It was nearly as pathetic as it was shocking. After achieving a record, as amateur and pro, of 128-1, there he lay--face down on a gritty blue boxing mat in Columbia, S.C., right in front of Mom, Dad, brothers, sisters and friends. Even his grandmother was there.
Was that really Mark Breland, the World Boxing Assn. welterweight champion, down there, not moving? Mark Breland, from the Olympics, the guy who was supposed to make us forget Sugar Ray Robinson? The guy who in 1984 signed what his manager, Shelly Finkel, said was the richest contract--with ABC, a reputed $3 million for three years--in the history of the sport?
It certainly was, and the sight, more than a week later, still rates as the biggest squiggle on boxing's seismograph since Hagler-Leonard.
So, for now, hold the movie roles.
One of Breland's trainers, Lou Duva, was delivering a post-mortem, explaining how, against Marlon Starling, a tough but not really fearsome opponent, Breland could fall down seven times, be thrown helplessly into the ropes three times, and then get knocked out in the 11th round, while he was ahead on every scorecard.
It was the doctor's fault, Duva said.
"In sparring about two weeks before the fight, in Tampa, Mark injured a rib high up on his left side, by his armpit," he said.
"It was some kind of little tear. We watched it closely, had the doctor look at it and he didn't think it was serious enough to be a factor in the fight. Neither did Mark.
"Well, it really started to bother Mark around the third round, and it affected his balance. Starling was pushing him around, and Mark just couldn't keep his feet under him. Mark never said a thing about the rib during the fight, we thought he was just wearing down. That's the kind of kid he is, he never complains about anything."
The kid, who at 24 was sailing along at 18-0 as a pro and looking at a moderately big-money welterweight unification bout with England's Lloyd Honeyghan in a few months, now goes on the shelf for maybe six months.
"Mark will take three months off, get the rib healed, then go back to work," Duva said. "We'll get him a couple of fights in small shows, then look for something interesting. Maybe we'll move him up to the 154s."
Afterward, when Breland told Duva and co-trainer Joe Farriello that the rib injury bothered him, Duva said the Breland camp mood brightened, but not by much.
"Now we look at it like this--Mark was boxing almost entirely off his right side, couldn't keep his feet under him, had one effective hand, and he was still way ahead on every scorecard."
Breland (6-3) from roughly the midway point, lost the snap in his most effective weapon, his long, left jab. Worse, when he did extend the jab, he wasn't retracting it quickly into his defensive posture, and it seemed only a matter of time until the shorter, far more aggressive Starling, who brought a 45-1 record to the bout, caught him with a right hand.
He did, in the third, but Breland shook it off. Breland couldn't shake it off in the 11th, though.
Starling caught the retreating Breland with a looping overhand right, followed with a left hook, two more rights, then took him out with a left hook to the jaw.
Breland went down, tried to get up, but couldn't.
It was his first defeat since losing to Darryl Anthony in the 1981 national amateur tournament at Concord, Calif., a loss he reversed as a pro.
Finkel said that his boxer learned a painful lesson.
"Mark knows now that he's human, that he can't go in the ring against anyone with an injury," he said. "He wants a rematch very badly and he wants his title back very badly."
On the subject of Breland's ABC contract, which runs out in a few months, Finkel indicated that a successful rematch would satisfy everyone.
"It's been a good, two-way relationship," he said. "ABC has done well with Mark in the ratings. So once he gets his title back, he'll be back on track. Mark is extremely anxious for a rematch, he knows he's a better fighter than he showed."
On the day in 1984 when Breland and eight of his teammates won gold medals at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, pro boxing trainer Angelo Dundee talked about the silk-smooth Breland, the string-bean welterweight who was the dominant amateur boxing figure in the 1982-1984 period. He cautioned those who anticipated similar success for him as a pro, but didn't seem sure himself why.
"With his skills, his ability, you gotta love Mark," he said. "He can hit, he can move, he can box with any young kid I ever saw.
"But! Sometimes I don't see that fighter's fire in him, that certain look in his eye, you know? I guess I want to see how he reacts some night when he get hurt, maybe gets cut, and some guy with nothing to lose has him on the ropes and is really putting it to him. And, when he loses one, what kind of a fighter will he be when he comes back?"