May 3, 2013

KO Digest Interview: Marlon Starling - "I was in boxing to be the best"

Do you remember Marlon Starling?

Holding two major world titles and reigning supreme in the welterweight division for several years during the 1980's, the “Magic Man” was in love with boxing, frequently fighting on network and cable television in front of an adoring fan base that loved him back and extended far beyond the confines of his Hartford, Connecticut home. Although he never shared the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard or Thomas Hearns, Starling was a staple in the welterweight division and never shied away from fighting the best.

Tragedy in the ring against the late Charlie Newell in 1980 threatened to throw the talented fighter off course, but reassured and possessed with the mental fortitude to carry on, Starling made the most of the years that followed.

A pair of close decision losses to Donald Curry in 1982 and 1984 provided minor speed bumps, but a victory over Mark Breland in their first of two memorable fights in 1987 provided Starling an elusive world title, while a victory over Lloyd Honeyghan punctuated his stay at the top. Yet, despite achieving acclaim during his prime, Starling was overshadowed by the revered duo of Leonard and Hearns. The “Magic Man” never officially retired from the sport, but his last performance was that of a disappearing act, drifting away at age 31, well-known by all but underappreciated by many.

Today, Starling loves the sport of boxing dearly, but is no longer “in love” with it. As the years have passed, he has turned his attention towards becoming a goodwill ambassador to the sport and its myriad loyal fans. Each year, Starling can be seen without fail at the International Boxing Hall of Fame at Canastota, NY but his appearances represent a bitter irony. Starling has no regrets about his time in boxing and will recount the stories with a smile and warm inflection to anyone willing to listen, but the Hall of Fame brings about conflicting emotions. While fans flock to Starling for photos, remembering the face and the name, they forget the résumé and impact he had on the sport of boxing—this oversight of greatness is most apparent on the IBHOF voting ballots, where Marlon has never earned enough of the vote to become enshrined, despite controversy each year surrounding the diminishing criteria for immortalizing fighters.

One must look no further than the sport of boxing for proof that life can be unfair.

But if it was, surely everyone would remember Marlon Starling.

KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: At what age did you get involved with boxing and know that this was something you had a future in professionally? What drew you to the sport of boxing when you were younger? 

The Magic Man was inspired by The Greatest 
Marlon Starling: Muhammad Ali. He was very outspoken and true to himself. My other reason was the individuality of being in a sport that, if you won you won, and if you lose you aren’t taking anyone with you. I got into it at the age of eight years old. I never thought about it professionally. I fought the Golden Gloves and all the amateur tournaments and that year I thought, “This is it, maybe it’s time”—I was a kid, only in my teens—and I said to myself, “let me turn pro and see what I can get out of it.” The rest is history.

KOD: Many fighters linger around the sport after their primes, fighting well into their 30s (sometimes 40s) despite poor results and frequent beatings. However, not only did you retire from the sport before that level, you retired at 31 following a pair of majority decision title fight losses in 1990. Why did you feel that was the best time for you to leave?

MS: Because I did everything that I wanted to do in boxing. I figured “let me go,” because I don’t care what sport you get into, there are substitutes for a lot of things, but there’s no substitute for you.

KOD: January 9, 1980 marked the sixth fight of your young career, but a fateful day as well. Your opponent that night in Hartford, CT was Charles Newell, who later died of head injuries suffered during the fight. What type of emotional toll did that take on you?

MS: That was big time. Right after the fight, I flew to Atlanta because I wanted to get away from all the hoopla about this guy's in the hospital and he might not make it. When I got to Atlanta, they called me to tell me that Newell had passed away. That really hurt me, because he was a child that grew up in the same neighborhood I grew up in. People were saying—my cousin introduced me as “the guy who killed a guy up in Connecticut.” I didn’t kill that guy in Connecticut. Charlie Newell died from a freak accident, and from what I understand, he had a metal plate in his head and he shouldn’t have been boxing at all.

Starling in the prime of his life - the 1980s
KOD: When did you know that his medical situation was serious?

