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Jeff “Candy Slim” Merritt: A Fighter’s Life

Steve Compton

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They were sad eyes, those eyes of his. Despite his six feet and five inches in height they always seemed to be staring up at you, like a child looking up at a disappointed father. Maybe it was that he felt more comfortable with his picture being taken if it was for a mug shot than a publicity photo. They belied the man’s insecurity that was hidden so well behind a monstrous left hook. As one of his former trainers, Angelo Dundee, once said, “He was an awful mixed up kid, he always was.” Those eyes never gave any indication of the man’s profession. He was a fighter. Indeed, Jeff Merritt had been a fighter most of his life.

By his own admission, Merritt had been a shy, self conscious child.  He walked in fear of the neighborhood bullies and street toughs. So, when confronted on the streets of his native Kansas City, he would often lash out first and viciously. At 15, he stood six foot one and a half inches and weighed 177 pounds. Although, Merritt channeled this rage in the boxing ring, his burgeoning amateur career was cut short when he was sent to the Booneville Reformatory for Juvenile Criminal Delinquency in May of 1962 as a result of his street fights.

Boonville was an infamous facility that was converted to a men’s prison in 1983 after years of notoriously brutal treatment of the youths housed there. Boonville was overcrowded and extremely violent. Little care was given to rehabilitation and as a result recidivism was high. Children as young as eight found themselves incarcerated with youths as old as 21. Boys incarcerated for the relatively minor offense of truancy found themselves bunking with murderers. Rapes were common and fights were a way of life. Many of the boys who found themselves behind the walls of Boonville left forever changed, damaged and without the skills to build a life for themselves.

Jeff Merritt walked into this hellish nightmare and, as large as most full grown men, continued his policy of hitting first and hitting hard. As a result of this behavior, Merritt was transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City less than four months after being admitted to Boonville. The Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi and nicknamed the “bloodiest 47 acres in America.” It seemed Merritt, at the age of 15, had jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

One week to the day after arriving at the Penitentiary, an event happened that may have had some impact on the direction Merritt’s life would take in the coming years. On September 25, 1962, Sonny Liston, one of the most famous inmates to ever come out of the MSP, won the most coveted prize in sports, the heavyweight championship of the world. For a kid sitting behind those melancholy walls, Liston’s victory must have served as a shining beacon of hope. Yet it would be several years before Merritt would re-enter the world of boxing.

Jeff was paroled from the MSP on July 24, 1963 and returned to Kansas City. For the next year and a half Merritt worked odd jobs but, with a 9th grade education, his options were limited and at the start of 1965 he reverted to a life of crime. Over a period of ten months Merritt was arrested no less than seven times for offenses ranging from carrying a concealed weapon to armed robbery and from aggravated assault to rape. On November 2, 1965 he was convicted of 1st degree robbery and sent back to the MSP for a seven year stretch. Walking into the MSP for the second time, Merritt was now a solid six foot two and a half inches tall and one hundred ninety-one pounds and still growing. Very quickly, Merritt was training in the prison gymnasium and even found himself working a heavy bag that had once belonged to Sonny Liston and still had his name written on it.

Merritt showed so much promise that two months after finding himself behind prison bars he was on the team representing the prison in a tournament being hosted there. Merritt was one of only two boxers on the team to win their bouts, defeating Roy Rodriguez via decision after three rounds. The following year, Merritt won the Missouri Valley AAU boxing championship which the MSP hosted. Under any other circumstances, the victory would have awarded him the opportunity to compete in the National AAU tournament held in San Diego that April but Merritt’s status as an incarcerated felon prevented such a trip.

Merritt continued to train and participate in whatever bouts he could get behind prison walls and, at some point, he had occasion to enter the ring against first round NFL draft pick Francis Peay who had played offensive tackle at the nearby University of Missouri. It took only one round with the lanky 20 year old for the six foot four inch two hundred and forty six pound Peay to give up any hope of a boxing career. Thoroughly impressed, Peay returned to New York where he played for the Giants.

In the off season Peay kept in shape by boxing at the state-of-the-art gymnasium in the National Maritime Union’s recently built eleven million dollar annex on 9th Avenue. Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis and former featherweight champion Sandy Saddler had been hired by the Union as physical instructors for its members and the vocational school they had recently opened. The Union was putting together a team of professional boxers with George Albert and Chris Jacman promoting their fights out of the Union Hall on 7th Avenue. One day Peay ran into the two ex champions and gushed over the lanky power-punching fighter incarcerated in Missouri. Their interest peaked; Louis, Saddler, and a handful of officials from the Union made the trek to Jefferson City to see the young phenom for themselves.

