Muscle man: Burnell Williams is flanked by bikini clad women at a bodybuilding competition in the 1980s.
Muscle man: Burnell Williams is flanked by bikini clad women at a bodybuilding competition in the 1980s.
When Burnell Williams woke up in a cactus bush covered in thorns with no recollection of how he got there, he knew it was time to give up the bottle. He went a lot further than that ditching his rock 'n' roll lifestyle to become a bodybuilder worthy of runner up status in Mr. Universe and ­becoming a martial arts Sensei. He has produced a picture ­biography charting his fascinating journey.

By James Whittaker

Two bottles of Heineken and a block of cheese was the staple breakfast for Burnell Williams back in the heady days of Bermuda's 1950s tourism boom.

He'd wash it down later with a bottle of Scotch and smoke his way through a pack and a half of cigarettes before he hit the stage at the old Sea View club on North Shore.

Back then he was living the rock'n'roll lifestyle, drowning in liquor bought for him by adoring fans.

It wasn't until he woke up one morning in 1957 in a cactus bush, unable to ­remember anything of the night before that he decided it was time for a change.

"They had to pick the ­cactus off me before they could put me in the ambulance," he remembers.

"It didn't hurt the night before, but boy it hurt in the morning."

Addictive personality

He gave up booze for good and turned his addictive personality to bodybuilding. Working out daily in a converted stable on benches he and his buddies had built themselves, Burnell transformed himself from a wiry 140lb booze hound who had shunned food to help him get drunk quicker, to a man-mountain - a hulk of sculpted muscle who local schoolchildren came to know as 'Superman'.

Four years later, in 1961, he was in New York, showing off his new physique as the runner-up in the Mr. Universe contest.

"Bodybuilding was like Noah's Ark for me - it was the vessel that delivered me from the flood of alcohol," he says.

Burnell went on to open one of Bermuda's first commercial gyms on Cox's Hill, reach 'red belt' status - the equivalent of a ­doctorette in martial arts, marry four different women and father six ­children.

Now 75, he is back in Bermuda after spending 16 years in Italy, where he ran a chain of martial arts schools.

It's been an eventful life, so far. And he hopes to share some of his experiences with Bermudians in a new book - Believe in Yourself, a pictorial ­biography.

The book contains snapshots of Sensei Burnell's life, from those early days with the Lloyd Simmons Serenaders, to success and fame as a bodybuilder, through his mastery of martial arts and his time in Italy as both a ski instructor and a Sensei.

But the veteran fitness ­fanatic insists the most ­important part of his book is the Buddhist philosophy, which he discovered in Italy and honed on several trips to China, and helps him make order of his life today.

"I was a dead man walking until I discovered Buddhism," he admits.

Now he begins every day with a period of meditation designed, he says, to clear his mind of all negative thoughts and leave it like an empty glass ready to be filled with new experience.

Positive thinking

"I take out my negative thoughts with the garbage in the morning. Every day there is a problem. If it comes early I say thank you for coming early. If it comes late in the day I say 'what took you so long'."

He earns his living as a personal trainer at the Olympic Club and on the door at the Little Venice winebar.

But not everyone shares his new philosophies of peace and forgiveness.

Burnell upset his fair share of women in his time and some have been unable to let go.

"I ran into a girl I knew from back before I went to Italy, she said to me: 'I heard you were back. I hoped you would be coming back in a box'.

"I guess she was mad about something from way back in the 80s."

At 75, Burnell, who was born in Devonshire but now lives in Pembroke with his Italian wife Giuseppina and their children, insists his trouble with the girls is in the past. When he said 'till death do us part' for the fourth time he really ­­

meant it.

"We've been married seven years. I told my wife 'you should be in the Guinness Book of Records'. The previous best was three years.

"The only way we're getting separated this time is when I go to the graveyard."

Sensei Burnell admits he has a few regrets in his life, but he aims to carry them with 'grace and dignity'.

"The past is past and the future might never get here, we have to live in the present," is his personal philosophy for life.

He still cuts an impressive, muscular figure and he still has somewhat ­eccentric eating habits, fasting every weekend and drinking organic, apple vinegar to detox his body.

He hawks his book on the streets, at his two jobs and on the bus to town. It's selling well.

"I go out every day with five or six in my bag and I've usually sold them by the end of the day." n

The book, produced with the help of MP Dale Butler, a prolific producer of books on Bermuda and its people, costs $35. You can get a copy at the Olympic Club in Hamilton or by calling Burnell at 292-4095.