ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Professional boxing always has thrived by matching men of different races and ethnic backgrounds. As former champion Muhammad Ali often said, "White plus black equals green for both fighters."
That is why white boxers, such as Jerry Quarry in the 1970s and Gerry Cooney in the 1980s, were able to reap fortunes that far outweighed their boxing skills. In unsuccessful title bouts against Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks, Cooney earned $25 million.
And now it is Tommy Morrison, 22, unbeaten (28-0, 24 knockouts) and barely tested, who is being touted by publicists. He fights World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Ray Mercer tonight in a 12-round bout at the Convention Center.
"I'm a white guy in a black sport," said Morrison, who gained attention by playing Tommy Gunn in "Rocky V." "I really forget about it until someone asks me about it. I'm simply competing in a sport that I love."
Born in Jay, Okla., Morrison got his start at 13, competing against truck drivers, town bullies and barroom bouncers in a "Toughman" tournament where age and weight discrepancies are meaningless andonly the brave need apply.
He lied about his age, borrowed the name James Randall White from his sister's boyfriend, and flashed a fake driver's license to prove that he was, at least, 16.
Memories of his first fight at a county fair still are vivid. "Here I was, 13, looking across the ring at a grown man who had hair on his back," he said. "I just tried to get out of there as quick as I could."
His natural and powerful left hook provided the wherewithal, and his father, who served as his manager, pocketed $300 that night. Three years and countless fairs later, he was recognized as king of the "Toughman."
Morrison accepted a football scholarship to Emporia (Kan.) State, but never played a down.
"I saw a chance to make the 1988 Olympic boxing team and forgot all about football," he said.
He reached the semifinals of the Olympic trials, losing a 4-1 decision to a more-seasoned Army champion -- and future goal )) medalist -- named Ray Mercer.
"I was coming straight from high school football, with only a dozen or so amateur bouts under my belt," Morrison said. "Mercer just kept sticking a jab in my face and got the decision.
"But that doesn't even count now. I don't think Mercer has really improved that much the past four years. . . . He's a one-dimensional fighter. I know his style, and it suits me perfectly."
Morrison, whose most notable victories are over James Tillis and former champion Pinklon Thomas, fought poorly in his most recent fight, six months ago against Yuri Vaulin.
"No one has to tell me how bad I was that night," said Morrison, who won in the fourth round. "But my legs were cramping, and I was a stationary target. I absorbed more punishment that night than in all my other 26 fights. But in this business, you're always learning."
Now Morrison, managed by Bill Cayton, is on the threshold of million-dollar matches against former heavyweight champions Holmes and George Foreman. A title showdown against the winner of Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson is distinctly possible by the spring of 1992.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "But this isn't the movies or fantasy land. First, I've got to beat Mercer, and then we'll weigh all the other offers."
Facts and figures
Who: Ray Mercer, Newark, N.J., vs. Tommy Morrison, Kansas City, Mo.
What: For Mercer's WBO heavyweight title, 12 rounds.
Main preliminary: Michael Carbajal, Phoenix, vs. Jesus Chong, Nogales, Mexico, 12 rounds, for Carbajal's IBF junior flyweight title.
Where: Atlantic City Convention Center
When: Tonight, first fight at 8
Promoter: Donald Trump
TV: TVKO, ordered through local cable channels, $19.95. First cable fight 10 p.m.