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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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Remembering Oscar ‘Shotgun’ Albarado (1948-2021)

Arne K. Lang

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Former world junior middleweight champion Oscar “Shotgun” Albarado passed away on Feb. 17 at age 72 in a nursing home in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas. Albarado’s death didn’t go unnoticed in the town that he put on the sporting map, but news out of Uvalde appears to travel to the outside world by Pony Express. There’s been no notice of it in the boxing press; even the authoritative boxrec has yet to acknowledge his passing. This isn’t uncommon. A boxer has a high probability of dying in obscurity, even if he had a large fan base during his heyday.

The folks in Uvalde had a big shindig to honor Albarado after he won the title; a barbecue at the fairgrounds. “All Texas and especially the city of Uvalde share pride in your accomplishments,” read a proclamation from the Governor of Texas, Dolph Briscoe.

The date was June 20, 1974. Sixteen days earlier, Albarado had wrested the 154-pound title from Koichi Wajima in Tokyo. Down two points on two of the scorecards through the 14 completed rounds, Albarado took the bout out of the judges hands, knocking Wajima down three times and out in the final stanza.

It was a long road to Tokyo. An eight-year pro, Oscar had at least 55 pro fights under his belt when he was granted a crack at the title. As he was scaling the ladder with occasional missteps, he became a fan favorite at the Olympic Auditorium, the shrine of Mexican-American boxing in L.A. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Albarado’s parents were migrant farm workers. They spent a portion of each year picking sugar beets in Minnesota. The kids went along with them. Albarado was purportedly six years old when he first worked in the fields.

He was 17 years old when he had his first documented fight, a 4-rounder in San Antonio, but there are some reports that say he was fighting in Mexico when he was as young as 15.

Albarado became a local attraction in South Texas and then spread his wings, moving to Los Angeles where there was better sparring and boxers of Mexican extraction were a more highly-valued commodity. He was backed by LA fight functionary Harry Kabakoff, a wheeler-dealer who knew all the right people. A colorful character, Kabakoff, born Melville Himmelfarb (don’t ask) had struck it big with bantamweight Jesus “Little Poison” Pimentel, a boxer he discovered while living in Mexicali.

Billed as the Uvalde Shotgun and eventually as just Shotgun Albarado, Oscar had his first fight at the Olympic on Jan. 9, 1969, and four more fights there in the next three months. He lost the last of the five and with it his undefeated record to Hedgemon Lewis who out-pointed him in a 10-round fight. There was no shame in losing to Hedgemon, an Eddie Futch fighter who went on to become a world title-holder.

Albarado was back at the Olympic before the year was out. All told, he had 17 fights at the fabled South Grand Street arena, going 13-3-1. His other losses came at the hands of Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez (L UD 10) and Dino Del Cid.

Del Cid, dressed with a 29-8-2 record, was a Puerto Rican from the streets of New York or a Filipino, depending on which LA newspaper one chose to read. Apprised that Albarado was a slow starter, he came out slugging. A punch behind the ear knocked Albarado woozy and the ref stepped in and stopped it. It was all over in 81 seconds.

Oscar demanded a rematch and was accommodated. Six weeks later, he avenged the setback in grand style, decking Del Cid three times in the opening stanza and knocking him down for the count in the following round with his “shotgun,” his signature left hook.

As the house fighter, Albarado got the benefit of the doubt when he fought Thurman Durden in January of 1973. The decision that went his way struck many as a bit of a gift. But the same thing had happened to him in an earlier fight when he opposed fast-rising welterweight contender Armando Muniz.

As popular as Alvarado was at the Olympic, his pull paled beside that of young Muniz. Born in Mexico but a resident of Los Angeles from the age of six, Muniz attended UCLA on a wrestling scholarship before finishing his studies at a commuter school and had represented the United States in the 1968 Olympics while serving in the Army.

Muniz vs. Alvarado was a doozy. We know that without seeing the fight as we have the empirical evidence in the form of the description of the scene at the final bell; appreciative fans showered the ring with coins. The verdict, a draw, met with the approval of the folks in the cheap seats, but ringside reporters were of the opinion that “Shotgun” was wronged. The LA Times correspondent had it 7-2-1 for the Texan.

Oscar had two more fights after avenging his loss to Del Cid before heading off to Tokyo to meet the heavily-favored Wajima who was making the seventh defense of his 154-pound title. Two more trips to Tokyo would follow in quick succession.

