By Jason Keidel
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When boxing was an essential sport, Mark Breland was an essential boxer. The greatest amateur in the history of the sport, Breland is the only man to win five straight Golden Gloves titles and an Olympic gold medal (1984). Breland went 38-3 as a pro, and retired at 34 as a two-time welterweight champion.
I made my bones as a boxing writer, but with a dearth of decent fights on the docket these days, the closest I come to great fights is to be around formerly great fighters who now train prospects. With a few exceptions, boxers are the dichotomy of savage on canvas and serenity on the sidewalk. And unlike the ornery pitcher, catcher, or quarterback, a fighter loves to be quoted.
Over the last year I often visited Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, one of the oldest and rarest places that still chisels young men into world champs. Gleason’s is Breland’s de facto office.
One sweaty summer day Mark mused over a handsome dude thumping a heavy bag. I assumed the guy was one of the cadre of white-collar Caucasians breaking a sweat in a boxing gym, fighting vicariously through the many boxing legends who whisk through the legendary gym.
Turned out Breland’s pupil was Holt McCallany, star of FX’s gripping drama, “Lights Out,” which premiered last night. McCallany plays Patrick “Lights” Leary – an aging heavyweight who, in the face of financial hardship, makes a perilous return to boxing. Like his real-life brethren, Leary fights in the ring under the daunting grip of dementia.
I chatted with Mr. McCallany on the phone yesterday, a few hours before his debut – the actor’s rendition of Fight Night.
JK: The campy boxing metaphors are inevitable. I apologize in advance.
Holt: That’s all right.
JK: How did you find Mark Breland?
Holt: I’ve admired Mark going back to the 1980s. I loved his style and, even more, the way he handled himself outside the ring. Many actors read their own clippings. And I guess some boxers do, as well. Mark isn’t one of them. So I called Gleason’s one day, told them I was an actor looking to work with a world champion like Mark Breland. Next day, I met Mark Breland. You know him as well as I. We can’t say enough about the man.
JK: As a native New Yorker, is there a sense of pride getting your title shot in New York City?
Holt: I can’t even tell you. Many times a studio will film a show where they can get the biggest tax breaks. I spent the first part of my childhood living across the street from Carnegie Deli. Mom was an actor and nightclub singer and my dad was an actor and producer. To call this a dream come true doesn’t do it justice. We shot the pilot in Bayonne and the first season in Astoria. I’ve had a home in New York my entire adult life, and always will.
JK: Are you worried about being typecast as “Lights” Leary much the way Nimoy was as Spock or Gandolfini was as Soprano?
Holt: My buddy Chris Noth (“Sex and the City”) has that problem We walk down the street and everyone calls him Mr. Big. I’d like to play other roles in my life, but if this character resonates with the audience, I’d be honored to play it for a while. Comparison to other shows is odious. I think some actors grow tired of their roles because it becomes redundant. You know you find the dead body at the beginning of the show and you find the killer at the end of the show. “Lights Out” is nothing like that.
JK: Boxing is such a fertile genre for dramas Do all actors want to play a boxer?
Holt: Depends on the actor. Some just don’t look like fighters. Some don’t care. But some actors can’t die happy unless they play a boxer. I’m one of them. Like my friend Mark Wahlberg.
JK: What did you think of “The Fighter”?
Holt: Enjoyed it very much. I’m so happy for Mark. Took him seven years to get it made. And they should just wrap the Oscar now and give it to Christian Bale.
JK: Best advice Breland gave you?
Holt: Be yourself. I found myself trying to box like Mark Breland, which is ridiculous. After one session he pulled me to the side and said, “Don’t try to me. Be you!” Which, to me, meant be a scrappy, inside fighter. I wound up studying (middleweight contender) John Duddy, who also fights out of Gleason’s. I became the prototypical Irish fighter: hands up, come in behind the jab, work the body, wait for my big shot.
JK: You did a lot of sparring at Gleason’s. Any session stick out?
Holt: I worked with an amateur named Earl Newman. He made my ribs his home, particularly his left hook. I was on the subway after that session. When my stop came, I couldn’t stand up because of the pain. I had to crouch and crawl home. Didn’t spar for two weeks after that.
JK: What will make you happy with the series?
Holt: If I have to do 100 episodes, I’ll do them. The studio took a big chance on me. I’m not exactly a household name. I want to make the people I work for proud. If it’s viable, I’ll do ten seasons.
JK: Boxers have trainers. Is there an equivalent for actors?
Holt: For me it was Harold Guskin. He’s worked with Glenn Close, James Gandolfini, and Kevin Klein. He gave me tips much the way a cornerman instructs his fighter.
JK: You went out of your way to give the gang at Gleason’s roles in the show, even as extras. Why?
Holt: Because I grew to love the guys in the gym. I watched a dozen guys train for six months. Watched their trainers, too. Putting them in the show wasn’t just about helping friends. It’s good business. They lend authenticity to the scenes. The audience knows the difference.
The laconic king of the 1984 Olympics is hard to hear. Not because he’s affected, concussed, or confused. He speaks in a whisper, as smooth as his jab. Breland, born and raised in Bed-Stuy, walks and talks with the cool mien of a man who’s done something with his life. Volume is for pretenders, not contenders.
JK: Grade Holt as a student
Breland: He gets an A for effort. He developed a solid jab and right hand. I give him a B for footwork. We worked on that a lot.
JK: How long did you work with him?
Breland: About six months.
JK: Have you worked with other actors?
JK: What were the days like in the gym?
Breland: I had him jump rope to start. Then shadow box. Then I had him work the heavy bag. Then we worked on a dummy, kind of like a mannequin. He used to make this face when he threw his jab. He thought that he should act while he was punching. Boxers don’t make faces when they jab. They just throw jabs. Took a while, but we got him to stop.
JK: Holt said you studied film of his sessions.
Breland: About once a week we recorded his technique and watched it on a laptop after for about thirty minutes. He listens really well to what I’m telling him.
JK: You’ve been in scores of movies, shows, and music videos. What’s harder for you, acting or boxing?
Breland: Acting. Boxing was easy for me.
JK: Did you have an acting coach?
JK: Never? Not even for “Lords of Discipline”?
Breland: Never. They just gave me a script and I went with it.
JK: Why didn’t you pursue acting more? You’re a natural.
Breland: Back when I did that movie, in 1982, I was training all the time, preparing for the Olympics and my pro career. Later on, I found out that there’s more politics in acting than boxing. It was too time-consuming. I loved the actual acting, but not the rest.
JK: What sport would you have played had you not been a boxer?
JK: What position?
Breland: Defensive End.
JK: You’re too skinny.
Breland: That’s not what the quarterbacks thought when I sacked them.
JK: Your childhood boxing idol?
Breland: Ali and Ray Robinson.
JK: You were at the Ali-Frazier “Fight of the Century” in 1971?
Breland: Nose bleed. I was so far up I could change the light bulbs.
JK: Favorite fighter of your era?
Breland: Thomas Hearns.
JK: Why hasn’t Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao?
Breland: I think Floyd’s a little worried about Manny’s power. Shane Mosley hurt Floyd, and Manny has more power than Mosley and he never stops punching. But if they fight I think Floyd wins by a decision.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com