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Jeff ‘Candy Slim’ Merritt: A Fighter’s Life (Part Three of a Three Part Series)

Steve Compton

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Note: When we left Jeff Merritt, he was basking in the glow of his 16th straight victory, having just blasted out Ron Stander on a show in Cleveland promoted by Don King.

After a short rest Merritt was scheduled to face Henry Clark in a rematch of their August 1969 fight. Don King had negotiated a career high purse for Merritt of $10,000 but it would prove a monumental blunder of matchmaking. The Clark fight was scheduled for March 1974. Also scheduled for March 1974 was heavyweight champion George Foreman’s anticipated title defense against Ken Norton. Clark had been acting as Foreman’s chief sparring partner. In Foreman, Clark couldn’t have found better preparation for Merritt. Like Merritt, Foreman was a tall power puncher who often walked in with his hands low, winging punches. Unlike Merritt, Foreman was incredibly strong and much more durable. Clark made much of the fact that he had been a short notice replacement in his first fight with Merritt and that now, in the best shape of his life, he was prepared to get revenge.

Merritt was unfazed by Clark’s tough talk. “He’d have to run up every hill in Oakland and chop down every tree in California and he still won’t beat me.” Merritt likewise had the best preparation for Clark. Clark had always been compared to a poor man’s Muhammad Ali and to prepare for Clark Merritt traveled to Muhammad Ali’s Deer Lake training camp to spar with the genuine article. If Merritt could beat Clark he was expected to have a place of honor on the undercard of Foreman-Norton against either Oscar Bonavena or Jose Luis Garcia but there were hints that he was taking the fight less than seriously.

Larry Holmes, interviewed for this story, stated that Merritt smoked marijuana and began hanging out with the wrong people. In his book he claimed Merritt also drank cough syrup to get high. “I thought the guy could have been champion of the world but he blew it all by hanging out with the wrong people. But you know that’s how it goes. There are a lot of those guys in the sport. He did drugs and I didn’t want any part of that. That’s not Larry Holmes. I figured with what he was in to he was either going to wind up getting shot and killed or die of an overdose.” Earnie Shavers echoed these sentiments. “Jeff was a nice guy but didn’t take care of himself like he should. He was his own worst enemy. Jeff didn’t do right and abused his body.”

In an interview just prior to the Clark fight Don King hinted at these issues as well. “He will be the next heavyweight champion if he keeps his head on straight. He’s his own worst enemy. If he goes astray along the way it will be his own fault.”

The extent that Merritt abused himself prior to Clark is hard to determine. In interviews just prior to the fight he looks healthy, strong, confident, and formidable. Whatever the case, he ran into a buzz saw against Clark. True to his prefight boasting Clark was as prepared for Merritt as he was for any fighter he ever fought. Less than twenty seconds after the bell opened the fight he came over Merritt’s low guard with a left hook that sent Merritt reeling back into his own corner. Clark followed and showered him with punches dropping Candy Slim. Merritt struggled to his feet, dazed and confused, looking awkwardly over his right shoulder at nobody in particular. As Clark moved in Merritt lazily circled but was buzzed with a quick, grazing hook and then sent flying backwards by a pinpoint right hand fired right down the middle and landing squarely on the point of the chin. Merritt landed flat on his back and immediately the contest was waved off. He struggled to his feet and staggered around as he was pointed back to his corner. When he was finally capable of grasping what had happened he looked around in stunned disbelief. For all intents and purposes Merritt’s career was over with this defeat.

In the past six months Merritt had finally cracked the lowest rung of the top ten rankings and in the blink of an eye it was over. It was a stunning blow for Don King as well. Three months earlier his other marquee heavyweight, Earnie Shavers, had similarly been blasted out of contention via a first round knockout courtesy of Jerry Quarry. Undaunted, King was already barreling forward with plans to stage a monumental promotion in the unlikely setting of Zaire between champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. While King focused on his “Rumble in the Jungle” he had little time for anything else. As Jeff stewed about the loss to Clark and grew frustrated by King’s lack of attention he fell back into his old habits and one again found himself at odds with the law.

Two weeks before Ali defeated George Foreman in their historic Zaire showdown Merritt was arrested and charged with several crimes. In October Merritt returned to his native Kansas City to visit his family. While riding in a car he was pulled over and taken into custody for questioning. Earlier a group of men had knocked down the door of a home and held a couple at gunpoint while they stole a television, a gun, a watch, and $13. Jeff denied he had been involved but the car he was found in was identified as the getaway vehicle and the gun used in the robbery was found in the car. Merritt, hard to miss at six foot five inches, was picked out of a lineup by the victims.

