1948 in Dorchester, NB
6’1″, 230 pounds
AKA: Leo Burk, Tommy Martin
Canadian wrestling fans are thankful for Leo Burke.
Not only was he one of the greatest, most consistent, and memorable stars ever to come out of Canada, wrestling from coast to coast and around the world, but he has also had a hand in training some of the next best from Canada, included Test, Edge and Christian.
At 51, he still dons the tights and gets back in the ring. On this Saturday night in July 2001 in Berwick, Nova Scotia, he was teaming with his brother The Beast (Yvon Cormier) and young Rene Rougeau in a six-man tag match for Atlantic Grand Prix wrestling against the Cuban Assassin, his son (appropriately named Cuban Assassin #2) and Wild Man Austin.
Though he may say that he didn’t want to wrestle on this trip out east to visit family, and that he got talked into it by promoter Emile Dupre and his brother, somehow it seems right that he’s still out there. “It’s good to see all the wrestling fans, my friends over the years. So I’m catching up,” Burke admitted to SLAM! Wrestling.
Yet despite his success, looking back, Burke is not sure that he’d do it all over again.
“I’d rather have my health,” explained Burke in the dressing room before his match. “My knees are shot now, I’ve had eight operations on them. When you’re young, it’s different — you might get hurt but it takes a week to heal. Now it takes a couple of months. So, I would honestly have to think about it, do it all over again, I’m not sure if I would chose professional wrestling again or not.”
To describe what Leo Burke, and his three wrestling brothers (The Cormier brothers: The Beast, and Rudy & Bobby Kay), mean to The Maritimes is no easy feat. Besides the excursion to the Grand Prix show, the real reason for this reporter’s trip was a wedding. The cabbie on the way to the airport guaranteed that he would return for the pick-up just to hear stories about Grand Prix and Burke. During the wedding, Maritimers were easily distinguished from the Upper Canadians as they were the ones asking about Leo Burke; in fact, the groom, upon hearing of the trip to the Grand Prix show, requested and got an autographed photo of the wrestling legend.
Just as wrestling has always been a part of his life, so too has he been a part of Maritime wrestling lore.
“I lived, ate, drank wrestling since I was six years old. And of course, I have two older brothers in the wrestling profession that made me want to follow in their footsteps,” said Burke, referring to Yvon/Beast and Rudy. Brother Bobby is a year younger than Leo, known on his birth certificate as Leonce.
After being trained by his brothers, he borrowed the last name Burke from friend, boxer Jackie Burke. “I didn’t want to do it on my brothers’ reputations. So I needed to do it on my own or not at all,” Burke, who turned pro in 1966, said
“I’ve been everywhere,” said Burke of his career, and “I’ve wrestled them all at one time or another.” That colloquial ‘all’ includes four NWA world champions: Harley Race, Jack Brisco, Dory Funk Jr., and Terry Funk.
His favourite territory was always The Maritimes, of course. “Home is home,” Burke said. “I’ve always said that if I was to move from The Maritimes, it would be [to] Calgary. That’s where I’m at now. Of all my travelling, I loved New Zealand a lot. Basically, it reminded me of Canada [laughing].”
He didn’t like India. “Nothing against Indians, just that it was so poor. I can’t describe it to you, unless you see it yourself. Anyone who says that they want to leave Canada, all they have to do is go to India, they’ll be glad to come back home.”
In Calgary, he was North American champion nine times for Stampede Wrestling, including legendary feuds with Bret Hart, Stomper Gouldie, Bulldog Bob Brown, “the list goes on and on.” Many of those feuds had cross-country appeal, and when Grand Prix would start up in the summer months, the battles would move East.
Burke ‘retired’ in 1992 and through his friend Bret Hart he got a job as a trainer in Calgary for the WWF.
“Bret has a lot of respect for me over the years. I wrestled him maybe a hundred different times,” said Burke. “They were looking for a wrestling coach, and he said ‘I’ve got one that you’ll really like.’ That’s how I got in touch with Vince McMahon. That’s how I started.”
He worked for the WWF for three years training wrestlers. Today’s fans will definitely recognize the names Ken Shamrock, Glenn Kulka and Mark Henry.
One stands out for him. “I had Test for two years. He’s only 22 years old. He’s got everything going for him and I see a bright future for him. I’m not surprised. I could tell when I had him that he was going to be a good one.”
When his contract expired a year and a half ago, he switched over to WCW. He has about 15 working with him now and most are looking to sign contracts. “You’ll hear from them in the next six months or so.”
Two of the names are on the Grand Prix circuit this summer: Wild Man Austin and The Mighty Hercules.
“I don’t really recruit anybody,” Burke said. WCW sends up the talent and “I do what I can with them.”
