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He Hopes to Have a Fighting Chance in New Athletic Endeavor : Boxing: Mark Connolly, a former Culver City High, Oklahoma State and Cal State Long Beach basketball player, is trying to line up opponents after winning his pro debut.


CULVER CITY — Mark Connolly didn't go out of his way to create fanfare before his professional boxing debut July 11 at the Forum.

"I didn't really tell anybody," said the 34-year-old Connolly, who defeated Paul Griffin (0-2) by decision in a four-round bout. "I wanted to go into it real quiet."

A 6-foot-6, 235-pound former basketball player preparing for his first pro fight wouldn't normally be mentioned in too many headlines. But that's not the case when your parents are Olga and Harold Connolly, gold medalists in the discus and the hammer at the 1956 Olympics.

Harold, an American hammer thrower and four-time Olympian, wore ballet shoes during the competition to improve his footing.

Connolly's mother, then Olga Fikotova, a Czechoslovakian discus thrower who competed in five Olympics, set an Olympic discus record.

Their Olympic Village romance in Melbourne, Australia, attracted international attention. Harold crossed the Iron Curtain to marry Olga, a former member of the Czechoslovakian national basketball team, in Prague in 1957.

Olga competed in four Olympics for the United States and served as the U.S. flag bearer for the 1972 Olympics. The two divorced in 1974 and Harold married Pat Daniels, a three-time U.S. track Olympian.

But Harold and Olga Connolly's accomplishments also cast a shadow that their son has never quite been able to shake.

"To have all this thrown at him has been very hard on Mark," said Olga, who lives in Culver City. "You can be born with a strong physique and good health, but you can't inherit athletic skills. You have to work awfully hard. It's insulting and ridiculous. He's tried to escape it, but it's been tormenting him and he feels the need to go prove himself."

The achievements of his younger siblings, 30-year-old twins Jim and Merja, in track and volleyball at UCLA, certainly doesn't help.

Jim was the 1987 NCAA champion in the decathlon at UCLA and was ranked fourth in the United States that year by Track & Field News magazine. Merja was an All-American on the Bruins' 1984 national championship volleyball team and played professionally in Italy.

Mark demonstrated equal promise in basketball at Culver City High as a senior in 1977. He earned All-Southern Section honors and was selected The Times' Westside player of the year after averaging 19.7 points and 16.5 rebounds.

Connolly went to Oklahoma State on a basketball scholarship, but back problems forced him to sit out a year after high school.

He didn't start any games as a freshman, but became a part-time starter as a sophomore in 1980. He started 14 of 25 games and averaged 4.7 points. Connolly dropped his weight to 190 pounds before his junior season to increase his quickness.

"The coaches told me I'd lost too much weight--20 or 30 pounds--and I wasn't as effective," Connolly said.

He started only three games as a junior and his average dipped to 2.6 points. Discouraged, Connolly flunked out of school and transferred to Cal State Long Beach. After sitting out a season, he joined the basketball team as a walk-on in the 1982-83 season, but scored only 45 points in 22 games as a reserve.

After completing his collegiate eligibility, a boxing promoter approached Connolly at a summer league game at Loyola Marymount and suggested that he pursue a career in boxing.

Connolly played semi-professional basketball in Germany until he said his "career fizzled out" and he decided to take the promoter's advice.

Connolly worked as a waiter and dabbled occasionally in boxing. He decided to move to Las Vegas to concentrate solely on boxing in 1987.

"I miss the beach and the weather but I tried driving to gyms in Van Nuys and downtown L.A. but (in Las Vegas) I can always find an abundance of heavyweights," Connolly said. "What we're trying to do here is focus on a disciplined lifestyle."

Connolly advanced to the super heavyweight title bout in the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Paul, Minn., and compiled a 15-5 record with six knockouts as an amateur. Connolly, though, wasn't completely prepared for his leap into the professional ranks.

"I was breathing a little bit in the fourth round," Connolly said. "You have to be in phenomenal shape to go 12 rounds. I was tired toward the end and I was reverting to my basketball stance by instinct. I was relying on my right hand and my jab wasn't automatic. I didn't have the technique to pour it on with third and fourth punches to take him out."

Changing trainers three weeks before his pro debut fight with Griffin probably did not contribute to a flawless outing. Connolly parted ways with Cornelius Boza Edwards, who insisted he should have turned professional earlier, and began working out with Kevin Brantham.

"(Connolly) tells me he's not ready," said Edwards, a former World Boxing Council junior lightweight champion. "His parents were superstars and he looks to it as a goal issue. His self-confidence wasn't there."

Connolly, however, said he made the change because he needed more individualized attention. Under Edwards, Connolly also trained with heavyweights Jesse Prieto (9-4-2) and James Broad (24-6).

"It's never good to change trainers so soon before a fight, but I learned from both of them," Connolly said. "I still see Cornelius at the (Golden Gloves) gym fairly often and he wished me luck."

Connolly, though, does not know when he will get a chance to fight again.

His manager, Larry Williams, has been scrambling for the past week to find a "suitable opponent" for tonight at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Williams is also trying to schedule a bout later this month at the Forum.

"Glory is short-lived and I need challengers," Connolly said. "It's important for my character to get on a card. The way I feel is like I'm starving and it's time to eat again. My management team is trying to get the meal."

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