BOXING / EARL GUSTKEY : Breland: No Brelands in Class of ’92

You watch the lean, fit young men competing this week in the Olympic team boxing trials and you can’t help but wonder.

Who among the 96 boxers will we see in a few years in multimillion-dollar, pay-per-view pro boxing shows? Who is the Sugar Ray Leonard in this group? Is there an equivalent of the 17-year-old Mike Tyson, who cried when he was beaten and failed to make the 1984 Olympic team?

Is there even a Mark Breland here?

Most likely, yes. In fact, the original Mark Breland is here. He has been watching the bouts from ringside, and, on Friday, shared some thoughts about Olympic boxing stardom, pro stardom and fighters who don’t rise quite as high as expected.


In 1984, you didn’t need much of an imagination to envision Breland’s name on the Caesars Palace marquee, or to think of him as one of pro boxing’s superstars of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He couldn’t miss, most agreed.

He had a right hand like a cannon shot. He didn’t simply hurt opponents with that right, he knocked them unconscious. The most anticipated bout at the 1984 Olympic trials in Ft. Worth was the one between Breland and Mylon Watkins of Tacoma, Wash.

They were tall, big right-hand punchers who had never met. Not much happened for half a minute. Then, Breland’s right fist landed on Watkins’ face. Watkins landed on his back, as if he had been shot. He was out for a full minute. The time: 33 seconds of the first round.

When he won the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics, Breland finished probably the greatest career in the history of amateur boxing: 110 victories, 1 defeat.

So it was easy, then, to project the personable Breland as the sport’s next superstar. Big-money commercials were around the corner. Start drawing up the contracts.

It never happened.

He had a good career. He was 30-3-1 when he retired last year. He won a piece of the welterweight championship, but Marlon Starling took it away. He didn’t make millions, but he made some money. He got $700,000 from ABC for his first six pro fights. His biggest single purse was $500,000, for the second Starling fight.

But Breland’s boxing days ended in Sacramento’s Arco Arena last year, when he was stopped by Jorge Vaca.


And he knew, in a heartbeat, it really was over.

“I was beating Vaca easily for three rounds, then he got me with a pretty good left hook in the fourth round,” he said.

“It didn’t hurt me that much, but I couldn’t get my legs to work right. Then in the sixth, he got me against the ropes and he was throwing a barrage of punches at me. And I covered up. I had no desire to hit him back. I just covered up.

“A little voice in me said: ‘Mark, you really don’t want to be here.’ The referee stopped the fight and I said: ‘Fine.’ I knew right then I didn’t want to box anymore.


“I’ve been in a gym maybe twice since then, and this is the third boxing event I’ve been to. I don’t miss it at all. But I might like to train a fighter some day.”

We all know about boxing “retirements.”

Breland laughed.

“I’ll wait until I’m 42, like Larry Holmes,” he said.


Breland is still whippet-thin, although he is up to 160 pounds. He’s a full-time actor now and recently completed work on a film called “Story Teller,” in which he plays a pool hustler.

He lives in Teaneck, N.J., and says he has saved much of the money he made as a pro. Starting next year, when he turns 30, he says, he will get $100,000 a year for life from an annuity his manager, Shelly Finkel, set up for him early in his pro career.

Is he disappointed at how it turned out?

“Not at all,” he said. “I enjoyed my boxing career. A lot of people were saying I was going to be a Leonard or a Hearns. Then later on, when things didn’t work out like that, they said: ‘Well, he’s sure no Leonard or Hearns.’


“Well, I never said that. It never bothered me that I didn’t live up to what other people expected.

“People talked about all the money I’d make as a pro. I never thought about money. I never had any growing up in Brooklyn, so anything at all that I made was a plus.”

Any regrets?

Only one. He says he might still be a champion had he never fought Starling, the unorthodox, brawling Hartford, Conn., fighter who first knocked him out and took away his title, then kept it in a rematch when the two fought to a draw.


“I probably never should have taken the Starling fight,” he said. “Manny Steward (once Breland’s trainer) told me I never should have taken that fight. He told me he never let Tommy Hearns or Milton McCrory (both welterweight champions under Steward) fight him because the guy’s so unorthodox it’s just not worth the risk.”

Breland probably stayed at 147 pounds too long, he said.

“I probably should have moved up to middleweight sooner than I did, but I could never put on weight easily,” he said. “Even now, if I run five miles, I’d lose five pounds. I never had a problem making 147. In fact, for many of my fights, I weighed 145.”

Breland doesn’t think much of the U.S. Olympic class of ’92. The talent, eight years after he and his teammates won nine gold medals, has thinned, he says.


“I don’t see anyone moving out there,” he said. “I see some head and shoulder movement, but I don’t see any foot movement. These guys aren’t using the whole ring. European boxers love that in the Olympics, when they get an American standing still, right in front of them.

“In L.A. in ’84, we showed them a lot of movement--me, Pernell Whitaker, Steve McCrory, Tyrell Biggs. . . . We slipped a lot (of punches), showed them a lot of angles, confused them.”

Many here are projecting two boxers, lightweight Oscar De La Hoya of East Los Angeles and light-middleweight Raul Marquez of Houston, as potential pro millionaires.

Breland’s advice: Don’t count on anything, guys.


“Marquez is more of a pro right now than De La Hoya is,” he said. “Marquez can really punch, and he’s very patient, so that right there tells you he can be successful as a pro. He has a chance.

“With De La Hoya, he needs to show a lot more ring movement than he’s shown me so far. He’s got a lot of skills. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not using the entire ring. He’s got some head and shoulder movement, but that’s not enough.”

The transition from world-class amateur to world-class pro, he said, simply requires moving your game to a different level.

“In the amateurs, the emphasis is on a lot of quality punches in three rounds,” he said. “So you have to be very busy. In the pros, you can be patient, you can pick your spots. You have time to set things up with your jab.


“And in the pros you’re free to do things the amateur refs don’t allow, like spinning your opponent around, or bobbing down and coming up with an uppercut. (Ducking below the opponent’s beltline is a violation in amateur boxing.)

“But in the pros, you’re not always protected by the referee, either. A guy like Starling can foul you in every round, and the referee will just let it go. You have to learn how to take care of yourself in there.”

Breland said he had a falling out several years ago with Mike Tyson, once a neighborhood buddy when they grew up in Brooklyn.

“I was on a TV show when Jose Torres’ book about Mike came out,” he said.


“When I was asked what I thought about Don King, I said I judged people by their records. That got back to Mike as something else--from King, I guess--and we haven’t seen much of each other since then.”

Breland said he knew Desiree Washington, the Providence, R.I., woman who brought the rape charge against Tyson that put the former heavyweight champion in an Indiana prison.

“I met her at a party in Providence when I was in a play there, and I saw her at several other parties in Providence,” Breland said. “Don King sent people to talk to me about it before Mike’s trial, but I told them I didn’t want him to have my home phone number.

“I told them: ‘Let Mike call me.’


“He never did.”

Boxing Notes

Two-time world champion Greg Haugen will fight an opponent to be decided July 7 at the Hollywood Palladium. The main event matches once-beaten lightweight Rafael Ruelas of Arleta, the World Boxing Council’s ninth-ranked contender, against the man who beat him, Mauro Gutierrez of Tijuana, in a scheduled 12-round bout. . . . The California Athletic Commission canceled a second consecutive meeting for lack of a quorum.

Staff writer Rich Tosches in Los Angeles contributed to this column.