After 18 years, two of the great heavyweight gladiators of the 1990s are set to do it again. Almost. In Feburary 2013, Evander Holyfield will fight a four-round exhibition bout with Ray Mercer. The bout has zero impact on the heavyweight title picture, because while Holyfield stopped Brian Nielsen as recently as May 2011, Mercer has not fought since 2008. Even so, the bout should entertain nostalgic South African boxing fans, and serve as a reminder of what a truly exciting heavyweight bout really is, because Holyfield vs. Mercer I was one of the best non-title heavyweight fights of the late 20th Century.
Holyfield vs. Mercer I: Career Crossroads
When Evander Holyfield decided to make a comeback, he did not take the easy route. Following his close Majority Decision loss to Michael Moorer in 1994, the Real Deal was diagnosed with noncompliant left ventricle, which later turned out to be a misdiagnosis due to complications from the treatment he was receiving for a bruised kidney at the time. Not just any fight would suffice to prove himself to his critics and doubters, so Holyfield went straight for the toughest guy available, Merciless Ray Mercer.
A 1988 Olympic gold medalist, Ray Mercer was in need of a career revival himself, having suffered embarrassing losses to Larry Holmes and (especially) Jesse Ferguson after his explosive knockout victory over Tommy Morrison. Everyone considered Mercer dangerous, but his career was in limbo, so nobody wanted to fight him. No one except Evander Holyfield.
The result was a brutal Atlantic City classic. Mercer outweighed him by 15 lbs, had the division’s toughest chin, and one of its hardest sets of punches, but none of that intimidated Holyfield, who carried the fight to Ray. Mercer cut Holyfield on the eyebrow in the 6th, and the only thing the damage earned Mercer was redoubled efforts from the Real Deal. Holyfield walked down and battered Mercer for the entire second half of the fight, sweeping all four of the remaining rounds.
Mercer fought back gamely, but it wasn’t enough to stop Holyfield from landing a wicked left hook to the body that dropped the rugged Mercer. It was the first time Mercer had ever been floored, and the only time it would happen during the prime of his career. Holyfield won a clear Unanimous Decision.
Strangely, the win did little for Evander Holyfield’s career. The critics continued to deride him as a used-up, blown-up cruiserweight, which played a large part in securing a fight with Mike Tyson a year and a half later. The pundits stopped mocking Holyfield after that, and the rest is history.
Ray Mercer ironically prospered after absorbing a beating from Holyfield, at least for a while. A year later, he gave Lennox Lewis that hardest fight of Lewis’s entire career in a non-title bout televised on HBO, and followed that up with a win over the dangerous, much-avoided Tim Witherspoon. Mercer’s career stalled after that, as Lewis was the Undisputed World Champion and refused to risk a rematch with him, leaving him in limbo again. Time took its toll, and Mercer slipped down into gatekeeper status.