Mark Breland is dreaming. On this dappled May morning he has just turned 21, and his life is stretched out before him like the Manhattan skyline, which looms hazily across the East River.
From the kitchen window of his parents' four-bedroom, 14th-floor apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the black ghetto where Breland was born and raised and still lives, you can see the Empire State Building, the most imposing symbol of wealth and power in midtown Manhattan. Below the window, in the vacant lots and burned-out buildings, just around the corner from where the junkies hang out in the nightly ritual of hanging on, the ghetto stirs noisily toward noon.
"Anything can happen there," Breland says, glancing out the window. "Anything. It was tough. I grew up fast." And grew up to be a New York Golden Gloves champion a record five times—and the leading U.S. hope for a gold medal in boxing at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Now Breland is looking out a window to a newly imagined world, one that surely awaits him if he can just grasp it. It's right over there, beyond the Manhattan skyline, where the roads lead north along the Hudson River.
"There are a lot of things I dream that I hope come true," Breland says. "I dream of having a big house with a lot of dogs. Ten acres. Upstate New York. Just a picket fence. Keep the lawn nice. Hedges all around. I'll have a gardener...and I'll have an apartment in Manhattan, so I can be close enough to come back around here and visit.
July 8, 1984
"I want to renovate old buildings and rent them out, but not at high rates, because the people around here don't have a lot of money. And I want to open centers for the little kids to go to, to give them something to do, anything they want, and...I do love clothes. Tommy Hearns has got such nice stuff. I'd like a new Jaguar or a Mercedes, beige and brown, or a nice olive green. And a girl like Jayne Kennedy. If you're driving a nice car, a nice-lookin' girl should be in there with you...and I want to buy my mother a house."
Luemisher Breland, Mark's mother, has long been imagining the way and the day it will all suddenly happen—when Mark comes home to tell her that she's leaving Brooklyn and going back home again. "I pray and hope it will happen," she says. Born one of eight children to a Denmark, S.C. farmer, Luemisher Freeman grew up poor in the rural South, where she met and married Harlem-born, South Carolina-raised Herbert Breland, and then came north to Brooklyn to settle down and raise a family. Herbert has worked as a roofer with the same New York company for 26 years; Luemisher has toiled alternately as a nursing home attendant and a domestic. Together they have raised six kids, Mark being the fourth, and she has never let go of the hope that one day she might return to her roots and live in a place of her own.
"My father used to say to me, 'Why don't you come back down South and help me open a restaurant?' " Luemisher says. "If Mark asked me what he could do for me, I'd say, 'Mark, open me a restaurant in South Carolina.' Soul food. Collard greens, ham, chitlins, rice and peas. I love to cook."
Just as trainer George Washington loves to teach young fighters. Of course, he has been dreaming, too. "Ain't no doubt about it," says Washington, 57, who has been training Breland since he walked into the Broadway Gym in Brooklyn at the age of nine. "Now it's a new world all the way around.... I love fishing. I like to play bingo, but the first thing I'll do is put some money in the bank. Then I'll buy me another house and rent that out. Then me and my wife would start traveling."
The reverie in which Breland, his family and trainer are indulging can best be described as California dreaming. Because after Breland wins this weekend's Olympic boxoff at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, as he surely will, his path to glory and gold depends on how he performs in the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Aug. 11, the day of the boxing finals.
The scenario is as easy to follow as the fighter's sometimes lazy left jab: After Breland wins the Olympic gold medal in the 147-pound class, he has his first pro fight in November in Madison Square Garden, with all the tickets being given away to New York youths as a way of thanking them for supporting him as a Golden Gloves amateur. Within two years he becomes a gate attraction on the order of Sugar Ray Leonard. He wins the world welterweight title, as Leonard did (if, that is, Breland can still make the 147-pound weight after two or three years). He commands millions for a few more years, a la Leonard, and endorses his way to further riches. He models clothes and speaks at Rotary luncheons. Upon his retirement he resumes his career as a movie actor. (When he was 19, he played the part of the first black cadet in a racially twisted Southern military school in the 1983 film The Lords of Discipline.)
"So much is expected of me," Breland says. "Everyone is watching to see what I do. I just can't make any mistakes."
