© Copyright 2010, Mark Connor
On Friday, July 23, Mark Breland spoke with Boxers and Writers Magazine via telephone from his home in Brooklyn, New York. He answered questions about his celebrated professional and amateur boxing careers, as well as his experience training fighters in recent years. He made sharp observations about the current state of United States amateur boxing and the degree of dedication found in today’s professional fighters, and he also shared news about his upcoming appearance in Lights Out, a new TV series on the FX channel. Breland trained the show’s lead man, Holt McCallany.
Breland is well known among serious boxing fans, having been considered the most successful amateur boxer in American history with a final record of 110 wins, 1 loss, and an Olympic Gold Medal in the Welterweight Division from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, California. In his professional career he reigned two times as World Boxing Association (WBA) Welterweight Champion, from February 6 through August 22, 1987, and from February 4, 1989 through July 8, 1990. Upon his professional debut he was expected to be at least as big of a superstar as Sugar Ray Leonard, but he never reached that household name level of fame. He is happy, however, with his level of success in and out of the ring.
“Everything I set out to do I’ve done,” Breland says. “Not too many people can say that.”
Breland’s overwhelming amateur success and exceptional championship professional career—he ended with a record of 35-3-1, 25 KOs—positioned him well to train professional fighters and also share his skills outside the profession, as he’s done with McCallany. He currently trains 6’-7” Heavyweight Deontay Wilder, who won a Bronze Medal at the 2008 Olympics in China. Also, Breland previously trained Lightweight Jorge Teron, and successfully trained the late World Champion Vernon Forrest for his victory over former Welterweight Champion Ike Quartey.
Breland was happy with the results, a 10 round unanimous decision over Quartey on August 5, 2006. He’s also happy with the progress Wilder, now 11-0, 11 KOs, has made. He recognizes a high quality in Teron, whom he no longer trains, but still points to some weaknesses that made work with him more challenging.
“Every time he got hit he wanted to fight toe-to-toe,” Breland says, emphasizing that Teron, who at 6 feet always has a size advantage at the 135 pound Lightweight limit, only maintained his maximum effectiveness when he moved and utilized his reach. There is no need to stand and trade punches when a fighter is more effective and powerful with movement, but Teron, who held the North American Boxing Organization (NABO) title in 2008 and whose current record is 23-2-1, 15 KOs, habitually would abandon that strategy and stand his ground whenever he got caught with a hard punch. Such observations about Teron and other fighters are indicative of the difference between successfully fighting and becoming a trainer.
“The difference in the transition from fighter to trainer is, you know, it’s easier to fight than train people,” Breland explains. “Because you know what you’re doing, you know what to do; and half these guys have no clue what they’re doing. It’s easier for me to fight than to train [fighters].”
He also observes that he’s hard pressed to find many young boxers willing to dedicate themselves to training and fighting. Most kids would rather play video games, he says. Also, many will be trying to imitate their favorite professional fighter rather than boxing to their own physical stature, or else will begin to think they have it figured out for themselves once they win a fight or two.
“The main [concern] is getting the right fighter,” he says, “because you got guys who listen and you got a lot of them who don’t listen. You got a lot who think they know it all already. . . The first thing, they want to be Floyd Mayweather. They got their hands down in position, and I’m like, you know, ‘You’re starting off backwards.’ And when they’re good in sparring or might win a fight, they think they know it all then. You know, teach a guy to throw a jab; ‘Well, Floyd throws it this way.’ ‘You’re not Floyd.’” But aside from the obvious frustrations, he enjoys the process.
“It’s a lot of fun. It can get frustrating at times, but it’s a lot of fun just showing guys how to do different things and it’s rewarding when you get a guy who listens,” he says.
Breland is content to have gotten out of competition when he did, knowing he’d been on top and was able to retire with his faculties. He said that near the end of his career he ran into a boxer he’d known while growing up who was respected within the sport and very talented. When the man spoke Breland couldn’t understand him, and he knew it was because the man had brain damage. So Breland decided not to push his career into extra years, even though he recognizes some fighters are able to do so without the same damage less fortunate fighters endure.
“I think it really depends on how the fighter takes care of himself as a fighter. Is he a drinker or partier? Is a guy who trains hard, is always in shape? Or he’s one of these guys who gets in shape when he found out about a fight. Well then you’re beating the body up, really.”
The question is legitimate not just in contemporary times, but in exceptional cases over many years. Archie Moore was Light Heavyweight Champion when he was 48, George Foreman regained the Heavyweight title at 45, former Middleweight and Light Heavyweight Champion Bernard Hopkins still fights at 41, as does Middleweight, Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Champion James Toney. Former Cruiserweight and Heavyweight Champion and Breland’s former Olympic teammate, Evander Holyfield continues fighting in his late forties.
“If you’re a guy who pretty much stays in shape all the time, never drank, smoked and all that stuff, you know you really don’t got too much wear and tear on you. Evander, he’s never been a drinker or smoker, but he had tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough fights coming up, even in the amateurs. So it takes its toll somewhere along the line. You know, here’s a guy who made millions and millions of dollars who I thought, ‘If I would’ve been you I would’ve been out.’ You know, I mean, you got to know when enough is enough.”
Breland, who co-starred with David Keith in the movie The Lords of Discipline before competing in the Olympics, plans to return to more frequent acting in the future. Having trained McCallany for the FX series Lights Out, he was able to land a small part as the trainer of a fighter squaring off against McCallany’s character, Patrick “Lights Out” Leary. That episode and the series, which deals with the effects experienced by a boxer pushing his career beyond its normal life span, should be an interesting and entertaining journey into the pugilistic world.