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Scott Ostler

Mercer Just May Be Sowing the Seeds for a High-Paying Career

September 29, 1988|Scott Ostler

SEOUL — Their nicknames should have been a tip-off to how this fight would go.

In this corner, the Towering Tulip, 6-7 Arnold Vanderlijde of the Netherlands, bronze medalist in the '84 Olympics. His nickname, given him by U.S. boxing writers, hasn't caught on yet in the Netherlands, but now it has a fighting chance.

In the other corner, the Two-Fisted Toe-Gunner, the pride of the U.S. Army Infantry, merciless Ray Mercer.

On paper, a classic boxer (Vanderlijde) vs. puncher matchup. On canvas, a piece of work as artful and evenly matched as chain saw vs. tree.

And now the Olympic Games, which spawned such eventual professional heavyweight champions as Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Patterson and the Spinks brothers, may be ready to send out another contender.

Mercer didn't exactly tiptoe through the Tulip Thursday in the heavyweight semifinals.

In the second round, he sent the Dutchman flying for two standing eight-counts, then Mercer launched Arnie toward the Han River with a running left hook.

"Something just told me 'Go get him,' just then," Mercer said. "I knew nothing he threw could hurt me.

"Every punch, I threw damn near as hard as I could. I was like a wild man, like a tiger."

No shrinking violet, Ray. He's 3-0 in the Olympics, not counting an unofficial decision over two South Korean soldiers who tried to stop him from parading around the arena waving an American flag before a teammate's bout against a Korean fighter last Monday. One soldier tried to trip Mercer, the other grabbed his arm. Mercer slipped both punches and danced away.

"All they (the soldiers) do is talk that little stuff," Mercer sniffs. "I just talk my little stuff and go on my way."

Right now he's on his way to becoming one of the discoveries of the '88 Olympics. He fights for the gold medal Saturday morning against Korean Baik Hyun Man, who has sideburns like Elvis and tends to wade into the fray like Mercer.

"We'll be in the center of the ring when we fight because I'm not backin' up," Mercer says.

Mercer is a guy making up for lost time. He's already 27 years old, 5 years older than Mike Tyson, and never boxed a round until he was 22.

He's one of those serendipity superstars, people who find their athletic speciality by accident.

Mercer is a soldier, son of a career soldier. True to soldier tradition, Ray first got into boxing in order to get out of hard work.

In the winter of '83, Ray's unit in Baumholder, West Germany, was packing up to go on a month-long field exercise. The camp super-heavyweight boxer needed a sparring partner, and the coach asked Mercer.

Ray said sure, he'd give it a shot as soon as he returned from the field. Do it now, the coach said, and you won't have to go into the field.

Mercer is a toe-gunner, an M-16-toting infantryman who rides the back of a missile-equipped armored personnel carrier.

"We would be sleeping in the snow, eating cold food," Mercer says. "I hate being cold. If I stayed and sparred, I'd sleep in a warm bed, eat hot chow and I'd get beat up a little."

Did he get beat up the first time?

"The first 2 months," Mercer says.

Then he started to beat up on the super-heavy, who quit. Mercer won his first 13 Army fights. He has taken two 1-year leaves of absence from his boxing career, so actually he has been fighting only 3 years, and has an 8-2 record in international competition, including his 3-0 here.

And he has no street experience, not having had a scuffle since high school, so this is a guy short on experience but long on confidence.

Mercer is easy to spot. He has a left front tooth made of gold, engraved with the letter "R." In workouts he wears a spiffy leather tie or a bow tie over his tank top, in keeping with his grooming motto: Look good, feel good, do good.

In the ring, Mercer is all confidence and aggression. Never gets butterflies before a match, never takes a backward step.

"I like chasing people," he says.

Thursday he got his chance. The Tulip likes to dance and jab, a scientific fighter. Mercer sent Vanderlijde back to his Bunsen burner with eager punches delivered on the run.

Mercer has the size (6-1 1/2, 200 pounds), the ill-tempered ring nature and the power to be considered a future heavyweight contender, maybe even a Mike Tyson challenger.

But Mercer doesn't care to talk about Tyson or his own future, other than to say he will not re-up when his enlistment ends in January.

Mercer still has one more fight here, and he is surprised even to be in Seoul, leading the U.S. charge into the gold-medal round.

"This time last year, I never expected to be here," Mercer says. "It seemed like a dream that was too far off. It didn't seem possible, but I took it one step at a time."

His final step before Seoul was to upset Michael Bent twice at the U.S. trials.

Mercer's main shortcoming, other than lack of experience, is lack of patience.

The coaches keep telling him to hold back, be patient, throw combinations. Ray listens and tries to do as he is told.

He knows the coaches are right, but sometimes he can't fight the feeling.

"I wanna just let the power go," Ray says.

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