While success in amateur boxing doesn’t necessarily translate to triumph in the paid ranks, there nevertheless is no other reasonable way to gauge whether a young talent can hack it later on. In decades past, however, amateur boxing better prepared fighters for the professional ranks than it does now.
One amateur institution in particular, the New York Daily News Golden Gloves, spat out greatness consistently for decades. Jose Torres, Emile Griffith, Johnny Saxton, Riddick Bowe and “Sugar” Ray Robinson were all New York Golden Gloves champions, and all marched forth to put a dent in the sport.
Mark Breland, an amateur virtuoso if there ever were one, captured a New York Golden Gloves title a record five times and appeared poised for greatness at a very young age. But this time the barometer proved incorrect.
Born the fourth of six children and growing up in a rough area of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Mark Breland went beyond regional competition when he made the 1984 Olympic squad, but it was capturing a title in the 1979 Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics that persuaded Breland to stop pursuing football in high school and pick up boxing full time.
Perhaps a sort of then-unrecognized omen, Breland’s trainer George Washington was an old heavyweight with a decorated amateur career who served as a sparring partner for Joe Louis in the 1940s and fizzled out as a professional. Washington nevertheless trained Breland from the time he wandered into the Broadway Gym at 9-years-old until shortly after he won a gold medal in Los Angeles at the ’84 games. But capturing a title in the 1979 Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics is what persuaded Breland to stop pursuing football in high school and pick up boxing full time.
Upon turning pro in 1984, Breland was already widely considered to be one of the best American amateur fighters ever, much less alive. Though most amateur records are unverifiable, Breland reported a record of 110-1. The lone loss was to Darryl Anthony at the U.S. Nationals in California on points.
John Condon, then President of boxing at Madison Square Garden, said of Breland, “He’s easily the best amateur I’ve ever seen. Even better than [Ray] Leonard.” Ray Arcel, famed trainer, gushed, “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 to go with it. And he knows how to relax. Breland has the making of a truly great fighter.”
He had big plans too, as he’d already starred in a movie called “The Lords of Discipline” in 1983, and wanted to get back into acting after his pro career was done.
His 6’2″ frame had already garnered plenty of comparisons to Tommy Hearns, with whom he’d sparred a number of rounds while expecting to be picked up by Manny Steward as a professional. However, it was Ray Robinson that he’d tried to emulate with his style.
Breland sought out and bought a number of Robinson’s fight tapes and studied them diligently. Said Breland, “He threw punches from all angles, body shots, a lot of combinations, not just one-two. 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.”
His debut at Madison Square Garden had been planned months in advance, and without wasting any time Breland actually defeated his first future champion, Steve Little, in just his third pro fight. Mysteriously, his knockout percentage clearly improved as the class of his opposition did the same, and he either smashed through or out-classed journeymen and undefeated prospects alike.
It likely helped that he was fully immersed in the world of pugilism, nursing close friendships with New York boxing icons like Eddie Gregory, Yoel Judah and Mike Tyson. And he’d hooked up with trainer Lou Duva and his son, promoter Dan Duva, and spent time with Joey Fariello, a trainer who’d worked with Cus D’Amato years earlier.
In January of 1986, Breland went 10 rounds for the first time, toppling 24-0 Troy Wortham in Pennsylvania in a “Wide World of Sports” main event supported by Tyrell Biggs vs. James “Quick” Tillis.
Two fights later, Mark Breland avenged his only amateur defeat by stopping Darryl Anthony in 3 rounds. The AP wire report stated, “…[Breland] cut Anthony over the left eye in the first round and then knocked him down with about a`minute left in the third with a right hand. After Anthony got up at the count of three, referee Tony Orlando summoned a ringside physician who stopped the fight.”
Another two fights down the road, Breland halted undefeated Ugandan John Munduga in six rounds; Munduga walked into a brutal uppercut that wobbled him badly, and he was finished off by Breland’s dangerous right hand.
Following the win Breland said, “His plan was to come forward, hit, and get hit. I knew he was a good puncher, but I punch pretty good, too. His game plan was taken away and you can’t adjust in the ring unless you are real smart.” Breland’s rise got an extra boost that night, as Munduga was rated top-10 by the World Boxing Association at both welterweight and junior middleweight.