I remember watching Grand Prix Wrestling on Saturday afternoons on ATV, seeing guys like The Beast, Buddy Lane, Rip Rogers, Bob Brown and of course Leo Burke. From the time the bell rang until the match ended Leo gave it 110%. Over the years I have had the pleasure of seeing Leo Burke wrestle in New Waterford, North Sydney and Halifax, Nova Scotia. He had some stiff competition in men like “Rotten” Ron Starr, Eddie Watts, The Cuban Assassin and the list goes on and on. Today, when you see Grand Prix Wrestling live odds are that Leo Burke may pop up some time during the tour. He may not be as young as he used to be, but pound for pound I would put my money on the man from New Brunswick to come out victorious regardless of who his opponent is!
Where to start? Leo was always my favourite wrestler, quick to both give and take a good beating. I remember he fought Rick Martel on tv for the AWA title. It was a 60 minute, best 2 of 3 falls match and Leo got the first fall pretty quickly, then neither fella could get the next fall. Now, Leo’s big move was the Sleeper hold and he slapped that on Martel with about 30 seconds left in the match. Unfortunately, time ran out so Martel kept the belt.
I had Leo’s autograph many times..in university in decorated my dorm room wall. It always gave us time to discuss the best Canadian wrestlers..Leo, the Kays, The Beast.
MIke Cross, Bedford, NS
What can I say about these two Maritime Legends that hasn’t been said in the past? They were my first introduction to the sport of wrestling. I was only a small boy when my Grandmother would take me to see Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling and I loved it. Leo was my favorite, he was the master of the sleeper and I always wanted to use that move as my finisher if I had the opportunity to get into the business. Seeing Leo and the Beast on tour this summer brought back a lot of memories that I wanted to share with my 8 year old daughter who is a huge wrestling fan. She saw her first Grand Prix show a few years ago when Christian and Edge were wrestling her but when I had the chance to show her my favorite wrestlers she really enjoyed it. I hope to see them again before they hang up the tights forever, but if I don’t, they will always be in my memories as my favorite wrestlers.
F. Norman Robitza, Highlander1783
I’ve spent all of my life living on the prairies, and that meant living in Stampede wrestling territory. I remember Leo best for his many battles against Bret Hart and the Stomper. He also formed a great tag team with Hubert Gallant late in his career, although they never won the title in Calgary. Because he was there in the prime of his career, Leo was probably the best North American champion that Stu Hart ever had, and that puts him at the top of a group that includes Bret and Owen Hart, Mike Shaw, Bad News Allen, Davey Boy Smith, and Dory Funk Jr.
In my opinion, one of the best all-round and under-rated wrestlers of all time. I’ve seen Leo battle them all, including World champions such as Harley Race, Terry Funk, Jack Brisco, Dory Funk, Jr., Nick Bockwinkel, Rick Martel, Bret Hart, the list goes on and on. Leo will always be considered the best wrestler that never held a world title. None of the champions mentioned above beat Leo Burke- he beat all of them! All of those title matches back then were always 2 out of 3 falls, and there was never enough time for Leo to get that second fall. The Burke matches that I will remember above all, however, were the classic, bloody and violent wars he had in the Grand Prix circuit in 1980 with none other than “Dr. D” David Shultz. Shultz was at his meanest back then, but Leo never backed down from him, often beating Shultz to a bloody pulp. Then, in 1985, Shultz’s “cousin” Ron Starr started a war with Burke that lasted the better part of six years, with the two shedding gallons of blood between them. Starr was another ornery, mean customer, but on many nights, Leo sent Starr home with the loser’s share of the purse. It was great to see Leo on the Grand Prix tour this past summer, and although he has aged and put on a bit of weight, the ever-present fire was still in his eyes. All the best to you, Leo, and on behalf of your thousands of fans in the Maritimes, thank you for all the great memories!
John Greeley, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Thank you Leo for the endless memories. When I think of my childhood you and your friends are remembered. I have many fond memories of the North Sydney from where we laughed to kill ourselves most of the time. I thought I was something else standing there with you guys every week as you swept my baby brother out of my arms and entered the dressing room with him, I was spoiled, thank you. I often wondered what happened to the rest of the guys. I knew you and your brothers were living in N.B, doing well. Some of the guys I’m referring to are Steven Petipas, Ameille D. Hubert Gallant, the Great Malumba,Killer Karl Krup, Antonio Rico, Nature Boy Dillion, I’m sure there are other who wonder about those entertainers.After all you could sing a pretty good tune too.,multi-talented. Again thanks for the memories, I lose myself in the pictures sometimes ha, sure would be great to see you all again. I did manage to catch up with you about 13/14 yrs ago in Edmonton, Alberta at the Convention Centre on Jasper Ave. If you’re ever in town please call an old fan won’t you? Stop by for some down home cooking. all the best to you and your family .
