FOR MANY in the boxing world, especially in New York City, Mark Breland was going to be the next Sugar Ray Robinson. One of the best amateurs produced by the United States, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist was on his way to big things in the pro ranks, going 18-0 en route to winning the vacant WBA welterweight title against Harold Volbrecht in February of 1987.
Six months later, he was matched up with Marlon Starling, a veteran of 45 pro fights who had beaten the likes of Simon Brown, Floyd Mayweather Snr, Jose “The Threat” Baret, Kevin Howard and Tommy Ayers, but fell short in his first title shot against Donald Curry in 1984. And more disappointment was expected against Brooklyn’s Breland, but the then-28-year-old from Hartford, Connecticut had other ideas, even if he knew it might be an uphill climb.
“That was a big Olympic champ, and I was supposed to beat Breland,” Starling, now 63, said. “He was a young, up and coming guy and I was a veteran. And conditioning and being a smart fighter can get by a rookie. But Breland, they talked about him not losing a fight in so many years and he was an Olympic champion. My position was do or die, and I had to take a lot of punishment to win that fight.”
Starling fell behind early, but the almost frail Breland never got his footing, hitting the deck several times as he tried to get his legs back under him. That was the signal for the “Magic Man” to keep pressing and press he certainly did as he got around the champion’s five-inch height advantage and started to break his foe down.
“Breland had a very good jab,” said Starling. “Everybody was talking about his right hand, but his jab was his most important thing. So you just had to be smart with Breland.”
In the 11th round, Starling put smarts to the side in favor of brute force, and that strategy worked. Breland was counted out at 1:38 of the frame, and Marlon Starling was a world champion in an era when it wasn’t that easy to achieve that feat. But why did Starling pick on a New Yorker like that?
“Hey, they was coming after me,” laughed the affable Starling, still living in Connecticut, where he is a member of that state’s Boxing Hall of Fame, one of three he graces along with the Rochester and New Jersey halls. The only one missing for him at this point is the big one, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota.
It’s a sad omission, especially given what he did in the ring and the era in which he did it in. And he feels the same way his fans and many in the media do about it.
“I should be in the Hall of Fame,” said Starling. “There’s quite a few people that’s in that hall that I should be in there before. God bless ’em. And I’m not jealous, but I’m just saying that I know I should be. When we say, Hall of Famer, we try to judge it by the decade you were in, and you can’t pass that decade of the 80s – it wasn’t that I was just the WBC champion. I was the WBA champion, I was a USBA champion, I was a NABF champion, and at that time, we had some good fighters back then.”
That might be the understatement of the year. Just look at Starling’s resume for the level of fighter he was routinely in the ring with: Curry (twice), Brown, Breland (twice), Lloyd Honeyghan, Michael Nunn, and Maurice Blocker. It was a Murderers Row and Starling was packing a Tommy gun on each trip between the ropes, his skillset sublime, but with the ability to bang when he wanted to and go into deep waters thanks to his gas tank and an iron chin that only got dented once when he got knocked out by Tomas Molinares with a punch clearly thrown (and landed) after the bell. That fight was later ruled a no contest, and ironically, Starling still considers that 1988 bout one of his finest performances.
One of his most satisfying? His next fight, when he took Lloyd Honeyghan’s WBC welterweight title on February 4, 1989. There was a heated build-up to the bout, but once the bell rang, the challenger took over, stopping his foe in nine rounds.
“Honeyghan was the easiest fight of my life,” Starling said. “I had no problem with Lloyd Honeyghan. When I said jump, he jumped. If I said I’m gonna hit your head, I hit it. he was easy.”
Such longevity in the sport at the highest level is rare, but Starling came from a rare time when the best fought the best and boxers learned their craft the old-fashioned way – with hard work.
“I was a sparring partner when I was in my 10-round fights,” said a man who competed in two 15-rounders against Curry and Breland. “I was fighting everybody that came in the gym and needed work. I had to work because I had to get myself in shape. And I kept myself in shape. Those were fights in the gym. You go home and you’re hurting. But those were good days. I wouldn’t change those.”
