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

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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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Avila Perspective, Chap. 274: Ryan Garcia and Devin Haney in Hollywood, Jake, Amanda and More

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HOLLYWOOD, Ca.- Adorned in a white suit, Ryan “King Ry” Garcia arrived on a big white horse followed by a handful of fair maidens dressed in various colors and some twirling hula hoops into the Avalon Theater on Vine Street on Thursday.

Inside the historic theater that once served as the Hollywood Canteen during World War 2, where actors like Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth greeted soldiers, but this time it was the boxing media waiting.

Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) will challenge undefeated Devin Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) for the WBC super lightweight world title on April 20 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. DAZN pay-per-view will stream the Golden Boy Promotions card.

It doesn’t get more Hollywood than this.

Inside the 97-year-old theater, once the two opposing factions arrived, the pageantry turned into a war of words, taunts and accusations.

This is boxing.

Aside from the taunts and words of derision tossed at each other, the Haney father and son combination admitted that Garcia was the one fighter willing to fight Devin.

“He (Garcia) raised his hand when no one else did,” said Bill Haney the father.

Devin Haney sat next to his father on the stage anxious as ever to prove his talent in the prize ring. After his victory over Regis Prograis that followed wins over Vasyl Lomachenko and George Kambosos, the former undisputed lightweight world champion is now dwelling in the super lightweight division and holds the WBC version.

“I was killing myself trying to make the weight,” said Haney about moving up to the 140-pound super lightweight division.

Haney has long been familiar with Ryan Garcia since their amateur days as they met in the boxing ring six times as youths.

“They fought six times in the amateurs with both of them winning three apiece. Now they meet with championship gold and the chance at being the face of American boxing on the line,” said Oscar De La Hoya, the promoter and head of Golden Boy Promotions. “In other words, this one counts!”

Garcia and Haney have taken similar paths.

Garcia fought professionally numerous times in Mexico where it is legal to fight under the age of 18. So did Haney. Both faced unknown opponents, sometimes last-minute changes forced them to fight foes that were not originally scheduled.

As pros, the two similarly and eagerly sought to face the best opponents possible despite their inexperience. Both proved more than capable.

Garcia quickly amassed a surprisingly large following of fans through social media and through his exploits of sudden knockouts from his uncanny speed.

“Everything I have today, I earned it,” said Garcia. “Nobody gave me a handout, I never had money, I’m really a small town boy.”

Haney proved able to defeat veteran world champions feared for their technical expertise with his own buttery-smooth fighting prowess.

“I am happy to be here. I worked hard to be here. I sacrificed a lot to be here, and at the end of the day, the world will see it on April 20,” said Devin Haney.

Next month in Brooklyn the two longtime foes will be performing. Will it be the biggest grossing pay-per-view of the year 2024?

Jake and Amanda

Jake Paul and Amanda Serrano are boxing’s best tag team.

Several years ago, Paul recognized that Serrano, a seven-division world champion Puerto Rican was capable of much more than fighting on the small stage.

Genius.

Paul signed Serrano to his Most Valuable Promotions company and together they have been able to draw a mixture of fans long ignored by other promoters.

Welcome to the age of the influencers.

For the past several years Paul has fought MMA stars, boxers and other social media influencers. And when he signed Serrano she fought Katie Taylor in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden where their fight drew more than a million pay-per-views.

Paul (8-1, 5 KOs) meets Ryan Bourland (17-2, 6 KOs) in an eight-round cruiserweight fight on Saturday March 2, at Coliseo Jose Miguel Agrelot in San Juan, Puerto Rico. DAZN will stream the card.

He will be co-piloting the fight card with the great Amanda Serrano (46-2-1, 30 KOs) who will be defending the undisputed featherweight world championship against Germany’s Nina “the Brave” Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs).

Once again Serrano and Paul will share a very good fight card that also features female super flyweights Krysti Rosario-Ortiz (2-0) and Gloria Munguilla (5-0).

