Interview with Mark Breland, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
For most, the sight of stray dogs rooting through scrap heaps is as good an excuse as any to cross to the other sidewalk. Yet for a young Mark Breland shunting back forth between school and the New Bed-Study Boxing Gym along Marcus Garvey Boulevard in heroin-mad Bed-Stuy in the 1970s, the vagrant pups he encountered prompted a different response. They were benign, pitiable creatures to be embraced, not avoided. To him, they deserved a bit of empathy, attention, and, when possible, the remainder of his half-eaten chicken sandwich.
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“I would always see them around the neighborhood and give them food,” Breland recounted back in early October from within the hull of the U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired battleship-turned-museum that sits on the East River in Manhattan. Breland speaks softly, in perpetual sotto voce, which presents a challenge, on this day, for those interested in parsing his words. Just a few meters away, his charge Deontay Wilder, the American heavyweight champion of the world, was thunderously regaling a group of reporters about his upcoming December 1 PPV clash against England’s brash and enigmatic Tyson Fury. But once the subject turned to those Bed-Stuy strays, Breland’s voice began to rise, his eyes widening in concert. “So I would see [the dogs] on the streets and they would just do what I told them. ‘Sit down,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, they listened to me.’ Then later on, when I retired, I met a guy who used to train dogs … and he taught me how to do it properly.”
A bona fide star in the amateurs after sweeping the New York City Golden Glove five years in a row and notching gold at the 1984 Olympics, Breland turned in a respectable, if slightly underwhelming, career as a professional, earning a piece of the welterweight championship twice. But these days, with the haze of celebrity long behind him, he does not mind introducing himself in other ways. “Yeah, I’m a dog trainer. I teach protection, obedience, tricks, everything, to anyone and anywhere,” Breland, who resides today in Canarsie, Brooklyn, explained. “I breed all kinds of dogs. It’s a lot of fun.”
His favorite breed is one of the largest out there: the Neapolitan Mastiff.
“Right now I have none, I just lost them,” Breland admitted. “One was twelve, which is old for a mastiff. And the other was seven. So it’s taking me a while now to come back from it. But I also like the shepherds. The shepherds are nice. I just like big exotic dogs that you don’t normally see. The ones when you’re on the street, and you go, “What is that!”
Jay Deas, Wilder’s co-manager and head coach, fondly recalls Breland’s uncanny ability at “dog whispering.” Dea’s daughter had a “Pet Day” program at school and Breland accepted an invitation to come along. “I had a German Shepherd and Mark was there working with it for about ten, fifteen minutes,” Deas said in a recent phone call. “He was able to get it to do tricks that I couldn’t get it to do. I think it’s a dog whisperer type of thing. He just has a way of working with them, understanding them, and they seem to understand him, and he gets what he wants out of them. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s good at it.”
According to Breland, the keys to winning over a dog is to dispense with any semblance of a domineering attitude. “The dogs want to [follow your orders],” Breland explained, “you just have to teach them how to do it.” This applies to even the most aggressive dogs. Breland brought up a recent incident where he met a particularly ornery dog. It had chomped right through the bone of a skinned chicken. When it saw Breland, it wanted to engage in a tense staring contest. “I was like, look, I’m not going to challenge you,” said Breland. Somehow, he wound up bonding with it later.
Does this advice apply to boxers?
“Dogs don’t talk back,” Breland quipped. “I prefer them to training boxers. Dogs listen. And they want to do it.”
Deas offered his perspective on the parallels between the two disciplines. “The consistency of the message that you’re trying to teach the dog, the patience, I would think, relates closely with boxers because those are the same traits that you need,” Deas surmised. Then he added, “But it’s a little bit different when you’re training the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Not that Wilder is necessarily a disagreeable type, but, as a trainer, Breland understands his own role is ultimately limited. “I mean, it’s like a thing where Deontay knows he’s the champion so he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do,” Breland maintained. “When I’m in the gym I tell him what to do and he may do it or he may not [in the ring]. When he follows the game plan, he looks good. When he goes off the page, he gets cocky and forgets what we did in the gym. All I can do is tell you what to do.” Breland then added, with a soft chuckle, “Deontay listened in the (Luis) Ortiz fight, though, especially when he got hurt.” (In the seventh round against Ortiz, Wilder was out on his feet, before short-circuiting the Cuban in the tenth round).