While in custody Merritt was implicated in the robbery of a craps game that took place on October 16. It was alleged that Merritt had beaten and robbed Otis Myrick and Raymond Medellin of cash and valuables totaling nearly $600. Initially Jeff tried to deny involvement in the armed robbery or that he had taken any money from Myrick or Medellin yet under questioning he admitted his involvement and on the advice of his attorney pleaded guilty to both crimes in the hope of leniency and a shorter sentence. On February 19, 1975 he was sentenced to two terms of five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary to be served concurrently with the seven year sentence he had recently been given for the armed robbery. Jeff Merritt’s life had now come full circle.

Much has been written about Don King’s treatment of Merritt but it’s hard to figure how much more King could have done for Merritt or his career. When he initially took over Merritt’s contract Jeff was a junkie, recently released from jail, and considered such a problem that no other manager wanted anything to do with him. King took Merritt on and turned his career around. In a matter of months he got Merritt his two biggest fights, a top ten ranking, and the best publicity of his career. A manager can only do so much. A fighter has to train and win. Merritt squandered his position by getting knocked out by the light hitting Clark, hanging out with the wrong people, and ultimately winding up back in prison.

When Merritt was paroled just over a year and half after re-entering prison he was ready to get back into the mix. Once again Don King was there. He immediately got Merritt a nationally televised fight on the undercard of George Foreman’s showdown against Scott LeDoux. Merritt would be facing Sacramento prospect Stan Ward. It seemed like King had pitched Merritt a softball. Ward had just five wins to his name and it was hoped that if Merritt could score one of his vintage knockouts he would be matched with Foreman for a career high payday. It was a remarkable opportunity for a fighter who hadn’t fought in two and a half years coming off a devastating one round knockout loss and recently released from prison. There would have been a long line of fighters begging for just such a showcase but King gave the opportunity to Merritt. It’s hard to reconcile that with the idea that King somehow mismanaged Merritt.

As stated above, a manager can only do so much for his fighter. A fighter has to win to keep the paydays coming. Merritt looked to be well on his way to winning in the first round when he shut Ward’s right eye with a series of left hooks and seemed to be having things his own way. But Ward proceeded to hang tough and in the third round clipped Merritt with a right hand that dropped him. After Merritt was dropped again the fight was halted to save Merritt from serious injury. It was Candy Slim’s last chance to carve out a place in boxing history and thereafter he would fade into obscurity.

The following spring Merritt would be picked up on a parole violation. He had slipped back into heroin addiction and was now enrolled in a methadone program. Five months later he was arrested for the attempted murder of Jimmy Ward. Jeff had shot Ward five times outside of a Cleveland nightclub. He was charged with murder, pleaded self-defense and the following June was acquitted. The day after his acquittal he was once again arrested for parole violation and sent back to Missouri to serve his sentence. The next three years were a haze of drugs and multiple prison sentences stemming from parole violations. In 1982 he briefly returned to the ring long enough to knock out Memphis Al Jones. The fight was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a rambling nightclub that specialized in country music. The main event featured Merritt’s old stable-mate Earnie Shavers, like Merritt trying to recapture past glory.

In the late seventies or early eighties Jeff’s mother had moved out to California to be closer to Jeff’s half brother Kenneth. About 1981 she relocated to Las Vegas where most of the family eventually joined her, Jeff included. His family hoped that the move would help Jeff but drugs continued to control his life. He robbed and stole to support his habit. It has been written that Jeff would appear at major boxing events in Las Vegas, homeless and begging for money. This is only part true. Jeff wasn’t homeless, although his addiction may have given him that appearance at times, but he did go to the fights and panhandle often trying to hook up with Don King for a handout. On occasion King would find him and give him some money but usually he was just a sad reminder of the ravages of drug abuse.

Numerous arrests and convictions followed over the years. In 1998 when he was sentenced to prison for the last time he was listed as a habitual criminal. The years of hard living and drug abuse had taken their toll on his once formidable body and while in prison he suffered a stroke that resulted in partial paralysis. He was given early release and spent the remainder of his days confined to a wheel chair, living on disability, and being cared for by his sister Patricia before he passed away June 1, 2014.

