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Mark Breland: Olympic gold medallist, world champion and the coach tasked with making Deontay Wilder a little less wild

Mark Breland was expected to achieve greatness but some would argue he fell a little short. He tells Matt Bozeat he fulfilled his promise and then some

FOR some people, everything isn’t enough. Mark Breland won Olympic gold and had two spells as WBA welterweight champion, but wasn’t, as it looked like he might be for a while, the new Sugar Ray Robinson.

“It was everybody else saying that,” Breland, a spindly box-puncher who stands a sky scraping 6ft 2ins, told Boxing News. “I was quiet, real quiet. I didn’t brag, didn’t say what I was going to do. But I had a lot to carry around.

“The other day, someone said to me; ‘I was disappointed when you lost.’ How do you think I felt? 

“People say: ‘You should have done more Mark.’ But they couldn’t do what I did. I don’t have regrets. I did everything I set out to do. I won five New York Golden Gloves titles, the Olympics and was world champion in the pros twice. “How many people can say that?”

He’s forgetting gold at the Junior Olympics and World Amateur championships. If anything, Breland overachieved. All he ever wanted was to box at Madison Square Garden and by the age of 16, he had achieved that.

“We lived a couple of stops away,” Breland said, “and when I was seven, a friend of my parents took me to see (Muhammad) Ali-(Joe) Frazier Garden.

“We weren’t close to the ring, but just the crowd, the people and being at the Garden was like a dream. After that, I started boxing. I just wanted to fight at Madison Square Garden. I found out that’s where the New York Golden Gloves finals were held.”

Breland would go on to win the title five times, a record.

“The only record I didn’t beat was Sugar Ray Robinson’s for the quickest knockout in the final,” he said. “He had a knockout in seven seconds and I tried to beat it. But I got it in 10 seconds.’’

Breland learned how to iron out opponents by watching – and then sparring – Thomas Hearns.

“I sparred him when I was 19, before he fought Wilfred Benitez,” he remembered, “and it was the biggest thing in my life. I used to watch him fight when I was an amateur and I tried to mimic him, do what he does. For three or four rounds, he couldn’t figure me out. Then he said ‘Now I’ve got you.’

“He would feint the jab to throw you off, to see what you do, and I started doing that.

“I would hit them with a hard jab and after that, I knew they wouldn’t want to get hit by another. So I would feint the jab to see how they moved, feint the jab again to see how they moved – and when I knew how they would move, I would feint the jab and let the right hand go.’’

It worked and ahead of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Breland was known as a knockout specialist.

“The first fight I won five zip [against Canada’s Wayne Gordon] – and the crowd booed,” said Breland. “I thought: ‘Wow.’ I’m trying to figure out what the problem is. I realised people wanted knockouts – and I had a big reputation for knockouts. That puts you under a lot of pressure when you’re 21.”

Breland dealt with the pressure well enough to win welterweight gold and he was considered the outstanding talent of an American team that included Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Evander Holyfield.

“We travelled around together,’’ he said. “We were close. It was fun. I enjoyed the Olympics, but at the same time I was thinking: ‘How can you boo me when I win 5-0? What do you expect’?”

Mark Breland (USA) during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports)

Breland took similarly huge expectations with him into his pro career. “When he retires,’’ said promoter Dan Duva once, “all welterweights will be measured by him.”

In his 11th fight, Breland had the satisfaction of beating the only opponent to better him in his 110-1 amateur career, Darryl Anthony, and six fights later, he was WBA champion, capturing the belt binned by Lloyd Honeyghan with a seventh-round stoppage of South African Harold Volbrecht in February, 1987.  

“I broke a finger on my left hand and they were talking about postponing it,” remembers Breland, “but I said; ‘No, no, no.’ 

“I knew if I hit him with my right hand he would go. My [left] hand felt a little numb [during the fight] and I was just popping the jab, looking to get the right hand in.”

Surprisingly, the title was lost six months later to Marlon Starling, a hardened, smart pro who had lost a previous world-title challenge to Donald “The Cobra” Curry.

Comfortably ahead after 10 rounds, Breland dramatically unravelled in the 11th.

“I think that was the last 15-rounder and I wore myself out,” is how the father of two remembers his first loss. “I threw too many punches. I busted him up, broke his nose, but he kept coming and when I was exhausted he caught me.’’

Eight months later, Breland and Starling fought again. It ended in a controversial draw that most observers gave to Starling.

“I knew he would come at me, so I just jabbed, boxed at a steady pace,” said Breland. “I didn’t throw a lot of combinations, I didn’t want to waste a lot of punches. I thought I did enough.’’

