Mark Breland's chin was held high—one of several habits boxing purists criticize him for—but as his slender features floated above a sea of other dancers at a Manhattan disco in the wee hours last Friday, it was clear that the 1984 Olympic welterweight champion felt more comfortable in this arena than the one he'd appeared in earlier that night.
"Yeah, the tension is finally gone," Breland said a few hours after he and four other Olympic medalists had won their pro debuts before an almost capacity Madison Square Garden crowd and a prime-time television audience. Breland dominated Dwight Williams, and it was obvious that he hasn't let the criticism that began at the Olympics, where he disappointed those who thought he should have knocked out every opponent, affect him. "It was hard at the Olympics, but tonight was the most pressure I've ever been under. In a lot of ways, this was my toughest fight."
Breland's former U.S. teammates were subjected to less scrutiny and had just as much, if not more success, as he did in their six-round bouts. Lightweight Pernell Whitaker showed he's perhaps the most polished of the gilded group with a TKO of Farrain Comeaux. Junior lightweight Meldrick Taylor, who recently turned 18, displayed frightening speed and power as he knocked out Luke Lecce in one round. Light heavyweight Evander Holyfield's unanimous decision over Lional Byarm indicated he could rise very quickly in this very thin weight division, while heavyweight Tyrell Biggs, passive at the Games, provided a glimpse, however slight, of the more aggressive fighter he must become with a six-round shutout of Mike Evans.
The 6'2½", 147-pound Breland faces a big adjustment to the pros because his extraordinary talent permitted him to win 110 of 111 amateur fights with deficient fundamentals. Although his size, speed, power and agility reduced Williams, a 7-1 journeyman, to a balled-up punching bag intent only on survival, Breland again exhibited the flaws that had tarnished his vaunted reputation at Los Angeles: a lazy jab, a tendency to carry his head up and hands down and a lack of well-planned combinations.
"I told Mark to relax, just to win this fight, and we'll look good in the next one," said Tommy Brooks, Breland's trainer. "He's got a lot to learn, but there's just too much pressure on him right now."
To prepare for their debuts, the five Olympians trained for six Spartan weeks at Grossinger's, a resort in the Catskills. They went through 32 sparring partners as they increased their stamina and streamlined their styles under the supervision of the 62-year-old Lou Duva, who also trains WBA lightweight champion Livingstone Bramble and WBA junior middleweight champion Mike McCallum. "They were so willing to learn," Duva said. "I got to love these here kids."
Whitaker said the camp was "like a family reunion from the Olympics." The happy quintet spent the last four days before their debut in Manhattan shadow-boxing through hotel lobbies and buying tapes and jewelry in midtown. Breland and Whitaker are particularly close, while the loquacious Taylor, whom Duva calls the Little Boy, and the taciturn Holyfield make the funniest team. Holyfield is called the Real Deal (i.e., the Real Champion), in reference to his Olympic showing—he had to settle for the bronze medal because, in a semifinal bout, after the referee had yelled, "Stop," he cold-cocked his outclassed opponent from New Zealand and was disqualified.
Taylor opened the program by ripping left hooks to Lecce's body. Lecce, who holds a degree in political science from Duquesne and who works as a 7-Up salesman, retired from boxing after the bout, saying: "When you find out the other guy's hands are 10 times faster than yours, it scares you."
Said Taylor: "I believe I'm an excellent finisher, like Ray Leonard. I liked Ray Robinson, too, but I don't want to go too far back for my idols because I wasn't born when Robinson was fighting." Of the current champions, he said, "They don't have the exciting style of, say, me."
Whitaker, nicknamed Sweet Pea, fought like a spinach-emboldened Pop-eye against Comeaux. According to an experimental computer used to count punches at ringside, in five minutes, 50 seconds of fighting Whitaker threw 124 punches and landed 94, 78 of them clean shots to the head. Meanwhile, poor Comeaux landed only 10 of the 81 blows he launched against the slippery Whitaker, and none of them did any damage.
Breland was greeted with the largest roar of the night, not in small part because it had been his idea that all 21,000 tickets be given away to New Yorkers, as a "thank you" to his fans who had cheered him on to five Golden Gloves titles. Besides, the gate receipts would have been mere gravy on the lucrative revenues that ABC's telecast of the Night of Gold, as it was billed, had guaranteed. (Breland earned $100,000 for his debut, the others about $75,000.) Williams had said before the fight that he would let Breland know that "Dwight Williams is bad," and after he rushed at Breland at the opening bell, his assessment took a literal meaning. When the only target the crouching Williams offered was the top and the sides of his head, Breland chose to protect his oft-injured hands by going to the body. At no time was Williams in danger of being KO'd, but, then, at no time was Breland in danger.
Breland's task now is to settle into a training pattern and avoid distractions, which may be difficult because he plans to pursue his movie career—he had a role in the 1983 film Lords of Discipline—at the same time he's developing as a boxer. He wore a beeper last week, and when asked who was calling him, he rolled his eyes and said, "Everybody."
"I'm not Sugar Ray Leonard," he said before his debut. "I'm more like Thomas Hearns—very shy. I can take on the other role, but it's a role."
Judging by the toll that role took on him last week, Breland should save his acting talents for the big screen, where the critics have been kinder.