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Boxing History: 30th Anniversary of 'A Night of Gold' Part Two

The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles saw a record Gold medal haul for the U.S boxing team. On a November evening, 30 years ago, five gold medalists, one silver and one bronze, all turned pro on the same card. In the second and final part of this retrospective, Kyle McLachlan takes a look at this important night and the fallout from it.

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In part one of this look back at 'A Night of Gold' we took a look at arguably the greatest ever Olympic team assembled, and whether or not they would have prospered as much had the Cubans and Soviets not boycotted the games.

For most fans, they didn't care whether or not the Americans were really that good. They wanted to see them in the pro ranks.

And how many fans there were. ABC estimated that up to 180 million people had watched the Olympics. Of course, not all of these would have been boxing fans, but it would have been a wide enough spread that some of these fighters were already household names.

The spotlight was on them.

On November 15th, 1984, Dan Duva's 'Main Events' gave millions of viewers a chance to see some of the very best of that talented gang turn pro on the same night.

The Build-Up

On a Saturday night, thirty years ago today, at Madison Square Garden, the home for hundreds of boxing classics, a capacity crowd of twenty one thousand were in attendance to see the Olympic medalists turn pro.

Impressive you may think, that these fighters were already ticket sellers.

In fact, Mark Breland's star was so big at this point, that he was able to influence how the show was run.

The giveaway was the idea of Breland, who grew up in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant section.

"After all the years I've been fighting at Madison Square Garden I felt I owed the fans something", said Breland, who won five New York Golden Gloves titles in the garden.

To obtain tickets, written requests had to be made to the New York Daily News. There was a limit of four tickets per request.

A kind gesture that guaranteed goodwill by the audience and an atmosphere befitting a title fight, of which MSG hosted many.

Not that 'A Night of Gold' wasn't highly anticipated anyway.

Promoter Dan Duva said that in the past he has been bothered by people requesting free tickets, but that this time people have asked to buy tickets.

The opponents for the fighters with such accomplished amateur careers would be hit-and-miss.

Calling them journeymen would be a tad harsh, although that term has only become derogatory in recent years. They were more along the lines of club fighters. They were coming to win, but had only performed at a low level before in front of small crowds, and most had losses littering their records.

Lou Duva, father of promoter Dan who along with defensive genius George Benton had taken most of the fighters under his tutelage for their early pro careers, felt the opponent selection was just.

"How can anybody knock the opponents? I'm giving Mark Breland a guy (Dwight Williams of Syracuse, N.Y.) with a style that comes at you. If I gave him someone who runs, it wouldn't be an exciting fight."

With their extensive unpaid experience, and the fact this card was being broadcast to millions on ABC, decent opposition was a necessity.

These amateurs weren't being paid peanuts either.

Mark Breland was earning the most, $100,000 (the equivalent of $229,000 today) while the youngest, Meldrick Taylor, was pocketing a pretty $50,000 ($114,550 today). That's not chump change for an eighteen year old.

Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield and Tyrell Biggs were all getting $75,000 ($171,000 today), which is telling when you consider that Holyfield didn't get a chance to set the same gold standard as his teammates.

Lagging behind was the forgotten man of the 1984 team, who was also the first man to debut. The silver medalist in the middleweight division from North Dakota didn't have his bout televised. From what I can tell, it wasn't even worth the price of videotape.

Virgil Hill TKO2 Arthur Wright

As I touched on in part one, Virgil Hill would've been better off being robbed of a chance to win a silver. Evander Holyfield gained more notoriety winning bronze than Hill did for going one better.

Hill was very much the black sheep of the team, even though he had made a major accomplishment in winning second prize.

The New York Times reported:

Hill could not have been more out of place than he was yesterday morning at the weigh-ins. He was seated on the stage of the Felt Forum on the far right of the line of the Olympians making their debuts here. But the other five fighters were wearing gold and orange sweatsuits emblazoned with ''Night of Gold.'' Hill was in simple blue sweats.

In stark contrast to his teammates, Hill would pick up only $10,000 (or $7,500 depending on the source) and a one-fight deal with 'Main Events'. He didn't receive the private training at Catskills with Lou Duva and George Benton that the others did. He didn't even have a manager.

Their was also far less thought put into his opponent. Hill was scheduled to box Pedro Monteiro, who was on a six-fight losing streak. A few days earlier, Monteiro failed his physical examination.