Merritt’s legend has only grown over the years, fueled by the early promise he exhibited and the occasional tantalizing mention he gets in passing by men like Muhammad Ali, Earnie Shavers, and Larry Holmes. Jack Newfield was largely responsible for writing the modern narrative of Jeff Merritt’s career in his expose of Don King, painting Merritt as the victim of King’s malevolence. Despite Merritt’s relatively meager accomplishments inside the ring he has become one of boxing’s greatest what-if stories. According to Shavers, Merritt “could have been champion for a thousand years if he had taken care of himself.” But Jeff didn’t take care of himself and rather than a what-if story he serves as a cautionary tale for young fighters. Jeff used his ability in the ring to create multiple opportunities for himself and invariably he squandered them each time, choosing instead to live in the moment and not for the future. A quick fix was more attractive than three months of training. A night on the town was easier than thirty minutes in the ring. His contemporaries Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes have both settled into a comfortable life in their declining years while Merritt, who chose a less Spartan path, had a considerably more difficult life after boxing. In the end the man who may have had more potential than both of them remains a fascinating footnote for fans of boxing to ponder.

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Chris Arreola is Back!

Ted Sares

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Chris Arreola

Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola is an emotional and very likable guy. Over the course of his career, there have been ups and downs providing the grist for a compelling story if one were inclined to write it. He’ll kiss a beaten opponent (Joey Abell) or cry if beaten (Vitali Klitschko) and his language during a post-fight interview is, well it’s special.

After his corner stopped the fight following the 10th round with Klitschko, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he thanked the fans (as is his wont) and later, while being interviewed in the ring, said  “F–k that, I’m coming back.”

It was his first loss after 26 straight wins out of the professional gate. For that “terrible” indiscretion, he was punished by the selectively politically correct World Boxing Council. WBC president José Sulaimán proposed a six months ban for vulgar language and the ban was approved by the WBC Board of Governors.

Arreola, who rarely uses filters, was brutally candid again after his first round KO over Erik Molina in 2012. The Nightmare cut loose on Don King, Molina’s promoter, calling him a “f—ing a–hole and a racist,” causing Showtime’s Jim Gray to  terminate the post-fight interview forthwith. “Honestly Don King called me a wetback, and other Mexicans,” Arreola told Fightnews.com. “That’s a strong word. It’s like me dropping N bombs. You don’t say things like that.”

No ban this time.

Arreola’s weight varies but when he is fit and ready (and under 250), he is a very dangerous heavyweight, especially in the early rounds. Once he has his opponent hurt, there are few boxers who can close as well as this Southern California Mexican American tough guy who was an accomplished amateur fighter and knows his way around the ring.

His level of opposition has been stiff. In fact, his five losses have been to fighters who have held world titles at one time or another. Bermane Stiverne had Chris’s number and beat him twice—the second time by way of a nasty knockout. However, he has a number of solid wins over the likes of Malcom Tann, Chazz Witherspoon, Travis Walker, Jameel McCline, Brian Minto, Curtis Harper –yes, that Curtis Harper who gave Chris all he could handle — and many others who came in with fine records. His first round blowout of once promising Seth Mitchell was quintessential Arreola. Mitchell retired after the fight.

In July 2016, The Nightmare was stopped by Deontay Wilder in yet another title bid but he did not disgrace himself. He then took off for over two years to assess whether he wanted to continue. Boxing fans pretty much forgot about him. Few took notice when he came back to stop the very stoppable Maurenzo Smith on the Wilder-Fury undercard on Dec. 1 of last year.

Fast Forward

Last weekend, on the undercard of the huge Errol Spence Jr. vs. Mikey Garcia PPV fight in Dallas, “The Nightmare” was matched against unbeaten but unheralded Jean Pierre Augustin (17-0-1).

Chris, now 38, came in at a svelte 237 pounds and looked fit and ready to go. The weary look on Augustin’s face during the announcement said it all. True to form, Arreola was in blowout mode and stopped the Haitian who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Arreola wobbled Augustin with a brutally hard jab that connected flush to his face in the third round. After more heavy shots, a bloodied Augustin went down and upon getting up, was battered until the referee halted matters. Chris closed things like he had done on so many other occasions and in front of millions of fans tuning in around the world.

With a female interviewer, the elated “Nightmare” was polite during the post-fight ceremonies and, holding his daughter, signaled that he is BACK! That’s good news for boxing fans because when Chris Arreola is fit and focused, he is entertaining and very competitive.

With a current record of 38-5-1 with 2 ND (the “no-contests” resulting from Chris‘s apparent affinity for non-medicinal marijuana), a fight with someone like Adam Kownacki would be a boxing fan’s dream.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors and plans to compete in at least three events in 2019. He is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA).

