Mercer defending WBO and his heavyweight title Unbeaten Morrison is foe in Atlantic City

October 17, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

Mention Evander Holyfield, and his title of undisputed heavyweight champion is sure to follow.

But one man who disputes this claim is Ray Mercer, reigning champion of the World Boxing Organization, who defends his obscure title against unbeaten Tommy Morrison at the Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center tomorrow night.

"In my my mind, I am the heavyweight champion of the world, and I have a belt to prove it," said Mercer, 30, a former Army sergeant who won the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics.

"I love this belt. We all have our dreams, and this is my first step to becoming undisputed champion. When I'm wearing all four belts, then what, will people ridicule the WBO?

"I agree, it would be better to have only one heavyweight champion, but who made the WBA, WBC and IBF belts what they are today? You don't put a label on the belt, you weigh the man who wears it. If Mike Tyson wore this WBO belt, I'm sure it would be worth millions. But I say, if you don't think this belt is worth anything, try taking it away from me. You'll have to be a monster and cut off my head before I'll give it up."

No one has ever questioned the courage and commitment of Mercer, who did not turn professional until he was 27 and discharged from the Army. His chances of success seemed unlikely because of his late start. Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson were world champions by 22.

But becoming a world champion fighting for million-dollar purses was not even a dream for Mercer in winter 1983, when he was stationed in Hanau, West Germany, and working in a motor pool.

His company was ready to leave for a month of maneuvers when a sergeant named Charles Holland interrupted Mercer, who was tuning a truck, and asked if he was interested in joining the battalion boxing team.

As Holland put it to Mercer: "You've got a choice of rolling around in the snow for a month or remaining on the base, being relieved of all duty and learning how to box."

Mercer chose boxing and soon learned that he and a super heavyweight, whose name he can't remember, represented the entire boxing team, and Mercer was the designated sparring partner.

"I got a busted lip that first day in the gym, and the first two months I was really pounded," Mercer said. "My first reaction was that I didn't like boxing. But it became a challenge. I've never been a quitter. I figured if this guy learned the moves, so could I."

In a matter of months, the teacher and student reversed roles. After winning 85 of 91 amateur bouts, Mercer found himself America's heavyweight hope in the 1988 Olympics.

His job was made all the more difficult by the hostile atmosphere for American boxers in Seoul, South Korea, where the judges seemed intent on righting the injustices done to Korean fighters at the Los Angeles Games four years earlier.

Mercer took it out of the officials' hands by knocking out all four of his Olympic foes, clinching the gold by knocking out Baik-Hyun Man of South Korea in the first round.

A plodding puncher, Mercer lacks the dazzling skills of Ali, the frightening power of Tyson or the athleticism of Holyfield.

As a professional, he has struggled to beat the likes of Ossie Ocasio, Jerry Jones and Kimmuel Odum. In his first title chance last January, he was being out-boxed and humbled by Francesco Damiani before landing a wicked uppercut in the ninth round that ended the Italian's brief reign as WBO champion.

Because his list of victims are mostly nondescript, Mercer still has his share of detractors. But he apparently is not the type who needs an entourage constantly reminding him how great he is.

"People are always jumping on and off the bandwagon," said Mercer, "but that way you find out who are the true believers. You see the people who have stuck with you from the beginning."

The Las Vegas oddsmakers also believe Mercer (17-0, 12 KOs) has yet to prove himself against a bona fide heavyweight, establishing Morrison as a 6-5 favorite.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Mercer will not disparage Morrison, the latest "White Hope."

"I don't even think along those lines," Mercer said. "I'm not a prejudiced person. I'm a military man who has traveled around the world and dealt with all kinds of people.

"The way I look at Morrison is that he's a terrific fighter. People respect and love him. And he's a movie star, too."

Mercer probably would not be the least bit jealous if Morrison, whose debut was "Rocky V," wins an Oscar one day. But if Morrison threatens to steal his WBO belt tomorrow night, there will be hell to pay.

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