42-year-old Larry Holmes, having reeled off five wins against so-so opposition in a comeback that had followed his crushing 1988 KO loss to Mike Tyson, had returned for one last run at the title and the big payday that would come with it.
Taking a fight with an unbeaten Ray Mercer looked to most like a mission of doom for the aging “Easton Assassin,” what with the 30-year-old coming off a brutally disturbing destruction of the heavily hyped Tommy Morrison. Yet, in one of the biggest heavyweight upsets in a decade that saw its fair share (think Douglas-Tyson, Foreman-Moorer and Holyfield-Tyson to name just three more), Holmes rolled back the years and gave Mercer a boxing lesson.
Today, Mercer – recognised as one of the toughest fighters to ever grace the ring – looks back and laments his decision to take the fight with Holmes. Having been “talked into” relinquishing the WBO crown he’d won by KO’ing Francesco Damiani and had defended against “The Duke,” Mercer went for the $1 million payday that came with the Holmes fight. Mercer, 18-0(13) when entering the ring in Atlantic City, New Jersey to face a 53-3 Holmes, never dreamt he’d lose to “such an old guy,” yet he did have some misgivings – misgivings that had been put there by members of his own team.
“That fight was the worst night of my entire boxing career,” Mercer says of the Holmes fight.
“I should never have taken that fight. I was supposed to fight Michael Moorer, but I went with my management who set up the Holmes fight instead. That was a mistake. It wasn’t as if I was ever thinking I was going to lose to such an old guy, but everyone around me, and people in the media, was telling me I’d win easy, by a quick KO. It’s one thing for the media to say all that stuff, but when your own team is saying it as well – that got to me.”
Holmes, who had whipped his body into the best shape he could (weighing-in at a reasonable 233-pounds to Mercer’s 228) withstood some hard shots in the opening round, before settling into tactics that saw him lay in a corner, beckoning Mercer in and making him miss and then pay. The approach worked beautifully for the man who had ruled the world from 1978 to 1985 and Mercer admits he was out psyched by Larry.
“Holmes did talk his way into my head,” Mercer says today. “He was a smart ex-champ. He outsmarted me, that’s what it was. He talked his way into winning!”
Holmes talked to Mercer during the fight and he even took time to peer briefly into the ringside cameras and bellow, “I ain’t Tommy Morrison,” in reference to the man “Merciless” had damn near decapitated four months previously. Mercer was unable to do anything but come at his tormentor in straight lines and Holmes, doing his own version of the Rope-a-Dope, picked his man off and picked up points.
After the 12-rounds were done, Holmes triumphed by a unanimous decision (even if one judge somehow had him winning by just two points) and went on to challenge Evander Holyfield the way Mercer would almost certainly have done had the formbook been obeyed on February 7th 1992. Instead, it was back to the drawing board for the 1988 Olympic gold medallist.
“That’s one of the biggest regrets of my boxing career,” Mercer says of his first pro loss. “Not only did I lose, but I only got to defend my WBO title one time. It was definitely a mistake taking that Holmes fight.”
Interestingly, despite losing to Holmes and taking a significant number of jabs from the former king, the left jab being Holmes’ best and most famous weapon, Mercer rates Lennox Lewis’ jab as the very best he encountered in the ring.
Post-Holmes, Mercer went on to prove his worth in great battles with the likes of Lewis – “I felt his jab and it was hard and heavy, a great punch. But I hurt him more than he hurt me and I still feel I won that one” – and Holyfield (losing another close decision) yet the Holmes loss still hurts all these years later.
For Holmes, he had pulled off his last miracle and “The Last Stand,” as his fight with Mercer was dubbed, resulted in yet more proof that no great fighter should ever, ever be underestimated.
Holmes finally called it quits in 2002 with a superb 69-6(44) record. Mercer retired with a more than respectable 36-7-1(26) ledger in 2008.