Former WBO heavyweight champion ďMercilessĒ Ray Mercer on career and Holyfield rematch
By Michael J Jones
Amid whispers about a possible rematch in South Africa with Evander Holyfield, I recently had the opportunity to speak to former world heavyweight champion Ray Mercer about his career and a potential match with a man he lost a decision to some seventeen years ago.
Now a grandfather aged 51-years-old, ďMercilessĒ Ray was one of the toughest heavyweights of recent years and in his prime took the flush punches of known bangers in Tommy Morrison, Bert Cooper and Lennox Lewis without blinking.
Big-punching Ray won a gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics before turning pro late just before his 28th birthday with a third-round stoppage of Jesse McGhee. The former Marine was looking a formidable fighter after thrilling victories over Bert Cooper, Francesco Damiani (to become WBO champion) and Tommy Morrison, yet surprisingly lost his unbeaten record to come-backing legend Larry Holmes.
Mercer seemed flat in the following years but regrouped to give heavyweight greats Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis torrid ten-rounders in the mid 90ís. The former champion fought on until 2008 but hasnít fought since a six-round decision over Richel Hersisia in Sweden. Granite-jawed Ray has also fought some MMA bouts with mixed results. His nine-second, one-punch knock-out over Tim Sylvia in a UFC ring has become a YouTube favourite.
Now involved in charity work and sounding in good spirits, hereís what Ray had to tell Livefight-
LF) So Ray, youíve not fought in a few years, howíve you been?
RM) Iím good man. I last fought in MMA against Tim Sylvia but I donít need to fight anymore.
LF) You beat Sylvia in nine seconds; I hear itís a big YouTube hit these days?
RM) Yeah I beat him in nine seconds with the very first punch. My kids show it to their school friends to show what their Dad did (laughs).
LF) Going back to the start of your pro boxing career, probably your first big fight was that war with Bert Cooper?
RM) Yeah that was my hardest fight. Firstly, it was the fight of the year and secondly I had to spend two days in hospital after that fight. I had a split lip and burst a blood vessel during the fight. Me and Bert threw punches none-stop all night, I didnít win by much, but I won. Some of my other fights were tough like the Lennox fight but this was something else man.
LF) Is it true you stayed in the same room in hospital as Cooper?
RM) Yes (laughs). We both got stitched up in the same room. As I won the fight I had a little more energy so I got done first (laughs).
LF) You got your first title shot against unbeaten Italian Francesco Damiani for the WBO belt and scored a come-from-behind knockout in the ninth round. That was some finishing punch?
RM) He kicked my ass good in that fight. When I saw tapes of him he just looked an awkward guy to fight but he was much tougher in the fight. I didnít think he could move that good, have that speed and that power. He was a great fighter and really whipped me good but I knew Iíd catch him at some point. It was my first title shot so I wasnít going to lose that fight. I kept telling my corner I was gonnaí get him. Weíd been working on that finishing shot; the five degree (angle) uppercut. I couldnít believe it when he went down but that was a tough fight.
LF) Your next fight was also a come-from-behind stoppage over Tommy Morrison. That was probably one of the most savage finishes ever seen in a boxing match?
RM) He hit me so hard in there. He was throwing these hooks to the bodyÖand they were hurtiní. In the (fifth) round I had a chance to take him out and I took it because I didnít want to take anymore of his punches. The referee was a little slow stopping it as I landed sixteen punches. I counted them. Sixteen punches, all hard, all with bad intentions.
LF) You lost your unbeaten record in your very next fight to Larry Holmes and went through a rough patch in your career losing to Jesse Ferguson and drawing with Marion Wilson; why the dramatic dip in form?
RM) There was all kinds of things going on around that time. I had management changes, training problems you name it. It was difficult with all of those things going on to retain focus on the boxing side of things but, you know, I just had to deal with it.
LF) You seemed in far better shape when squaring off with another former champion in Evander Holyfield in May 95í?
RM) Well we knew heíd be moving in the fight so I came in light. It was my lightest in years about 228lbs (actually 224). Tommy Parks was a great trainer and got me in great shape. The best punches; the ones that hurt, are the ones you donít see and he caught me with a great hook to the body so I took a knee. Itís what I got taught in the Army; take a knee so you donít get caught with another punch you donít see. That was my Army training right there.
LF) A year later you had another tough ten-rounder with Lennox Lewis losing a majority decision. Many observers thought you won that fight?
RM) Me included! We were both Olympic gold medallists and it was a tough fight. I felt I should have won in my backyard. It was very close so I thought in that situation I would have got the decision.
LF) Both men went on to fight Mike Tyson and I know that was a fight you wanted for a long time?
RM) I actually signed to fight Mike but he never did the same. It was a tough break but I had a great career and I wouldnít take anything back.
LF) You beat Tim Witherspoon the same year after the Lewis fight but never fought much in the next few years. You eventually made a comeback in your 40ís and got a shot at your old WBO title versus Wladimir Klitschko (losing via six-round TKO). Were you surprised in the subsequent years that Wladimir became the dominant champion of his era?
RM) Not really, heís big and strong and has Manny Steward in his corner. Before he got with Manny he was being rocked, dropped and knocked out and since he implemented Stewardís training methods heís got his sh*t together.
LF) You suffered a strange loss a couple of years later when Shannon Briggs appeared to stop you with a rabbit punch. What are your thoughts on that fight?
RM) I think Briggs should have been disqualified in that fight. I threw a right and fell into the ropes. I couldnít see too good as I had a detached retina, I never mentioned that much but thatís why I fell into the ropes after missing the right. The refí should have dived in but he let him turn me and hit me behind the ear. I donít really see that as a real fight as I thought I was winning but it is what it is.
LF) Which American heavyweights do you rate who are coming through right now?
RM) No-one. None. I tend to watch the lighter-weight fighters now as thereís never any heavyweight fights on. Iíll watch Mayweather or Pacquiao; whoever is on Iíll watch.
LF) Whatís this about you fighting a rematch with Holyfield in South Africa?
RM) I donít think thatís happening. Iíve not had a contract or nothiní, not had any details and nothingí has been confirmed. I think heís retired but if he wants to fight then Iíll fight him.
LF) Are you overall satisfied with your career?
RM) I am. I had a great career, fought some great fighters and won a world title. I never wanted to quit boxing but Iím having a great time now. I came to London recently and had the time of my life. I came over and met all the old champions and loved my time over in the UK. Canít wait to come over there again!
LF) Tell me about the charity work you are now involved in?
RM) I am now representing an organisation called ĎFind a dreamí and itís there to help kids. Itís about giving something back and we all need to do that. Rod Ricciardi is putting it together. We are having training camps set up where boxing champions come to train and the kids can spend time with them and get inspired. Itís something I really believe in and you can get more information at http://www.findadream.org/aboutus_team.html and Iíd love to take it over to the UK and set up camps there. Itís the biggest thing Iím doing right now and Iím also doing it in honour of the military both in the USA and all those stationed overseas.
LF) Ray itís been an absolute pleasure and all the best with your charity work.
RM) Ok thank you, any time.
Many thanks to Ray and his agent Chico Sherwood for the interview.