The prison agreed to accommodate what took on the appearance of a tryout. A ring was set up on the prison baseball field. With the Union contingent and one thousand inmates looking on, Merritt would face three other prison boxers, one at a time, disposing of each in a round apiece. Louis and Saddler were impressed. They made it clear that the Union wanted to be in the Jeff Merritt business.

Two months after the exhibition, Joe Louis appeared on Merritt’s behalf before the parole board. Louis stated that if the board would grant Merritt’s parole, the National Maritime Union was prepared to offer Merritt a job, training, financial support, housing, and management. The parole board was amenable on condition that the New York parole board agreed to take over his case. When these conditions were met the following month, Merritt was granted parole. On January 18, 1968, Jeff Merritt left Missouri State Penitentiary a free man. As the legendary blues singer Leadbelly had once sang his way out of prison, Merritt had now fought his way out of prison and seemed destined for stardom.

Merritt moved to New York and, one month after being released, turned professional with a first-round knockout of Ronnie Williams at the National Maritime Union Hall. The next month, he climbed off the canvas to win a four-round decision over Joe Belton. Followed by another first round knockout a month later against similarly non-descript competition. The opponents may not have been threatening, but Jeff was building his confidence, establishing himself, and most importantly he was learning.

Every developing fighter dreams of fighting in Madison Square Garden, hence it was known affectionately as “the Mecca of Boxing.” When a fighter fought in the Garden he knew he was on his way.  Merritt not only made it to the Garden in his fourth professional fight but he had the honor of appearing on the undercard of the heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Manuel Ramos. In an excellent showcase for the young fighter, before a crowd of nearly 11,000, Merritt stopped Milton Torres in the first round.

Three months later, Merritt would return to the Garden and suffer his first defeat. Fighting on the undercard of a heavyweight extravaganza that saw Buster Mathis stop James J. Woody and George Chuvalo stop Manuel Ramos, Jeff was stopped in the third round by a sparring partner of Joe Frazier named Johnny Gause. The fight was action packed, with Gause hitting the deck twice in the first round only to climb off the canvas to stop Merritt. Luckily for Merritt, the fight got very little press coverage and was nothing more than a speed bump for his career.

Merritt returned to the comfortable confines of the Union Hall for a confidence building win over Jimmy Patterson two months later, but his days with the Union were rapidly coming to a close. Early in 1969, a disgruntled union member filed a lawsuit in federal court against the union leadership, charging misuse of union funds in the support of boxers. From that point on, the Union’s association with boxers was officially reserved to sponsoring amateur fighters. However, William Perry, assistant to Union President Joseph Curran, maintained Jeff’s contract and continued to get him fights on the east coast.

As the Union fought dissent within its ranks, Merritt’s career continued to progress, and the decision was made to increase his level of competition. He was first matched in Philadelphia with local undefeated heavyweight prospect Roy Williams. Williams, like Merritt, was a talented and dangerous prospect. At six feet five inches, Williams could match Merritt’s height; and like Merritt, he was a regional AAU and Golden Gloves champion. Unlike Merritt, Williams was undefeated and had faced significantly better opposition as both an amateur and a professional. Also, like Merritt, Williams would become one of boxing’s great “what-if” stories. He was a man that seemed to have it all, but bad luck and his own complacency in the ring prevented him from ever getting the big money fights. Complacency seemed to be Williams’ greatest weakness. He would often start slowly and most of his losses were due largely to his inability or unwillingness to let his hands go.

Williams’ first loss to Merritt set the pattern for his future defeats. Williams, when faced with a man as big, strong, and hard hitting as himself, simply could not get untracked. He quickly fell behind on points as Merritt chased and punched him with little reply. In the fifth, Williams landed one of his infrequent combinations and dropped Merritt for a mandatory 8 count. When the referee waved the fighters together, Williams inexplicably returned to retreating and allowed Merritt to clear his head.  Jeff went back to outpointing Williams to win a clear eight round decision. It had been Jeff’s longest fight and most dangerous opponent to date, yet he passed the test with flying colors.

