THE original “Magic Man” Marlon Starling dazzled the sport with his slick skills and his fine defensive prowess in the talent-rich welterweight division of the 1980s. Becoming WBA and WBC champion, Starling fought a who’s who of the 147-pound weight class in his heyday.
Today, having retired with a 45-6-1(27) record in 1990, 55-year-old Starling looks back with pride on an accomplished career.
Here, Starling talks about his big fights, as well as how he feels he would have tackled today’s welterweight master, Floyd Mayweather Jnr.
Q: You had your pro debut back in the summer of 1979, when you stopped a guy named Tim LaValley in the third-round. Do you still remember that well, all these years later?
Marlon Starling: “I can pretty much remember it. I had always wanted to go pro. When you go pro, you are always wondering how many rounds you can go. As a kid, an amateur, you go just three rounds. But I was an amateur who had a lot of mouth, and I backed it up. I was boxing professionals at the age of 15 and 16. After I won the Golden Gloves, I was almost tired of people asking me, ‘When are you going pro? When are you going pro?’ I said I was the best ever. Everyone says that, but you have to back it up.”
Q: And of course you had a great trainer in Eddie Futch…
M.S: “(Interrupting) People give Eddie Futch too much credit. He didn’t make Marlon Starling! I was a fighter a world beyond his years when I met Futch. I’m not going to say he wasn’t a great trainer, but when he met me he had a ready-made fighter.”
Q: When in your pro career did you hook up with Eddie Futch?
M.S: “I’d had around 16 pro fights, maybe a few more – maybe around 20 fights. You know, people always like to compare eras, but Marlon Starling could have fought in any era. Like I say, I believed and I said I was the best ever. I didn’t want to fight for the world championship: I wanted to win the world championship. Too many fighters, today especially, they’re just happy to fight for the world title. I wasn’t like that at all.”
Q: One unexpected and tragic obstacle you encountered on your way to the top was the sad death of your sixth opponent, Charles Newell, who passed away after you defeated him. How did that affect you, Marlon?
M.S: “Well, before that fight, two years before that fight, we had fought as amateurs. He was in jail and I guess he joined the boxing team in jail. But he was from my neighbourhood and it [the amateur fight] was a close fight. When I went pro and I knew I was going to fight him again, I knew I’d be sharper this time. And he was talking and that made me talk! I just wanted to fight him and I was telling people the fight would not go the distance. The things is, he was a bully outside of the ring. Still, he always had my respect; I was a few years younger than him. But when the bell rang, I was a different person. I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna get him!’ I stopped him in the seventh-round but people didn’t tell me at the time, that he had a metal plate in his head. He’d been in a bad car accident three or four months before our fight, so he shouldn’t have been fighting at all.”
Q: Did that sad event change your fighting approach at all?
M.S: “I went away for around three weeks and then I came back for the funeral. His mother told me not to give up on my quest to become world champion, and she told me how her son had died doing something he loved to do. She told me not to stop. But I never cared so much about getting a KO [after the tragedy]. I just wanted to win every round, and win the fight; to make sure I hit you more than you hit me. And people said, ‘I ain’t going to a Marlon Starling fight. He never knocks anybody out!’ Then, when I started getting knockouts again, people complained how my fights didn’t last long enough for them to pay to see me! I couldn’t win.
“But it was at this time that I wanted to fight both Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns. For the Leonard-[Roberto] Duran fight, I flew to Montreal to spar with Leonard. That was such a big fight, nobody cared about the young, unbeaten Marlon Starling. But back in the amateurs, I had broken Roger Leonard’s nose, and Ray remembered. He said to me the day before we were to spar, ‘We’re gonna see tomorrow!’ That shook me up. Anyway, we got into some bad talk and they would let us spar. The following year, I went to Vegas to spar with Tommy [Hearns] as he got ready for the fight with Leonard. He broke my jaw but I got the better of it in sparring. People who saw it said so.”
Q: How many times did you spar Hearns?
M.S: “Just the one time, over three-rounds. But I got him good.”
Q: Talking of the big, big names, you of course twice defeated Floyd Mayweather Snr this time – in 1981 and then again in 1985. People often wonder how you’d have done against Mayweather Jnr?