Albarado made the first defense of his newly-acquired belt against Ryu Sorimachi. He stopped him in the seventh round, putting him down three times before the match was halted. Three-and-a-half months later, he gave the belt back to Wajima, losing a close but unanimous decision in their rematch.

Oscar quit the sport at this juncture, returning to Uvalde. He was in good shape financially. He had used his earnings from his Olympic Auditorium fights to open a gas station. With the Tokyo money, he expanded his holdings by purchasing a laundromat.

This would be a nice place to wrap up this story. Former Austin American-Statesman sportswriter Jack Cowan, a Uvalde native, recalled that when Oscar opened his service station, he gave his new customers an autographed photo of himself in a boxing pose inscribed with the words “Oscar Albarado: The Next World Champion.” He would make that dream become a reality, defying the odds, while breaking the cycle of poverty in his family. Boxing was the steppingstone to a better life for him and his children.

But ending the story right here would be disingenuous. This is boxing, after all, and when the life story of a prominent boxer comes fully into a focus, a feel-good story usually takes a wrong turn.

Oscar got the itch to fight again. Sixty-seven months after walking away from boxing, he resumed his career with predictable results. He was only 34 when he returned to the ring, but he was a shell of his former self, an old 34.

Albarado was knocked out in five of his last seven fights before leaving the sport for good with a record of 57-13-1 (43 KOs). He made his final appearance in Denmark, the adopted home of double-tough Ayub Kalule who whacked him out in the second round.

Albarado’s obituary in the Uvalde paper was uncharacteristically blunt. “He suffered from pugilistic dementia,” it said, “caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows.”

There was no sugar-coating there, no Parkinson’s to obfuscate the truth.

If he had known the fate that awaited him, would he have still chosen the life of a prizefighter? That’s not for us to say, but author Tris Dixon, while researching his new book, spoke to a bunch of neurologically damaged fighters and almost to a man they said they would do it all over again.

Albarado had four children, three sons and a daughter. When he was elected to the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017, he was too decrepit to travel, but all four of his children — Oscar Jr, Emmanuel, Jacob, and Angela — made the trip to North Hollywood to accept the award on his behalf.

The kids were proud of their old man, a feeling that did not dissipate as he became incapacitated. If boxing was helpful in tightening the bond, then it’s a fair guess the Uvalde Shotgun had no regrets.

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Brandon Figueroa KOs Nery and Danny Roman Wins Too

David A. Avila

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LOS ANGELES-Brandon Figueroa took the air out of Mexico’s Luis Nery to win by knockout and unify the WBA and WBC super bantamweight titles on Saturday. It was a belly buster that did the job.

Texan Figueroa (22-0-1, 17 KOs) set out to prove that Tijuana’s two-division world champion Nery (31-1, 24 KOs) could not endure a toe-to-toe battle with the bigger guys and he proved it before several thousand fans at the Dignity Health Sports Park.

It was a back-and-forth battle that saw Nery attack the body and head while Figueroa focused on winging big blows from a distance and in close. Many of the rounds were extremely close to score.

When Nery was able to battle from a distance and dive inside, he seemed the much more athletic between the two champions. But Figueroa just seemed stronger and unfazed by any of the Mexican fighter’s blows.

Though Figueroa absorbed a lot of punishment, he never seemed in trouble. When Nery connected with a several combinations in the fifth round by landing five-punch and three-punch combinations, it looked like he was taking control.

He did not.

Figueroa opened the sixth round with two left hook blasts that reminded Nery that the taller Texan had a punch. When Nery tried to rally with his own blasts, Figueroa slipped under back-to-back left hooks. It seemed to change the tide.

“I knew he was getting tired,” said Figueroa. “He was trying to box me.”

In the seventh round Figueroa was able to connect with a left hook and followed up with a lead right. Nery countered with a three-punch combination that was met with Figueroa countering with a three-punch combination to the head and body. Then both fighters exchanged inside and Figueroa connected with a right to the chest and a left uppercut to the solar plexus and down went Nery.

Nery could not beat referee Tom Taylor’s count and was counted out at 2:18 of the seventh round.

Figueroa is now the WBC and WBA super bantamweight unified champion.

“It feels amazing,” said Figueroa. “I know everyone doubted me.”

Roman Wins Super Bantam Eliminator

Los Angeles-based Danny Roman (29-3-1, 10 KOs) battered Mexico’s Ricardo Espinoza (25-4, 21 KOs) to win convincingly by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a super bantamweight fight.