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Nobody Wants to Fight Dillian Whyte

Kelsey McCarson

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Dillian Whyte

Dillian Whyte is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. The 30-year-old is a former British heavyweight titleholder, a former kickboxing prodigy and an undefeated mixed martial artist. Overall, Whyte’s professional fighting record is a sterling 46-2. He’s 25-1 as a boxer, 20-1 as a K1 kickboxer and 1-0 as an MMA fighter.

So while the battle rages on between various television networks and streaming platforms over securing the top talent in the heavyweight division, one that includes Tyson Fury signing a multi-fight deal with ESPN and Deontay Wilder reportedly mulling over his future with PBC, perhaps something just as important right now is that the single most dangerous and deserved heavyweight contender in the world remains without a dance partner for his next fight.

Never mind Whyte being the No. 1 ranked contender by the World Boxing Council. That sanctioning body instead deemed Dominic Breazeale the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC title after the potential rematch between Wilder and Fury fell by the wayside.

Here’s all that needs to be said about that grift. Breazeale only had to defeat Eric Molina to get his mandatory title shot while the WBC wanted Whyte to face Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, one of the top heavyweights in the sport.

And nobody seems to care that Whyte gave unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua the toughest test of his career (this side of Wladimir Klitschko anyway), when the two squared off in 2015 for the British and Commonwealth titles. Despite the obvious talent gap between the two fighters, Whyte gave the young Joshua just about all the former Olympic champion could handle in a seven-round war.

To hear Whyte tell the story, promoter Eddie Hearn must have intentionally lowballed Whyte for the proposed 2019 rematch in order to ensure Joshua could invade America on June 1 against the likely less dangerous Jarrell Miller. That makes sense for Joshua from a monetary perspective, but it doesn’t do the same in terms of true competitiveness.

According to various reports, Whyte is currently considering a multi-fight deal to appear on ESPN, a move that would give the British battler a path to facing Fury who some consider the lineal heavyweight champion. Fury recently signed a multi-fight deal to be co-promoted by Bob Arum for appearances on the U.S.-based television network ESPN. It’s the move that shelved a potential Wilder rematch and also opened up a huge can of worms in regards to what kinds of fights Fury might actually be able to secure. Currently, the Top Rank-promoted stable of heavyweights is best characterized by fighters who don’t really move the needle in regards to title challenges, fighters like Oscar Rivas, Bryant Jennings and Kubrat Pulev.

Overall, though, the main problem about the heavyweight landscape is that there are three heavyweights who all have a claim to being heavyweight champion. IBF, WBA and WBO champion Joshua is promoted by Hearn and exclusive to DAZN. WBC champ Wilder is attached to the PBC whose television partnerships include Showtime and Fox. Fury is set to embark on his own ESPN crusade. Long story short, these guys probably aren’t fighting each other anytime soon.

Worse is that while all three men are in desperate need of viable opponents, none have seemed all that interested in tussling with Whyte.

It’s no wonder. As good as Whyte has been over the course of his 7-year professional boxing career, the scariest thing about the fighter is that he always seems to be getting better. In his last two fights, Whyte outfought talented former titleholder Joseph Parker and knocked out gritty UK heavyweight Dereck Chisora. In defeating Parker, Whyte was facing someone absolutely in need of a win to maintain his status among heavyweight contenders. In beating Chisora, Whyte was in tough against an opponent he had only defeated by split-decision two years prior. Both wins illustrate just how far Whyte has come as a professional prizefighter.

As it stands, Whyte is the clear top contender among all heavyweights, especially among those who have not yet been granted a shot at a world title. He’s ranked No. 4 behind Joshua, Fury and Wilder by The Ring magazine and the same by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

The only question that remains is which title claimant will prove the toughest holdout. Whyte’s ultimate choice, in whether to stick with promoter Hearn on DAZN, link up with Arum and ESPN or continue playing the WBC shell game, will probably end up being tied to which path gets him the title shot that he so desperately craves first.

And it absolutely should happen. It’s one thing to crave title opportunities and another to have earned them. Whyte’s done both now, and it’s time for boxing fans and the media to take notice. Better yet, it’s time for Joshua, Fury and Wilder to pit themselves against their most dangerous competition. Since they’re not facing each other, Whyte become the next logical choice for any or all of them.

Because Dillian Whyte is one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world, and he’s done enough by now to warrant the chance to prove it.

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The Hauser Report: St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden

Thomas Hauser

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Conlan

Boxing’s three “major leagues” showed their respective wares this past weekend. On Friday night, DAZN presented a nine-bout card in conjunction with Matchroom USA. On Saturday, Fox and Premier Boxing champions teamed up for the Errol Spence vs. Mikey Garcia pay-per-view event. Then, on Sunday, ESPN and Top Rank had their turn in the form of a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headed by Belfast native and former Olympian Michael Conlan.

