By Jack Hirsch

AFTER a couple of days of playing phone tag, former heavyweight Mark Young says he wants no part of this story. While he is not embarrassed over the way his career turned out, he’s clearly not proud of it either. “I really did not accomplish too much,” he says. “You should write about better fighters.”

There were better fighters. The stats prove that. Young fought professionally from 1983 to 1999. During that time, he boxed 53 times, compiling a record of 15-37 (9) with one no-contest. Of his 37 losses he was stopped 22 times. And according to BoxRec, none of his victories were verified as being against fighters with a winning record.

But Young paid his dues and then some.

There was a time when Young looked upon himself as a prospect with all the dreams and aspirations of a limitless tomorrow. After losing his debut he won his next four but after a loss to future cruiserweight titlist Bernard Benton in 1984 he was soon cast in the role of an opponent. That would remain his position for the rest of his career.

Young gained a reputation as a fighter who could go a few rounds yet pose no threat to the upper echelon guys. Finding work became easy as he was in demand, not only as an opponent but as a sparring partner as well. Young was able to make a living while keeping the faint hope alive that one day he could be in the mix for bigger things.

Obviously, many fighters during Young’s era accomplished more but none were matched tougher. Legends, world champions, belt holders, contenders and rising prospects of that time adorn his record. And of the few big names Young never officially fought, he was likely in training camp with them.

Young is a proud resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was born and has spent most of his 60 years. But those roots had a tight grip. “My father was a fighter, and we were both coincidentally trained by a guy by the name of Lou Kemp,” Young tells Boxing News. “But I could hardly get any amateur fights or meaningful sparring because of where I was located. It was hard to find guys to train with.” Maybe so, but finding credible opponents was another matter.

After the loss to Benton in fight number six, the competition got even harder. Five months later he boxed Joe Frazier’s protege, Bert Cooper, in Atlantic City. Cooper was a relative novice who was having only his second fight. Nevertheless, he blasted Young out in two. “I flew in from Buffalo for the fight. I was told that Joe Frazier would pick me up by Limo at the airport, but he wasn’t there. I did not know he was Frazier’s fighter.

“We later sparred in Miami, and Cooper was surprised at how good I looked. ‘I didn’t know you could fight like that,’ he said.”

Later, Young and Frazier discussed joining forces. “I was in his gym in Philadelphia,” Young says. “Joe saw me moving around the ring and did not like the way I fought. He told me I’d have to fight on the inside and that if he trained me he would have to manage me also. I already had a manager, so things never worked out.”

Over the next year, Young would mildly rebound, winning five of eight. Then on December 27, 1985, in Upstate New York, Young was matched with a 19-year-old phenom who was being groomed to be a generational star. Mike Tyson was unbeaten in 14 fights, all inside the distance. It was not only the results Tyson was getting, but the spectacular way he was achieving them. Ten opponents fell inside a round. And after a mere 50 seconds, Young became the 11th. It was the only defeat of Young’s career where he did not make it through the opening session.

About the best thing that can be said of Young’s performance is that he showed no fear of Iron Mike. He fought aggressively until he was caught with a right hand that dropped him for the full count. “I didn’t warm up properly,” says Young, “but I give Tyson credit, he had the greatest combination of speed and power of anyone I fought.”

Within a year, Tyson would become the youngest belt holder in heavyweight history. As for Young, his career started to freefall. He was stopped in all three of his fights in 1986. Notably, Young lasted into the eighth round with James ‘Quick’ Tillis in Tulsa. Six weeks before, Tillis took Tyson the distance for the first time in his career before losing a close 10-round decision.

One month after losing to Tillis, Young found himself in the big fight atmosphere of Wembley Stadium, squaring off against rising British prospect Gary Mason on the undercard of Frank Bruno’s challenge to Tim Witherspoon. Young was stopped in five. “He was a hard puncher with a very strong jab. I rate him ahead of Derek Williams,” Young says of another Brit who would stop Young nearly two years later in the United Kingdom. That Williams loss, in May 1988, was especially disappointing for Young. He had relocated to Miami in 1987, where he would stay for five years, and felt he had turned over a new leaf. With better sparring in the sunshine state, Young had a small resurgence, losing a hard fought 10-round decision to fringe contender Jose Ribalta, who is one of his best friends today. He followed with two wins over nondescript opposition before being stopped by Williams.

