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Marlon Starling - Titleholder Looks for Satisfaction and a Payday

October 18, 1987

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Marlon Starling should have been basking in glory these last two months since he knocked out former Olympic champion Mark Breland to win the World Boxing Association welterweight title.

But the 29-year-old from this Connecticut city’s North End ghetto is feeling somewhat cheated.

″I went to this boxing thing down at Toots Shor’s restaurant in New York and (Sugar) Ray Leonard came up to me and said ’It still hasn’t happened yet, has it?‴ Starling said during a break in a recent workout.

″Ray was the first to recognize it. I thought by winning the title I would begin to feel like, ‘Damn, I did it.’ But it hasn’t happened yet. It was just another fight,″ said Starling, 42-4 with 26 knockouts.

Starling’s rise to the championship was atypical, filled with setbacks that would have sent lesser-willed boxers back to street fighting and the unemployment line.

It was as a scrawny 8-year-old that Starling first walked into the Bellevue Square Boys Club, a gym set in the middle of an expansive housing project known as the ″brickyard″ because of its brick and concrete buildings and lack of trees and grass.

″When he first put on a pair of gloves, I knew he could be a winner because of his heart and determination. He wasn’t afraid of anybody,″ recalled Johnny Duke, a gruff little man who was Starling’s first trainer and still runs the gym.

His amateur record was 97-13, including the 1974 Junior Olympic 139-pound title and three New England Golden Gloves championships. He reached the semifinals of the 1979 National AAU Tournament.

But in the seventh round of his sixth professional fight, Starling knocked out Charlie Newell, leaving the state prison inmate comatose. When Newell died nine days later, on Jan. 18, 1980, Starling was devastated and thought seriously about quitting.

Starling returned to the ring, but he is still coming to terms with Newell’s death.

″When I’m talking to kids about boxing and how they should stay away from drugs and keep their bodies in shape, I always remind them not to kid themselves,″ he said. ″You can get killed in that ring. I have firsthand experience. I lived through it.″

Duke blames Newell’s death on smelling salts (since banned from the boxing ring) administered after the knockout, but Starling believes Newell’s fate had already been determined.

″God killed that man. I hit him, but I know I didn’t kill him. It just happened the way it happened,″ he said.

Starling won his next four fights by knockout and ran his record to 26-0 before losing to Donald Curry in a 12-round decision at Atlantic City, N.J., in a fight he still insists he won. A year and a half later, in February 1984, he got another crack at Curry and lost again in a 15-round decision for the WBA title.

At that point, supporters began abandoning Starling, saying he was washed up. Those opinions were reinforced a few months later when he lost to lightly regarded Pedro Vilella at Madison Square Garden and further reinforced when he broke up with manager F. Mac Buckley.

But Starling, known as ″Moochie″ around Hartford’s North End and ″Magic Man″ in the ring, went back to training with a new management team and new- found desire.

Starling took on anybody who would box with him and persevered through a controversial loss to Johnny Bumphus in May 1986 before getting what most considered one last chance at a title on Aug. 22, just a week shy of his 29th birthday.

For 10 rounds in the bout against Breland at Columbia, S.C., it appeared Starling’s comeback effort was being made in vain. He was behind on all three judges’ cards, his nose was broken and his eyes were swelling.

But at 1:38 of the 11th round, Starling surprised Breland with a flurry of punches that sent the lanky Olympic gold medalist to the canvas in a heap.

″I’ve got no Olympic medals. No Don King or Bob Arum behind me,″ Starling said after the fight. ″I’ve been in this cruel sport for 20 years. I’m the grandfather of all welterweights. I’ve taken on all comers. I’ve beaten the odds.″

Now people outside the North End are beginning to take Starling seriously again.

″I’ll tell you that Starling is one tough SOB,″ said Tony Perez, who refereed the fight. ″Breland hit him with his best shots and Starling didn’t go down. I think he’s going to be champion for a long time.″

Starling said he contemplated retiring immediately after the fight, but a sense of economics quickly dashed the thought.

The most money he has ever made in a boxing match was the $100,000 he earned in the second loss to Curry. After that he had to work himself up to the Breland fight, for which he, his managers and trainer split $75,000.

Starling figures to get a healthy pay increase for a rematch with Breland or a undisputed world welterweight championship fight with Lloyd Honeyghan, who holds the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles.

″I used to be a kid and go out there and love to fight. But after 20 years, I realize it’s about the money,″ Starling said, noting that a fight with Honeyghan would bring the payday of his dreams. ″There’s one thing that title does: I know that next time I step in the ring I’m going to get over $100,000.

″That’s all I can see right now that that title does. I fought 46 fights and then I win one fight. Does that make me a hero? You can’t be a hero for just one fight. What about the other 45?

″I fought the best out there and I was a winner. Something’s going to happen someday to let me know that I won the title. I don’t know when, but it has to come because all my life I’ve wanted to win the championship of the world.″

END ADV Weekend Editions Oct. 17-18.

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