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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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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Ted Sares

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Gvozdyk vs. Beterbiev: Point Counterpoint

Putting pineapple on pizza is not a good idea but it IS an example of point counterpoint, and when these two boxers meet on Friday in Philadelphia with the WBC and IBF world light heavyweight titles at stake, it also will be a contrast—but not of tastes as much as styles..

There are, however, many similarities. Both are Eastern European boxers though one, Gvozdyk, is a Ukrainian and the other, Beterbiev, is a Russian and this particular regional difference has sparked a lot of conversation. (Interestingly, Beterbiev has never fought professionally in Russia, nor has the English-speaking Gvozdyk ever fought in the Ukraine.)

Both have superb amateur credentials but this has a flip side in that too many amateur fights can add to the wear and tear of these Eastern Euro warriors when they become professionals. Beterbiev is 34; Gvozdyk 32.

Both are undefeated with outstanding knockout percentages. Gvozdyk, aka The Nail, is 17-0 with 14 KOs. Beterbiev (14-0) has won all of his fights inside the distance.

Both are excellent finishers and when they have their man hurt, it’s all over.

Both have excellent corners and handlers and will be fit and ready to rumble.

“This could very well be the fight of the year…These are two evenly matched, undefeated light heavyweight champions. There is nothing better in the sport of boxing,” says promoter Bob Arum.

Styles

The 6’0” Beterbiev’s style is one of a stalking aggressor and he is especially dangerous when his opponent engages him in a heated exchange as that allows him to land one of his heavy-handed bombs. To use an old cliché, Artur has “bricks in his fists.” He also is dangerous when he is stunned as Callum Johnson discovered.

Some say Beterbiev’s chin is a question mark but his style allows an opponent to nail him (no pun intended) as he moves in. That may well be more a function of his go-forward movement than it is any weakness in his chin.

Conversely, The Nail is a very accurate and powerful puncher and is technically (and defensively) more sound than the bludgeoning Russian. He uses a super-fast jab and counters with sharp stuff. This 6’2” slickster combines exceptional speed and deceptive power. He is patient, relaxed, and fluid.

Intangibles

Has Gvozdyk’s psyche been altered by the events of his December 2018 fight with Adonis Stevenson wherein Adonis (thankfully now recovering) was severely injured? While The Nail was somewhat stymied by his last opponent, Doudou Ngumbu, the thinking here is that that had more to do with Ngumbu’s awkwardness than anything else—and that the Stevenson matter is mostly in the past. In short, the Nail’s focus on Friday should be right where it should be.

With a KO percentage of 100%, Beterbiev has answered the bell for very few rounds, only 52 to be exact. This could weigh against him.

Prediction: Gvozdyk’s superior boxing skills should begin to bear fruit in the mid to late rounds when a frustrated Beterbiev is forced to take risks for which he will pay dearly. I see “The Nail” winning by late stoppage or by UD.

A Russian vs. a Ukrainian — one who lives in Canada and the other who lives in California.  Heck, it’s the battle of ex-patriots. If ever a fight was much anticipated, this is the one.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Arne K. Lang

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Terence Crawford is Bob Arum’s Yuletide Gift to New York

Throughout history, boxing promoters have shunned the weeks before Christmas. The conventional wisdom is that the typical fight fan has little money at his disposal for a frivolity such as a night at the fights, having exhausted his funds buying Christmas presents. But don’t tell that to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum who has flouted this dictum and profited handsomely.

Back in 1995, Arum secured Madison Square Garden for the night of Dec. 15 for a show that pitted Oscar De La Hoya against Jesse James Leija in the main event. The cynics said the date was all wrong, let alone the location for a match between two Mexican-Americans from out west, one from LA and the other from San Antonio. But lo and behold, the show was a big money-maker, attracting a crowd of 16,027, more than 15,000 paid.

Arum anticipates another box office bonanza on Dec. 14 when he plants an ESPN and ESPN Deportes tripleheader in America’s most famous sports arena, an event headlined by Terence “Bud” Crawford’s WBO title defense against Egidijus Kavaliauskas. Crawford, who turned 32 several weeks ago, moved up to welterweight after grabbing all the belts at 140 and will be making his fourth welterweight title defense.

The opening bout on the telecast pits featherweight Michael Conlan against former amateur rival Vladimir Nikitin. Conlan will be making his sixth appearance at the Garden. In the co-feature, Richard Commey defends his IBF world lightweight title against Teofimo Lopez.