Two more quick stoppages followed over the next two months before Merritt was matched with another more experienced Philadelphian. Roger Russell had been a national AAU light heavyweight champion before turning pro and had recently moved into the heavyweight ranks with an upset win over contender Leotis Martin. After the Martin fight, Russell had managed a draw with former title challenger Zora Folley in a tedious contest, but had slipped with three straight losses and hoped to get back into the win column with a victory over Merritt in a showcase fight on the undercard of Joe Frazier’s title defense against Jerry Quarry. However, Merritt proved too big and too strong for Russell and won the unanimous decision.

Two months later, Merritt was scheduled to appear on the undercard of another event featuring young heavyweight prospects at Madison Square Garden, to be headlined by Olympic champion George Foreman’s bout with Chuck Wepner.  A week before the bout, Pires pulled out and California’s Henry Clark was substituted. Clark, a big athletic heavyweight with solid skills and experience, patterned himself after Muhammad Ali. Having been in the ring with Sonny Liston, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Leotis Martin, and Florida’s Al Jones, Clark was easily Merritt’s most seasoned opponent. Jeff got off to an early lead before the two fighters closed out the fight with a final round replete with action that brought the crowd to their feet. Once again, Merritt was proclaimed the winner and once again Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner invited him back to the Mecca of boxing.

*Part I of a III part series

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BJ Saunders Improves to 30-0 at the Expense of Mildewed Martin Murray

Arne K. Lang

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There was a time several months ago when it appeared that Billy Joe Saunders was in the driver’s seat as far as securing a match with Canelo Alvarez. The lucrative assignment went to BJ’s countryman Callum Smith, but there’s a strong possibility that Saunders and Canelo will lock horns in 2021. If so, Saunders will bring an unblemished record. Tonight, behind closed doors at Wembley Arena he advanced his ledger to 30-0 (14) with a predictably one-sided decision over UK veteran Martin Murray. Saunders was appearing in his seventh world title fight and making the second defense of his WBO 168-pound belt.

Saunders, a close friend and training partner of fellow Traveller Tyson Fury, represented England in the Beijing Olympics at the tender age of 17. Now 31 years old (but with the emotional maturity of an adolescent) he is the classic example of a cagey southpaw.  That’s another way of saying that while a purist can appreciate his artistry, he doesn’t have a fan-friendly style. He is the British equivalent of Demetrius Andrade.

Martin Murray was making his fifth stab at a world title. The 38-year-old campaigner from St. Helens, near Liverpool, previously fought Felix Sturm and Arthur Abraham in Germany, Sergio Martinez in Argentina, and Gennadiy Golovkin in Monte Carlo. His fight with Sturm ended in a draw, but that was back in 2011 and Murray has put a lot of mileage on his odometer in the interim. Tonight, that showed as he did not instinctively let his hands go when he saw an opening. The scorecards read 118-110, and 120-109 twice. Those scorecards were similar to Saunders’ tour-de-force vs. David Lemeiux, but that was an unexpected eye-opener, whereas tonight Billy Joe was expected to win as he pleased.

This may have been the last rodeo for Murray (39-6-1), five times a bridesmaid. He can leave with his head held high. Always in shape, only Golovkin was able to stop  him and it took GGG 11 rounds. BJ Saunders hopes to fight the winner of Canelo vs. Callum Smith, but there is also talk of a rematch with Chris Eubank Jr who gave him his toughest test back in 2014.

Co-Feature

In a lightweight match framed as a WBA title eliminator, James Tennyson (28-3, 24 KOs) blasted out previously undefeated Josh O’Reilly, now 16-1, in the opening round. It was the sixth straight win by TKO for Belfast’s Tennyson who moved up in weight after being stopped in the 4th round at Boston in a bid for Tevin Farmer’s IBF 130-pound title. O’Reilly, a Hamilton, Ontario native appearing in his first fight outside Canada, was on the deck twice before the referee waived off the mismatch. The official time was 2:14.

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Twenty-eight-year-old London light heavyweight Lerrone Richards improved to 14-0 (3) in a monotonous 8-round contest with 36-year-old Finland journeyman Timo Laine, 28-14 (15). Laine fought to survive, not to win, and Richards won every round on the referee’s card.

Undefeated super middleweight Zach Parker (19-0) was scheduled to fight former Edgar Berlanga victim Cesar Nunez, a 35-year-old Spaniard, but the fight fell out when a member of Nunez’s team tested positive for the coronavirus. Parker is ranked #2 by the WBO.