In February of 1987, Breland won his first world title fight, capturing the WBA welterweight belt vacated by Lloyd Honeyghan in protest of apartheid, as the WBA had mandated that Honeyghan face South African Harold Volbrecht, whose most notable showing to that point was a stoppage loss to Pipino Cuevas in 1980.
In front of a lively Atlantic City audience, “Breland pinned Volbrecht near the ropes and hurt him with a right to the face that made Volbrecht lean to the ropes,” reported the Associated Press. “Breland followed with a right and a left, then landed a chopping right right to the jaw that dropped Volbrecht to his knee in a neutral corner. Volbrecht then slumped to the canvas and referee Tony Perez counted him out at 2:07 of the seventh round.”
After a five month hiatus, the former Olympian then traveled to Italy to decision Juan Rondon over 10 rounds in a non-title affair, enjoying his success along the way.
But just over one month later, in August of 1987, Breland lost his title to Marlon Starling in a fight which saw him win rounds early and break Starling’s nose, then appear sluggish late, succumbing in the 11th round as much from exhaustion as being actually hurt.
Two fights over the next eight or so months sent him to a rematch with Starling in which Marlon appeared to hurt Breland early and sting him repeatedly, but Breland worked hard, out-throwing and out-landing Starling quite clearly. Fans in attendance at the Hilton in Las Vegas booed the draw verdict nonetheless, feeling as though Starling had won. Ultimately Breland had failed to win back his title.
Starling’s controversial bout against Tomas Moliares three months later saw him counted out following a shot clearly after the bell, and the subsequent fallout had Molinares vacating the belt, which lacked an owner once more. Breland jumped on the opportunity and “barely broke a sweat” in trouncing Korean Seung-Soon Lee in less than a round to win back the belt.
Four defenses followed, all by TKO, included making an undefeated Rafael Pineda quit claiming foul, and a vicious three-round destruction of contender and former champ Lloyd Honeyghan. A nagging knee injury kept him fairly inactive, but a seven-fight KO streak brought him to 27-1-1 with 20 knockouts and set up a showdown with prospect Aaron Davis in 1990.
Raised in The Bronx, Aaron “Superman” Davis wasn’t exactly a stranger to the New York Golden Gloves himself. Davis went to the finals at 147 lbs. a few years in a row, winning once in 1986. Under normal circumstances, that may have given him some type of advantage in the pro ranks. Just not when put on a collision course with a five-time Gloves champ, it seemed.
Unlike Breland, Davis rose through the ranks with far less money and support behind him, and few big name friends in comparison. That also meant fewer headlines and media coverage than the highly accessible Breland.
Through his first 16 pro fights, Davis fought six times in France, usually defeating foes unfamiliar to most boxing fans, but often headlining or co-headlining at the Felt Forum in New York.
In June of 1988, Davis stopped Tyrone Moore in the 8th round of a scheduled 10 round bout while headlining at the Felt Forum. “Superman” Davis floored him once in the 6th and twice in the 7th, then clobbered Moore in the 8th, forcing him to stay on his stool for round 9, according to The New York Times.
Five more wins against relatively unimpressive opposition pointed him towards a match with 35-9-2 Luis Santana, with Davis claiming he’d turned down an opportunity to face International Boxing Federation titlist Simon Brown due being promised a shot at crosstown rival Mark Breland’s WBA belt.
A “punchless showing” against Santana, as reported by Long Island paper Newsday, cost him his shot at Breland. Two fights later, Davis again failed to impress in a ho-hum showing in 10 rounds against Gene Hatcher, who only a few fights prior had been knocked out in 45 seconds by Lloyd Honeyghan.
Three more fights and an overly-fortunate decision win against New Jersey staple Curtis Summit steered Davis toward a title shot with Breland, who was looking to make a fifth defense of his WBA welterweight title that he’d recently won back. With the win, Davis became the 6th ranked contender in the WBA, and heading into the Breland fight he carried a record of 29-0 with 18 knockouts.
Curtis Summit, who Davis had just beaten, would later claim in the book “The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle” that he knocked Breland out during sparring while in training camp for the Davis fight, and that the entire training camp for Breland had essentially been a disaster.
