ON this day in 1991, Ray Mercer, a 1988 Olympic gold medallist, scored a sizzling one-punch KO victory that not only featured on the year’s highlight reel of knockouts, but also saved “Merciless,” as Mercer was known, from certain defeat.
Facing skilled Italian Francesco Damiani, also a former Olympian (winning silver in 1984), 29-year-old Mercer was challenging for the WBO heavyweight belt Damiani was defending for the third time. Both men were unbeaten – Mercer sporting a 16-0 record, Damiani’s record reading 27-0 – and the battle that took place at The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City unfolded in a manner that surprised many.
32-year-old Damiani, not too well known in the US at the time, was, to the shock of Mercer and his fans, outboxing the former army sergeant. With his fast hands and his accuracy, Damiani, a Gerry Cooney look-alike (but not possessing the lethal power of Cooney), was putting round after round in the bank. Mercer grew frustrated, and his performance later drew much criticism from the experts, but he refused to be totally demoralised and his heart and power eventually got him out of jail.
In the ninth round, when trailing 79-73, 79-74 and 78-74 on the three score-cards, Mercer unleashed a punch he had been working on in the gym. A slicing left uppercut-cum-hook landed right on the tip of Damiani’s nose and down the Italian went. Initially, it was hard to see the punch that had done the damage; some fans even thinking Damiani had for some reason opted to quit. The replay showed anything but: Damiani was in extreme pain, the punch having clearly damaged his nose, blood soon pouring down the face of the fighter who was counted out. Later, it was revealed how Mercer’s venomous punch had shattered Damiani’s nose.
Mercer had a bad day at the office and he both knew and admitted as much. He had also scored a one-punch KO that fans would talk about for some time.
This writer had the opportunity to speak with Mercer recently, and he recalled the win that is 25-years old today:
“Looking at him, he didn’t look like he could box or that he was fast, but Damiani could really move,” Mercer says when looking back. “He never hurt me. They say speed generates power, and he had speed, but he never hurt me. I was losing that fight from every which way though. But I knew I’d get him. I knew I’d catch him. It was a great punch [I caught him with], and as I saw him down, with blood all over, I knew he wasn’t getting up!”
Mercer went on to score an even more devastating KO win in his next fight, when he absolutely destroyed the heavily hyped Tommy Morrison. Soon after this, arguably Mercer’s most famous win, he was outboxed by Larry Holmes and Mercer’s career saw him settle into a highly dangerous contender, who was ever so slightly short of world championship material. Mercer would give greats Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield all they could handle in close decision non-title losses, but he would never again reign as a champion; having to make do with the nine months he spent as WBO ruler.
As for Damiani, he fought just four more times after losing to Mercer; winning three before being stopped by Oliver McCall in a non-title fight in 1993.
Mercer, a fighter who boasted one of the sturdiest chins in heavyweight history, finished with a 36-7-1 (26) record. Damiani walked away with a final ledger of 30-2 (24).