Most boxing fans are familiar with the ancient chestnut, “As the heavyweights go, so goes boxing,” and it would be difficult to argue that the old saw bears some truth. The simple fact is that when there’s a talented and charismatic heavyweight champion at work, the sport tends to thrive, as it did when Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were the kings of the big men.
But in 1991 the heavyweight class was in a state of flux, with a vulnerable champion at the top and a mixed bag of contenders, prospects and ex-champions all vying for their chance to claim the crown. Until recently, Mike Tyson had been the most awesome heavyweight around, with knockouts over Trevor Berbick, Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs and Larry Holmes. His 91 second demolition of Michael Spinks was one of the biggest fights of recent boxing history and the young, undisputed champion appeared poised for super-stardom.
But in 1990, Tyson found himself on the bad end of the most shocking upset in sports history when he was stopped by unheralded James “Buster” Douglas, who in turn fell to former cruiserweight champ Evander Holyfield. Preparations were in full swing for a Tyson vs Holyfield showdown when “Iron Mike” was charged with rape and sent to prison. Holyfield defended his title belts against George Foreman, Bert Cooper and Larry Holmes, and while he won all three fights, he struggled at times and none of the victories served to establish him as a truly dominant figure.
Enter the World Boxing Organization. For reasons no one could adequately explain, the fledgling global sanctioning body, boxing’s fourth, had decided to invent itself and crown its own kings. It was the last thing boxing needed and the new alphabet group did nothing to help itself gain legitimacy when it declared Francisco Damiani of Italy their inaugural heavyweight champion. In January of 1991 Damiani defended his dubious title against former Olympic gold medalist Ray “Merciless” Mercer, who toppled the Italian in round nine with a single left hook to the nose.
Few, if any, regarded Mercer, now 17-0, as a legitimate world champion, but the win and the belt did solidify his credentials as one of the top aspirants for the real crown held by Holyfield, and it put him on par with another undefeated contender, Tommy Morrison. Nicknamed “The Duke” due to his claim of being a distant relative to famed Hollywood star John Wayne, Morrison was in fact rated higher than Mercer by most pundits. At 28-0 he had more fights, no fewer than 15 first round knockouts, plus quality wins over veteran contenders James Tillis and Pinklon Thomas. He had also starred with Sylvester Stallone in the latest “Rocky” movie and, if he kept winning, appeared on the verge of becoming a unique crossover star.
In any case, with or without the WBO title on the line, Mercer vs Morrison was an intriguing match-up between two of the world’s best heavyweights. Yes, Razor Ruddock, Tim Witherspoon and Foreman all had to be ranked higher than both men at the time, and Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe were at least as deserving, but even so, these were two of the division’s most formidable contenders. And their aggressive, hard-punching styles promised an excellent action tilt, and thus a big crowd of fight fans turned out to the Atlantic City Convention Center to watch.
And indeed, from the opening bell Mercer vs Morrison was an entertaining brawl, with Tommy starting fast and letting his hands go, clearly winning the opening round as he beat Mercer to the punch on several occasions. Two minutes in and a picture perfect uppercut-left hook combination stunned “Merciless” and he was nailed again by a hard right cross and a left to the body just before the bell. Round one to “The Duke.”
The second was more of the same as Morrison was the busier and stronger fighter. Mixing his punches well, he kept Mercer backing up and landed a series of heavy shots at round’s end, including another eye-catching uppercut and a heavy left hook to the jaw. Round three was even more emphatic; Mercer took a pounding in the first minute, which led to his bottom lip being split open, and he was in almost continual retreat. The match looked to be “The Duke’s” to lose.
But while Morrison had more wins and knockouts than Mercer, he had never before been past round six and in a fast-paced slugfest with an opponent strong enough to withstand his best shots, Tommy’s stamina, or lack thereof, proved the deciding factor. In the fourth “The Duke” started to tire and slow down just as Ray came alive, and suddenly it was Morrison who was taking heavy blows and holding on as Mercer seized control. At round’s end the Olympian raised his arms in a victory salute as he strode confidently back to his corner.
But if it was clear that Mercer now had the upper hand, that didn’t make the sudden conclusion any less shocking. Morrison came forward at the bell for round five, but his legs were weak and “Merciless” turned him with ease and trapped him in his own corner before blasting his quarry with a furious barrage. Some fifteen unanswered bombs detonated on “The Duke,” but at least half a dozen connected after it was obvious Morrison was out on his feet. Veteran referee Tony Perez was a tad tentative with the stoppage and the result was horrific, as a dazed Morrison, his muscular frame suddenly as soft as cookie dough, his arms at his sides, absorbed huge, flush punches at point-blank range from a frenzied Mercer. More than one of the final blows landed so hard that they prevented Tommy from falling, one pulverizing shot setting up the next, before finally, like a mafia hit man filling his victim full of lead, Mercer landed the coup de gras, an insurance left hook that slammed Morrison to the canvas with brutal emphasis.
Luckily for all, Morrison was not seriously hurt, but this was an unforgettable knockout ending, one that has left an indelible impression, a vivid warning of what can happen when a referee hesitates for a split second. Violent conclusion aside, it had been an action-packed heavyweight rumble, but it would prove to be less than decisive for either fighter. The WBO demanded that Mercer next defend his title against Michael Moorer, but he instead vacated the title to accept the more lucrative offer of a match with former champion Larry Holmes. Mercer lost to Larry by decision and then had to wait ten long years before he could try again for a championship. A clearly over-the-hill Mercer fell to Wladimir Klitschko in six rounds in 2002, but not before he had defeated Witherspoon and given Lennox Lewis one of his toughest battles.
Morrison actually rebounded impressively after this brutal knockout loss with eight straight stoppage wins before facing George Foreman for, you guessed it, the vacant WBO title. To the surprise of many, Tommy gave the best performance of his career against “Big George,” transcending his stamina issues to out-box his veteran opponent and win a 12 round decision. It was the high point of a rocky, up-and-down career, before crushing losses to Michael Bentt and Lennox Lewis, and then the sad decline and premature death of the fighter they called “The Duke.” — Robert Portis