MS: That night, they said he was in the hospital from brain injuries he got during the fight. When that happened, that’s when I went down south to Atlanta, and I stayed down there for three or four days, and then my manager told me that Charlie Newell had passed away. When I came back up to Connecticut, I knew I had to go to the funeral. When I went to the funeral, his parents said to me “don’t stop doing what you’re doing. My son died doing something he loved. I want you to pursue your dream.” That got me back into the sport.

KOD: Your career blossomed in the public eye thanks to the increased role of network television in the sport of boxing. How important were TV networks in your career?

MS: Back in my era, I was on television a lot. I wasn’t the champion and I wasn’t a big named guy, but the old saying is that “cream rises to the top.” I was always fighting good fights on television. In the 80s, I fought on television more than any fighter in the world. I fought every two or three months, and it wasn’t because of television—I liked to stay active.

KOD: Prior to your days as world champion, you fought Johnny Bumphus in 1986 in Providence, RI. You lost after an odd set of circumstances involving an accidental head-butt. How do you look back on that fight over 25 years later?

MS: What happened was, he quit and won the fight. Did you hear what I said? He quit and won! He had better people than I did in my corner. Lou Duva opened this cut up and they stopped the fight on cuts. He was ahead on all the scorecards, but he was weak, and he was very tired. 

KOD: What do you think of the TV coverage the sport gets now? 

MS: Well, I’ll tell you what: like everything, it’s all about the M-O-N-E-Y. Believe me, I love money too, but I never got in that ring for a dollar bill. If my opponent wasn’t getting nothing, it didn’t make a difference if I got nothing. I was in there for one thing: to be the best. I didn’t love the sport of boxing, I was in love with it, and when you’re in love with it, you’ll do anything for it. Nowadays, I love it, but I’m not in love with it. There’s a difference between love and being in love. I never got in that ring for the dollar. But I’ll tell you what: if they offer me some good money today, I’ll come out of retirement. Don't forget, I never did retire.

Starling (R) at IBHOF with Bramble and Ortiz
KOD: Why didn’t you retire? You just walked away from the sport and chose not to pursue any offers in front of you at the time?

I love the sport too much to disrespect the sport by getting in there—the only reason to get in there is to do one thing: be the best. Sure, we want the money. Today is different. If I was offered a large amount of money today, I would be in the gym tomorrow because of the financial situation. We all want that kind of money. If I was fighting today, I would be a multimillionaire. Remember, I fought on television more than just about anybody in the world, and I never fought for one million dollars.

KOD: Two notable names absent from your record are former welterweight kingpins Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns. Were you ever close to reaching an agreement with fighting those men?

MS: Always. Every time coming up when I first started, I always felt like this: “if I can’t beat this guy, how can I beat Ray Leonard?” The reason why they didn’t want the fight made is because they knew that would have been a tough fight for them. When Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought their first fight, I went to train with Hearns before the fight, and they didn’t want me to train with him at that time. I told them I had a fight back in Connecticut, and said they should either give me work or send me home, so they put me in the ring with Tommy Hearns and I took care of him pretty good and they didn’t want Marlon. That was a tough fight for him. They had a guy named Milton McCrory, who was also from Kronk Gym, and I never got a chance to fight him either.

KOD: You lost a pair of decisions to Donald Curry, accounting for the first two losses of your career. Each of the bouts were close, decision losses, and one of them was split. Do you feel as though you should have won at least one of those fights? How big a setback did those defeats provide for your career? 

MS: This is tough for me. I was young, I was striving to be the best, but the first fight I knew I won—I just didn’t get the decision. The second fight, we fought and he beat me. He looked worse, but you need to back the champion up and land more punches. That night, Curry landed more punches and backed me up. I never said Donald Curry was better than me, but he had a better day.

KOD: Your career record features some of the biggest names at welterweight during that era. Which of your 53 career fights was the toughest and why?

