Over the past year, during this pandemic-disrupted time, I’ve occupied many idle hours reviewing past bouts, including a number of HBO Boxing After Dark broadcasts from the late ’90s, and interesting it is to hear commentators of the time complain how the heavyweights of the day were so inconsistent, even talentless. Ironically, today it’s generally accepted that the 1990s were in fact something of a golden decade for the heavyweight division, with names like Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Michael Moorer, Tommy Morrison and a resurgent George Foreman all in the mix. But it can be difficult to appreciate an era when it’s happening, while it’s always easy to negatively compare the present with a rose-colored memory of the past. The grass is always greener and all that.
That said, there are always great match-ups, in any era, that could and should have happened, and I was reminded of this when re-visiting an HBO telecast from May 30th, 1998, which saw Chris Byrd win a one-sided decision over Eliecer Castillo. Following the bout, Jim Lampley asked Larry Merchant what contenders would make a good match with the up-and-coming Byrd, and Merchant responded with the name of Ray Mercer. It never materialized, but the more I think about it, the more I’m certain Byrd vs Mercer would have been an intriguing and significant crossroads fight. What might have transpired had “Rapid Fire” and “Merciless” Mercer collided later that year?
Mercer had given fans an exciting run just a couple years before Merchant speculated on a Byrd vs Mercer match-up, battling on even terms with a trio of top big men in three consecutive outings. He narrowly lost decisions to Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, before out-pointing a still-serviceable Tim Witherspoon. However, a subsequent training injury sidelined him for months, and in 1998 he contracted Hepatitis B, all of this resulting in him not having another match of significance until 2002, when he was little more than cannon fodder for title-holder Wladimir Klitschko.
Mercer was something of a late bloomer, having started boxing at age 23 while serving in the U.S. Army. He turned pro at 27, and was quickly put in with the sharks, taking on the likes of Bert Cooper and Francesco Damiani before the end of his second full year, and blew away Tommy Morrison during his third. No time wasted for the former Army sergeant. By the time he lost his close battle with Lewis, he was already 35, but seemed to still have plenty left in the tank. At the point of our hypothetical match, Ray would be 37, compared with 28 for Chris Byrd. It’s possible the veteran might be a little shopworn after that tough mid ’90s run, but I wager a virus-free Mercer would have looked closer to his prime in late ’98 against Byrd than he did four years later against a giant Ukrainian in Atlantic City.
Chris Byrd had been the busier of the two, but he was only just exiting the prospect stage of his career. He hadn’t faced anyone remotely like Mercer at that point. The most accomplished foe on Byrd’s resume in mid-1998 was probably Jimmy Thunder, or a washed version of Bert Cooper, fighters who were certainly decent fringe contenders, but a far cry from a man who had recently gone twenty competitive rounds with a pair of future Hall-of-Famers.
Ray was strong, powerful, and durable. He had an excellent jab, and could be tenacious when dialed in. His chin was one of the best in the business, and as of 1998, he had not yet been down in his career from a punch to the head. He was capable of applying intelligent pressure to capable foes, working behind a stiff jab, and following up with devastating rights. He could work the body, and at his best, could more than hold his own against legit greats such as Lewis and Holyfield.
Of course, it has to be noted that Ray didn’t always show up at his best, and he mixed in some lousy showings with his great performances. He drew with sub-.500 journeyman Marion Wilson immediately prior to the Holyfield fight, and he lost out on a big money showdown with then-champion Riddick Bowe when he was comprehensively out-boxed by fringe contender Jesse Ferguson in 1993. That bout led to legal trouble, as Ray was accused of attempting to bribe Ferguson during the fight. He was eventually acquitted of the charge, but the entire incident looked terrible, and certainly didn’t help the general perception of Mercer’s abilities.
When analyzing a Byrd vs Mercer clash, my first thought is that a focused “Rapid Fire” should clearly out-box Mercer, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. Byrd certainly has some advantages, but he would also be facing someone whom many observers believed had beaten Lennox Lewis a couple years prior. Byrd was of course quite elusive and quick, but he could be touched up by a good jab, and I have doubts he had the power to hold off someone like Mercer for ten or twelve rounds. Chris was also tough, and stronger than people realized. He could take a punch, and he often surprised larger opponents who tried to push him around in the clinch. But he wouldn’t be the stronger man in this fight.
If the version of Mercer that gave Lewis and Holyfield hell showed up, I think Byrd might be in for a long night. I can see Ray pushing Byrd to the ropes and roughing him up, especially during the early rounds. Mercer, as noted earlier, is nine years older than Byrd, and again, had been through some wars at that point and he sometimes looked terrible against people like Ferguson, or the ghost of Larry Holmes. A fighter that wouldn’t just stand in front of him and trade could frustrate him, and he did fade late in some fights. Swinging and missing against a slippery foe like Byrd would not help his endurance.
After giving the matter some serious thought, I think the 1998 version of Byrd would likely have edged out a close decision. It would have been a big step up for him, but “Rapid Fire” was in his physical prime and possessed a rare combination of quickness, agility, durability, and even a surprising mean streak, that made him a headache for almost anyone in the division. The prime version of Byrd only lost when he was massively overpowered by much bigger men with elite skill sets. I don’t think Ray Mercer quite fits into that category, despite his size advantage and earlier successes.
But I do believe that Mercer would have showed up motivated, and after falling behind initially, would force Byrd into a situation he had yet to confront in his career. I see “Merciless” taking over in the middle rounds after he starts timing Byrd’s speed, pushing him to the ropes with a solid jab, and landing some body shots up close. But he would miss quite a bit as well, and I can also see Ray tiring late as Byrd grits out a decision by a round or two.
It would have been a gut check for the future conqueror of Vitali Klitschko, and another near miss for the older man. And I think a motivated Mercer definitely could have made it a fun bout for the fans, maybe even a borderline classic, if both men showed up at their absolute best. Then again, it’s also possible Mercer shows up out of shape and disinterested, and loses a lopsided decision. And hopefully the HBO microphones don’t pick up him trying to bribe Byrd before the final bell. — Hunter Breckenridge