Deontay Wilder said all the right things after his loss to Tyson Fury last Saturday night. (photo by Ryan Hafey)
Mark Breland did the right thing.
Throwing in the towel in the seventh round of the highly anticipated rematch in Las Vegas was a decision that will be debated for some time in the Wilder camp, but it shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be a discussion of whether the former welterweight champion will have a job for Wilder’s next fight, and the reality that this is even on the table isn’t a good look for a fighter who hasn’t strayed from the team he’s had for years.
Yet according to Wilder, this team has had explicit instructions to never stop a fight that he’s in, no matter what the situation is.
“I’m ready to go out on my shield,” said Wilder in the ring after the first loss of his professional career.
That’s what you want to hear from a prizefighter. You don’t want them to pack it in at the first sign of trouble. That’s why fans packed the MGM Grand Garden Arena, to see two of the top heavyweights of this era fight for a second time after a draw in their first bout in 2018.
But we hope that no one bought a ticket or purchased the pay-per-view broadcast to witness a murder. Okay, that’s a little harsh and overdramatic, but the point of the matter is, at a certain point in the fight, it was clear that Deontay Wilder was not going to beat Tyson Fury. The vaunted power of “The Bronze Bomber” was not a factor in the fight and it wasn’t going to be one with the Alabama native’s legs compromised – whether by the fight or the 40-plus pounds of costume that he wore into the ring, as he’s claiming.
And hey, I get it. There are a lot of fights where the final outcome is a given long before the final bell tolls, and they aren’t stopped.
This fight was different.
As soon as Wilder hit the deck for the first time in round three, it was clear that he wasn’t the same fighter anymore. As the blood flowed from his ear, we all assumed it was a broken eardrum, thus leaving his equilibrium compromised. It was later revealed to be just a cut, but Breland and all of us watching aren’t doctors. It looked bad, and while Wilder would never be described as graceful in the ring, his inability to keep his balance or set himself to throw his right hand with any semblance of power was troubling. Then the jaw swelled (it wasn’t broken), then every punch thrown by the 273-pound Fury appeared to move Wilder in directions he didn’t want to go in.
But what sealed the deal for me was watching Wilder’s face and body language in his corner between rounds. He knew what was coming, and he appeared to accept it. He wasn’t going to win the fight anymore, but he wanted to survive.
Stubbornness is an admirable trait in a sport like this. If fighters didn’t have it, then we wouldn’t have fights. Before Fury-Wilder II, I watched UFC lightweight contenders Dan Hooker and Paul Felder engage in a 25-minute war of attrition where either man could have decided at any point late in the fight to pack it in and no one would have complained. That’s how much they left out there. But the stubborn nature of both men told them to walk through the pain, blood and bruises. That form of stubborn was good because both were in a position to win (Hooker ultimately won a razor-thin decision). Wilder wasn’t going to beat Fury by the time round seven rolled around. It was going to be an ugly end for the American, and everyone knew it.
Especially Mark Breland, and who better than him to know what it’s like for a seemingly unbeatable fighter to be on the verge of tasting defeat?
The lines on his Wikipedia page are impressive enough: Five-time New York Golden Gloves champion, 1984 Olympic gold medalist, two-time WBA welterweight champion. Breland knows something about fighting at the elite level. He also knows something about losing his air of invincibility. His Tyson Fury was Marlon Starling, who turned him from the next Sugar Ray Robinson to just another welterweight in the space of 11 rounds in 1987.
What’s key to note from that fight is how it went down, with Sports Illustrated reporting:
With just 146 pounds stuck to his 6'2" frame, welterweight Mark Breland looked as though a sudden wind might knock him over. And, indeed, although the only breeze blowing through the Columbia (S.C.) Township Auditorium on Saturday was the air-conditioning, Breland found it difficult to stay on his feet during his scheduled 15-round bout with Marlon Starling, before finally going down to stay at 1:22 of the 11th round.
After 18 wins, Breland suffered his first loss as a professional in the first defense of the WBA title he had won last February from Harold Volbrecht of South Africa. Starling, 5 inches shorter than Breland, watched bewildered as the champ fell to the canvas eight times after clinches. Referee Tony Perez cautioned Starling for pushing and penalized him a point in the sixth, but Breland appeared drained and listless during his first bout longer than 10 rounds. "Mark was going down not because I was pushing him," Starling said. "He was going down for a rest."
Tall, lanky fighter, too tall for the amount of weight he’s bringing into the ring, legs gone, falling again and again. Sound familiar? Sound like a trainer who’s been there knowing what the end result will be if the fight continues?
But there’s more, something that only came to me after the dust settled in Las Vegas.
In 2002, three years before Wilder even put boxing gloves on, Brooklyn native Breland was in Manhattan to visit with a fellow former champion. Gerald McClellan was in town with his sister Lisa to go to the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner that was celebrating their friend Teddy Blackburn.
McClellan, one of the most feared punchers of his time, was seven years removed from the fight that changed his life forever, a 1995 loss to Nigel Benn, and he required 24/7 care from his sisters, mainly Lisa, who still cares for her brother without complaint to this day, 25 years later.
That day, the media was invited to stop into McClellan’s hotel room to visit him before the dinner. Most declined. Some came up to the floor of the hotel but wouldn’t go in the room. What could happen to a fighter in the ring was something they didn’t want to see. But fighters showed up. Bernard Hopkins spent time with someone who might have been a rival of his the night before. The day of the dinner, Paulie Malignaggi, Brian Adams, Ricardo Williams Jr. all showed up to pay their respects.
So did Mark Breland.
“Are you Lisa’s date?” McClellan asked Breland, and the room erupted in laughter, adding some levity to a situation that was all too serious. Breland was about to become an active fighter again when McClellan was injured, returning from a five-year layoff in 1996 to win five fights without a loss before calling it quits for good in 1997. So he knew what he was getting into and he knew what could happen.
He was a fighter, and fighters fight. But as he transitioned into life as a trainer and saw up close what the sport did to McClellan, it had to have had an impact. Anyone who was in that hotel room that day left with a different view of life, let alone boxing.
Fast forward to last Saturday night - Round Seven, Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder.
Breland is watching his friend – not just an employer, but a friend – without the faculties necessary to turn a losing fight around. Wilder’s legs are gone, he’s bleeding from the ear, and his jaw is swollen. In between rounds, there isn’t a steely look of determination or a willingness to accept instruction. The only acceptance is that things have gone south in a hurry and he’s about to be in for more bad than good in the coming rounds.
Breland was there before. He knows what happens next, as well as what could happen next. He knows his fighter will take whatever is thrown at him, but why should he at that point?
Breland made the call. He threw the towel. Wilder gets to go home to his family the same way he left them, with the exception of a bruised ego and some cuts and bumps. That’s a trainer’s job.
Last night, HBO’s Real Sports aired a segment on the late Patrick Day. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Benn-McClellan fight. Are there any more signs necessary to see that what Breland did doesn’t deserve a pink slip, but a raise?
He did the right thing. Now it’s Wilder’s turn to do the same.