Thirty-two years after he captured an Olympic gold medal, “Merciless” Ray Mercer fondly remembers his Olympic experience like it was last month. Mercer, who is the only American heavyweight champion to knock out all of his Olympic opponents, went on to become world heavyweight champion as a professional for our “heavyweight double.”
For Mercer, it all started in Germany, where his U.S. Army unit was based. Offered a chance to avoid a 30-day field exercise, Mercer accepted an offer to serve as a sparring partner for the post’s heavyweight boxing champion. Despite never having put on a pair of gloves before, Mercer was a quick learner who was naturally strong, and he rapidly developed into the 1985 U.S. Army and Inter-service heavyweight champion.
The World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), in which qualified athletes have an opportunity to train fulltime for the Olympics, didn’t exist back then, nor the Olympic qualifier rules of today. Mercer defeated future world heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison in the opening round of the 1988 Olympic Trials and another future world heavyweight titlist, Michael Bentt (5-0) in the championship final. At the 1988 USA Olympic Box-offs at famed Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Mercer won a split decision (3-2) over Bentt, but Mercer had already qualified to fight in the Olympic Games by being the U.S. Armed Forces champion.
“When I was in the Army, I had to win in the service, maintain things, and go to the next step,” Mercer remembered. “I had to beat some good fighters on my way to the Olympics, and I was in the best shape of my life. There was more discipline in the amateurs than the professional ranks. The final year before the Olympics, I left my home unit, traveled a lot to fight, and stayed in my trainer’s house instead of living in the barracks.
Mercer made history at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when he became and remains the only Olympic heavyweight champion from the United States to knockout all four of his opponents: Rudolf Gavenciak (Czechoslovakia – RSC3), Luigi Gaudiano (Italy – KO1), Arnond Vasnderlyde (Netherlands – RSC2) and Baik Hyun-Man (South Korean – KO1).
“I knew I had to knockout the South Korean in the final,” Mercer admitted. “I just wanted to do what I could to be the Olympic gold medalist. I don’t think I used a jab.
“Winning the Olympic gold medal resulted in some big-time changes for me. I became a celebrity, a household name, and it allowed me to make money as a professional. The best thing that ever happened to me was winning the Olympic gold medal, even more than winning the world title as a pro. Nothing compared to becoming an Olympic gold medalist. I accomplished my dream. I had never dreamed of going pro, until after I won the gold medal.
“It was really important to win that gold medal. I fought with my heart; no money was involved, celebrated so hard that night (after winning the gold medal) that I lost my medal for a few hours. My dream had come true, my hands were shaking, and I lost my medal. What a night!”
Mercer offers members of the 2020 USA Boxing Olympic Qualification Team one bit of advice, “Keep fighting, follow your dream and take that last step.”
Mercer, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida, made his much-anticipated pro debut in 1989, stopping Jesse McGhee in the third round of their fight in Atlantic City. “Merciless” won his first 18 pro fights, including a ninth-round knockout of Francisco Damiani, followed by a successful defense against Morrison, who was stopped in the fifth round.
During his 19-year pro career, Mercer compiled a 36-7-1 (26 KOs) record, defeating four world champions in Damiani, Morrison, Tim Witherspoon and Ossie Ocasio. Five of his eight career losses were to world champions: Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield and Shannon Briggs.
Mercer’s outstanding amateur boxing career also included a classic match-up against Cuban great and three-time Olympic gold medalist, Felix Savon, at USA vs. Cuba dual match, in which Mercer twice staggered Savon, who survived without suffering additional damage only because the Cuban referee made a questionable intervention that gave his fellow countryman time to recover and a controversial 2-1 victory.
“And he gave me a standing eight-count for no reason,” Mercer added. “I beat that guy and he knows it. We’re still in touch even though he doesn’t speak English. He has a friend translate and we’re in touch on Facebook. We like each other.”
Today, Mercer is founding a charity at home in North Carolina, which will include free boxing clinics, but, more importantly, give back to the community and teach youths, especially those who are bullied, the skills they’ll need to go out into the real world.
Ray Mercer has reached the zenith twice in boxing as an Olympic gold medalist and world heavyweight champion as a professional. Not too shabby for somebody who never really wanted to box.
“Boxing saved my life,” Mercer concluded. “I can’t imagine my life without boxing, it certainly wouldn’t be the same.