Photo credit: Dave Thompson / Matchroom Boxing

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Boxing Exhibitions: Side Show, New Angle, or Something Else? Part Two

Ted Sares

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Boxing Exhibitions: Side Show, New Angle, or Something Else? Part Two

YouTuber Jake Paul (2-0) says he wants to fight English YouTuber KSI, and then maybe Ryan Garcia, Conor McGregor, and some of the top UFC fighters (using boxing rules). This comes after his recent coldcocking of former NBA star Nate Robinson.

“There is a long list of opponents that I want, you know Conor McGregor, Dillon Danis. I’m going to knock them both out.”– Paul

Jake and his brother Logan are participants in a continuing side show and the more attention they get, the more this freak show will last. In that vein, this writer will no longer mention them except to quote the following from a poster named VashDBasher: “Hopefully these exhibition matches with these retired fighters don’t get out of hand. Not to mention these youtubers with single digit fights making more money than a lot of top prospects and contenders. Boxing is turning into a sham with…”

Exhibitions: The Fire Has Been Ignited; Will It Burn?

Jorge Arce and Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr. launched the tour when they faced off in September in Tijuana but it was done under the radar.

The super-hyped and much anticipated Tyson-Jones exhibition is now in the past, but already it appears that many others will take place. After all, this one—though a stylistic stinker– reportedly pulled in close to 1.2 million PPV buys!

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” – usually attributed to P. T. Barnum

Mike Tyson, coming in at a svelte 220 pounds wants to continue and asserts “my body feels splendid. I want to beat it up some more…I will do it again.” If he does, it may well happen in Europe.

Others are coming out of the woodwork sniffing around like dogs smelling Purina chow but the chow in this case is money and plenty of it. Suddenly, the “seniors tour” seems to enjoy the certainty of a Cher’s final tour. Ex- fighters like Glen McCrory, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Johnny Nelson, Buster Douglas, Shannon Briggs, Erik Morales, Evander Holyfield, Marco António Barrera, and possibly Oscar De La Hoya (in a traditional comeback rather than an exhibition) are all looking to get in on the action.

 “The rumors are true, and I’m going to start sparring in the next few weeks.” –De La Hoya

The usually quiet Holyfield in particular has made a lot of noise saying among other things that, “Roy Jones was a good local opponent for Tyson, but a fight with me would be a global event and the only one fight that anyone wants to see is a fight between us. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t make it happen…”

But the “Real Deal” also has said he won’t fight for less than 25 million which is pretty much tantamount to saying he doesn’t want to fight.

Tyson vs. Holyfield III? Don’t bet on this one happening.

However, if there is money to be made, Floyd Mayweather Jr will be hovering about like a helicopter perhaps looking to fight Manny Pacquiao in a mega fight, but Manny may be looking to fight everybody’s favorite opponent, UFC star Conor McGregor. A real fight involving Floyd against a risky opponent would be of enormous interest, but keeping in mind that one of his mottos has been “my health is my wealth,” that is not something to bet on.

Ted Sares can be reached at  tedsares@roadrunner.com

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Errol Spence Jr’s Near-Death Experience Has Made Him More Well-Grounded

Bernard Fernandez

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Maybe it’s a good thing that Errol Spence Jr. had to learn the hard way that talent, like life, is a perishable commodity. Even so accomplished a world boxing champion as Spence had to discover that harsh reality in the blink of an eye, or however long as it took for his fast-moving sports car to veer out of control and produce a knockdown far more perilous than anything the man known as “The Truth” ever has had to face in the ring, or likely ever will.

The Errol Spence Jr. (26-0, 21 KOs) who puts his IBF and WBC welterweight championships on the line against two-division former titlist Danny “Swift” Garcia (36-2, 21 KOs) Saturday night in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, could have, and maybe even should have, died in the early morning hours of October 10, 2019, on a virtually open stretch of highway near Interstate 30 in downtown Dallas. Spence’s white Ferrari, capable of hitting speeds up to 200 mph, went over the center median and flipped over several times. It seemed miraculous that Spence (who was cited for misdemeanor driving under the influence), who sustained significant injuries, could be ejected from the car yet somehow recover to the point where he could fight another day.