Arthur Wright stepped in on short notice to take the bout, the only scheduled four round fight of the night.

Any budding historian will know that Boxrec, which is a useful tool, often doesn't tell the whole story. However, in this particular era, there tends to be a lot more information available for fighters.

Wright, who is not well known to even those who pay attention to minutest of details, didn't even have a pro bout listed before he fought Hill. He mixed in decent enough company afterwards to make me assume he wasn't some geek off the street (The New York Times listed him as 2-1 going into the bout) but it didn't matter anyway, as Hill fought with little fanfare.

Before ABC went on the air and even before most of the crowd had taken their seats at Madison Square Garden, Hill opened the show with a knockout at 2:05 of the second round of a scheduled four-rounder against Arthur Wright of Brooklyn.

Wright apparently made of fight of it before he went down, clipping Hill with a left hook. This only spurned the silver medalist on, and he opened Wright up with a left hook to the midsection, doubled it up to the chin and sent Wright into dreamland.

Hill did not have his chance to wow a national audience and put the memory of his Olympic defeat firmly out of sight and mind. But since his showing in Los Angeles, he had become somewhat of a local hero.

Hill, a 20-year-old fighter from Grand Forks and Williston, N.D., who waved his state flag in the ring during the Los Angeles Games, said that since winning his Olympic medal he had received mail ''from places in North Dakota I never knew existed.''

Still, Hill knew what he had missed out on. He said, in a way that can only be read in a forlorn way:

''Losing the final,'' he said with magnificent understatement, ''might possibly have cost me a great deal of money.''

A tough break for Hill, but he would have his chance to make his mark, as we'll see later.

The next fighter up wasn't nationally televised but his bout was filmed, which meant it could be shown on sports shows in the following weeks, which in the YouTube era we live in might be difficult to understand but was a common occurrence at the time.

The youngest, was also the most destructive.

Meldrick Taylor TKO1 Luke Lecce

Meldrick Taylor may have had to reign in his style in the amateurs. The sport valued and rewarded clean shots with the white portion of the glove to the midsection and face only, but Taylor was the flashy type who could uncork a tornado-like combination in the same time it took normal fighters to throw one-two's.

Taylor knew he was made for the professional ranks as well. Speaking to Sports Illustrated:

"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."

His opponent was Luke Lecce, who sported an 11-2-1 record. Although the eighteen-year old Taylor was facing someone on a two-fight losing streak, Lecce was no easy out. He'd gone nine rounds with Charlie Brown, who went on to challenge for a world title at lightweight.

He figured to give Meldrick Taylor some rounds, so it was mightily impressive when Taylor wasted him inside the first stanza.

As would become a regular experience for Meldrick Taylor's opponents over the coming years, Lecce could not handle the young Philly boxers handspeed.

In fact, Taylor was so fast that he made Lecce rethink his profession:

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."

The next fighter on the bill, and the first on the televised portion of the card, found himself with a much tougher opponent.

Not surprising seeing as some thought he was the best prospect of the bunch.

Evander Holyfield UD6 Lionel Byarm

In 1984, not many broadcasters had as much experience calling fights as veteran commentator Chris Schenkel.

So it shouldn't be taken with a pinch of salt that he was so glowing in his appraisal of Holyfield:

"The man we're going to show in the first bout is the best prospect in my opinion."

With the benefit of hindsight, Pernell Whitaker's answer to the New York Times' question of who would be the best professional other than himself, was bang on the chin:

''Evander's a strong, hard puncher, a good hitter,'' Pernell Whitaker said. ''He's a hit-me-and-I'll-hit-you- back fighter.''

Lionel Byarm was more than happy to accommodate him.

For a debut, this was a highly competitive fight, and not because Holyfield wasn't seasoned. Byarm came to fight, as you'd expect for a good pro from Philadelphia, known for producing hard nuts.

Both men weighed a tad over the light heavyweight limit at 177 and one half pounds.

They went at it, mainly in close, for the entirety of six rounds. Holyfield won the unanimous decision 5-1, 6-0 and 4-2, showing that the judges felt Byarm had given a good account of himself.

Holyfield was happy with his performance, as quoted by the Associated Press:

"I feel I won every round", said Holyfield, who also added after fighting more than three rounds for the first time: "I'm winded but I feel good."

Whitaker, who had picked Holyfield as his top pick, didn't have time to get winded. He couldn't be accused of setting a slow pace either.