In boxing, particularly at Young’s level, losing can create more opportunities than winning. In January 1989 he found himself in the opposite corner from former world heavyweight champion George Foreman. This was the 15th fight into the second coming of Big George. He had won all by knockout, with only former light-heavyweight and cruiserweight champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi making it as far as the seventh round. Young matched that before Foreman lowered the boom.

Fighting cagily from the outside, Young gave Foreman angles and kept him honest by periodically attacking. But Foreman stepped up the pressure and unleashed a heavy body attack to close out the sixth. Finally, in the seventh, a big right deposited Young on his face. He barely beat the count before the towel halted the minimal subsequent action.

“I worked with Trevor Berbick and Pinklon Thomas for the fight,” says Young. “Foreman slowed me down with body punches and set me up with his jab. People don’t realise how clever he is. George had crazy power and was only using half of it on me.”

Which leads to the inevitable question: Who would Young have picked between Foreman and Tyson had they met around this time?

“I would pick George, but the fight would have been a tossup” surmises Young. “Tyson was faster and more explosive, but George could hit harder. When they did try to set that fight up Tyson’s people wanted no part of it.”

The Foreman defeat was Young’s third loss in a row, a streak that would reach eight over the next two and a half years. Included in the losses were stoppages to Alex Stewart in five rounds, Greg Page in three, and an eight-rounds points defeat to Lou Savarese, who he knocked down in the first.

To call it a resurgence would be a stretch considering the opposition, but Young enjoyed a successful year in 1992, boxing four times with three wins and a technical draw. However, the last six and a half years of his career saw Young lose 18 of 19, the lone victory being against an opponent who had only won once in 10 contests before facing Young.

The reality is that Young was thrown to the wolves throughout his career. Among the losses were markers of his toughness and quality; each of Glenn McCrory, Buster Mathis Jnr and Danell Nicholson had to settle for points wins over 10.

The defeats were taking a toll, however. When losing in six to Jeremy Williams, Young was knocked out of the ring.

Young likes to claim that he would do much better against his conquerors in subsequent spars, like Shannon Briggs who stopped Mark in eight rounds in 1994.

“I had no one to train with in Charlotte,” says Young. “I sparred with Briggs numerous times in the gym. I banged him around the body so good once that he had to take a few days off to recover.”

The same theme is given time and again by Young as an explanation for his defeats: Not being given enough time to get ready due to fights being accepted on short notice. Excuses like this are commonplace but considering Young’s career path there is merit to what he claims. His biggest payday, he says, was $18,000 for a seventh-round stoppage defeat to Adilson Rodrigues, another world class fighter, in 1993.

There is one loss that bothers Young more than the rest. It occurred against Melton Bowen in July 1994 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I did not want to box Bowen. I was not ready. I had dropped him in the gym in sparring but I’d hurt my ribs in a fight I had six days before [an eight-round points defeat in Monte Carlo to Christopher Bizot]. My ex-fiancé was a big boxing fan and pressured me to take that fight.”

Young claims that toward the end his enthusiasm waned. By then, that old ambition had gone. He was fighting only for money. He would encounter two more future champions: Hasim Rahman, unbeaten in 16 fights when he took on Young in 1996, and Wladimir Klitschko, spotless in five, the following year. Both overpowered Young in two rounds. “I thought that Rahman was a very good boxer-puncher, but was surprised when he later knocked out Lennox Lewis,” Young admits. “I took the Klitschko fight on short notice and was on my last legs. When I saw him and his brother [Vitali] at the weigh-in I was impressed.”

Considering that Young was also employed as a sparring partner for Lewis, Berbick, Thomas, Evander Holyfield, James Bonecrusher Smith, Tim Witherspoon, Gerry Cooney, Nikolai Valuev and others, it is somewhat remarkable that his years in the ring did not take a bigger toll. “I have the memory of an Elephant,” laughs Young. “I remember things from when I was three years old.”

Young did have hearing issues not long ago and reached out to agent Don Majeski for help. Majeski then contacted the WBC who are to be highly commended for financing hearing aids for which the fighter is extremely grateful. “I am hearing things I have not heard in years,” Young says enthusiastically.

Young currently works with his nephew in a cleaning service. Naturally, he wishes things had been different. “If I had the guidance, they couldn’t beat me,” he says. “I was never really given a fair chance. I kept getting fights like Tyson and Foreman on 15 days’ notice instead of having six weeks or more to train. They didn’t want me in shape.”