On October 8th, 1991, it was looking like Tommy Morrison would have the way paved for a continuation of his ascent. Ray Mercer planned to mess up the momentum, but the boxing world, much of it, saw a clear path to massive fortune and fame for “Tommy Gunn” and dismissed Mercer’s chances to spring the upset. It wasn’t stated out loud so much, but a large element of that optimism stemmed from the color of his skin. Morrison didn’t care for the term, he wanted his skills to speak up for themselves, so he would slap down talk of being a “Great White Hope.” That didn’t mean tens of millions of Americans wouldn’t latch on to him and root hard for him and pay for the privilege.
Morrison would challenge Mercer for his WBO world title, and, chances were, defeat the rugged ex Army man, setting up a mega fight, and probably a string of them.
Mercer, though, offered a reminder that our sport is “the theater of the unexpected.” In Atlantic City, and on PPV, he viciously knocked out Tommy Morrison. It was a thoroughly savage finish, aided by the poor response from referee Tony Perez. The third man in the ring was blatantly late to pull Mercer off a stuck-on-the ropes Morrison, and the site of a concussed Morrison sticks in the memory of anyone who watched live or even 30 years later on YouTube.
So, Mercer retained his title. Ray would forever be linked to Morrison, who died Sept. 1, 2013 at the age of 44, because of the nature of the thunderous climax.
Now, looking back, it seemed that Tommy’s team was looking at the Ray Mercer fight as a minor nuisance on the way to bigger paydays against the “superstar” heavyweights of the era. I asked Ray to tell us about some of the pre-fight chatter leading up to the Morrison fight.
What was his mindset going into the fight against Morrison, then 28-0? Was he trying to prove the naysayers wrong, or was it just another fight for the
Mercer, 17-0 going in, recalls, “Tommy’s people thought it was the right time, that I wasn’t training hard. I gotta tell you, it was actually a personal thing for me. I was the WBO champion, and my trainer told me that I am only getting $50,000 more than Tommy Morrison, and I was the champion. That pissed me off. I didn’t really believe him. He told me to call Bob Arum, so I called Bob. I asked Bob, ‘I’m the champion, how am I only making $50,000 more dollars than Tommy Morrison?’ And he told me, and I respect him for this, he told me, ‘Because he’s white.’ And when he told me that, I said ‘Ok, Thank you.’ Because at least he was honest, and I hung the phone up. And from that phone call, I took it personally the whole time.”
Mercer continued. “Everybody sees what’s going on with the black people now.”
“I mean, that right there was a racist thing. We’ve been going through that, and that was one of the times that I experienced it. When I take it personally like that, I’m going to whip your motherfucking ass for that. That’s why he got the ass whuppin like he got.”
Shortly after the Morrison fight, Ray vacated the title to fight Larry Holmes. That decision baffled the fans and media. Ray affirmed that it was the biggest mistake of his career.
I asked him to explain what compelled him to vacate a title that he worked hard to get, and fight a non-title match against an “over the hill” but still a very dangerous Larry Holmes. For the record, Holmes had lost to Michael Spinks, in ‘85 (UD loss) and in their ‘86 rematch (SD loss). The disgruntled “Assassin” strode away to Easton…and but of course got lured back in, Corleone style, to fight Mike Tyson, in ‘88, at age 39.
He tried valiantly, but Mike’s power was too much. So, Holmes chilled for three years, and then hopped back in. Yes, the Corleone pull… He took the long jab out of the holster and did the USA Tuesday Night Fights circuit, piling up five wins against C level sorts. On Feb. 7, 1992, Holmes stepped up in class, versus “Merciless.”
“I was kind of crazy,” said Mercer. “My management was bugging, and they wanted me to fight Michael Moorer, a southpaw. I didn’t really want to fight a southpaw. I wanted to fight Larry Holmes. I had the chance to fight Larry Holmes for the same amount of money. He was my idol, and I wanted to fight him. But they wanted me to fight Michael Moorer. They said if I didn’t fight Michael Moorer, they would take my belt. So, they took it, and I fought Larry Holmes. I would take that decision back. That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.” Holmes, who said he competed despite a retina issue, won a UD12.
During his career, there was the perception that Ray did not train as hard as he should’ve for most of his fights. I asked him if there was any truth to that. He explained to me that winning the gold medal was his dream since he started boxing. “I was still celebrating the gold medal. I was partying, I was celebrating during my pro career. I valued my amateur career more than I did my pro career. I always didn’t get in the best shape. I was in decent shape, but I wasn’t always in the best shape,” Mercer admitted.
Mercer said that yes, he was in shape to beat Larry.
However, he told me that he lost the fight mentally because he was fighting someone he revered. He held back, he stated, and didn’t fight Larry as hard as he should’ve.
Without me asking him, Ray said, “I lost to Holyfield (May 1995). I thought I won that fight. Lennox Lewis, everybody knows I whupped his ass (May 1996), but I didn’t get the decision.
And how was his prep for the mannered Brit? “Oh my God,” Mercer said. He put his head down and briefly looked away, and said, “That’s got to be another story.”
As I attempted to change the subject, the champ picked his head back up, adjusted his hat, and started talking.
