Three decades ago yesterday, on the under-card of the celebrated Roberto Duran/Iran Barkley war, 1988 Olympic gold medal winner Ray Mercer boxed as a pro for the first time. The former army sergeant was already in his late twenties at the time of his quick KO win over a guy named Jesse McGhee and it seemed Mercer would have to be moved fast, that his big fights would have to come in pretty quick fashion.
Mercer was indeed matched tough soon enough, yet his finest performances, the fights he generated most respect from, came at a time when “Merciless” was in his mid-thirties. It was a quite unremarkable climb up the ranks, with Mercer looking powerful and motivated in some fights, while looking lethargic, even uninterested in others. Mercer could score a quick and eye-catching KO one night, and he could labour to beat a guy the next: see his quite unimpressive decision wins over Jerry Jones, Ossie Ocasio and Kimmuel Odum. Mercer was also extended by hot and cold fringe contender Bert Cooper, but this fight was at least an entertaining slugfest.
Then, in late 1991, and deemed safe enough for “hype job” Tommy Morrison (who Ray had beaten in the amateurs), Mercer – who had in his previous fight been seriously outboxed and almost beaten by Francesco Damiani (Mercer saving the day with a nose-shattering one-punch KO late in the fight) – at last lived up to his “Merciless” nickname. Even today, the blood-curdling brutality of the fifth-round KO scored by Mercer is chilling stuff. Mercer had won a belt, the WBO version, and he was at last looked at as an elite fighter.
But then came another disappointing showing, one that saw the 31 year old lose his title and a good deal of his reputation. Mercer was embarrassed by the ageing but still crafty Larry Holmes, losing a wide decision. Even worse was to follow, as Mercer was beaten by journeyman Jesse Ferguson, held to a draw by Marion Wilson and almost beaten by Ferguson in a rematch (instead eking out a split decision). Who could blame fans for thinking the fire had gone out?
But then came the resurgence, the sure climb back towards full respect. Mercer lost the two biggest fights his career saw him take, in ’95 and in ’96, but it was the sheer toughness, the desire, the non-stop punching he showed in these two battles that so endeared Mercer to the fans. Evander Holyfield had to dig deep to win a decision over Mercer, while Lennox Lewis was perhaps pushed harder, and longer, than at any other time in his career up to that point. To this day, Mercer insists he beat Lewis, while a good many fans say he at least deserved a draw.
By now aged 36, Mercer had some good fight left in him – a December ’96 points win over an ageing but still decent Tim Witherspoon being his last notable victory – but losses to Wladimir Klitschko and Shannon Briggs were deflating in that these defeats marked the only two times Mercer’s granite chin failed him. Mercer fought off and on following the 2005 loss to Briggs, finally walking away, his faculties intact, in 2008.
Mercer, 36-7-1(26) never managed to capture a word title that was at the time universally accepted and he lost the biggest fights of his career, yet the warrior from New Jersey has the full respect of the world’s fight fans. And this didn’t look likely back in 1989 and 1990, when Ray was struggling with the likes of Jones and Ocasio. The inner steel Mercer showed, the unwillingness to give in when things were not going so great, is what endears him to the fans today.