Pernell Whitaker TKO2 Farrain Comeaux

Of all the fighters that received one-to-ones with George Benton, perhaps Whitaker was the best suited to him.

Benton, one of the slickest fighters of the super slick sixties middleweight contenders, had fought innumerable ranked contenders, and a few former and future world champions.

A defensive expert as adept on the inside as he was on the outside, Benton was the perfect fighter to mould Whitaker, arguably the best amateur in the world, into an even better professional.

Years later, Benton told the Daily Press:

"When I first got Whitaker, he was smart enough to know that he didn't know everything about boxing."

There wasn't much that 'Sweet Pea' didn't know, although he recognised the importance of Benton's tutelage:

"George is a legend and I found it easy to listen to him from the very beginning," Whitaker said. "I get so much understanding from George, and he never gives up on me when things aren't going well.

"He's very serious about boxing, and he never takes anything for granted. I can come across him in a hotel, or even in the street, and he will stop me and make me go over the game plan.

"George has made me a student. I was a good listener when I was in school, but George has made me want to know everything there is to know about boxing. I want to know every angle and what to do at every moment."

Poor Farrain Comeux, of Nederland, Texas, was the first of many to find out just how brilliant Pernell Whitaker could be as a professional. Either 10 or 11 bouts undefeated, he found himself facing not just a steep jump in the quality of his opposition, but with an otherworldly talent.

A incredible display from Whitaker, in what would be a common sight in years to come even as he stepped up in competition.

Sports Illustrated's Jaime Diaz summed up Whitaker's performance perfectly, with a nod to an early form of Compubox that would have had it's widest disparities this side of Floyd Mayweather when analysing the Norfolk mans fights:

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.

Evander Holyfield, seemingly unaware of Whitaker choosing him as the best shout for professional success, gave a succinct breakdown of his teammate when choosing him as the best prospect:

''I think Pernell will be the best. His finesse, his ability and the way he thinks. He's a sneaky guy, in a nice way, and he boxes sneaky. He'll throw his arm out, and if you flinch, he probably won't throw a punch. But if you don't flinch, he might pop you.''

Watching his debut, and even allowing for the low quality of opposition on offer, it's a scary thought that Whitaker would get that much better than this. A chance to see an all-time great in action early on in his career is not to be overlooked, and millions of fans got to see Whitaker announce himself as a prospect to take serious note of.

The main support act of the night was the super heavyweight Olympic champion who had to battle the boo boys throughout his amateur career.

Tyrell Biggs UD6 Mike Evans

Biggs faced off with Mike Evans, a former college wrestler who had some degree of fame himself, having appeared in a Bud-Light commercial.

Biggs, wisely, didn't predict a knockout, but he did predict he would 'get respect' from Evans for his punching power.

Seeing as Evans sported a bog-standard 2-1-1 record and has been starched previously by a debutant, this could have been seen as a major disappointment for Biggs, who was hopeful of making a statement after being criticised even when winning a gold medal!

However, the Associated Press report didn't find much fault with Biggs. It laid the blame squarely with Evans:

Heavyweight Tyrell Biggs of Philadelphia, heard the same boos he had heard on route to Olympic gold in Los Angeles, when he failed to score a knockout. He failed to score one this time too, going the full six rounds with a unanimous decision with Mike Evans of Los Angeles. But it was hardly Biggs' fault.

"Don't blame me", he said.

No one did. Evans never really boxed. He rarely threw a punch - A far cry from his role as the champ in a beer commercial.

"It takes two to fight", said Biggs. "I tried to get the guy to commit himself so I could do something I trained for. If they get someone in there who fights then the best of me will come out."

Watching the fight back, Biggs does deserve some criticism. Indeed, Evans, who wasn't gung-ho it has to be said, did land with wide hooks on occasion. And Biggs couldn't create n opening to land a stiff blow, something you'd expect the far more experienced fighter to do at this level.

Still, Sports Illustrated saw the bout as a good learning experience for Biggs:

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 headliner, Mark Breland, felt Biggs had only shown a fraction of what he was capable of.

Talking to the New York Times:

''Tyrell has a tendency to be lazy,'' Mark Breland said, ''but he's got something to prove. He can be the heayvweight champ.''

Laziness wasn't only a criticism of Tyrell Biggs.

Mark Breland UD6 Dwight Williams

The prodigal son had returned.

Mark Breland, scheduled to face 7-1 Dwight Williams, was the star of the show.