The star of the show was St. Patrick, the fifth-century saint widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. In his honor, there were three Irishmen on the card: Conlan, flyweight Paddy Barnes, and welterweight Lee Reeves. That said; there was a Hispanic flavor to the proceedings. The sixteen combatants included Eduardo Torres, Victor Rosas, Juan Tapia, Ricardo Maldonado, Adriano Ramirez, Oscar Mojica, Joseph Adorno, John Bauza, Luis Collazo, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and two Vargases (Josue and Samuel).

Irish-Americans have a record of supporting Irish fighters, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. This was no exception. The announced crowd of 3,712 arrived early. During the final pre-fight press conference, Top Rank president Todd duBoef had paid homage to the fans, although he did voice the view that, on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their cognitive behavior is manipulated by the beer.”

On fight night, the in-arena music was chosen accordingly. What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? was played twice over the Hulu Theater sound system.

There was also green lighting.

Lee Reeves (2-0, 2 KOs) of Limerick, Ireland, opened the show with a four-round decision over Edward Torres.

In the third bout of the evening, Vladimir Nikitin (2-0, 0 KOs) won a majority decision over Juan Tapia. Nikitin defeated Conlan in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Olympics. Presumably, they’ll fight again at a time of maximum opportunity for Conlan.

Flyweight Paddy Barnes (5-1, 1 KO) of Belfast was a teammate of Conlan’s at the 2016 Olympics but lost in the first round to Spain’s Samuel Carmona. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes was matched against Oscar Mojica (11-5-1), who had one career knockout and had gone 3-5-1 in his previous nine outings.

Mojica broke Barnes’s nose in round one and knocked him down with a body shot in the second stanza (although to the mystification of those in the press section, referee Danny Schiavone waved off the knockdown). It was a spirited outing in which both men were too easy to hit for their own good. Barnes rallied nicely in the second half of the bout and arguably did enough to win the decision. But two of the three judges thought otherwise, leading to a 58-56, 58-56, 56-58 verdict in Mojica’s favor.

In the next-to-last fight of the evening, Luis Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) took on Samuel Vargas (30-4-2, 14 KOs).

Collazo now 37 years old, reigned briefly as WBA welterweight champion twelve years ago. Since then, he had cobbled together twelve victories (an average of one per year) against six losses in eighteen fights. Vargas had one win in his previous three outings and has never been able to get the “W” against a name opponent.

It was a phone booth fight, which worked to Collazo’s advantage because Luis’s legs aren’t what they once were. The decision could have gone either way. Two judges scored the bout 96-94; one for Collazo and the other for Vargas. Frank Lombardi turned in a wide-of-the-mark 98-92 scorecard in Collazo’s favor.

Then it was time for the main event.

Conlan (10-0, 6 KOs) is best known to boxing fans for having given the finger (two middle fingers, actually) to the judges after coming out on the short end of a decision in the second round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. His skill set is better suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But his Irish heritage is a significant marketing plus. And Top Rank specializes in both savvy matchmaking and building narratives.

This was the third consecutive year that Conlan, now a featherweight, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day weekend by fighting at Madison Square Garden. His ringwalk was marked by Irish-themed pageantry. And Ruben Garcia Hernandez, his opponent, was tailor-made for him.

Conlon controlled the fight with his jab. Nothing much else happened. “Mick” emerged victorious 100-90 on all three judges’ scorecards. And the fans went home happy because their man won.

*     *     *

The sad news that New York Mets pitching great Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and will retire from public life is a reminder that all people from all walks of life are susceptible to the condition, not just fighters.

Seaver was on the list of A+ athletes who rose to prominence in the 1960s when advances in television were redefining the sports experience. Muhammad Ali was at the top of that list. Years ago, sportswriter Dick Schaap told me about an evening he spent with Ali and Seaver.

“In 1969, the year the Mets won their first World Series,”Schaap reminisced, “I spent the last few days of the regular season with the team in Chicago. Ali was living there at the time. I was writing a book with Tom Seaver, and the three of us went out to dinner together. We met at a restaurant called The Red Carpet. I made the introductions. And of course, this was the year that Tom Seaver was Mr. Baseball, maybe even Mr. America. Ali and Tom got along fine. They really hit it off together. And after about half an hour, Ali in all seriousness turned to Seaver and said, ‘You know, you’re a nice fellow. Which paper do you write for?’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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