So much is expected of him, of course, because he has already done so much so young, in and out of the ring. Since 1979, when Washington launched him on his career, Breland has had 104 fights and has won 103 of them—the only loss was to Darryl Anthony, on a split decision in the 1981 U.S. Nationals in Concord, Calif.—and has 71 knockouts, most of them by means of a right hand that is as quick and accurate as it is stunning. Last March he broke a 58-year-old record when he stiffened Victor Laguer in the first round at Madison Square Garden to win his fifth New York Golden Gloves title.
Breland is quick, strong, smart and long—he measures 6'2½", with a 79-inch wingspan, and he moves fluidly, loosely, around the ring. At times he fights from a crouch, at times straight up and chopping down at an opponent. Breland often avoids punches by leaning back rather than by slipping and ducking, and tends to drop his hands too much, leaving his head unprotected. He also relies too much on his right. These flaws notwithstanding, he has played to raves since he won his first Gloves title in 1980, as a 139-pounder.
"Breland reminds me of the Sugar Ray Robinson I first saw fighting as an amateur at the Salem Crescent Gymnasium in Harlem," says Ray Arcel, the 84-year-old trainer of world champions Roberto Duran, Ezzard Charles, Barney Ross and Tony Zale. "He's a natural. He can box, he can punch, he knows how to make an opening, he picks off punches good, and he has a grace and rhythm that go with it. And he knows how to relax. Breland has the makings of a truly great fighter."
"He's easily the best amateur I've ever seen," says John Condon, the Garden's president for boxing. "Even better than Leonard."
Says veteran matchmaker Teddy Brenner, "Breland might even have a little better shot than Leonard as a pro, and the reason is that, like Robinson, he outsizes his opponents. The only things about Breland that the jury is out on are his stamina and chin. If he has those two things, he's a can't-miss."
Breland has already moved onto the fringes of professional boxing. Last month he sparred with Hearns, the WBC junior middleweight champion, who was at Grossinger's Resort in the Catskills preparing to fight Duran.
"They sparred some beautiful rounds," says Emanuel Steward, who trains Hearns and has been chosen to handle Breland, with Washington's assistance, after he turns pro. "Mark is poetry in motion. When Tommy gets ready to attack, his eyes get lit up, and he sets himself, and you can tell he's going to attack. But this kid is so relaxed and loose you can't tell. He's twisting and punching from all angles, even backing up; I've never seen anything like it."
Breland and Hearns have much in common. Hearns is a tall, black, angular fighter who came up as a welterweight, and earned his nickname, Hit Man, because of his prepotent right hand. And it was against Hearns that Breland first went to what he calls "graduate school," sparring last year with Hearns in Steward's Kronk Gym in Detroit.
For two days Hearns bedeviled Breland with his jab. "Every time I turned around, it was in my face," Breland says. "I learned a lot those first two days, just slipping, faking, learning what to look for when he feints and fakes you."
"Tommy's jab had more snap than Mark's," Steward says. "Mark would throw a jab—a kind of lazy jab—and Tommy would pick it off and snap a jab back. He kept knocking Mark off balance. Mark was embarrassed. In the next day's session Mark would throw a slow jab, Tommy would throw a snappy jab, and Mark would block it and come back with a fast jab of his own. It was like a chess game. That's when I saw that Mark was thinking. He had figured it out."
Breland and Hearns eventually became friends. In fact, when Hearns battered Duran into retirement in the second round last month, Breland watched the fight in the HBO studio in New York. At one point he got so excited he fell off his chair. When Hearns dispatched Duran with a final right, Breland leaped to his feet and exchanged a series of high fives with his best friend and confidant, Yoel Judah, yelling, "Awright!"
Like other black fighters out of the ghetto, such as Hearns (Detroit), Marvelous Marvin Hagler (Newark), Larry Holmes (Easton, Pa.) and Michael Spinks (St. Louis), Breland had to try this and discard that and figure things out for himself.
I grew up fast. That line runs as a thematic stitch through the eventful weave of his life. Breland grew up near Nostrand Avenue, Bed-Stuy's main drag, in a world in which survival was the leitmotiv. "I've seen people jump off buildings," Breland says. "I've seen shoot-outs and stickups, seen lots of muggings—that happened all the time—and cars ripped off. I saw a cop carry a bazooka into this building, looking for somebody."