The partisan New York crowd had mainly come to see Breland. As as aforementioned, it was Breland that set the wheels in motion for them to all attend for free.

If you've read part one of this retrospective, you could be forgiven for thinking that Breland was seen as infallible. A master boxer with a cobras string in either fist, only one other pugilist had ever gotten the better of him in his career.

If there is often a criticism of boxing historians it is that we look at fighters of the past through rose tinted spectacles, and don't care to acknowledge contemporary reports of fighters that were less than rainbows and pots of gold.

With Breland, you'd think there weren't any to look at.

But alas, there was, and there were deficiencies in Breland's make-up that were noticed before he'd taken off the head gear.

Starting off with a slightly negative comment, Sports Illustrated initially followed the expected narrative of Breland; that he would be a superstar in the squared circle:

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.)

In the same article, more glaring flaws than a sometimes 'lazy' jab were alluded to:

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 things can usually be ironed out as a fighter progresses under professional tutelage. Having worked with the late, great Emmanuel Steward, and now working with Lou Duva and George Benton, Breland should've cleaned his dirty laundry pretty quickly.

In his bout with Williams, it was clear that if this was to happen, it would be a gradual process.

Criticising a fighter in his pro debut who dominates proceedings from start to finish may seem like a simple expulsion of hot air by cynical boxing fans (or even worse, methane) but for Breland, the stakes were so high that anything other than a first round blowout would've been seen as a disappointment.

This time, Sports Illustrated made a more direct comment about the mistakes Breland was making in the ring:

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.

In a concise fashion, the publication had summed up what Breland's biggest problem was; he' been getting by on his natural gifts in the amateurs, and in the pro ranks this would not be enough.

Breland went on the defensive, claiming he wanted to go six rounds.

"Winning is all that matters. How you do it isn't always that important" - Breland, as reported by the Associated Press

Perhaps Breland's lack of improvement can be put down to his training habits. Although he had Lou Duva and George Benton in his corner, he was primarily trained by Tommy Brooks, a perfectly respected trainer nowadays, but even a year after 'A Night of Gold' still regarded as a 'comparative neophyte' to the kind of tutelage Breland could have been receiving.

Speaking about Breland's debut victory, Brooks was unrepentant, and looked to those with high expectations to sit back and give the prospect time to breathe:

"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."

Meldrick Taylor, the young whippersnapper who did what many expected Breland to do and dispatched his man inside a round, was seemingly wise beyond his years when questioned about Breland's seemingly inevitable rise to the pinnacle of the sport:

''Most people think Breland will be the best but they're pushing him too hard. I believe he'll be equal to the rest of us.''

That in itself could be argued against.

The Future in the Past

'A Night of Gold' was a resounding success for all involved. Regardless of how the careers unfolded of these young pugilists, they were on the map.

Virgil Hill went on to record double digit title defences at light heavyweight, and fought many of the best operators of his time, including losses to Tommy Hearns and Roy Jones Jr, but beating Henry Maske to unify the titles in between. Subsequent to his loss to Jones, Hill also picked up a strap at cruiserweight. He never became a household name, but if early reports looked bleak, he certainly turned things around and became a highly respectable fighter, if a little reliant on his left, outside of his first round KO of Fabrice Tiozzo. He retired with a record of 50-7 with 23 stoppages to his name.

Meldrick Taylor was tested a bit more as his pro career went on, having a very close one with 1976 Olympic gold medalist Howard Davis Jr which was rendered a draw, the only blemish going into his run as one of the best talents ever to hold a light welterweight strap. Infamous for his controversial battle with Julio Cesar Chavez in one of the greatest bouts of the era, Taylor was never able to shake off his Philly foundations, and ended up getting into wars with fighters he should've. A misguided attempt to wrest the junior middleweight crown from Terry Norris ended in defeat, and although Taylor picked up the WBA strap at welterweight, his career has to be seen as a disappointment. Not because of he underachieved, but because he is suffering with pugilistic dementia before he has even hit his fifties. Although this reminds boxing fans of the sacrifice these men go through to entertain us, Taylor is still remembered as the wielder of jet-propelled fists, flurrying his opponents into sometimes being permanently bamboozled.

Evander Holyfield said to the New York Times after his first pro bout that he saw a light heavyweight title for himself before too long.

Looking to his timetable, the light- heavyweight from Atlanta talked of a title bout in perhaps two years.