“I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to have been doing to fight Lennox Lewis. Something happened in the camp, and my wife got me focused. I had two weeks left to train for the fight. I trained the hardest two weeks in my life, and I was in good enough shape to beat him. That camp was kind of crazy.”
Noticing that this was a delicate subject, I transitioned to the fight. We talked about how he easily landed jabs and straight rights against Lennox. The fight against Lennox was a fight that many people believe Ray won. I asked him about his thoughts on the decision, and why he felt he didn’t get the nod from the judges.
Ray told me the following about that night in Madison Square Garden, where he entered with a 23-4-1 mark: “They needed him to win so they could have a big fight between him and Mike Tyson. I was always like the gatekeeper, and if you beat me, you’d get a chance at a title shot.”
We talked a little longer, and he answered some rapid-fire questions I had for him. Ray told me that he thought Francesco Damiani was the most defensive fighter he ever fought, Lennox was the hardest puncher, and that Holyfield was the most skilled fighter he has ever shared the ring against.
I asked him what it was like being in the ring with Holyfield. Ray believed he was winning the fight until Holyfield hit him with a good shot, in the eighth. After getting hit, Ray took a knee to collect himself, and that’s when he says Holyfield hit him on the back of the head.
I started to say that Holyfield gets a bad rep for being…when Ray interrupted me and blurted, “He’s a dirty fighter!”
I said, “Excuse me, champ?” while chuckling. I knew what I heard, I just wanted him to confirm it. Mercer continued, “He’s dirty. That’s why Mike Tyson did what he did to Evander (in the “bite fight.”) I always give him respect, but when I was on my knees, he hit me in the back of the head, he threw elbows and everything.”
After the loss to Lennox, Ray Mercer fought sixteen more times during a span of twelve years. He had his last boxing match in 2008…but Ray wasn’t done fighting.
Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC were becoming more popular than boxing amongst fight fans during that period. It led to some debates on how boxers would fare against MMA fighters. Boxers like James Toney and Ray Mercer believed boxers could easily knock out MMA fighters, and MMA fighters thought they could easily submit boxers.
It was inevitable that athletes from both combat sports would fight each other to prove which art was superior. So Ray Mercer, at 46 threw his name in the MMA hat and faced Kimbo Slice for his first MMA match.
“Yes, I had two MMA fights. I lost the fight against Kimbo because he took me down and clamped down on my neck. I had neck surgery before the fight, so I just tapped out. And then my last fight was against 5X world champ Tim Sylvia.”
“That was crazy the way we set that fight up. That fight was won before we even stepped in the ring.” Ray chuckles as he remembers the details surrounding that fight. “I was getting drunk in front of him, you know, we were doing the promotion thing. I told him I smoked some weed. I was drinking, and he saw it, so he got overconfident. He was walking around the hotel calling me old man. We really played him, and it worked. You saw the fight, how he came out and kicked me with that old bullshit kick. He thought I was going to go down. So, I put everything into my right hand, everything! I hit him so hard that I didn’t even know he was out, so I tried to go for his legs. I looked up and saw that he was stretched, knocked out. He had a million-dollar fight after that, so I just ruined that for him.”
We laughed—sorry Tim!—and I asked him how life has been after retirement. The former champ lives a comfortable life and travels making appearances at boxing events across the country. He says he travels more now than he ever did as a professional fighter. Additionally, he mentors young fighters.
“If destiny would give you one fight to do all over again from training camp all the way through the fight, what fight would that be,” I asked.
Without hesitation, he said, “The Lennox Lewis fight. Like I said, I only had two weeks to train for that one. I would take that one back. If I would have trained 6-8 weeks like I was supposed to, I would have knocked him out. That’s a fight that I would like to have back.”
MY TAKE: “Life happens.” Two words used to describe the unexpected events that happen in one’s life. When his father escorted Ray Mercer to an Army recruiter’s office, neither one of them expected that it would lead to Olympic glory, and ultimately, the world’s heavyweight championship. A journey that started when he was 23, Ray adapted a ruthless boxing style to compensate for his inexperience. This fighting style would be why Ray is the only Olympic heavyweight ever to win all his fights by way of knockout. It’s a style that will forever link him to his savage knockout of Tommy Morrison. Mercer was fearless, he wasn’t scared to fight the best fighters of his era. That list includes Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Bert Cooper, Tim Witherspoon, Shannon Briggs, and Wladimir Klitschko: four Hall of Famers and all tough outs.
Ray’s tough exterior is balanced with a humble and gracious personality. He credits all his success to the time he spent in the Army. Aside from his decision to vacate the title to fight Larry Holmes, Mercer doesn’t have many regrets regarding the sport of boxing. The “Merciless” moniker isn’t something that only defines Mercer inside the ring. Mercer didn’t shy away from any of my questions and answered them with brutal honesty. I walked away from our conversation with a deep respect for the former world champion. He was transparent about his life, candid about his character, and immensely grateful for his success. Life happened for Ray Mercer that fateful day when he joined the Army. And he traveled the road to achieving dreams well beyond what he expected, to the best of his ability at the time, sometimes “mercilessly,” and always fearlessly.