Connecticut Legends Pep and Starling
MS: People ask that question a lot. One fight that I can say was the toughest was because I was dehydrated and had to lose a lot of weight; it was against Tommy Ayers in 1983 in Las Vegas. In that fight, I felt like I was fighting for my life. I was dehydrated, I had to make weight for that fight, and that fight was the scariest fight, only because of what I had to do to make the weight. I must have been walking around the street at 160 and I had to cut to 147. But don’t forget, I was in Las Vegas, and during that time in the 80's, it was 100 degrees at 10:30 in the morning. I was out there in a rubber suit trying to make weight.

KOD: You were known as the “Magic Man” in the ring, but also affectionately known as Moochie. How exactly did your nicknames come about?

MS: “Moochie” is a childhood name, I’ve had that ever since I was born. “Magic Man” came from my group. When I first started out as a pro, we had a group and we called ourselves “The Magic Show.” So one day, my trainer said, “if your group is The Magic Show, you’re the Magic Man!” And ever since then, I’ve been the Magic Man. That was before Paulie Malignaggi and Antonio Tarver. There were only two Magic Men then, me and Magic Johnson. You can’t beat that company!

KOD: Tell us about your signature move, the Starling Stomp.

MS: You did your homework! It was something I did in the ring. It was a maneuver I used to open guys up and it worked all the time. I had one fight, it was on CBS, and one of the guys, I think it was Gil Clancy, said “that’s the Starling Stomp!” That’s a move I did where, you couldn’t tell me to do it, it was a rhythm I got into in the middle of the ring. It was a natural thing. Believe me, I always hit my opponents when I did it, I’d come back with a left-right and it always worked. One day I was getting ready for a fight, and my trainer Eddie Futch told me that one thing about that punch is “you step too far back. When you step back two steps it takes you two steps to hit the guy.” It made sense what he said. I was doing it and hitting guys, but it took me two steps to hit the guy after I take four steps to jump back, so I stopped.

KOD: Describe your relationship with trainer Eddie Futch and Freddie Roach. Was Futch the best boxing trainer of all time and did working under him make Freddie the best trainer out there today?

Trainer Eddie Futch
MS: I think Freddie is a good trainer, and I think Eddie Futch was one of the best. But, I think the best trainer for Marlon Starling was Marlon Starling. They didn’t show me much, they were just guys that were there with me. They didn’t show me how to do this, or how to do that. Eddie Futch told me one thing that made sense to me. He told me about the Starling Stomp, don’t jump back because it takes too many steps to hit the guy. But other than telling me to “knock this punch down” or “knock this jab down,” they didn’t show me much, but they were great conditioners.

KOD: Do you think that Freddie Roach is deserving of all the awards and recognition he has received—the consensus title of best trainer in boxing, and Hall of Fame induction in 2012?

MS: No. What guy did Freddie Roach take from the start and make them a champion? You can’t find one. It takes more than that. It takes a trainer to be there and show a guy what to do. Freddie is good, but I don’t know about being a Hall of Famer. Remember, the Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of someone’s career. Should he be in there? He was up there, but it doesn’t take a trainer to move a champion. It takes a good trainer to move a contender and make him a champion. If you’re the champion already, you don’t need a guy that’s going to move you around. I think Eddie Futch was a great trainer, but Freddie Roach was OK, he was alright. There’s a difference between being alright and being a Hall of Famer. Freddie Roach was good, but a Hall of Famer is a big accomplishment.

KOD: You’ve become a frequent sighting at the International Boxing Hall of Fame on induction weekends. In the mid to late 80s and early 90s, you were a titlist at the top of your division in your prime. Do you ever watch the ex-fighters accepting their honor on the stage in Canastota and think that you should be up there?

