Lee Groves

Ten notable U.S. vs. U.K. welterweight title fights

February 4, 1989 – Marlon Starling TKO 9 Lloyd Honeyghan, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

After destroying Curry, Honeyghan added new chapters to his ring history, some of which had the stain of controversy. Honeyghan immediately shed the WBA belt for its backing of South Africa despite that nation’s apartheid policies. Inside the ring, more than a few observers criticized Honeyghan’s second round TKO of Johnny Bumphus because he nailed Bumphus with a punch while the late-rising American was barely off his stool. Those same observers felt unfulfilled by his victories over Maurice Blocker (UD 12) and Gene Hatcher (45 seconds) and an accidental butt – and hand injuries – caused Honeyghan to become an upset victim as unheralded Mexican veteran Jorge Vaca won the WBC belt via technical decision.

Honeyghan impressively regained the title from Vaca five months later via three-round destruction and four months after that, his fight with Yung-Kil Chung ended with the South Korean writhing on the canvas from a low blow. Following a consultation, Honeyghan was awarded a fifth round TKO because Chung was unable to continue following the five-minute injury time-out.

With Honeyghan’s intimidating reputation largely restored by his back-to-back triumphs over Vaca and Chung, he was installed as a heavy favorite to defeat his next challenger – former WBA titlist Marlon Starling.

The talented Hartford native was so nice that he was nicknamed twice – “The Magic Man” and “Moochie.” His superlative defensive skills and counterpunching ability made him a headache for most opponents – figuratively and literally – and the size of the unseen chip he carried on his shoulder rivaled that of the Rock of Gibraltar. One big reason for that disposition was that despite his obvious abilities, experts and opponents still managed to underestimate him every time he stepped up the level of competition. The most celebrated example of that dynamic was his title shot against WBA king Mark Breland, who, if one counted his sterling amateur career, entered the ring with a 128-1 record and that amateur loss against Darryl Anthony was avenged by KO in the pros. Starling was profoundly insulted that he was considered an underdog and he channeled that rage into his performance. He answered his critics with a come-from-far-behind 11th round TKO that left Breland senseless on the canvas.

In the lead-up to the Honeyghan fight, Starling’s chances again were discounted. The reason: six-and-a-half months earlier on HBO, Starling suffered an after-the-bell, one-punch knockout against Tomas Molinares that was eventually changed to a no-contest but didn’t restore the belt he should have retained that night by disqualification. Worse yet for Starling, his team allowed their still-concussed fighter to conduct a bizarre, post-fight interview with analyst Larry Merchant. Fair or not, that was the prevailing image that inspired many to dismiss Starling’s chances against the rampaging “Ragamuffin.”

The natural tension between the combatants was heightened by their mutual animus. The pair first met at the Curry-McCrory fight and within seconds, they formed an instant distaste for each other. During the final instructions, Starling tried to get into Honeyghan’s head with a bit of trash talking. Referee Mills Lane would have none of it as he completed his duties without further interruption and sent the fighters to their respective corners.

Each man’s strategy became crystal-clear within seconds. Honeyghan sought to overwhelm Starling’s sophisticated radar with high volume and brute force while Starling stayed in the pocket, used his high guard to pick off punches and seized on every microscopic opening the champion’s wide punches gave him. A heavy right in round two buzzed the Briton but Honeyghan bounced back in the third when his 115-punch attack produced some positive results, mostly because Starling chose to decelerate.

“He’s already saying, ‘What the f*ck am I doing here?’” chief second Mickey Duff told Honeyghan. “He’s ready to quit now,” another second added.

At the start of round four, Starling heeded Eddie Futch’s advice to pick up the pace and he did so by first ferociously attacking Honeyghan’s body, then smacking him with beautifully-timed crosses and right uppercuts. The champion continued his bustling attack but he and Duff soon discovered that numbers without purpose wouldn’t get the job done. Between rounds four and five, Duff attempted to execute the impossible: affect a complete style change in less than 50 seconds.