Others on the card include Javon “Wanna” Walton, a featherweight out of Atlanta, Georgia. If he looks familiar there is a reason. He was featured in the Sylvester Stallone film Samaritan and also appeared in the HBO series Euphoria.

Walton has always boxed and now will be a part of the Paul and Serrano team.

Paul has that magic touch for attracting fans to boxing.

Just today Most Valuable Promotions signed Indian prizefighter Neeraj Goyat. The welterweight fighter was recently seen on social media approaching Paul in his training camp and daring the fighter to meet him in the boxing ring. The short video clip attracted more than 150 million views.

Paul, ever the think-out-of-the-box promoter, signed Goyat immediately.

“In just 2.5 years, MVP has organized some of the world’s most significant boxing events, and I’m excited to work with MVP to elevate the status of professional boxing in India and bring attention to boxers from India globally,” said an excited Goyat.

“His viral callouts of Jake Paul certainly got our attention,” said MVP co-founder Nakisa Bidarian.

Out-of-the box thinking.

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Time)

Sat. DAZN 1:30 p.m. Amanda Serrano (46-2-1) vs Nina Meinke (18-3).

Sat. ESPN+ 2:10 pm Otabek Kholmatov 12-0, 11 KOs) vs. Raymod Ford (14-0-1, 7 KOs); Luis Alberto Lopez (29-2, 16 KOs) vs Reiya Abe (25-3-1, 10 KOs)

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Madueno Upsets Pauldo and Lopez Overcomes Escudero at Whitesands

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Madueno Upsets Pauldo and Lopez Overcomes Escudero at Whitesands

When it comes to professional boxing down in the Tampa Bay area, Canadian transplant Garry Jonas is a one-man band.

The architect of the Wednesday Night Fights series, Jonas doesn’t have to pay a site fee for the shows that he promotes because he owns the venue. The shows that he stages at his Whitesands Events Center in Plant City air on his live streaming platform ProBoxTV. His series currently has only one sponsor, a bookmaking operation called SportsBetting.Ag., and he owns that too. (A self-styled serial entrepreneur, Jonas continued his assault on the established order last week with his purchase of the respected Boxing Scene website, but that’s a story best saved for another day.)

Jonas promotes high-grade club fights. When he started this venture, he promised entertaining, well-matched fights and tonight he delivered. The “A” side fighters in the co-main events were matched tough.

In the featured bout, lightweight Justin Pauldo (17-2, 1 NC) was upset by Mexico’s Miguel Madueno. Managed by Jolene Mazzone, the former VP and matchmaker for Main Events and trained by Ronnie Shields, Pauldo, a resident or nearby Orlando, was unbeaten in his last 12 heading in.

In his previous start, Madueno turned in a lackluster performance against surging Canadian campaigner Steve Claggett. His showing (he was 30-1 with 28 KOs heading in) was inconsistent with his record. Tonight, he was more pugnacious, out-working the man in front of him, a 4/1 favorite. The decision was split; 97-92 and 95-94 for Madueno, 95-94 for Pauldo. There were no knockdowns, but the Mexican had a point deducted in round 5 for leading with his head.

Co-Feature

The co-main was an entertaining 10-round light heavyweight affair in which Edgar Berlanga stablemate Najee Lopez improved to 10-0 (8) with a hard-earned majority decision over Marcos Escudero (14-3). One of the judges had it a draw (95-95) but he was overruled by his cohorts who had it 97-93 and 99-91.

Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent but was born and raised in the Atlanta area, hadn’t previously gone beyond six rounds. He was the house fighter. Named the 2023 Prospect of the Year by the ProBox team of TV commentators, Lopez was making his eighth appearance at Whitesands. Escudero, a South Florida-based Argentine had won four straight heading in at club shows in Delray Beach, FL after back-to-back setbacks in competitive fights with Joseph George.

Escudero, who did most of the leading, had many good moments. The 99-91 tally against the Argentine was a head-scratcher. (Commentator Paulie Malignaggi said the offending  judge, Alvaro Rodriguez, should have his fee withheld and be forced to serve a one-year suspension.)