Magic Man on parade at the Boxing Hall of Fame
MS: When it comes to the Hall of Fame, that’s special. I believe you cannot talk about an era in boxing without talking about the 80s, and if you’re going to talk about the 1980s, you have to talk about Marlon Starling because was Marlon Starling was on network television more than anybody! And not only was he on network television more than anybody, he fought the best of the best. I’m not going to pick out who should and shouldn’t be in there, but I believe Marlon Starling should be in there. You’ve got to make the judgment of what this particular fighter did for the era of boxing. And you cannot talk about the era of the 1980s without talking about Marlon Starling. You’ve got to give it to Marlon Starling, he was one of the best welterweights in the 1980s. I cracked the top ten in 1980 and I finished my career in the top ten.

KOD: The IBHOF is often controversial in their selections and non-selections. The most recent inductees that have turned heads and incited passionate discussion are Sylvester Stallone and Arturo Gatti, who will be enshrined this June. Do you agree with the committee’s choices on those two men? What other notable snubs or undeserving candidates come to mind for you? What do you think about Sylvester Stallone and Arturo Gatti? Are you willing to pass a judgment on them and say whether or not you believe there is enough merit for them to be enshrined?

MS: Well, I think Sylvester Stallone was enshrined because of all the hoopla of (Marlon hums the Rocky theme music) and the fighting rhythm. I think he was in there because he helped prepare a lot of people for the sport of boxing. He’s not in there for what he did in boxing, he’s in for what he did outside of boxing. He helped a lot of guys get ready, get their minds ready. With Arturo Gatti, you have to ask “why?” Why put that guy in, because he fought Micky Ward to three good fights? That’s no reason to put somebody in. The Hall of Fame is special. If he hadn’t fought Micky Ward, he would never be in the Hall of Fame.

Starling blasts Breland on the cover of KO
KOD: An 11th round TKO against Mark Breland put the WBA welterweight strap around your waist in 1987. How does your first world title ranks amongst the greatest achievements for your career?

MS: Let me tell you something: I got the shit beat out of me in that fight. In that fight, I got hit with everything but the kitchen sink. I fought that fight from the heart instead of from the head. That fight, I got an ass whooping, but guess what? I came home with the title. You know what they say in boxing: it ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish.

KOD: You were losing by a wide margin on the scorecards. How exactly did the TKO come about? Did you sense your opponent was getting comfortable with the margin? 

MS: No, because he was always afraid, and I just kept wearing him down. I said in that fight that if I’m behind on the scorecards after the 11th or 12th round, I’m going to take a chance. I just hit him with a couple of good combinations, just laid them on him, and got him out of there.

KOD: The rematch one fight later was declared a draw. Who do you believe won the second Starling-Breland showdown. It’s something that people are curious about, after you lost most of the first fight until finishing strong, followed by a draw in the second fight. One judge, Dave Moretti, scoed the fight 115-114 Breland, another had it 114-114, and 116-113 Starling. Those scores are far part, like seeing two totally different fights. 

MS: I beat him even worse in the second fight than I did in the first fight, and I knocked him out in that first fight. Now, you might say “that doesn’t make any sense,” but I beat him worse in that second fight. In that first fight, the only way I could win was to knock him out because of where we were at in the fight. But I knew I won that second fight.

KOD: In July 1988, you fought Tomas Molinares to defend the WBA title you had won from Mark Breland nearly one year earlier. At the conclusion of the 6th round, you were struck after the bell and dropped for the count. Give us your initial reaction and take us through the moment from your perspective. 

MS: If I go back to the tape and look at Marlon Starling fights, I would look at that fight, because I was sharp as a razor in that fight. That was one of the best fights I had. You know the saying “protect yourself at all times.” The last seconds of the round are the last thing I remember. 

KOD: At what point did you come back to consciousness and realize what had happened?

Starling in the Twilight Zone with Larry Merchant
MS: When I was leaving the hotel room getting ready to go on the plane. They said I spent five hours in the hospital. You know, that’s five hours out of my life that I’ll never get back, and I was counted, but I guess my brain wasn’t with me. The last thing I remember is the bell ringing. The next thing I remember was leaving my hotel room to get on the plane. I usually stay there overnight and catch a plane the next day, but I took a private jet home that night because I did twist my leg that night at the end of the round when he hit me.

