Their entrance into the ring heralded by the Olympic theme, their estates enriched by six-figure contracts and their stardom anointed by ABC-TV, five members of the 1984 United States Olympic boxing team -- gold medalists Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker and Tyrell Biggs and bronze medalist Evander Holyfield -- began their professional careers Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
Each won, Taylor and Whitaker more convincingly than the others.
And each spoke of winning championships within the next two years.
Maybe they will.
There are so many titles available out there -- WBA; WBC; IBF; DMZ; BLT; ETC., ETC. -- it seems foolish to bet against any of them.
But the most striking aspect of "The Night of Gold," as Thursday's card was billed, was not the skills of the boxers, but the presumption of the promotion.
Considering ABC's live, prime-time telecast of the event and the newspaper advertisements, it would be hard to resist the temptation to think that these five fighters were not just the cream of our Olympic team, but our only Olympic champions. And that is simply not the case. Virgil Hill, who fought the first bout on Thursday night but was not part of the promotion package, won a silver medal. Steve McCrory, Jerry Page, Henry Tillman, Frank Tate and Paul Gonzales, who was voted the outstanding U.S. boxer in the Olympics, all won gold medals. Yet because none was part of the package put together by promoters Lou Duva and Shelley Finkel and bought by ABC, these medalists were not only absent from the Garden, but for all intents and puroses they were forgotten as Olympians.
Clearly, the perception gleaned from Thursday night's telecast was that the five boxers showcased were the official hot prospects, the rich and famous, and that the others were either off the bus, or, worse, under it.
Such is the power of television to validate some while invalidating others.
Case in point: Tillman, the heavyweight gold medalist.
Tillman was at the Garden, standing ringside, camera in hand, literally on the outside looking in. It was announced yesterday that Tillman will make his professional debut against an as yet unnamed opponent in Houston next month, on the same card with Jerry Tate, but on Thursday night Tillman had still not signed a professional contract. He was well aware of the money his teammates were said to be receiving for their debuts -- $100,000 to Breland; $75,000 each to Whitaker, Holyfield and Biggs; $50,000 to Taylor -- and he was well aware that he might earn considerably less for his debut, considering that no network had approached him with a deal.
"I'd have liked to be out there with my teammates," he said. "It would have been like it was in L.A., all of us on the same team, doing it all over again." Tillman forced a smile. "I guess (the promoters) had their five guys, and that was it. I don't know why. Maybe it's my personality. I never spoke up much, not even at the Olympics. Even today, a cameraman pushed me out of the way to take a picture of them."
Tillman also wanted pictures of them -- for his own collection and for theirs. He had come to New York to support his teammates the best way he knew, by being there, with them. "I hope, in turn," he said, "that they'll come when I make my pro debut, that is if they're not too busy." But he seemed to have a sense that things were slipping away from him, that he somehow had missed the boat.
Perhaps another will dock for him in Houston. Perhaps not.
"I'll stay positive," he said. "I'll come out of this smelling sweet." But his smile was cold, his words metallic.
The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
For that moment at least, Tillman was a loser.
There were other losers, too: All those who fought the Olympians, the "Gold Busters," as they were patronizingly called. Fed to the stallions like bales of hay, they received between $3,000 and $5,000 for their lumps. Meldrick Taylor's opponent was Luke Lecce, a 23-year-old Duquense University graduate who was the victim of a technical knockout with 29 seconds left in the first round. "That's the key word, 'opponent,' " Lecce said. "I was very proud watching these guys win gold medals in the Olympics. I took the fight because defeating a gold medalist is every boxer's fantasy. You like to think you can pull off a victory, but the more you look at it realistically, the more you know your chances are slim." In the clear light of defeat, Lecce made two wise career moves: First, he called his wife in Pittsburgh to tell her of his defeat so she wouldn't worry in case they showed it tape-delayed on ABC. Second, he announced that he would fight no more, forever. "I'm retired," he said. "I've gotta go out and work for a living." And later, when Duva -- unaware of Lecce's farewell -- praised his efforts, saying, "He's tough, he's a good kid, he's going places," the kid himself sat still, grinning blissfully.
Another loser was Lionel (The Brown Bomber) Byarm, whose facial resemblance to his nick-namesake, Joe Louis, was almost uncanny. Byarm went six hard rounds with Holyfield, giving nearly as much as he got. "I knew I had to knock him out or shut him out to win," the 22-year-old Philadelphian said. "He wasn't as hard a puncher like they advertised. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Dwight Braxton, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Mike Rossman -- they've all hit me harder . . . I had him in trouble in the fourth. Double shots to the body. I heard him grimace. If it had gone eight or 10, he never would have made it." Byarm's eyes were narrowed into slits from Holyfield's blows, but he had no regrets, no plans to retire. "I didn't do this for the money, I did it for recognition on ABC," he said. "This was my shot, do or die. I had to take it. I wanted to destroy him. I gave it all I had. I think I hurt his pride. I mean, I showed everyone he's not a big puncher. Now it's up to the public. If they like me, I'll make some money."
Byarm said that Holyfield will be champion someday; someday, "God willing," Byarm will get another shot at him.
Tenderly, Byarm patted his face with a bag of ice. "I'll be back in the gym Monday morning," he said, closing the door behind him.