One sparring session he won’t forget was against Thomas Hearns. Starling was initially going to work with Sugar Ray Leonard, but when that didn’t pan out, it was off to work with “The Hitman” for the 1981 SuperFight between Leonard and Hearns.
“I went to work with Ray and they didn’t want to spar,” Starling recalls. “But they asked me to come up to work with them, and the day before, they didn’t want to spar. Then when Tommy and Ray were gonna fight in Vegas, I went to train with Tommy and I got the best of him, but he hit me with a right hand and when I got back to my room, my nose was running, and I was like, I think my jaw broke, and my jaw got broke.”
Sidelined for five months, Starling came back with a vengeance in 1982, going 6-1 with four knockouts, the only loss coming via split decision in his first fight with Curry.
“I fought Curry twice and I thought I beat him the first time,” said Starling. “He was one of the best fighters I fought. I told Curry, ‘I beat you the first time,’ and you know what he said to me? ‘That ain’t what the record book says.’”
Starling laughs, and he’s kept in touch with Curry through the Texan’s son, and he also makes it a point to get on the phone with Leonard, the one fighter he regrets never getting to share a ring with. And you can guess how those conversations go.
“I wanted to fight Ray, and every now and then, me and him will get on the phone and talk about it. Ray says, ‘I woulda beat your ass,’ and I tell him, ‘You know better than that. For one thing, you’d have to work extra hard to hit me.’”
This is true. Not only did Starling have an iron chin, but his defense was above and beyond that of most of his peers. Want proof? Go to YouTube and search “Starling defence” and see what comes up. To him, that was simple.
“I was always taught as an amateur to bring your hands back,” he said. “If you bring your hands back, you don’t have to worry about getting hit. You know if you hit somebody, what are they gonna do? They’re gonna want to hit you back. Is that simple, or what?”
He chuckles as he then refers back to the Molinares fight.
“I had a plan when I was fighting Molinares,” Starling said. “I beat him real easy. Guess what? It never ended that way. So what do they always tell you?”
Defend yourself at all times?
“Need I say more?”
These days, Starling isn’t attached to the sport like he once was.
“Boxing was good to me, but I don’t watch it anymore, and I never thought that I would be a guy that don’t watch boxing,” he said. “I think they put a big dent in it at the end of the 90s.”
As 1999 turned to 2000, Starling was already more than nine years removed from his final pro fight. After defeating Honeyghan, he successfully defended his title against Young Kil Jung, then moved up to middleweight, only to lose a majority decision to 34-0 Michael Nunn. Four months later, on August 19, 1990, he dropped a majority decision to Maurice Blocker, then walked away at the age of 30.
“After the Blocker fight, I was pissed,” Starling admits. “I said, ‘No, I’m not gonna do this no more.’ I believe they stole the Blocker fight.”
It was a gutsy call, especially with the reality that he was only 30 years old and in position to still get into big money fights for years to come. But the single father raising his son, Marlon Jnr, never returned.
“If I knew back then what I know now, I probably would have stayed, but you know what, my dignity meant too much for me to stay,” said Starling, now a father of three and grandfather of three girls, none of whom are aware of what Grandpapa used to do for a living.
“They want to read and all that,” Starling laughs when asked if his granddaughters have gone searching for him on YouTube yet.
Plenty still do know what he did, though, with a social media charge being led by friend, former boxer and current trainer John Scully to inform a newer generation of what Starling accomplished and why he should be in the IBHOF, which the “Magic Man” still visits every year, even competing in (and finishing) the traditional 5K race.
When told of this push to get him his just due, Starling smiles.
“That means so much,” he said. “That means that I got up to go to work every day and I enjoyed going to work. When I go around people, they go, ‘Remember that Marlon Starling?’ Whether I lost or won, they know that Marlon Starling was in there to perform. And I never got in there to dog it. I didn’t like getting beat. If I was gonna fight, I’m in it to win it, I don’t care how much money you’re paying.”
That’s a Hall of Famer talking.