BOXING relies on the graphic and evocative. Images of glory and agony are etched into the history of a sport that promises brutal knockouts and savage exchanges. But boxing is also a sport where a touch of subtlety can provide the most interesting results. Although the well-trained eye can sense even the smallest tactical and technical shifts, some pivotal moments in a fight can elude even the most educated observant. Sometimes, career-defining incidents are hidden in plain sight. A case in point is Ray Mercer. He retired with a record of 36-7-1 (26) decorated with some of the biggest names of a great heavyweight era. The former US Army infantryman even bludgeoned his way to 1988 Olympic heavyweight gold, stopping all four of his opponents on the way to the top of the podium in Seoul. Determined, tough, aggressive, and brave can all accurately describe the former WBO champion; certainly, he left little to the imagination. Or so one might presume.
As the bell sounded to end the fourth round of his first and only WBO title defence against Tommy Morrison in 1991, Mercer raised his arms in triumph and strode back to his corner. The Floridian isn’t a man given to false acts of bravado. Although the crowd and television audience were caught up in the unique excitement that a back-and-forth heavyweight fight generates, the only people who knew what was really taking place were the two men at the centre of the drama.
“I think I was getting whooped until that point,” Ray Mercer told Boxing News. “Tommy was handing me my ass, but he took a big, deep breath over my shoulder and I knew it was time to go to work.”
Within 30 seconds of round five, the fight was over. Those watching may have missed Morrison’s inadvertent show of weakness yet they did see Mercer score one of the most spectacular and memorable knockouts of the 1990s.
“The initial plan was to just go in there and fight,” he recalled. “Use my jab and catch him with the right hand. it certainly wasn’t the plan to go in there and take a pounding like that. That was not the plan. I’m pretty sure my trainers weren’t happy with that but that’s just the way it went. They understood, especially the way things came out.
“I had caught him with a good sneaky little right hand. He did this sigh and went back a bit. That was it. I knew I had him. He was breathing so hard and he wasn’t hitting as hard. Being a fighter I know that you can’t go 12 rounds hitting as hard as he was throwing.
“They did a 30 for 30 on ESPN about Tommy and it was the first time I’d seen it. I was startled. Seeing myself get hit like that was crazy.
“Tommy punched hard. Lennox Lewis was just bigger. I think Lennox had a bit more power when he hit me with his hooks and uppercuts, but Tommy was fast. He had power. He probably surprised me more than I’ve ever been surprised with that Mike Tyson style left hook-uppercut he caught me with.”
Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, “The Duke” had been presented as the apple pie and Chevrolet loving American hope. Even as recently as 1991 the term ‘Great White Hope’ still existed, and Morrison was just that. Mercer, meanwhile, was portrayed as a stumbling block who dreamt of buying a German BMW with his fight purse. Donald Trump – then a real estate mogul who promoted fist fights – stood between the fighters at the final press conferences.
“He was a nice guy. He treated the boxers well. He treated them like kings, man. Trump loved the boxers. Every time I fought in Atlantic City he was right there in my dressing room. I kissed both of his wives on the cheek. He gave me the best suites and he used to really take care of the fighters. You won’t hear any fighters talking bad about him.”
But Mercer, now 57, does have a bad word for someone.
“I can tell you something else about the Morrison fight,” Mercer continued. “I was the WBO champion and when we fought, I only got 50,000 more dollars than him. I went to ask Bob Arum about it.
“I asked why and he said: ‘Because he’s white.’ I swear to God. I was startled, I was mad too. I just felt like I was treated wrongly.
“Tommy didn’t get that next big payday, though. He was not gonna become the great white hope in that one. I was in Newark, New Jersey in a bar called People’s Choice, which is basically a black club. They were like: ‘If you let the white mother f**ker beat you, don’t bring your ass back here’. That’s what they told me. I didn’t go into the fight thinking that but I went back in there afterwards and it was great.
“Oh, and I did get that BMW after the fight too. It was an 850i, 1991. It’s in my garage right now.”