Although many rate Terence Crawford the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, he has been something of a forgotten man lately. Almost 10 full months have elapsed since he last fought. Oscar De La Hoya, who had a bitter break-up with Arum late in his boxing career, recently took a swipe at Arum for not keeping Crawford more active, suggesting Arum’s “inertia” might be keeping Crawford out of the Hall of Fame.

The Crawford-Kavaliauskas match-up serves as Arum’s retort as it will shine a bright spotlight on Crawford, the pride of Omaha, Nebraska, as Arum’s show will air on ESPN directly following the Heisman Trophy presentation. Now it behooves Arum to pull some strings so that the Heisman Trophy show doesn’t run too long as has happened in the past.

At the moment, parlaying Terence Crawford (35-0, 26 KOs) to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa seems like a safe bet, but Egidijus Kavaliauskas, a two-time Olympian who was profiled on these pages in July of 2016, is no slouch.

True enough, Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KOs) didn’t look all that sharp in his last outing when he was held to a draw by Ray Robinson, but Philadelphia’s Robinson had an awkward style (think former heavyweight contender Jimmy Young) and was fighting in his hometown.

If Kavaliauskas were a horse, we would say that he comes from a great barn. The 31-year-old Lithuanian is a stablemate of the Big Three in the barn of Egis Klimas: Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, and Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KOs) hails from Ghana but now hangs his hat in Brooklyn. His losses were both by split decision in back-to-back fights with Robert Easter and Denis Shafikov and he has won five straight since then, most recently an eighth-round stoppage of veteran Ray Beltran in the first defense of his IBF title.

Teofimo Lopez, 10 years younger than Commey at age 22, is moving up in class, but will yet go to post the favorite. In his last start, Lopez won a unanimous 12-round decision over Masoyoshi Nakatani, ending a skein of highlight reel knockouts. In December of last year, Lopez scored a one-punch knockout over Mason Menard in a bout that lasted all of 44 seconds. It was named the TSS Knockout of the Year.

Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs) grew up in Davie, Florida, but was born in Brooklyn and currently has a home there, giving the show even more of a local flavor. He and his Honduras-born father of the same name are not shy when it comes to boasting of his prowess and Teofimo’s braggadocio has enhanced his appeal with young fans.

Michael Conlan (10-0, 7 KOs) and Vladimir Nikitin (3-0, all by decision) met in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Nikitin got the decision, a jaw-dropper that spawned the most indelible moment of the Games when an enraged Conlan gave the judges a two-middle-finger salute.

The rematch between them was hatched at that moment although it took awhile for Arum to rope the Russian into the fold. They were originally slated to fight on Aug. 3 at an outdoor show in Conlan’s hometown of Belfast, but Nikitin suffered a torn bicep in training and had to pull out.

This is the kind of match that Bob Arum can really get his teeth in. The crusty octogenarian and former attorney would have it that all people of good character ought to be rooting for Conlan in the interest of seeing an injustice rectified.

Regardless, Arum’s Dec. 14 show is a nice Christmas present for Big Apple boxing fans.

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Three Punch Combo: Gvozdyk-Beterbiev Thoughts and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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Three Punch Combo — For hardcore fans, one of the most attractive fights of the year takes place on Friday when undefeated light heavyweight champions Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KO’s) and Artur Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KO’s) battle in a title unification bout. This contest will headline an ESPN televised card from the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, PA. Here are a few subtle things that could play a factor in how this fight plays out.

A Tactical Fight?

Twenty years ago, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad met in a welterweight title unification fight. It was a super fight between two explosive punchers. Everyone expected fireworks, but as we all know, it turned into an all-out chess match for twelve rounds.

When two big punchers meet, sometimes we get fireworks and sometimes each fighter respects the other’s power so much that they both become somewhat tentative inside the ring.

Keep in mind we have seen in several Gvozdyk fights a somewhat cautious approach. He will take what is given and nothing more. As for Beterbiev, he has typically been a very aggressive fighter (more on that later) but has had his moments where caution has entered his mindset. Just take a look back at his 2017 fight with Enrico Koelling.

I know it is the unpopular opinion but we could certainly see a very tactical chess match between these two on Friday.

Beterbiev’s Defense and Chin

Beterbiev, as noted, is a very aggressive fighter. But with that aggression comes an almost complete lack of focus on the defensive side of the game.

So far, Beterbiev’s offense has been his best defense as many times his opponents have simply been too fearful of opening up. But at times the cracks have shown. Callum Johnson, for example, wasn’t afraid to throw in spots and when he did, his punches landed.