Then-trainer Joey Fariello wasn’t convinced Breland won – or even that he wanted to fight any more. His questions over Breland’s appetite for fighting were answered by a pair of quick KOs that set up a match with the undeserving Seung-Soon Lee for the WBA belt vacated by the troubled Tomas Molinares.

“He was strong,’’ said Breland of the Korean, “but he came straight at me…”

Bad idea.

Lee lasted all of 54 seconds and Breland made similarly short work of challengers Rafael Pineda –despite tearing knee ligaments in the second round – Mauro Martelli, Fujio Ozaki and Honeyghan.

The Honeyghan fight was one Breland had wanted for years.

“I wanted to fight him because he talked,’’ said Breland, now 55 years old and living comfortably on the pension former manager Shelly Finkel put in place for him. 

“He wasn’t a bad guy, but all that yapping… He wanted to be Muhammad Ali, but there’s only one Muhammad Ali.

“I said I would come to England. If you can fight, you can fight anywhere and I’m not a guy who talks a lot, I wasn’t going to upset the crowd.’’

The crowd at the Wembley Arena that night in March, 1990 hoped Honeyghan had another great performance in him. He didn’t. The hometown hero was mauled in three one-sided rounds.

“He didn’t realise how tall I was until we fought,” said Breland. “I never stood next to him at any press conference. The reporters wanted us to, but I wouldn’t. When we got in the ring, I towered over him. He was looking up at me thinking; ‘Wow.’’’

The punch that undid Honeyghan was Breland’s sharp, stabbing jab that he set up with a trademark feint. The shot dropped him in each of the opening two rounds and Honeyghan was on the floor five times in total before the mismatch was mercifully stopped.

The defence against Aaron “Superman” Davis would be harder.

“We really went at it,’’ was how Breland remembered the back-and-forth scrap given extra significance by the Brooklyn-Bronx rivalry between champion and challenger. Down in the third round, Breland was behind on two of the scorecards after eight, but close to victory.

“They were going to stop the fight in the next round because his [right] eye was so messed up,’’ said Breland.

Breland just had to jab his way to the bell.

“He closed his eyes and threw that punch hoping to land it,’’ said Breland of the right-hand bomb Davis detonated on his chin in the dying seconds of the ninth. “Boom! Shit.’’

‘Superman’ Davis in full flow

Breland carried on fighting until defeat to Jorge Vaca, the Mexican who shared two fights with Honeyghan, led to a rethink and during four years out of the ring, he resumed his acting career.

He had appeared in the 1983 film Lords of Discipline before the Olympics and said: “I did some stuff with Spike Lee and some theatre. That was a lot of fun. Live theatre is like boxing. You can’t mess up. But I started thinking: ‘I want to do it [box] again’.”

Under Emanuel Steward, Breland had five straight wins, but a struggle with Rick Haynes (5-15-2) over 10 rounds in March, 1997 would be his last fight.

“I felt good for a couple of fights,’’ he said, ‘’but after that, I decided I had had enough.

“After I retired, I started training dogs. I had three bullmastiffs and they would fly with me everywhere. It’s easier training dogs than people. They don’t talk back and they listen!’’

Perhaps he’s referring to Deontay Wilder!

“He has a very good jab when he uses it,’’ said Breland of the WBC heavyweight champion he’s co trained with Jay Deas  since ‘The Bronze Bomber’ turned over following the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“But sometimes the right hand is sloppy. I try to tell him to throw it straight, not overhand. That way, it will get there quicker. But however he throws the right hand, when he lands, it’s very hard.’’

As you would expect, Breland expects his charge to defeat Tyson Fury on December 1. Joshua, too, will be beaten should they fight.

“Joshua showed against [Wladimir] Klitschko that he doesn’t have a chin and Deontay has a better jab,’’ he said. “Joshua just pushes it out, he doesn’t snap it, and that makes it easy to counter. Eventually, the fight has to happen.

“They will be the only ones left and nobody really wants to see them fight these other guys. Deontay is the one making the noise, saying he wants the fight, but Joshua seems happy doing what he does and making lots of money.”

Breland’s other students include his 15-year-old son, Anthony.

“He’s tall and lanky and he can punch,” said Breland. “Everyone is waiting to see him fight.’’

That sounds familiar.

Michael Bentt, Mark Breland and Riddick Bowe

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  • I remember the BBC preview of the Breland v Honeyghan fight. They had a sound bite from Honeyghan in which he said ‘Mark is such a nice guy, it’s a shame that I am going to have to beat him up.’ As things turned out Honeyghan was the one who got beaten up.

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