With less than 20 seconds gone in the fifth round of their World Boxing Organization heavyweight title fight last Friday night at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Ray Mercer and Tommy Morrison came to a parting of the ways. Until that moment, both had been brothers in an extremely select fraternity: promising heavyweights. But then Mercer caught Morrison—who for the first three rounds had stung Mercer with fast, crisp combinations—with a solid counter right.
The punch drove Morrison to a corner, where Mercer unleashed a thunderous assault. Caught in the storm of punches, Morrison sagged, suddenly helpless. A crashing hook sent him reeling into the ropes, and he seemed to hang there for a second, slack-jawed, the life gone from his face. Mercer then connected with four more vicious rights and a final left, like an angry man working on a side of beef.
Referee Tony Perez stopped the fight at 28 seconds of the round, dangerously late, as Morrison, now no longer a promising heavyweight, just a frighteningly battered young man, toppled forward. He landed facedown, his left arm hooked over one of the ropes. Mercer turned and ran across the ring into the arms of his cornermen—and into a markedly brighter future.
"Now we want Holyfield, so we can have all the belts," said an elated Mercer after the bout. Such ambitious plans may have to wait awhile, especially given the postponement of the Nov. 8 Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson fight (page 26), announced two hours before Mercer and Morrison entered the ring. Still, Mercer had made his point. In less than 13 minutes of work, he had established himself as a genuine heavyweight contender. He had also, in raw and brutal fashion, exposed Morrison as being what many boxing observers had suspected him of being: an inexperienced, limited fighter.
The bout was a rarity in today's boxing world—a matchup of two developing, undefeated heavyweights. Although some wags were calling it "a great fight between two guys who can't," it was plain that Mercer and Morrison both had a lot to lose. In an era when most contenders are content to spend their time knocking over cardboard-cutout opponents while waiting to land a title fight, this was a true elimination match. The winner would probably take his place on the short list of boxers who deserve a crack at either Holyfield or Tyson and at the accompanying seven-figure purses. The loser was headed for ESPN and the undercard circuit.
There was no clear favorite going into the bout. Both men were widely viewed as awkward, ineffective boxers, but both were also considered heavy punchers. The perception of parity rankled Mercer. The 1988 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist, Mercer came into the Morrison fight with 12 knockouts in his 17 professional victories. He was also the WBO champion. Of course, Mercer had no illusions; as boxing titles go, the WBO belt makes a good paperweight. However, he felt that he had proved himself already, particularly in his 1990 wars against Kimmuel Odum and Bert Cooper and in his come-from-behind, one-punch knockout last January of Francesco Damiani, the fight in which he had won the WBO crown.
Last Thursday morning, Mercer sat in a darkened hotel room in Atlantic City and kicked at a half dozen boxing magazines lying on the carpet. "What do I have to do to get some recognition, some respect?" he asked.
His critics had maintained that the 30-year-old Mercer, who's a former Army sergeant, indeed deserved respect, but for only one thing: He can absorb a lot of punishment. The line on Mercer was that he had heart and not much else, and that he was too slow and too inexperienced to challenge Tyson or Holyfield—men whose likenesses grace the covers of those boxing magazines. Sitting in his room, the curtains drawn against a driving rain, Mercer acknowledged that Morrison represented his best chance yet to establish himself. He did not intend to waste it. "I can't afford a setback now," said Mercer. "But then, I never could."
For his part, Morrison was blessed with fast hands and a natural left hook, but he had built his 28-0 record against no-names and trial horses. He also had lost to Mercer, as an amateur in the '88 Olympic trials. Nonetheless, the 22-year-old Morrison was the draw of the promotion.
Morrison, who claims to be a grandnephew of John Wayne and whose nickname is, naturally, the Duke, had been carefully marketed by his co-managers, John Brown and Bill Cayton. A former high school football player and an aspiring actor, Morrison, who's from Oklahoma, had a prominent role in Rocky V, which was released last year. In a real stretch, he played a young boxer from Oklahoma named Tommy.
Along with his movie-star label, Morrison had been tagged as the latest Great White Hope. It was one characterization he didn't want. "First, it's racist," said Morrison before the bout. "Second, most White Hopes never make it."
In the first three rounds against Mercer, Morrison, Rocky-ripped at 221¾ pounds, looked as if he might make it. He was dominating the champion by setting a fast pace and landing precise, whistling combinations. Seemingly befuddled, Mercer did little punching. "He hit me harder than I've ever been hit," said Mercer, who appeared to be overweight at 225 pounds.
By Round 4, though, Mercer began to assert himself, and Morrison—who even when he was connecting looked to be tense and anxious—began to tire dramatically. A minute into the round, Mercer landed a solid right and a series of hooks. By the two-minute mark, Morrison was hanging on and gasping.
"You're pressing," said Tommy Virgets, Morrison's trainer, in the corner after the fourth. "Relax. You're too tight."
Mercer opened Round 5 on his toes, circling backward as Morrison, far from recovered and still far from relaxed, pursued and tried to punch. Then came the counter right and the attack that separated Morrison from his senses and his future. Despite promoter Bob Arum's post-fight statement that Mercer is ready to step in for Tyson against Holyfield on Nov. 8, Mercer's next bout will most likely be on Feb. 7 against 41-year-old former champ Larry Holmes, who has won four bouts in his recent comeback. Mercer stands to earn more than $1 million for that fight.
After being examined by three doctors in his dressing room, Morrison was pronounced fine. Indeed, he even hit the Boardwalk later that night with a group of his Kansas City buddies. Meanwhile, Brown promised that his fighter would be back, better than ever. "We'll go back to the gym," said Brown. "There will be a rebuilding process to give Tommy back his confidence."
Morrison may be back, but after Friday night he will never be the same. Neither will Mercer.