KOD: Looking back on it, do you believe that was a dirty punch, or was Molinares simply following through on a late combination that connected at on unlucky spot at an unlucky time? 

MS: After I looked at it, I can say that was a dirty punch because he did it after the fourth or fifth round, but my hands got up and caught the punch. I think it was a dirty punch, and the WBA stole that fight from me just to get Mark Breland and Lloyd Honeyghan to fight. Neither one of them could fight eachother because Marlon Starling was the number one contender.

KOD: How did the result of that fight, which was later changed to a no contest, impact your career and your life?

MS: Well, that impacted my career because I didn’t get to fight Lloyd Honeyghan for the unification of the WBA and the WBC. I only got to fight for the WBC title, but that fight should have been for the undisputed championship. That fight cost me over one million dollars.

KOD: In your next fight in February 1989, you fought Lloyd Honeyghan for the WBC welterweight title and won by technical knockout in the 9th round. How emotional was this milestone for you, especially given the turmoil and controversy surrounding the previous fight against Molinares?

Moochie becomes champion of the whole wide world
MS: That fight was for the “championship of the world.” That fight let people know who was the best welterweight on the planet. Lloyd Honeyghan was doing a lot of talking. I knew that Marlon Starling was the best welterweight on the planet years before that, but I never got a chance to prove all that. That day, I fought him for little money, and people thought that Lloyd Honeyghan was going to beat me easily. That was one of the easiest fights of my professional career. I didn’t get paid for it, but I got people to say “Marlon Starling is the best welterweight on the planet,” and that was enough for me.

KOD: The penultimate fight in your career came against Michael Nunn, a majority decision defeat. How does Nunn compare to some of the other fighters you’ve fought? Looking back on it, was that a fight you should have won?

MS: That fight, I was going up two weight classes. I was the WBC welterweight champion. HBO needed a fight for the summer, and at that time, Michael Nunn was the best middleweight out there. I had a great training camp for that fight, and a lot of things changed as far as rulings go. You had heavier gloves, and when I fought Michael Nunn, he hit after the bell a lot. I told them before the fight, if Michael Nunn hit me after the bell, you’re not going to have to tell him because I’m going to be the judge. I fought that fight just to show Michael Nunn that I’m one of the baddest fighters in the world, I don’t care what weight class. If you’re going to fight for the championship of the world, you’ve got to go get it, and I fought that fight just to let him know that I’m one of the best guys out there in any weight class. 

KOD: There’s a big fight upcoming this coming week between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Robert Guerrero. You fought Floyd Sr. and beat him for the USBA title in 1985. What similarities do you see between Junior and Senior?

MS: Shoulder roll. That’s the only thing they do similar. Floyd Mayweather Jr is a lot sharper, he has got a decent left hook, and he loves to counter you with the right hand. The key to beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. is to keep him in the middle of the ring and give him a lot of feints.

KOD: Take your pick for Mayweather Jr-Guerrero. Who wins and why?

Who you picking?
MS: I’m not picking! 

KOD: Why aren’t you picking?

MS: Don’t forget now—I’m going to see these guys again! I don’t want to hear it. People in this sport are so jealous of what everyone says. Listen here: personally speaking, I’ll tell you—Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a darn good fighter, no question about it. He’s a very talented fighter, and that’s it. My parents always said this - if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say nothing. That’s the way I was raised. You can’t be taught maturity. You’ve got to live it and grow into maturity, you can't be taught that.

KOD: In all of your years as a fighter, what’s your favorite personal story from your years in boxing?

MS: I was young and it was my first time getting on a plane. My trainer back then was a guy named Johnny Duke. When I got on the plane, he said “Marlon, don’t forget to ask the stewardess for your spring shoes.” And I said, “what?” He said “Don’t forget to ask the stewardess for your spring shoes.” And I said, “why?” and he said “if the plane goes down and it’s going to crash, they’ll open the door and you can jump out and bounce on the ground, and you won’t get hurt.” And I asked the lady for my spring shoes, and he started laughing so hard!
The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio.
Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.  

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli