The "Night of Gold," they called this opening leg of the journey, and it featured the boxing stars of the Olympic Games showing off at center stage in Madison Square Garden.
Six medal winners made their professional debuts here tonight before a house dreamy with the memory of summer triumph, and the road to glory began all over again.
For the cast of fighters featured on the card -- Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Tyrell Biggs, Mark Breland and Virgil Hill -- the evening went as planned. Each made a proud exit from the amateur shuffle and successfully eased into the professional ranks, four before a national television audience, and with a big difference in their bank accounts. Breland, the main draw and home town favorite, made $100,000 for six rounds of work. Taylor came away with $50,000, three made $75,000 and Hill made $50,000.
The last fight showcased the incredible talent of Breland, who won the gold in the 147-pound class and tonight won in a unanimous decision over Dwight Williams (7-2). The welterweight bout went the scheduled six rounds, and it proved to be no small struggle for Breland, who said, "It was the toughest fight I ever had."
Williams used a wild, undisciplined charge to throw off Breland in the early rounds, throwing roundhouse punches that bounced off his hard, lean body. Williams, giving up about five inches, also slapped his opponent with backhand swipes of his gloves, but did no damage. Through it all, Breland kept his composure and refused to alter the graceful style and cunning that helped him win five New York Golden Gloves titles.
"My right hand got sore from hitting him on top of the head," Breland said. "That's why I started using the jab more. I expected a really good fight after I hit him with a flurry in the second and he backed up and said, 'Hey, I'm from Brooklyn, too.' "
In the opening fight, Taylor stunned Luke Lecce (14-3-1) in the first minute and used three remarkable knockdowns to win by technical knockout with 29 seconds left in the first round.
Taylor, the winner of the gold at 126 pounds, said, "I could have stopped him up top with shots to the temples but I used the body instead . . . I felt a lot of pressure coming into the fight, but I did some meditation and stayed strong. Some day I'll be off, and I know people'll expect a lot. I just hope I can do it."
Of the other fighters, only Whitaker carried the torch as high as Taylor. The gold medal winner in the 132-pound class, Whitaker so devastated Farrain Comeaux (10-1) that referee Tony Castellini stepped in and ended the debacle with 10 seconds left in the second round.
Whitaker smiled in the course of his brutal glory, even while sending hand after hand into the bruised and battered face of poor Comeaux, who traveled north to the big city from Nederland, Tex.
Meanness, of all traits, ruled Whitaker's approach this night, and after the fight he appeared not at all disturbed by the weight of his final comment: "When I was hitting him to the body, I saw it was hurting him. That's why I kept it up."
Whitaker was brilliant in the opening round, and it was nothing short of miraculous that Comeaux lasted to hear the bell. Whitaker charged with bullish determination, sending a salvo of hard left and right hooks and jabs to the head and body of Comeaux, who reeled about the ring like a drunken swing dancer without a partner.
Whitaker, at various points in the first round, positioned his opponent's head with his right hand and unloaded at will with his left. He sent sharp right jabs into Comeaux's face. The dull sound of leather slapping against his head was sickening, and it became apparent the fight would not last long.
"A hurt man is a dangerous fighter," Whitaker said. "I had him hurt but he was still throwing really hard punches. So (trainer) Lou (Duva) told me just to take my time and my KO would come."
There was much of the same magic in Whitaker's fists in the second round. It left one wondering why a man of Comeaux's limited athletic competence would dare enter such a savage and violent game. When Castellini stopped it with hardly any time left in the second round, an audible sigh could be heard lifting from the crowd before cheers rocked the packed Garden.
"I was looking forward to going six rounds for the first time," said Whitaker, 20, "but I'll take this any time."
Biggs was not hurried in beating Mike Evans (3-2-1), who lasted six rounds but lost the heavyweight fight in a unanimous decision that drew a chorus of jeers and boos from the crowd. The fight was a boring display of non-aggression, although Biggs was tough enough to break a blood vessel in Evans' nose and produce a crimson flow.
"My manager said that if I didn't take the offense, the guy'll stink the joint out," said Biggs, who won the gold in the 201-pound class. "It was a bad fight, that's all. My ability made it a mismatch."
In the first three rounds, Biggs pawed at Evans, whose heavy arms stayed anchored by his side. Biggs' punches were without great impact, and never was Evans the least bit stunned by anything Biggs had to offer.
The only exhibition of style came late in the final round, when Biggs offered a nasty smile for Evans and mumbled a few inaudible words. That, of course, did nothing but make the end seem even more absent of drama. The decision was unanimous, and the fight was unutterably dull.
"Get somebody in there who wants to fight," Biggs said in his defense, "and I'll show you. The best of me will come out."
Holyfield was the other big winner tonight, taking a unanimous decision over Lionel Byarm, who dropped to 9-2-2. Although he won the Olympic bronze medal after being disqualified, in the semifinal round, during a controversial fight against Kevin Barry of New Zealand, Holyfield's performance was not even sterling. He was dog-tired by the third round and delivered more hand pats than rocking punches. His right hand helped him in the third round, but he was on the defensive much of the final two rounds.
After the bell sounded to end the fifth, Holyfield threw a punch reminiscent of the one that ended his dreams of gold in Los Angeles, but the referee dismissed the late punch. "I hit him with everything to the chin and to the head but he just kept coming," Holyfield said. "I'm not disappointed that it went the distance. But I feel I won every round."
Hill, the silver medalist middleweight from North Dakota now living in Los Angeles, weighed 171 for his pro debut -- a second-round technical knockout of Arthur Wright, 170 1/2, of New York. Wright (2-2) was substituting for Pedro Montero, who failed his physical. Hill's and Taylor's bouts were the only ones not televised.