M.S: “Well, he [Mayweather Snr] wasn’t all that big. But Floyd Senior and Junior, they both fight the same. Floyd Junior is a little sharper, but they fight the same. The thing about the Mayweathers is, they talk a lot of shit. Before our first fight, he [Mayweather Snr] told me he was going to f**k me up and my brother too. But I beat him. Let me tell you, the second fight we had, I really beat him up bad!”
Q: And how do you think you would have done, in your prime, against the Floyd Mayweather who is so dominant today?
M.S: “Firstly, what people don’t seem to realise is, Floyd’s a counter puncher, and yet they try and fight his fight; always! You have to keep him in the middle of the ring, throw a lot of feints and keep your hands up. I’d have beaten him. It would have been close, but if anyone would have been close to being stopped, it would have been him.”
Q: We’ve finally got the fight we’ve been waiting for in Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao!
M.S: “They should have fought two or three times by now; the kind of money they could earn. I never fought for a $million dollars my entire career.”
Q: And who wins now they’re finally set to meet?
M.S: “I’ll tell you after the fight (laughs).”
Q: You certainly never cherry picked fights in your day, with you twice going in with Don Curry on your way to the title. How good was Curry?
M.S: “Curry was one of the best I ever fought. He reminded me of myself, in that he did everything well but did nothing great.”
Q: That is how you think of yourself?
M.S: “Yeah, well, I had a pretty good defence.”
Q: You sure did, and the accomplished Lloyd Honeyghan, he could barely land a glove on you when you fought in 1989. Was that you at your absolute best?
M.S: “You know what, I had fun in that fight! I didn’t want to knock him out, but he talked so much; do you remember? I told my team, ‘I’m gonna knock this guy out!’ Instead, the referee had to come in and stop the fight. I tell you though, he had some balls to take an ass whupping like that. I’d rather be knocked out early than take a beating like that. I looked over at Lloyd during the fight and I couldn’t even recognise him – he had blood coming from his nose, his mouth, and he was all swollen up. To me, that fight was like a pro against an amateur. If I’d told him to jump, he’d have asked me how high! I threw a lot of feints and he did everything I wanted each time. His entire body and soul were at the end of my gloves.”
Q: You had of course become world champion two years previously, when you beat “The next Sugar Ray Leonard” in Mark Breland. In fact, you twice fought Breland, stopping him and then boxing to a draw most people thought you’d clearly won in the rematch. How good was Breland?
M.S: “Don’t forget Simon Brown, he was another great fighter (who Starling outpointed in a USBA title clash in 1985). Breland was good, the first fight he hit me pretty good with some shots. But the second fight, I beat him worse than I did the first time. Of course I know I won that [second] fight.”
Q: Of all your fights, when did we see the peak Marlon Starling?
M.S: “This may surprise you, but the two fights I like to watch and say that was me at my best, are the Honeyghan fight and the Thomas Molinares fight.”
Q: Yes, that is a surprise. The Molinares fight, in 1988, a defence of your WBA welterweight belt, was so controversial, with you being hit after the bell and the fight being stopped…
M.S: “(interrupting) I had that fight won. I guarantee, the next round, I would have definitely stopped him. The reason I pick that fight is because I was so sharp that night. When I tell people I look at that fight as the best of Marlon Starling, they say how can I say that when I got knocked out! But I wasn’t ever knocked out in my life; I was fouled!”
Q: And at the end of your career you had two close decision losses, to Michael Nunn up at middleweight, for the IBF title, and to Maurice Blocker. What are your memories of those fights, did Nunn beat you simply because he was much bigger?
M.S: “No, because the fight was close. He didn’t beat a peak Marlon Starling either. I said, ‘Let me show the world I can handle this guy.’ But that’s not the way to win a world title. You have to go for it. I roughed him up and Nunn told me, ‘Hey, fight fair.’ I guess I fought fair the rest of the way. The Blocker fight, I was too weak. I’d gone up to 160-pounds and I had to come back down. My team told me to accept the decision against me (a majority 12-round decision, as was the Nunn loss) and I just said, ’I’m done with it.’ And I walked away. I wouldn’t say I went out on top, but I’d just had enough. Today, I still love boxing, but I’m not in love with it. There is a difference. When I was coming up, I’d have chosen boxing over sex. I was so in love with it then. Today, if I catch it [on T.V or at a live show] I catch it. If I miss it, I miss it. It’s just not the same as it was in the ’70s and in the ’80s. But boxing is in my blood and always will be.”