The victory gave Mercer a taste of the high life but we often learn more about a fighter from the way they deal with adversity. Although their pain and embarrassment are put on display for the world to witness, those watching are unable to see the internal battle a boxer faces as a fight slips away from them. Does the boxer reluctantly accept defeat, and choose self-preservation over risking further hurt while chasing victory? How desperate do they become?
Mercer was at home licking his wounds and counting the cost of a shock 1993 defeat to Jesse Ferguson when a phone call hurt him more than a punch ever could. Larry Holmes had taken his unbeaten record after the Morrison fight, but Mercer had remained a key player in a burgeoning heavyweight class. The contest with Ferguson doubled as a final audition for a proposed fight with unified champion, Riddick Bowe.
But Mercer never found his groove against the wily old campaigner. As the pair trash talked their way through 10 lacklustre rounds largely controlled by Ferguson, Mercer must have sensed the Bowe payday falling away. Ferguson would claim that Mercer lent in close during a clinch and – in the form of a $100,000 offer to lie down and throw the fight – he chose self-preservation. The story, feasible to some given Ray’s poor performance, was national news by the time Mercer heard about it.
“I was at home and my mom called me. She told me to put ESPN on the TV and the story was all across the screen. I just couldn’t believe it. That was bad.
“I was really hurt. Plus, it cost me a couple of hundred grand to go to court. It was on Court TV and everything. I thought that was the worst. Man, I just hated Jesse Ferguson for saying this and saying that.
“When we actually went to court it took them all of 10 minutes to come back with a ‘not guilty’ verdict. It was just a stupid thing anyway. We are in a sport, mother f**ker, and if I wanna talk s**t, I’m gonna talk s**t. But there was no bribery or putting out for money. There was nothing.”
The exact second that two fighters realise they are involved in a war might be imperceptible to those watching but it is unmistakable for the fighters involved. The silent agreement is sealed when the two fighters hold each other’s gaze for a split second after a round ends. Or when they continue an exchange for a punch or two after they would usually have broken away. However it comes, there is a moment when fighters commit to a toe-to-toe battle.
In 1996, Mercer waited for Lennox Lewis to join him in the Madison Square Garden ring with war on his mind. Just over a year into his working relationship with Emanuel Steward and eager to implement Steward’s teachings, Lewis would soon be drawn into something entirely different. During the opening three minutes, Lewis and Mercer silently agreed that the battle lines were drawn.
“I was just on him, man. To tell the truth, I really wanted to win that fight. It was about just putting pressure on him and hitting him and I was doing all of that. I really thought I won that fight and a lot of people will say that,” said Mercer, who lost a 10-round majority decision.
“I tried to bully him. I tried to mug him and I think I did a pretty good job. I was really hurt by that loss because he was gold medallist from his country and I was a gold medallist from mine and we were in my backyard in New York. In a fight like that where I whip him and they still give it to him, that hurt a bit.
“I’ve seen Lennox about four or five more times and he always tells me that I won that fight. You can ask him, he wouldn’t lie.
“His trainer Emanuel Steward said in a magazine that when he was training Lennox to fight me, there was no way to train for a Ray Mercer so Emanuel gave me that credit. I do think he thought that he could just come in and walk all over me.
“I felt like my country let me down. I was fighting in my backyard, I was a military man and there was no way that I should have lost that fight. There were no political reasons why. I’m American and I fought for my country and you’re going to rip me when another gold medallist comes here and I whip his ass? I’m still hurt about that.”
Mercer continued to fight for a further 12 years and even had a nine-second MMA career, during which he knocked out former UFC heavyweight champion, Tim Sylvia. Happily settled in Carolina, he can look back on a career filled with intrigue and violence with pride.
“I’m proud of what I did in the limited amount of time I had to do it. For somebody who’s a soldier – an infantryman – to come up and do the things that I did, that’s satisfying. Listen, man. Everybody has their own opinion. Everybody isn’t going to like you. I’m old enough to know now that what I achieved was greatness.
“I was always like a gatekeeper. I should have got more shots and whatnot but it is what it is. I ain’t mad. I wouldn’t take anything back. Things could have been a whole lot worse. I could be crippled or not talking but I’m good. I’m still enjoying life and I know how to enjoy life.”