“It’s just a miracle for things to turn out like they did,” Spence has said. “For anybody to be ejected out of a Ferrari … I mean, it could have been so much worse. I could have lost a leg, an arm. I could have been paralyzed or had brain damage. I could have been killed right then and there. But I didn’t have to deal with any of that. I’m just blessed. I’m definitely going to heed this warning. You go through what I did, you definitely don’t take things for granted as I once did.”

His professional return Saturday night will not only be met with as much public anticipation as is standard for fighters occupying as elite a level as does Spence, but even more so given his career-long 14½-month layoff (his most recent bout was a 12-round split decision over Shawn Porter on September 28, 2019) and questions attendant to how well he has recovered from his near-catastrophic experience. Has the ordeal in any way diminished him physically or psychologically? Was he imprudent in choosing to forego a less-risky tune-up fight for a matchup with the very formidable Garcia, who previously has held the WBC and WBA super lightweight and WBC welterweight belts? Can he demonstrate that he still is as special a fighter as he had been before his car crashed? Or maybe even better?

Not all of the answers will be provided in the Showtime Pay-Per-View main event, but enough will be to ascertain whether Spence can still claim to be the best 147-pound fighter on the planet (as listed in The Ring magazine ratings) or, even if victorious, reveal himself to be at least somewhat damaged goods.

Not that he was prone to preening and chest-thumping before, but, if anything, Spence, although highly confident he will come away with his undefeated record extended, still presents a public posture similar to that of his understated trainer, Derrick James. That is a stark contrast to the bombast for which Garcia’s father-trainer, Angel Garcia, is noted, and has even ratcheted up a notch for this fight. Angel has even gone on record as predicting that Danny will stop Spence in seven rounds.

“He’s going to go out there and show the world what true champions are made of,” Angel said of what he expects from his son, a +340 underdog in contrast to Spence’s -450 favoritism. “Danny don’t just know how to win, he knows how to kick your ass.”

Noting that his date with Spence had already been twice-delayed, the 32-year-old Danny figures all good things come to those who wait, and his patience is about to be rewarded. “Boxing is a sport of timing,” he said. “And the time is now. I feel great. I had a tremendous camp and did everything I’m supposed to do. Now it’s time to go out there and do what I do best, and win.

“I’ve been the underdog in many fights. I don’t worry about the critics or the media. I know that I’m a great champion, and a great fighter. And that’s what I’m going to prove Saturday night.”

James, for his part, is only too glad to yield the megaphone to Angel Garcia. He’s not about to talk smack about the Garcias because, well, he believes no good can come for those who brag about what they expect to do before they do it.

“I don’t make predictions for myself or my guy, but (Angel Garcia) is supposed to believe in himself,” James said. “He’s supposed to believe in what he thinks his son is going to do. Why wouldn’t he? At the same time, we feel the exact same way. I don’t go in there saying we are going to get a knockout. I can’t predict anything like that. But I can predict that we will be victorious.

“My guy’s quiet, I’m quiet. If you believe in yourself, you don’t have to talk about it.”

Any changes in Spence might not be obvious inside the ropes, but he insists his lifestyle has undergone a radical makeover that can only serve to benefit him in the time he has left at or near the top of a brutal sport that chews up and spits out those who can’t appreciate that today’s glory can soon become tomorrow’s memory.  For one thing, he has traded a Ferrari’s massive horsepower for, well, a different sort of horse power.

“I think it did renew my focus and got me back to the thing that got me to the top of the mountain,” he said of his reconfigured priorities stemming from the accident. “After a fight I started taking a week off, then two weeks off to a month off. Now I’m grinding hard again. You realize that having this time on earth is a luxury. Being young (Spence was 29 at the time of the crash, and is now 30), you think you’re invincible. You think nothing bad can happen to you. But when something does happen to you, you realize that time is important, especially time spent with your family and loved ones.

“That’s why I actually moved out of downtown (Dallas), got a ranch with horses, cattle and things like that. I got a pool and I’m outside with my kids. I just had a newborn son.”

Still, Spence knows that saying he’s as good, or better, than he previously had been is not going to convince any doubting Thomases until he delivers the goods. Danny Garcia, proud and tough, poses the test he needs to pass before any lingering suspicions can be laid to rest.

“I’m a realist,” Spence said. “I know people have a lot of questions. Am I still the same? Am I a shadow of myself? Those are questions that need to be answered.”

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