That he and his five siblings survived and even prospered in such a world has much to do with the strength of his family. "I never really got in any type of trouble," Breland says. "I never did any stealing. Nobody in my family was ever in jail. We always stuck together." The oldest of the Breland children, Herbert Jr., 28, teaches retarded children in South Carolina. Patricia Ann, 26, is a receptionist at a hospital in Brooklyn. Earl, 22, is in the Army, stationed in West Germany. The two youngest kids, Darryl, 18, and Wanda, 17, attend high school.
"It's a close-knit family," says Carol Griffin, Mark's former high school adviser and American history teacher at Brooklyn's Eastern District High School, from which Breland graduated in 1982, and still one of his closest friends. "His mother is a strong person who pushes Mark to achieve."
Luemisher didn't push her son into boxing—"I was very nervous about it," she says—but neither did she try to dissuade him from fighting when he dropped football and began to get serious about boxing. In 1979 Breland won the Junior Olympics, his first big amateur title, and from there the climb began.
Captivated by Muhammad Ali's flamboyant, unorthodox style—as so many young fighters were at the time—Breland imitated the master of superfluous movement. "The shuffle, the bolo punches, a little of everything, a lot of dancing," he says. But it was Robinson who influenced Breland most. Mark acquired and studied tapes of Robinson's greatest fights. "He threw punches from all angles, body shots, a lot of combinations, not just one-two," Breland says. "I tried to learn the different moves that he made. I look up to Sugar Ray Robinson, but I just want to be like Mark Breland."
Breland suffered a serious setback at the world championships in Munich in 1982 when he drove a right uppercut into the pointy chin of a Swede named Vesa Koskela. "His chin went right in between the knuckles," Breland says. He had badly damaged the knuckle of the right index finger, rupturing the joint capsule and displacing a tendon. "The pain was so bad," Breland says. "Every time I landed a punch I got a shock all the way up my arm."
Breland won the bout, but only after dancing with his hands down and sliding and scoring points with his left as the crowd yelled, "Ali! Ali!" His right hand felt worse every time he punched with it, and soon "the knuckle was swollen up half the size of a golf ball," Breland says.
Shelly Finkel, a rock promoter who for three years has guided Breland's career, asked him if he wanted to drop out of the tournament. "No, I'll use my left," Breland told Finkel. Which he did, until he injured the left, too, and was forced to dance and slap his way around the ring, using his height and reach to score and keep opponents at bay. Thus Breland won his first world championship and found out something about himself.
"I really started thinking about making a lot of money after winning that world championship," says Breland, who underwent surgery last summer to repair that index finger and hasn't been bothered by it since. "I figured if I was good enough to go through it with all that pain, with the hand busted up, I could do better than this if I wasn't hurt. I knew I had the talent."
Ellen Chenoweth, a casting director for Paramount Pictures, saw something, too, when she spotted Breland's picture in a magazine and called to ask him to try out for the part of Pearce in The Lords of Discipline. He returned her call from a phone booth outside the Broadway Gym.
Breland had spent some time vacationing in South Carolina, and his portrayal of Pearce as a victim of racial abuse and torture was certainly credible. It was a lucrative summer job for Breland; he made $30,000. It was also at times a bewildering, if enlightening, experience. David Keith, who starred as a senior cadet who ultimately saves Pearce by fighting the racists and toppling the system, once goaded Mark into playing a scene more angrily and aggressively by insulting him.
"Mark, when I touch you in this scene, slap my hand down, get aggressive!" Keith told him. When Breland still didn't play the scene to suit Keith, the actor took him aside and feigned anger, saying sharply, "You stupid nigger! You know you're not doing it right! Come on, get aggressive and do it right!"
"He looked serious," Breland says. "I thought, 'Is he for real?' " He wasn't, of course, but Breland finally got the scene down right. "David helped me a lot in the movie," Breland says. In fact the two eventually became good friends, and Keith was front row ringside in the Garden when Breland won his fifth Golden Gloves title last March.
When the film hit the theaters, in February 1983, the kid became more of a local hero than ever—a Golden Gloves champion and now a budding movie star to boot. The first time Luemisher saw her son's face appear on the screen, she was sitting next to him in the theater. She thought, "I know that's Mark on the screen, and I know that's Mark sitting beside me." Yet, a bit awed by it all, she felt compelled to make sure it really was, "so I reached over and touched him and I said, 'Lord have mercy!' "
Luemisher is given to such exclamations whenever she sees her son fight, or, for that matter, when she views him on tape. Watching reruns with Mark one recent night, Luemisher was throwing punches at the screen and hollering, "Come on, Mark, do it for Mama!"
"Mom," Mark said quietly, "I already won this fight."
"Yeah!" she blurted, "but hit him again!"
His father was always there for him, too, but the elder Breland rarely attended Mark's fights—he couldn't face the prospect of his son getting hurt. He says, "I don't like the fights too much, but I'm pretty proud of Mark. I don't like to go see him fight. He might get hit. I'd rather stay home and listen to it on TV."
"I can respect him for that," Mark says. "I'm his son. If I had a son, I wouldn't want to see him get hit, either."
While his father has kept a distance between himself and Mark's career, Breland always had someone to put his ring exploits into perspective. Griffin, his teacher and counselor, had the temerity to flunk him for half a semester and had actually threatened to keep him home from a tournament abroad if he failed to turn in a book report.
"Miss Griffin," Mark pleaded, "I'm fighting for the world amateur title!"
"Not without that homework turned in," she snapped.
For years Breland has been the target of would-be managers trying to get him to abandon the amateurs and turn pro. But Breland resisted all such entreaties and held fast to the dream that he would win five Golden Gloves titles and then crown his amateur career with a gold medal in Los Angeles.
Finkel didn't try to rush him. A longtime fight fan, Finkel got into boxing seven years ago through an association with New Jersey's Lou Duva and, with Duva, now co-manages middleweight Alex Ramos and former WBA junior welterweight champion Johnny Bumphus. Finkel first saw Breland fight in the 1980 Golden Gloves, and Mark struck him as a pro prospect. "Here was this thin, lanky kid who was knocking people out," says Finkel. "So I started to give him advice." Finkel, who had seen what Olympic stardom did for Leonard's pro career, urged Mark to remain an amateur through the Olympics. The two became friends, and in 1982 Breland told him, "Of all the people who have talked to me, you're the only one who wants me to stay amateur. That's what I want to do. When I do turn pro, I want you to manage me."
Breland took some heat from blacks who wanted to know why he had chosen a white man to manage him. "Color doesn't mean anything to me," Breland says. "I trust Shelly. He treats me like a son." Finkel figures he has already spent about $10,000 on Breland's boxing expenses—everything from sparring partners to equipment and travel—but that's nothing compared with the time he has given him. Aside from Judah, Breland's closest friend and surely the only black kick-boxer in Brooklyn who speaks Yiddish, no one outside his family is closer to Breland than Finkel. And now more than ever, Mark needs counsel.
To his dismay, Breland has found that his own family has begun to look up to him as the father in the Breland house, a status he neither sought nor wants.
"Things are turning into a situation where everything is on Mark," Breland says. "Let's wait for Mark. Wait and see what happens with Mark. Mark, what about this? Mark, what should I do about that? All this counting on Mark! I've become just like the father. My father is a good man. Hey, I'm not man enough to take his place at the house."
Inexplicably, Breland says, some old friends no longer speak to him. "I've got people in this building who don't even speak to me," he says. "As soon as you make a name for yourself, it's like they look at you as a different person. I talk to them; I act the same. I'm still me. But people change toward you. I don't understand it."
Now and then he seeks out Finkel to try to make some sense out of what's been happening. The future troubles him and makes him apprehensive. "I'm a little anxious to see how I'm going to react," he says. "To see how things are going to change. I'm not going to change."
So far he hasn't. Breland is still the kid from Brooklyn who loves pancakes—"I'll eat pancakes in the middle of the night"—hates beets, likes E.T., and does extemporaneous imitations of the fighting styles of the likes of Ali and Joe Frazier, comically bouncing along the streets of New York throwing punches as bystanders gape. But he isn't imitating those two now, nor anyone else. He's trying hard to focus on the last days of his amateur career. For now, all the dreamers counting on him can wait. Los Angeles looms.
"Right now it's for the glory," he says. "For the gold."