I can remember every weekend. My dad would fill our car with as many kids as he could get in, and make the drive from Glace Bay to the North Side forum to see the Beast, Leo the Lion, Rudy and Bobby. It was the best of times. Each had his own specialty Beast was the chain match, Leo the man of 1,000 holds and Bobby’s tape fists. I just want to thank the brothers for all the great times they gave us.
PS. The greatest match ever was Leo and Rick Martel’s 2 out of 3, that ended in a draw if I remember it right…..
Harold Morrison, Athens ON
Leo Burke: if brawling and scientific wrestling is the short cut to victory Leo Burke was one of those wrestlers who had it all. he made a chair to the head of the ”Cuban Assassin” more common place than the suplex is today. Yes, few wrestlers could do it all like he could, such as textbook sleepers and Indian deathlocks.
Leo Burke’s biggest weakness in the ring was his capacity for forgiveness. I remember during the early 80’s, the ”Cuban Assassin”, Burke’s long-time enemy, re-emerged in the Grand Prix circuit. Leo Burke was to quick to forgive him of his sins. Of course, Leo Burke paid for this mistake later on , and the ”Cuban Assassin” joined with ”Cousin Mike”. The point, despite all the pain and betrayals Leo Burke has had to endure, he always remained an eternal optimist of all people. It was Burke who gave ”Cuban” a second chance. When it came to friendship, his passion took over, and common sense was left behind. That’s why the Canadian wrestling fans loved him and love him today. He was my childhood hero. Thanks Leo for all the great memories.
On the mat with J.Langille
I can remember back in the late Seventies/ early Eighties when I was just a young kid. We used to go to the Halifax Forum every Thursday night to watch the wrestling matches. Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling at the time was the hottest it had ever been. We used to see wrestlers such as The Beast, Cuban Assasin, Bulldog Bob Brown, Big Stephen Petitpas, Leaping Lanny, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Great Malumba, Dr.D David Shultz, Killer Karl Krupp, Sweet Daddy Siki, No Class Bobby Bass, The Super Destroyer, The Spoiler, Big Jos Leduc, Hercules Ayala Cortez, Haystacks Calhoun, Rick Valentine, The Stomper and last but not least Leo Burke. All the fans would go crazy when ever Leo Burke was around and we couldn’t figure that out as youngsters. The man had the Maritimes in his hands all by himself. Every once in a while when the season started in May Leo would arrive maybe 2 or 3 weeks late and when he did it was like the fourth of July. It was amazing to see what he would bring out of the fans each and every night.
As I got older I began to realize that Leo was one of the best technical wrestlers ever. As I had spoken to various legends over the years they all had this to say about Leo Burke.
1. Dory Funk ” Leo was one of the toughest wrestlers I had ever gone up against ”
2. Bret Hart “Leo taught me a lot about the art of scientific wrestling”
3. Terry Funk “One of the toughest”
4. Buddy Lane “Leo was the Maritimes”
5. Stoppin Paul Pellar “The best ever”
6. Emile Dupre “One our best draws”
As you can see Leo has the respect of many all over the globe. I had a chance to talk to Leo back in the Summer of 98 when he made a guest appearance for Emile. I thanked him for the entertainment he and the rest of the boys brought us every Thursday night in the forum and he thanked me for remembering those times. Leo was in a 6 man tag that night with his brother the Beast and Cowboy Mike Hughes. When the bell rang and the announcer announced his name Leo came through the doors and everyone in the building gave him a standing ovation. I have never seen that before at a wrestling event. Leo thanks again for displaying your excellent ringmanship and talents to your maritime friends for so many years. Keep producing young talent and pass on your great Skill, Knowledge and Wisdom to future stars.
I remember Leo Burke as the ultimate babyface hero. He would always fight the likes of “Rotten” Ron Starr, Rip Rogers, “Killer” Karl Krupp (R.I.P.), “Bulldog” Bob Brown (R.I.P.), all of the “heels”. I remember one time when Bob Brown was doing commentary and he’d jump into the ring in his tuxedo and pull out the ever popular brass knuckles and split Leo wide open.
Leo was laso a class act. The last time I caught him in action was in 1998 in North Sydney at “The Old Barn” (the North Sydney Forum). He took on a wrestler by the name of Rick “The Bruiser” (who my dad was convinced that he was Leo’s son). He beat him after he slapped on the dreaded DDT. When he came out before the match, the crowd in NS literally popped for about five minutes for him. HE was hugging little old ladies and giving hi-fives to children of all ages. After the match was over, he left the ring to another tremendous ovation.
He came over to the autograph table and sat there signing pictures. I asked him to take a picture with me. He said “No problem!”. He stood there and he was awesome!
I hope to eventually see him fight the good fight one more time.
Ryan Doucette, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia