Modern Classics: Starling – Breland
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.
For Your Consideration: Marlon Staring
For Your Consideration: Marlon Staring
By: Sean Crose
After barely losing to a young and exceedingly promising Donald Curry in the early eighties, welterweight Marlon Starling started to seem to the fight world like “that guy.” You know, the talented enough terminal contender who just never had what it took to crack through to the big time. Indeed, Starling was seen as nothing more than a solid test for the heralded Mark Breland when the two met for the WBA welterweight title in 87. No doubt many were surprised when, in an amazing performance, Starling took Breland down and out late in the fight.
Starling then went on to absolutely crush the fight world’s biggest boogeyman south of Mike Tyson. For Lloyd Honeyghan was flashy, frightening and without mercy. Thing was, Starling wasn’t afraid of Honeyghan – not in the least. What’s more, the veteran put on a clinic in front of HBO cameras the evening the two men met in ’89. Starling walked away from that fight with the WBC welterweight strap. The arrogant Honeyghan went home with a broken jaw. Starling then went on to challenge middleweight wunderkind Michael Nunn for Nunn’s middleweight crown – and lost by a hair. After a final fight with Maurice Blocker, Starling decided to call it quits.
Yet Starling, who now trains fighters out of his hometown of Hartford, is highly regarded by the boxing world in his retirement. Top writers speak glowingly of him. Longtime fans reflect fondly on his career. All of this leads to a simple question:
Is Starling worthy of an induction to the International Boxing Hall of Fame?
While it’s true the man was never on the level of fame that contemporaries Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, or Marvin Hagler were, it’s worth noting the guy bested a who’s who of top welterweights in his day. What’s more, his career was a grueling one rather than a showy one. One simply doesn’t best the likes of Simon Brown, Floyd Mayweather Sr, Breland and Honeyghan on a whim. One needs that combination of talent and hard work.
Starling offers credit to iconic trainer Eddie Futch for much of his success. Indeed, Futch said that Starling reminded him of “the olden days.” Heady praise indeed. “You know if Eddie Futch told you that,” Starling says, “you must have been all right.” Make no mistake about it, the amiable Starling is satisfied with having had a successful career. “I love that sport,” he tells me over the phone. “Boxing was everything to me.”
Times change, of course, and so do attitudes. “I used to be in love with this sport,” Starling claims. “Now…I love it.” A fine distinction. Starling, a working class hero of a boxer, is a bit troubled by what he sees in today’s wannabe stars. “It’s tough today,” he says, “because everybody wants to be Floyd Mayweather.” Sadly, those words are not surprising to hear. “I always tell them, you have to learn the fundamentals,” Starling continues. “Stop trying to be something that you’re not.” Sadly, far too few young fighters seem to be willing to listen.
“Money today in this game, money is so important,” he says. “I just don’t like the way the sport is today.” For Starling, boxing is a sport where you have to challenge yourself, not make excuses, and always strive. When I bring up the fact that he came close to besting Nunn, the man tells it like he sees it. “You don’t become the champ by coming close,” he says. Those who feel Starling is being too hard on himself here might be missing the point – that self-criticism is what leads to success. Even when he shook the fight world by besting Breland, Starling wasn’t satisfied.
To be sure, he recalls running into Ray Leonard at the airport after the fight. “It hasn’t happened yet,” Leonard asked, “did it?” Starling knew exactly what Leonard meant. Also, there was another welterweight champion out there who Starling had to get through before he was king of the division. “Honeyghan was so disrespectful,” Starling says of the man who at the time was the division’s terror. “He spit at me …at me…at a press conference.” It probably wasn’t the smartest thing for Honeyghan to do.
“When it was time to fight, I just wanted to eat him,” Starling claims. “I mean, I was ready to fight.” And, to be sure, Starling relished his moment. “We’re here now,” he told Honeyghan from the center of the ring before the fight. That’s all he needed to say. Watching the bout again, it plays just as it did all those years ago – as a classic schooling. Starling not only outboxed Honeyghan – he outfought him, too, winning by stoppage in the 9th.
Starling couldn’t help but notice that Honeyghan was standing alone after the bout. “His people weren’t even around him,” says Starling. “That was sad, but as they say, he brought it on himself.” There’s no denying that Starling is sensitive to the fact that boxing is a cruel sport. “Charlie Newell,” he says, bringing up an opponent from the early eighties, “I knocked him out late in the fight and he never regained consciousness.” The incident clearly left Starling shaken.
“I had to think about, what are you going to do?” Starling says. “I went away for about a week and I came back for the funeral and his mother came up to me and said: ‘My son died doing what he likes to do don’t waste your career not doing what you want to do.’” Thanks to Newel’s mother, the traumatized fighter was able to move on. “Believe me, Starling says, “that was a big help.”
And so now we return to the question of whether Starling is Hall of Fame Worthy. As a lifelong fan of the man, I’m biased, so perhaps my opinion isn’t needed here. Starling himself doesn’t like to talk about it much, being modest by nature, but it’s easy to guess what his personal opinion is. If a single understatement can help tip the scales, however, perhaps the following will prove useful:
“If you became champion in my era,” Starling says, “you had to be a pretty good fighter.”
For your consideration: Marlon Starling.