''I'll have the stamina then,'' he said. ''I want to come up the proper way. I don't want to rush.''

It was a little less than two years before Evander Holyfield won his first title, but it wasn't at light heavyweight, as he found 190lbs, then the cruiserweight limit, much more comfortable, beating the brilliant ex-light heavyweight champ (and ex-con) Dwight Muhammad Qawi via 15-round decision in an epic bout to take the WBA championship.

Holyfield later unified the titles at cruiserweight, and is the consensus greatest ever to compete at that weight among boxing historians. To go over his whole career would take a series of articles in itself, but he eventually outgrew that division and became one of the greatest ever heavyweight champions.

If reading these two articles recapping 'A Night of Gold' makes 30 years ago seem like forever, consider that Holyfield had his last contest only three years ago, retiring on a win. He should be remembered as one of the greatest of his era.

Pernell 'Sweet Pea' Whitaker should be remembered as even greater. He wowed the boxing public for years, winning championships at lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight and being considered not only the best fighter pound-for-pound but a legend in his own time.

It says a lot about Whitaker's talent that his draw with the unbeaten Julio Cesar Chavez is universally considered a robbery, and in fact one of the greatest wins of all time.

Whitaker was a defensive savant, a terrific inside fighter, one of the best jabbers of the era with a cast iron chin and underrated punching power. Quite simply, he is one of the greatest boxers of all-time.

Tyrell Biggs managed to fight his way into contention with respected trial horses and former world class contenders such as Renaldo Snipes and James 'Quick' Tillis. Unfortunately, at the top of the mountain was a man who could bring it down with a swipe.

In October, 1987, less than three years since Biggs had failed to wow Madison Square Garden at 'A Night of Gold', he went in with Mike Tyson, bang in his prime and not only considered the toughest and most dangerous man in the heavyweight division, but in the world.

Biggs started off well, perhaps giving a glimpse into how Muhammad Ali would've approached the fight. But as has already been said, Biggs was no Ali, and Tyson devastated him until a merciful ending in the seventh round.

Biggs' next bout was a familiar face. Francesco Damiani, who couldn't solve the riddles Biggs posed him in the amateurs, stopped Biggs on a cut, and the once promising career of the first super heavyweight Olympic gold medalist was resigned to the scrap heap, where Biggs was sometimes dusted off to be thrown back onto it by other contenders on their trek to the mountain.

Mark Breland initially looked like he would fulfill the prophecy written for him by so many others. He avenged his one amateur loss with a third round win over Daryl Anthony.

But still, there were cracks in the foundations.

Veteran trainer Joe Fariello was asked to polish the rough diamond and turn him into a sparkling championship belt.

He conceded to the New York Times that it wasn't easy:

''This is the toughest job I've ever had,'' he said, two weeks after taking over Breland last month. ''He has so many bad habits that have to be stripped away before he can be taught how to be a professional. And how do you tell a kid with a 110-1 record he needs help, that what he's been doing all along is wrong?''

Breland picked up the vacant WBA welterweight strap, which was essentially meaningless as a clear lineage had been established from Donald Curry to Lloyd Honeyghan.

Perhaps Curry is the best fighter to compare Breland too. Like Breland, Curry was a fantastic amateur who was nuking welterweights, and was expected to move up in weight seamlessly, where he would feast on bigger meals and still have room for more.

Like Breland, Curry found his everest.

Breland's was a fighter completely the opposite of him. Steady, defensively minded and never gunning for a knockout that might not happen.

Marlon Starling picked off Breland's punches with ease, chipped away, and felled the upright boxer-puncher in the 11th round of a 15 round title fight to take the shine off of Breland's star for good.

Breland earned a draw with Starling in a rematch (in my opinion a gift decision) and briefly found his old form in a second title run, which saw him smash the then former lineal welterweight champion Lloyd Honeyghan inside two rounds.

Any attempt at a renaissance for Breland was ended for good when Aaron Davis stopped him in nine rounds. To put this into perspective, Meldrick Taylor, Gold medal winner three weights below Breland, topped Davis soon after.

In a way, Breland was one of the biggest busts in boxing history.

But he can only be faulted for not meeting the expectations of others.

Back before he was a professional, when all around him were predicting fistic glory, Breland had his eyes on the future:

"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."

Today, Breland seems to be doing just that, as well as being a permanent fixture at amateur boxing events.

He met his own expectations. And as selfish as we can be as boxing fans, that is nothing to sniff at.

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