It was a typical Friday night for me. I was sitting on the couch, my left hand clutching a glass halfway filled with Jameson Irish Whisky and watching boxing matches on YouTube from yesteryears. Tonight's historical feature was the fight between Ray Mercer and Lennox Lewis. My wife was sitting next to me, thumbing through Facebook, occasionally nodding when I would yell, “Hey, did you see that punch?”
My concentration was interrupted when my phone vibrated on the end table. “Who the heck is calling me at this hour?” I thought to myself, it was 11:30 PM.
I glanced at the caller I.D., and it read “Ray Mercer.”
I quickly picked it up and barked, “Hey, Champ!”
The raspy voice on the other end said, “Hey, gotta change the venue, meet me at the Harley dealership tomorrow around noon.” I acknowledged and hung up the phone.
Earlier that week, I scheduled an interview with the former 1988 Olympic gold medalist and former WBO Heavyweight World Champion “Merciless” Ray Mercer.
We were initially supposed to do the interview at Burgess Boxing and Fitness, a local boxing club in Fayetteville, N.C. Instead, the next day I made my way to the Harley dealership.
I pulled into the parking lot. The dealership was full of Harley bikers, some sort of motorcycle rally was taking place. I entered the dealership, simultaneously looking for a suitable location to conduct the interview and spot the champ.
In the distance, I see the ex fighter. He notices me, waves me over to a waiting area typical of what you would see at most car dealerships. I approached Ray and extended my hand to offer a shake. He returns the shake, and my hand gets lost in his massive right hand.
That right hand contributed to the knocking out of every opponent he faced in the 1988 Olympics and many more throughout his professional career.
Mercer, age 60, was dressed comfortably in a t-shirt and sweats while sporting a ball cap that read “I Have Issues.”
He introduced me to his amateur boxing coach, who owns a Harley. That’s why we were at the rally. He credited his coach for much of his success at the Olympics.
We make our way to a small corner in the dealership. As I set up my camera, I made small talk with him.
Ray Mercer was born on April 4th, 1961, in Jacksonville, Florida. Ray was a military brat, military jargon that defines the kids of career soldiers. Ray's father served in the United States Army for 23 years.
When I asked him about his experience as the son of a career solder, the champ fondly remembered that time. “The best childhood one can have. I was in the woods all the time catching snakes and fishing,” he said, picturing the tranquility, smiling wide for the first time.
“Merciless” was regarded as one of the most violent heavyweights of the 80s and 90s. Was he always “that way?”
”Was fighting part of your life growing up,” I asked. “Were you involved in any scraps as a child?”
To which he responded, “Being a military kid, we didn't get into street fights. I liked boxing. I remember being overseas, and when Joe Frazier would fight Muhammad Ali, my father and I would watch it. We stayed up to four in the morning to watch the fight. That's how I was drawn to boxing. But I just liked to watch it, I never thought I would be doing it.”
Although Mercer is known for his war-like prowess in the ring, he is also known for being a soldier in the United States Army. Ray is immensely proud to have been a soldier. You can often see him wearing the famous black and gold U.S. Army football jersey to boxing events. I asked him to describe the events that led him to join the Army. The champ smiled again as he relived the experience. “Well, I was 20-years-old, and I didn't have many choices. So I got out of school, and I was sitting around for a couple of years doing nothing. Then, finally, my father marched me down to the recruiter and signed me up. It was the best thing he did for me.”
Being a retired soldier myself, I asked him, “What was the job you initially signed up for?” He slightly sat up in his chair and proudly answered, “I was an infantryman. I was a grunt. I tried to get higher on the test, but that is what I got. It was the best thing ever. I would rather be a grunt than anything else.”
Most of us that follow boxing who aren’t newbies know that Mercer started boxing in the Army when he was 23-years-old.
To that point, Mercer had never put on a pair of gloves, let alone step into a ring for a fight. So I asked the champ to walk me through those early days.
Mercer recounted, “At that point, I had been in (the Army) for two years. I was stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany, and I was at the unit talking trash for a couple of months. We had a heavyweight boxer in our unit. They thought I was tough because of how I was talking, so they asked me to be his sparring partner. We were getting ready to go to “REFORGER” ( an annual military training exercise during the Cold War). It was the wintertime, there was snow on the ground, and although we were a mechanized unit, we couldn't sleep in the vehicles, we had to sleep outside. I was prepared to go to the exercise, but they told me if I agreed to be a sparring partner, I wouldn't have to go to the exercise.”
The champ devilishly smiled, and we laughed because I know all too well the hardships of military training exercises like “REFORGER.” I understood where he was coming from. As crazy as it sounds, getting punched in the face seemed more appealing than sleeping in the cold and going days without a hot meal or a shower.
Mercer continued: “I was warm and taking hot showers, but I had a job to do. I had to be a sparring partner, and I was getting my ass handed to me. Every day I was getting beat up for about a month. I finally asked the trainer how to defend myself. He showed me how to defend myself, and two months later, I made the heavyweight quit. I beat him, and I went on to win 13 fights in Germany without losing. I made it to USAREUR championships (United States Army Europe). I won that tournament too. I was whupping everybody’s ass.”
In researching for this interview, I came across an interview with Kelvin Richardson, in which he described the Army boxing team that Mercer was a part of as a dynasty. He described that group of fighters as some of the best he's ever been around. I asked the champ if he believed that was one of the best teams ever assembled?
He emphatically answered, “Oh yes! We had Anthony Hembrick, Andrew Maynard, Kennedy McKinney, Robert Salters. I mean, we beat everybody. Out of 12 divisions, we won 11 of them. That was the best team ever. We had four guys on the Olympic team and 3 or 4 on the alternate, just from that team. That was the baddest team ever.”
