In the first few minutes after winning a unanimous decision over Marlon Starling at Bally's Hotel in Atlantic City last Saturday, WBA and International Boxing Federation welterweight champion Donald Curry was characteristically impassive, but then, as his handlers led him to a press conference, Curry brightened and found a bit of humor in the dark glasses he'd put on to conceal a swelling under his left eyebrow. "Lookin' like Ray," he said gaily.
Leonard, that is, not Charles. Indeed, against the tough and talented Starling, Curry put on an artful display of combinations, speed and defense that only Leonard among today's middle division boxers could match. Which may be one reason that Leonard, the former undisputed world welterweight champion who's about to embark on a comeback, has avoided adding Curry to his list of notable prospective opponents that now numbers Milton McCrory, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns.
Neither Curry, though a world champion at 22, nor Starling had much marquee value before last week's bout, and each was hoping to obtain some with an impressive victory. The winner would then enter the multimillion-dollar sweepstakes that seems sure to result from Leonard's return to the ring after two years of inactivity.
Curry, now 18-0 with 13 knockouts, holds half of Leonard's old 147-pound title, and he's recognized as a superb technician. In his first bout with Starling 16 months ago, which Curry won on a split decision, he'd used his deft footwork and left jab to keep out of danger. He said he was forced to resort to those tactics because he felt weak after steaming off three pounds the day of the bout to make the 147-pound limit.
Since then he'd been criticized for lacking the finishing power and, most disturbing, the fortitude of a champion. Starling had been Curry's loudest critic; he'd taken to calling Curry—who bills himself as the Lone Star Cobra because he's from Texas—the Lone Star Chicken.
Starling, 25, the self-proclaimed Magic Man and the best fighter out of Hartford, Conn. since Willie Pep, brought a 30-1 record with 20 KOs into Saturday's bout. He also vowed not to indulge in the clowning that had cost him points in his first fight with Curry. "I did everything I wanted in that first fight but win," said Starling, who's ranked No. 2 by the WBA. "I was the boss, but I let him run too much. He out-thought me, and I can't let this kid do that."
From the opening bell Saturday, the 5'10½" Curry largely eschewed his vaunted jab and instead crowded Starling, beating him to the punch with short hooks and showing surprising strength by bulling his stockier opponent—Starling is 5'8¼"—into the ropes. In the sixth round Curry knocked Starling back with a sharp right to the head, and at the bell the challenger wore a respectful look. Starling won some of the middle rounds, doing most of his damage with right uppercuts, but Curry finished strong: In the 15th round Starling was in danger of being knocked down for the first time in his pro career. Although Curry suffered a cut inside his lower lip along with the wound that caused the swelling above his eye and never had Starling in serious trouble, he won easily on all three cards.
"I showed everyone I was tough," Curry said. "People say Donald Curry likes to run a lot, that he has no heart. I think I showed heart today."
Starling offered no excuses. "Curry came out with 'c'mon' in his eye, and he took some shots," he said. "He fought from his heart, and he had the heart of a champion."
But Curry's tactics didn't impress his manager, Dave Gorman, a Fort Worth contractor. "I knew Donald was going to get macho," he said. "I thought he would take Starling out, but he avoided what he does best. Don's fight is to keep the guy off balance by changing punching angles and then firing."
Curry began boxing at age eight under the tutelage of Paul Reyes, who's still his trainer. He was 400-4 as an amateur and in 1980 won the National Golden Gloves at 147 pounds, and his class in both the World Cup tournament in Kenya and the Olympic Trials, beating Davey Moore, who would later win the WBA junior middleweight title. Curry won the vacant WBA welterweight crown last February with a victory over Jun Sok Hwang of South Korea. After recovering from ligament damage in his right wrist, Curry KO'd Roger Stafford in September.
Curry maintains a stern visage and admirable composure in and out of the ring. Until his half brother, Bruce, lost his WBC junior welterweight title on Jan. 29 to Billy Costello, the Currys were the only brothers—half or otherwise—ever to hold world championships simultaneously. Donald said he didn't watch Bruce's fight because "my brother's best days are behind him ...but Bruce's losing just inspires me more."
At the postfight press conference Saturday, which was attended by McCrory, who holds the WBC welterweight title, Curry was uncharacteristically brash in saying, "I don't think Milt wants to fight me." Then Curry quickly toned down his challenge: "I'm not trying to hassle you. I'm just ready to fight whenever you are. We're buddies." Oddly enough, Curry is an admirer of John McEnroe, and not because Mac has a sizzling serve. "I like his mouth," Curry says.
Assuming Leonard beats a so-so welterweight named Kevin Howard in his Feb. 25 comeback fight, he's the kingpin in making superfights. And right now, Curry offers Leonard maximum risk and, because of Curry's relative obscurity, minimum profit, compared with bigger if slightly tarnished names like Duran and Hearns, the WBA and WBC junior middleweight champions, respectively. "If I was Ray Leonard, I wouldn't want to fight Curry," Gorman says.
That kind of talk frustrates Bob Arum, the Top Rank promoter who controls Curry and Duran but would be shut out of any Leonard fight. "Leonard has to remember he's not the champion anymore," Arum says. "If he wants his title back, he's going to have to come to Curry." Then, perhaps remembering that Leonard could go for McCrory's WBC crown instead, Arum outlandishly added that Curry doesn't need Leonard: "Donald will soon be making $1 million and more a fight." For Starling, Curry got $250,000, his biggest purse to date. Starling was paid $100,000.
Curry says he'll challenge Duran or former WBA junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor, who might be enticed into unretiring. First, though, Curry must defend against No. 1-ranked Elio Diaz of Venezuela.
With the big money waiting, it's doubtful Curry will have to go toe-to-toe for 15 rounds again. Even Starling said as much. "I told Curry, 'You don't have to prove you're the boss by fighting inside,' " he said. "I told him, 'You can be the boss from the outside.' "
But, as Curry knows, the old boss is back in the division, which could make Curry very much an outsider.