Aaron Davis, on the other hand, came off bitter and felt snubbed by press in the lead-up to the Breland fight. An AP wire reported Davis as saying, “I think he’s looking past me, that’s why I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in for this fight. This fight is definitely not going the distance. Everybody’s looking past me. I’m glad about that. I’m going to come out of this fight the winner.” And his lackluster showing against Summit? “I never should have took that fight,” Davis said. “I wasn’t myself.”
Breland responded, “I don’t look past no one. I’m in the greatest shape I’ve ever been in. I don’t go out to knock no one out. The name of the game is to win. I look to box and punch. If he comes brawling in, he’ll get hit.”
Breland was right. Davis pressed the issue and got hit, and moments into the fight his right eye was cut. Before long he also had a swelling below the eye that threatened to stop the bout at any moment. But Breland appeared weak, visibly shifting every time Davis landed clean.
Toward the end of round 3, Breland ate a left hook that sent him into the ropes, stunned. A left uppercut, right hand sent him wobbling backwards and onto the seat of his pants, a reminder that his success could be reversed with only a punch or two.
Davis’ jab also did its own damage and Breland huffed in air with his mouth agape by the start of round four. A mid-round trip to the ringside physician injected urgency to the situation as Davis’ right eye continued to swell and bleed.
Still, Breland had a sense of fragility about him; perhaps it was his thin frame, but the momentum of a few of his missed punches put him on the deck. He also couldn’t help but clutch recklessly when hit and the way he reached out to steady himself left him wide open for counters.
Trips to the ringside doctor became more frequent for Davis as the condition of his face deteriorated, though it became increasingly obvious that Breland had a busted sniffer as blood trickled to his mouth as he struggled to keep it closed. An extended rally in the 7th round appeared to push the momentum toward Breland after a largely back-and-forth affair. It just couldn’t last — not with war looming.
Davis beat the daylights out of Breland with left hooks in the first minute of round 8. Suddenly in the second minute Breland’s hooks and right hand had Davis reeling, covering up on the ropes and wishing he were anywhere else but there. Both men sloppily pawed at one another in the final minute, but Davis did it while peering through swollen, bloody eyes.
His right eye closed, Davis connected with jabs in the 9th that again bloodied Breland’s nose, but he had to measure his attack lest he run out of energy. Halfway through the round he again bounced hooks off Breland’s temple before sliding away, trying to avoid taking more facial damage. With about 15 seconds remaining in the round Breland lazily leaned forward with a jab. Before he could follow it with his right hand, Davis dipped and threw a right hand that crashed into Breland’s mug and laid him completely out.
Two judges had Davis ahead while the third had Breland up by two points. It all could have been undone by the state of Davis’ eye, but instead he brought a more decisive and violent end to the proceedings following a terrific 8th round.
Davis, a 7-to-1 underdog, blamed his eye injury on Breland’s thumbs. “These gloves are not thumb-proof,” he told Jack Fiske of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was no problem. I could see out of the other eye, too. But when I got thumbed I saw three other people.”
Though his promoter Dan Duva suggested before the fight that Breland could already be nearing the end of his career, Breland told reporters, “I’m gonna get back in the gym and come back. I’m not gonna quit now.”
As with every fighter who refuses to accept their fate despite the crystal clear signs that it’s all over, Breland should have quit then. After winning three fights in 1991, Breland lost another rough battle in which he was bloodied and had opportunities to win, this time against former title challenger Jorge Vaca.
The defeat nudged Breland back to acting, though he notched five more wins over low level opposition during a mid-90s comeback. Then he went back to acting for good before becoming a respected trainer.
Davis failed to defend he WBA title even once, losing it to Meldrick Taylor the first time he tried. He won 19 more fights after defeating Breland, but lost six times, and usually to anyone with discernible quality. He also eventually became a trainer, running the Aaron Davis Boxing Gym in the Bronx for several years.
Grueling fights can break even the toughest fighters. Quite often they truly do leave the ring without pieces of themselves, their careers. Apart from the immediate damage done, there are the lingering effects from absorbing punishment and the long-term trajectory has been altered.
Both Davis and Breland took something away from the other that night in Reno, and all in the name of history.