Larry Merchant has traveled the world the past few weeks. Only recently has he settled down back home in Southern California. His duties have taken him to Germany and then to a ski trip in Switzerland and soon, he'll be heading back to his roots in Philadelphia.
But what happened a few weeks ago in Germany, where Wladimir Klitschko was stopped in stunning fashion by Corrie Sanders, still stands out in his mind. Merchant, had been one of the biggest advocates of Klitschko. He wasn't just on the bandwagon, he was driving it.
” I've gone from being stunned to accepting,” reflected Merchant, on the rise and fall and fall and fall of the big Ukrainian.” Once you're away from the arena after a shock like that and you start to try to put things in some perspective.”
And Merchant looked back on other heavyweights that suffered devastating defeats, who then dusted themselves off to accomplish some big things afterwards.
” Nine years before, Lennox Lewis, knocked out by Oliver McCall, arguably not even as good as Corrie Sanders,” Merchant pointed out.” David Tua, losing to Lewis and Chris Byrd. Michael Grant getting knocked out, just like Lewis-McCall and Klitschko-Sanders. We've seen Rahman getting stopped by Tua and Oleg Maskaev and still making comebacks. So when you see it in that perspective and you know that these are heavyweights, stuff happens. So we realize that now we'll find out what Klitschko is made off.”
Merchant also points out that in his second run as a heavyweight that George Foreman suffered losses to Tommy Morrison and Evander Holyfield before recapturing the heavyweight title from Michael Moorer in 1994.
Roy Jones made a bit of history by becoming the first middleweight to win a heavyweight title by out-classing John Ruiz to win the WBA belt. No one can deny that Jones' victory is a significant achievement but some have gone overboard in praising Jones. Some pundits like Max Kellerman, for instance, have stated that this win makes a case for Jones being the greatest fighter that ever lived. Yes, a win over John Ruiz is worth THAT much to some people. Merchant agrees that while Jones' win shouldn't be discounted, it doesn't mean that he should automatically be placed in the pantheon of men like Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran.
” No, I don't think so,” agreed Merchant,” but we have to take into account public perceptions. When Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson last June, one guys just short of his 36th birthday, the other guys just short of his 37th, it shouldn't have mattered that much in terms of history but the reality is that it did matter a lot to Lewis, to the perception of Lennox Lewis as the best heavyweight of his time.
” And in the same way we'd been urging, goading, prodding Roy Jones for several years to take on some serious challengers- and he did. Even if the guy was just a journeyman, he was a journeyman heavyweight. He did go 36 rounds with Evander Holyfield for whatever that was worth. So that in the public perception was really an important step. Now, the rest will be,' what will Roy do from here on out?' and it will cement his reputation as a great fighter at the lower weights.”
This Saturday night, Merchant will going back to his Philadelphia roots, where HBO will be televising a doubleheader featuring a heavyweight rematch between David Tua and Hasim Rahman. Also, on that card is the undisputed middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins, who takes on his WBC mandatory challenger Morrade Hakkar. Hopkins had one of the most interesting and ubiquitous paths in recent memory. His rise to the top, fueled by distrust, anger and paranoia, was capped off by his transcendent victory over Puerto Rican superstar Felix Trinidad on September 29th, 2001. 'The Executioner' cemented his reputation as not only as one of the games best pound-for-pound performers but one of the all-time great middleweights.
But since that point, his stock has fallen as if he was boxing's version of AOL-Time Warner. All the goodwill he had built up in unifying the middleweight division and raising his profile as one the sports true renegades and mavericks has been destroyed with his actions outside the ring. He would slander his former advisor Lou DiBella- who was instrumental in guiding Hopkins into Don King's middleweight tourney- and get sued for over $610,000 by DiBella. Then he would part ways with his long time trainer Bouie Fisher, which would bring about a breach of contract lawsuit against him from Fisher. And then there were multi-fight contracts with HBO and Showtime that he turned down, resulting in him fighting only once in 2002. A relatively meaningless defense against Carl Daniels. His descent has been as stunning as his ascension.
” I think the general feeling is that Bernard's squandered it or blew it after his great victory over Trinidad and the recognition as one of the great middleweights,” reflected Merchant, on Hopkins' career direction.” In stepping back, I think to myself, the kind of anger and rage that drove Bernard Hopkins to be as good as he can be, to fight the powers that be, to triumph over everybody, it's something that has to come so deep from within someone. That just because you finally showed that you were right, just because you have finally reached the top of the mountain, you can't just throw it away.
” And the appearance certainly is that, that same anger and rage has undermined his ability to fully capitlize on what he did and to maybe even enjoy it.”
It should be an interesting night, but just another day at the office for Merchant.