Keeping Score: Faded glory
(First of Two Parts)
Shortly before the first bell of the Golden Gloves regional finals at the Log Cabin Restaurant in Holyoke on February 6, ring announcer Dean Fay strode up to PA announcer Mike Burke and told him, “We had to shut it off at the door.”
Burke, the chief officer of Western New England Amateur Boxing in Holyoke, was pleased but not surprised that on a cold February night over 800 fans would cram into the banquet hall at $20 a head to see and hear the power of hands inside ten ounce gloves slam into face, flesh and bone.
He remembered the night a young, chiseled black fighter named Mike Tyson from the mean streets of Albany stepped into the ring. “He knocked the guy out in 37 seconds, a guy named Jimmy Jackson, a police officer from Springfield and he was a damn good fighter.”
Burke was the city editor of the Holyoke Transcript until it folded in 1993. He still writes a column for the Springfield Republican and has been involved with the local boxing scene since the days when fight fans loomed over the ring at the Valley Arena, lighting cigars and chain-smoking Pall Malls.
He was instrumental in getting the Golden Gloves back to Holyoke after an eight-year hiatus and said of the city’s boxing renaissance: “Huge. Last year and this year have been wonderful.”
Holyoke has always been a fight town and the Gloves a place where cops like Fay and timekeeper Kevin Hope — a retired State Trooper — set aside animosity for a night of pugilistic coexistence. “Ever see any of these guys in court?” I asked Hope.
“Oh yeah,” he answered, eyes wide. “I’ve seen guys in the ring wearing (ankle) bracelets.”
Burke turned on his microphone and asked Marlon “Moochie” Starling to stand for the crowd. “The Magic Man” was born in 1959 and raised in the Hartford projects, where he learned the boxing game under the guileful eye of Johnny Duke, a gravel-voiced trainer with a tendency to exaggerate. A rival trainer once warned, “Talk to him, he’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.”
As Starling’s career blossomed, Duke had neither the connections nor the savvy to keep pace and in 1979 he turned pro under the watchful guidance of F. Mac Buckley, a flashy Hartford attorney who was known to cater to the legal needs of the underworld.
He won his first 25 fights, mostly in Hartford against pugs named Eddie “From Hell” Campbell and Ruby “The Snake” Ortiz. On January 8, 1980, he fought a prisoner on furlough from the state lockup in Enfield named Charles Newell who was in for armed robbery. In the seventh round, Starling sent him to the canvas with a straight right and he stayed down. He died nine days later of brain injuries.
Starling’s undefeated streak ended October 23, 1982, when he lost a split decision to Donald Curry in Atlantic City for the welterweight title; sixteen months later, he lost again to Curry, this time by unanimous decision.
Starling fought for the title 18 times, winning some and losing some. The pinnacle of his career came on August 22, 1987, when he stepped into the ring and TKO’d two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland, who was 18-0 and the defending WBA welterweight champion.
After back-to-back losses in Las Vegas to Michael Nunn and Maurice Blocker, he hung up the gloves at age 31 with a 45-6-1 record and over $2 million in purse winnings, worth over $4 million today.
Two years later he was arrested for stalking and slashing a Hartford woman’s tires. Buckley also hit the skids, indicted for stealing clients’ money and sentenced to five years probation, both being axiomatic that in boxing the fall from grace can be fast and precipitous.
“Boxing is the red-light district of sports. It’s booze and broads,” said Bob Benoit, a retired state cop and amateur boxing official. “The broads love a fighter, and (a woman) is a hard thing to turn down. Moochie I saw at the (Boxing) Hall of Fame in New York. He was selling pictures of himself for $15. A lot of the old fighters hang around up there.”
The 67-year-old Benoit grew up near Worcester and had 45 pro fights, mostly four-rounders in Providence that paid $50, win-or-lose. “I woulda stayed fighting if I didn’t pass the state-police exam.”
He founded the state police-boxing team and recruited Greenfield’s John Richardson and retired Franklin County Sheriff Fred Macdonald. South Deerfield’s Mike Baker is on the current MSP team.
“For every success story there’s a dozen heartbreaks,” said Benoit. “We have a tendency to leave behind the people who fall.”
In Holyoke where his career had begun, the 54-year-old Starling rose and waved, his short hair was beginning to gray and his eyes were sad and tired. He was wearing a dark-striped sweater and holding a clear plastic bag. Inside it were autographed photos of himself
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.