By: Sean Crose
It might be something of an overstatement to claim that Marlon Starling was overlooked when he stepped into the ring to face Mark Breland for the WBA welterweight title in 1987, but there’s little doubt who the media attention was on. For Breland was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist. He had been on Miami Vice and in a Pointer Sister’s video. He was, no doubt, a fighter in the spotlight. Starling was seen as a “test” for Breland. It was almost as if everyone had forgotten the fact that the 28 year old Hartford native had given Donald Curry fits, and that he had none other than the great Eddie Futch in his corner.
Still, it was Breland who was the younger man, Breland who was the defending champion, and Breland who had power to burn in his long, lanky frame. Add in the fact that Starling was around four years older and five inches shorter than Breland and it’s completely understandable that fans and analysts would have given the Brooklyn based champion the edge. Those who followed such matters closely, however, might have smelled an upset in the air. For Starling and his team had taken to an intense training regimen. It was clear from reports from camp that the perennial contender known as “Magic Man” was embracing the opportunity to win a world title with the utmost seriousness.
Then there was the matter of skill. Starling, though not flashy like previous welterweight kings Leonard, Hearns and Duran, was an exceedingly strong craftsman in the ring. A classic “Scientific fighter,” Starling employed a high guard and knew exactly when, where and how powerfully to land his shots. He also had a well of deep experience to draw from. For here was a man who gave Curry a run for his money not once, but twice.
The fight with Breland, which took place on August 22nd at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Caroline, seemed to be a race against the clock for Starling. He was proving throughout the bout to be the stronger man, evidenced by the fact that he tossed Breland to the mat several times (once earning a point deduction), but Breland’s long jab and power punches were effectively keeping him at bay. Starling was the aggressor, but could he get to his man before the final bell rang? As the fight headed into the championship rounds, it looked like Starling might not.
Yet, in the first minute of the eleventh, Starling landed on Breland hard. Breland reeled back into the ropes as Starling fired away, a devastating left hook sending the champion to the mat. Breland tried gamely to get up…but the referee wisely stopped the fight. Starling, who had been fighting professionally since the late 70s, was finally a champion. It was the beginning of a run atop the division’s elites that would last until he stepped away from the sport in 1990. Breland himself would recoup and go on to further ring glory (he fought Starling a second time months later, in a bout that ended in a draw), but on that one Saturday afternoon, the spotlight belonged to the veteran from Connecticut.