“Lloyd, you can’t have a war,” he implored. “You’ve got to be smarter than him. You’re lounging and you’re letting him pick you off. Now, take a deep breath and change your attitude. Just walk out and make yourself scared to get hit. He’s making you do all the work.”

Honeyghan began the fifth by moving and jabbing while Starling, smart cookie that he was, filled the action vacuum by seizing the initiative. He pushed Honeyghan against the ropes and belabored him with full-shouldered combinations so effective that the champion flashed his mouthpiece in frustration. At that, Honeyghan shifted back to his aggressive self and as soon as he did, Starling pelted him with precise counters. Starling was so confident that at one point, he dropped his guard, stuck out his tongue and raised his gloves again before Honeyghan could react.

Later in the round, Honeyghan turned southpaw, not an unfamiliar tactic for him, but again, Starling produced the correct response by repeatedly nailing him with right crosses. To add insult to injury, Starling landed a right and two hooks that sent Honeyghan’s mouthpiece flying out of the ring.

“Lloyd, I keep telling you; make yourself scarce and he’ll get tired,” a frustrated Duff pleaded. “You’re missing him with too many shots. You’re fighting a bad fight; you get me? Are you going to do what you’re told?”

Honeyghan tried to do what he was told in the sixth but while he moved plenty, he left out one important facet: he stopped punching. His output plummeted from 106 punches in the fifth to 40 in the sixth. That drop-off allowed Starling to assume the initiative without having to empty his gas tank. He punched when he pleased, chose his spots immaculately and, as a bonus, he knocked his opponent’s mouthpiece out for the second straight round and raised a swelling around the champion’s right eye.

By the seventh, the swelling had spread to Honeyghan’s jaw. Both men lost their mouthpieces in the session but even here, Starling managed to gain an advantage by engaging in more than a little trash talk.

Once again, Duff brought out the verbal whip to achieve two purposes – to spark his man into positive action and to clarify his previous position.

“You’re way behind now and you’re not going to get into the fight by letting him walk all over you,” he said. “You’ve got to stand your ground and make him miss but not brawl with him.” When Honeyghan simply stared into space, Duff wondered if his man was fit to continue.

“Are you all right?” Duff asked.

“Yeah,” Honeyghan replied.

“You OK?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not tired?”

“No.”

“Good. Then work! Make yourself scarce and work!”

It proved to be an impossible needle for Honeyghan to thread. When Honeyghan boxed, Starling chased him around the ring and out-brawled the brawler by banging him with combinations. When Honeyghan pressed the action, the challenger skillfully blocked the incoming with his “Iron Dome” defense and kept coming up with the perfect series of counters.

The swelling around Honeyghan’s jaw became so hideous that both Duff and ringside physician Dr. Flip Homansky checked it out. After passing muster with both – Duff declared it was “just a bruise” – Honeyghan answered the bell for round nine.

If his jaw wasn’t broken, his fighting drive surely was. A six-punch flurry, of which only half landed, brought Honeyghan to his knees for a five-count. Amid chants of “U.S.A!,” Starling’s final surge prompted referee Mills Lane to mercifully intervene.

“I wanted to establish who was going to be the boss,” a far more lucid Starling told HBO’s Merchant. “There can only be one boss in here. I am the boss. This is my house. I live here. Once I established that I was the boss, I had to get his timing down. Once I got his timing down, he was all mine. Since Lloyd was doing all the talking, I wanted to beat him up. And believe me; if you look at Lloyd’s face, he got beat up.”

Honeyghan, who showed such brashness and bravado in destroying Curry, was classy and humble in defeat.

“I tried everything,” he told Merchant. “I tried to stick and move and I tried to fight him but I just couldn’t get going tonight and he just kept coming. He made mistakes but I just couldn’t put them together. I think he was the better man tonight because I couldn’t get going and by beating me, he’s the true welterweight champion”

He repeated those sentiments at the post-fight press conference and Starling responded with a hug. That act of civility marked the end of a most uncivil war.

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