Ray Mercer steps back into the ring Friday night for his ten-rounder on Showtime pay-per-view. But there is another battle weighing heavily on his mind. This one is taking place thousands of miles away and his brethren – not of the pugilistic variety – are coming home in body bags.
Ray Mercer, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who was stationed in West Germany in the mid-1980s, is worried about the soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frankly, the man who has never shied away from an opponent in the ring, has seen enough of the fighting.
“War is never a good thing, people are going to die,” said Mercer. “I hate to see what is happening over there.”
Mercer was the inter-service heavyweight champion and one of three U.S. Army gold medalists on the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team. While he remains patriotic and stopped short of denouncing the war effort, he’d like to see the troops begin to pull out of harm’s way.
“I know that fighting terrorism is something that has to be done,” he said. “But over there, our troops are fighting blind. They don’t know who is attacking them. They don’t when they are going to be attacked. That’s why there are casualties. It is almost as if they are in a no-win situation. I think we should make fighting terrorism at home more of a priority. We need to defend our country first. We have our troops over there, but the terrorists could be here.”
Mercer, 44, is a 16-year veteran in the punch-for-pay ranks. He climbs into the ring against Shannon Briggs this week after enduring a career full of peaks and valleys. Among the peaks are the Olympic championship and a brief reign as WBO heavyweight king in 1991. On the down side, he has been on the wrong side of some very close decisions, was prosecuted in New York (and acquitted) for sports bribery stemming from his first bout with Jesse Ferguson, was sidelined due to Hepatitis B and even tried his hand at K-1 kickboxing.
Although he has fought sporadically over the last three years – fighting just twice since November of 2003 – he is back to boxing fulltime. In his last bout, in June, he decisioned Darrol Wilson, the same man who upset Briggs via knockout on HBO in 1996.
“I feel good,” said Mercer. “I’m ready to fight. I feel like I’m 24 again. I know he is coming to fight because everyone who fights Ray Mercer fights hard. So this will be no different.”
Mercer insists he is not still fighting because of the money. “I still have everything I bought. I still own everything I bought. My family is fine, my children are fine. I want to fight because this is a business. The problem is, they want you to fight everyone, but they don’t want to pay you. But I’m on the same page with my manager, Matt Howard. He’s getting me fights.”
Mercer, 34-5-1, is known for a gutsy, granite-chinned style that made him a fan-favorite in the early 1990s. He also has enough power to turn a fight instantly. He knocked out all four of his opponents en route to the gold medal and in the pros, his knockouts of Francesco Damiani and Tommy Morrison were spectacular.
The Morrison fight was Mercer’s breakout victory. He decimated the previously unbeaten co-star of Rocky V with such a savage fury that he appeared to be the second coming of Mike Tyson. The photographs of Morrison’s distorted face – reminiscient of Jersey Joe Walcott – were a brutal reminder of Mercer’s punching ability.
His resume includes fights against Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, both of which Mercer lost close decisions. He has beaten Bert Cooper in a classic brawl but was outwitted by Larry Holmes. He also beat former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon.
It was the loss to the 42-year-old Holmes, though, that seemed to derail Mercer’s career. It was four months after the Morrison fight and while he staggered Holmes badly in the first round, the former heavyweight champion out-slicked Mercer the rest of the way. His combination of guile, guts and a stunning overhand right were enough for a unanimous decision. It was Mercer’s first career loss. He never won another major fight again.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “The one fight I’d like back is the Klitschko fight. I got caught in that fight. I was caught with a good punch and he got me. But I’d love to have that one back.”
Mercer was stopped in the sixth round by Wladimir Klitschko in 2002. Another rematch he’d love to have is Holyfield.
“I thought I won six rounds of that fight, but that’s boxing politics,” he said.
When asked about Holyfield being suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission, Mercer said, “I think that’s wrong. A man should not be denied to make a living in the United States. If he passes his physical, he should be allowed to fight. I think the commissioner in New York is just out to make a name for himself. Holyfield served boxing well. He fought with dignity. There are guys with 20 career losses still fighting.”
Earlier on the press tour to promote the fight, Briggs hurled insults at Mercer and the two nearly came to blows in New York City.
“To me, this is a business,” said Mercer. “To him, it’s personal. Stuff like that can throw a fighter off his game. It doesn’t bother me. I’m ready to fight. Shannon will find that out inside the ring. He says I’m jealous. I won a gold medal, I held the title. He never held the title. What has he done? I’ve accomplished a lot more than he has.”
Mercer won’t speculate about boxing beyond Friday night. But he was clear that should he emerge victorious, he’d be looking in the direction of Klitschko and or Holyfield.
“There is money in those fights,” he said, “and this is a business.”