Before his noteworthy knockout of Ortiz in March, Wilder was routinely lambasted on social media, his at times painfully unpolished loopy punches providing comic fodder for the boxing peanut gallery. Despite the wild streak that he routinely exhibits in the ring, it’s the very quality that makes him such a dangerous proposition for anyone in the division, Wilder showed clearly back in 2014 in his first fight against Bermane Stiverne that he knows how to work behind the old one-two combination. When asked if he thought Wilder had gotten away from a dedicated jab since that fight, Breland, who was once known for his long, head-snapping jab, nodded. “Yeah I think so. I definitely want to see him use it more.” But Breland believes Wilder has learned a thing or two about self-preservation from the Ortiz fight and will show up in more disciplined form on December 1. The dexterous Fury, however, presents a different set of problems. “I think for this fight Deontay will jab here, jab there, but it’ll be important for Deontay to throw Fury a lot of feints. Make him punch and come in and catch him as he does. But the thing is, Fury is very awkward. Well, both of them are awkward. He’s gonna have to figure Fury out, and Fury is gonna have to figure him out.”
In many ways, Breland is the ideal representative for Team Wilder: quiet, unassuming, and unequivocally committed to the master plan: making Wilder a better fighter. The unique, ego-free synergy of this group is the result of prudent recruiting by Deas, who has been with Wilder since the moment he first put on a pair of gloves at the Skyy Boxing Gym in Tuscaloosa. As the story goes, Deas decided to enlist Breland’s services shortly after meeting him at the 2007 Olympic trials. By that point, Deas had already connected with longtime boxing fixture Shelly Finkel, whose list of clients have included Mike Tyson and Wladimir Klitschko. Finkel was also Breland’s manager throughout his entire career.
“One day I called Shelly and said, ‘Shelly there’s somebody I’m thinking about bringing in to work with us’ and Shelly said, ‘I want to talk to you about somebody, too. Do you know Mark Breland?’ And I started laughing and I said, ‘That’s who I’m calling you about!’ So we both laughed about that. We loved Mark’s temperament and personality, the height and reach and the length that he had as a fighter—we thought that all that would be beneficial for Deontay, so Mark hopped on board.”
In describing the dynamic of Team Wilder, Deas compares it to a football team, in which each coach is solely responsible for a particular aspect. This clear division of labor smooths out some of the disagreements that can arise when the head coach decides to assume the title of Godhead. “If there’s somebody that’s a real good hand-wrapper, he would be the one that wraps the hands,” Deas remarked. “If there’s somebody that is really good at watching wrapping hands and detecting anything illegal going on with the opponent, that’s who I want watching the other guy. So it really comes down to who does what well to succeed in a particular position. The egos have to go out the door, including mine, and we have to do what’s best for Deontay.”
Case in point: Watch any Wilder fight and you will find that it is usually Breland, the co-trainer, who ducks through the ropes in between rounds, whereas in most cases, that privilege falls on the head coach. “That’s obviously not the normal structure,” conceded Deas, who plays the cutman during the fights. “A lot of head coaches insist on being the guy inside the ring, they gotta be the one with the camera on them and all that. We don’t have that. Mark just has a great eye for what he’s seeing and I trust what he sees.”
In Fury, Breland sees a tall, awkward heavyweight, who may enter the ring on December 1 with a twenty-five to thirty-pound advantage. Aside from those traits, Breland insists, there is nothing intimidating about the so-called lineal heavyweight champion. “If you look at him, he has no boxing skills,” Breland argued. “He has none. If you watch a basketball player fight”—Breland flailed his arms around—“that’s how he fights. Deontay just has to stay on the page until Tyson opens up—and it’ll happen anytime—and he starts throwing his weird combinations. That’s when Deontay will catch him. It shouldn’t be difficult. To me, it’s not difficult.”
Not as difficult, that is, as ponying up a small fortune to buy a luxury breed. “It’s a real hairy dog that I want to breed so bad, but it’s so expensive. It’s like a $100,00,” Breland said, sighing. “I can’t think of the name, right now. Maybe after this fight, I’ll think more about getting it.”