In that fight, we saw Beterbiev get hurt and dropped. Beterbiev showed a ton of heart to come back from that moment and later stop Johnson, but his chin is certainly a question mark. And Gvozdyk, aside from carrying one-punch power, is a very sharp and accurate puncher who has shown excellent finishing skills thus far in his career.

Gvozdyk’s Mindset

A little more than ten months ago, Gvozdyk wrested away the title from Adonis Stevenson. But on what was supposed to be the night where Gvozdyk’s dream came true, things almost turned tragic as Stevenson suffered a brain bleed that nearly took his life.

Gvozdyk has had one fight since against journeyman Doudou Ngumbu. Though Gvozdyk won easily, there was something about his performance that just didn’t feel right. Gvozdyk had a fighter in front of him who offered little resistance but seemingly didn’t want to fully step on the gas.

In order to compete with Beterbiev, we have to see the same Gvozdyk that we saw against Stevenson. But has Gvozdyk’s mindset permanently been altered by the events of that evening?

Under The Radar Fight

A pivotal crossroads bout in the welterweight division between Luis Collazo (39-7, 20 KO’s) and Kudratillo Abdukakhorov (16-0, 9 KO’s) is also on Friday’s ESPN broadcast. The winner will be in prime position for a title shot in 2020.

Collazo, a world welterweight titlist back in 2005, is in the midst of yet another career resurrection. After getting stopped by defending WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman in 2015, Collazo has won three straight. And these wins were not against subpar opposition. Two were against up-and-coming young fighters in Sammy Vasquez and Bryant Perrella; the other against fringe contender Samuel Vargas.

At age 38, Collazo has proven he still has plenty in the tank and has clawed back up the rankings in the welterweight division. But to get one more shot at a title, Collazo must find a way to get past another young up-and-comer in Uzbekistan’s Abdukakhorov.

Abdukakhorov, 26, is coming off the biggest win of his pro career this past March when he won a 12-round unanimous decision over former 140-pound title challenger Keita Obara. That win boosted Abdukakhorov into the number one position in the IBF at welterweight and in line to one day be the mandatory challenger for current belt-holder Errol Spence Jr.

Stylistically, I love this matchup. Abdukakhorov is an aggressive boxer-puncher. He will look to press the attack and won’t be afraid to lead looking to land his best punch which is the overhand right. Collazo is a southpaw who is a natural counterpuncher. He will look to make Abdukakhorov’s aggression work against him and should find plenty of opportunities to do so.

I think we are going to get an action-packed, competitive fight. This should serve as an excellent appetizer to Gvozdyk-Beterbiev.

What’s Next For Dmitry Bivol?

This past Saturday, Dmitry Bivol (17-0, 11 KO’s) successfully defended his WBA light heavyweight title with a wide unanimous decision over Lenin Castillo (20-3-1, 15 KO’s). Though it wasn’t the most exciting performance, the win keeps Bivol in line for bigger opportunities down the road. So, what’s next for him?

Saturday’s title defense marked Bivol’s second consecutive appearance on the streaming service DAZN. DAZN needs future opponents for its two biggest stars in Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Clearly part of the reason for DAZN showing interest in Bivol is geared toward him potentially getting one or the other down the road.

Though Alvarez is fighting at light heavyweight in November, this appears to be a one-time appearance for the Mexican superstar in that division. He is likely headed back to middleweight or the 168-pound weight class. As for Golovkin, he has fought his entire 13-year career at middleweight. A move at some point soon to 168 would not be a surprise.

Bivol and his team have made it very clear that he can get down to 168. With DAZN’s two biggest stars hovering around that division, a move down to 168 seems likely.

The WBA champion at 168 is Callum Smith who is slated for a title defense in November against UK countryman John Ryder. Assuming Smith prevails, he would make a logical opponent for Bivol in the spring of 2020.

Smith-Bivol would be a big fight between two young undefeated fighters and the winner would then be in position for a mega fight later in 2020 against either Alvarez or Golovkin.

But what if Smith goes a different direction following the Ryder fight? If that is the case, Bivol may instead just look to dip his toes in the water at 168 with someone like Rocky Fielding.

Fielding is a tough, gritty competitor who is popular in the UK and has name recognition in the US based on his fight last December with Canelo. But as we saw in that fight, Fielding is very limited.

Fielding is just the type of opponent who could bring out the best in Bivol. A spectacular knockout would help erase some of Bivol’s recent lackluster performances. And this would, of course, make Bivol much more marketable for a future date with Alvarez or Golovkin.

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