In the video, Richardson also remembers the sparring sessions that took place within the USA Boxing Team. He described those sessions as some of the most violent sessions he has ever witnessed. For example, he remembered one such session between Ray Mercer and Olympic teammate Riddick Bowe.
I asked Mercer if he cared to talk about that sparring session.
“Yeah, I'll talk about it. I talk about it all the time,” said Ray without hesitation. “It was Riddick Bowe's birthday, and I told him, ‘Today is your birthday, and I'm going to whup your ass.' And that's exactly what I did. He would tell you, I whupped his ass that day. I mean, he wasn’t even touching me. Richardson said it was tough, but it wasn’t tough.
“We only sparred three rounds. I was in great shape. I was in such good shape that I could say to anyone, ‘Hey, today's your birthday, and I'm going to whup your ass.'”
I noticed the champ was unfazed by the question and answered it candidly. I asked him to explain to the readers the journey that took him to the Olympics. Ray being in the Army, I assumed that it would be a more rigorous process for soldier-athletes to make the Olympic Boxing Team. To my surprise, Mercer said it was a relatively easy process.
“I first had to win the All-Army tournament. After that, it was easy to make the Olympic trials in the military because all we had to do was win the inner service tournaments. If you win inner service, you automatically go to the nationals. And if you win that, you go to the trials. The military was helpful to me getting there. It cut the time by half of a civilian boxer. So I credit the military for all my success,” said Mercer.
Mercer was a heavyweight on the 1988 Olympic Boxing Team, one of the best USA Boxing teams ever assembled. The team won eight medals and launched the careers of hall of famers Michael Carbajal, Riddick Bowe, and one of the greatest boxers of all time, Roy Jones Jr.
I asked Mercer, “What was it like the night before the gold medal match? You're fighting for a gold medal, what is any different than any other match? Were you nervous?”
The champ proudly remembers that night and said, “Of course, right before every one of my fights, I felt nervous. I knocked everybody out; that was just the way you had to do it. You saw what happened with Roy Jones, how they ripped him off. I mean, he did everything but knock the guy out. In the Army, they say, ‘don't leave it up to the judges.’ I am the only heavyweight gold medalist to ever knock out all his opponents. I didn't leave anything up to the judges. I was in the best shape of my life. I didn't care who they would've put in front of me, they were going to get knocked out.”
The curiosity bug bit me again, and I asked Ray, “Where did get your punching power? Was it a gift? Were you taught to punch that hard?”
“I was always a strong kid. But it's all about technique, man. My trainer over there taught me how to turn my body to get the most power you can get out of your punches. You must listen and learn how to transfer your power. That has a lot to do with it.”
After winning the gold medal, Mercer still had four months left on his military contract that he needed to fulfill. He expressed to me that he loved the Army and didn't want to get out. However, after winning a gold medal in the Olympics, a lucrative professional boxing career was staring him in the face.
Upon completing his military contract, Mercer turned pro and signed a professional boxing contract with Bob Arum and Top Rank Promotions.
Mercer regards Bob Arum highly and said, “I believe that they are the top promoters right now. He is one of the top promoters that there has ever been. He can move you up. I've directed a couple of fighters to him, and they have been doing great.”
Within two years of signing with Top Rank Promotions, Mercer was fighting for a world title after only seventeen outings as a professional. He took on the rugged and deceivingly skilled WBO Heavyweight World Champion, Italian native Francesco Damiani.
I asked the champ to describe what he remembers most about that fight. Mercer remembers how deceptively skilled Damiani was. He recounts that Damiani moved and boxed exceptionally well for a big guy. The champ remembered how eerily close he was to losing that fight. “He was a southpaw, and he was handing me my ass. For nine rounds, I lost every round. I mean, this guy looked fat and slow… He was everything but those things. He was fast, he had power, and he could move. I couldn't figure him out,” Mercer said.
However, even though Damiani was getting the best of Mercer, Ray remained confident that he would eventually knock Damiani out. “I kept going back to my corner and telling my trainer, I'm gonna get him, I’m gonna get him, “said Mercer. “I threw everything that I knew how to throw to get this guy out and I couldn't get him. But there was one punch that I always practiced in the gym. You always have one crazy punch you practice in the gym, but you never use it in a fight. And I threw it—it was like an up jab (half jab, half uppercut). I caught him right at the end of his nose. He fell on my shoulder, I didn't know he was out. When I realized that he wasn't getting up, I said to myself, ‘Whoa, I’m the WBO Heavyweight Champion of the World.’”
Mercer gave me that same sly grin I had grown accustomed to throughout this interview. “They say there is no such thing as a lucky punch if you throw it. I threw everything but the kitchen sink at this guy, and when I threw what I practiced in the gym, it worked. I became the heavyweight champ of the world.”
Although Ray had reached the pinnacle of both amateur and professional boxing, he was not a fan favorite. In the eyes of many, he was an unrefined, a wild-punching brawler, an undisciplined fighter, who happened to be a gifted power puncher.
Tommy was a skilled heavyweight who was built like a Greek god.” And he was the owner of arguably one of the most powerful left hooks in the history of the heavyweight division. He was handsome, popular with the ladies, and riding the coattails of newfound fame after appearing alongside Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V as “Tommy Gunn.” Tommy had all the popularity, money, and admiration that was reserved for a heavyweight champion. The irony of it all was that Tommy wasn't the heavyweight champion. Heck, he hadn't even fought in a world title.
END PART 1