Also

In an 8-round lightweight contest, former two-time Olympian Tsendbaatar Erdenebat, a 27-year-old Mongolian southpaw who began his pro career in China and now resides in southern California, improved to 9-0 (4) with a unanimous decision over Guinea-born Mohamed Soumaoro (11-3) who was a willing mixer but was out-classed. The scores were 79-73 and 80-72 twice.

As one would expect from a two-time Olympian, Erdenebat is a good technician who puts his punches together well, but doesn’t have a lot of power. If his name rings a bell, he’s the fellow who purportedly sent Ryan Garcia to the hospital from the effects of a body punch during a sparring session.

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Two Featherweight Title Fights Top a Strong Bill at Turning Stone on Saturday

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When Top Rank announced in December that they would be returning to Turning Stone Resort & Casino for an ESPN+ show on March 2nd featuring two featherweight world title fights they promised a deep action-packed show. Usually such words fall by the wayside as the event ultimately comes together but in this instance the docket is loaded from top to bottom with name attractions, undefeated prospects, local grudge matches and two very well-matched co-headliners.

In the first of the co-headliners, Luis Alberto Lopez (29-2, 16 KOs) makes the third defense of his IBF featherweight belt against Japan’s Reiya Abe (25-3-1, 10 KOs). Lopez is a popular brawler whose aggressive style and lack of attention to defense usually makes for entertaining fights. Abe, a southpaw, is a slick boxer who is coming off a career best win against Kiko Martinez last April. Abe has a style similar to that of Ruben Villa who outboxed Lopez to a ten round unanimous decision win in 2019.

The co-headline finale is being contested for the vacant WBA featherweight title between Otabek Kholmatov (12-0, 11 KOs) and Raymond Ford (14-0-1, 7 KOs). Both fighters were highly touted heading into the pro ranks. Ford has the speed advantage but Kholmatov has a big edge in power. Social media seems split right down the middle on this fight and oddsmakers agree installing Kholmatov as a very slight favorite as of this writing.

Also on this show is the return of the ever popular Nico Ali Walsh (9-1, 5 KOs) who bounced back from his first career defeat on Dec. 16 at a show in Guinea where he defeated a Frenchman with a 9-2-1 record (mysteriously, that fight isn’t yet listed on boxrec). He will face off against Luke Iannuccilli (7-0, 3 KOs). Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, will make his debut at Turning Stone Resort Casino in the same exact arena where his aunt and Boxing Hall of Famer Laila Ali made her professional boxing debut in October of 1999 with her legendary father sitting ringside. This will mark the fourth time a member of Muhammad Ali’s family has fought at Turning Stone.

The card also includes several contests featuring up-and-coming undefeated fighters. One match in particular to keep an eye on is an eight-round welterweight bout between a pair of unbeaten fighters in Rohan Polanco (11-0, 7 KOs) and Tarik Zaina (13-0-1, 8 KOs). Zaina opened some eyes last November when he defeated Marcelino Lopez and Polanco is coming off three consecutive wins against opponents who had a cumulative record of 39-3.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t notate the local grudge match on the docket between Gerffred Ngayot (6-1, 5 KOs) of Buffalo and Bryce Mills (14-1, 5 KOs) of Syracuse. They are scheduled to face off in a six-round bout in the 140-pound division. They are on this show because each have solid local fan bases and matching them was a way to help fill the stands. Mills is a sharp accurate counterpuncher with all-around solid skills. Ngayot is an aggressive fighter who is not afraid to be first and fire away to the body. Stylistically this could turn into quite a barnburner and each have plenty of motivation to make a statement on what is a much bigger stage than they are accustomed to.

We are often quick to criticize those in the sport when cards come together that are seemingly either loaded with mismatches or bouts that just don’t pique much interest. This is an instance where those involved need to be applauded for putting together a card from top to bottom that will certainly give fans plenty of bang for their buck.

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