After a slow start Roman began to out-maneuver the heavy-punching Espinoza and found openings for left uppercuts. Boy did he find openings.

“I concentrated on finding my distance,” said Roman.

Roman snapped Espinoza’s head back so many times it seemed that the Mexican fighter would not be able to last the full 10 rounds. But like most Mexican fighters he would not quit.

Espinoza tried every move in his catalogue but nothing worked against the superb technique used by Roman, who formerly held the IBF and WBA super bantamweight world titles. It was a perfect example of technical prowess defeating raw power.

The uppercut was the chosen weapon of choice and Roman exhibited how to throw it from various positions and angles. It landed perfectly every time as if targeted by a laser. Espinoza never could avoid the uppercut.

During the last three rounds Espinoza’s face was bloody and battered while Roman looked as if he were merely sparring. The end seemed near but the fighter from Tijuana battled until the final bell.

“I thought he was going to go down,” said Roman. “But he had a big heart.”

All three judges scored it for Roman at 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

“It’s a step closer to getting back my titles,” said Roman who lost the titles to Murodjon Akhmadaliev a year ago by split decision. “I’m here to fight the best.”

Martinez Beats Burgos

Sacramento’s Xavier Martinez (16-0, 11 KOs) discovered that Tijuana’s Juan Carlos Burgos (34-5-2, 21 KOs) still has plenty of fight remaining and showed it with a gutsy 10 rounds of back-and-forth battering. Still, Martinez won by unanimous decision though every round was competitive.

Boy was it competitive.

Martinez, 23, had a 10-year advantage in youth but was unable to convince Burgos. Every round saw savage combinations connect by each fighter, but the judges all felt that the Sacramento fighter was superior. All three scored it 99-91 for Martinez. The crowd booed the decision.

“I was landing the cleaner shots,” said Martinez. “He’s a tough competitor.”

Other Results

A super lightweight match saw Jose Valenzuela (8-0) knock out Nelson Hampton (7-4) in the first round.

Gabriela Fundora (1-0) won her pro debut by unanimous decision over Jazmin Valverde (2-2) in a four round flyweight match. Fundora is the sister of super welterweight contender Sebastian Fundora.

A lightweight bout was won by Justin Cardona (5-0) by first round knockout of James De Herrera (4-7).

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Buatsi Flattens Dos Santos in Manchester; Charr KOs Fraudulent Lovejoy in Cologne

Arne K. Lang

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In a Knockout of the Year candidate, rising light heavyweight contender Joshua Buatsi (14-0, 12 KOs) leveled Daniel Blenda Dos Santos, an unheralded Frenchman, in the fourth round, closing the show with a pulverizing right hand – and for good measure, touching him with another right as he fell. A 2016 Olympic bronze medalist for England, the Ghana-born Buatsi trained for two months in the California Bay Area under his new trainer Virgil Hunter and his American sojourn paid dividends.

Dos Santos, who found his way to boxing after serving three-and-a-half years in prison, was undefeated (15-0, 8 KOs) coming in, but hadn’t fought beyond six rounds. He was knocked down earlier in the fight with a chopping right hand. There were less than 20 seconds remaining in the fourth when Buatsi put Dos Santos to sleep, and to his credit he did not celebrate but consoled his distraught victim.

Other Bouts

In a shocker, 31-year-old southpaw Jason Cunningham improved to 29-6 (6) with a unanimous decision over Gamal Yafai (18-2) who was making the first defense of the European bantamweight title that he won in Milan.

Cunningham had Yafai on the canvas three times — knocking him down with left hands in the second, fourth and sixth rounds — but Yafai, the younger brother of former 115-pound world title-holder Kal Yafai — wasn’t deterred and kept coming forward. In the end, however, Cunningham’s lead was too big for Yafai to overcome. The judges had it 115-110 and 114-111 x2 for the southpaw who was a consensus 10/1 underdog.

Super middleweight Lerrone Richards breezed to a lopsided 12-round decision over Italian veteran Giovanni DeCarolis to snatch a vacant European title. Trained by Dave Coldwell, who previously handled Tony Bellew, Richards was content to rack up points and the one-dimensional DeCarolis, who was making his first start in 23 months, had no way to stop him.

The judges had it 120-108 and 119-109 twice. The London-born Richards, whose family roots are in Ghana, improved to 15-0 (3). This may have been the last rodeo for the 36-year-old DeCarolis who fell to 28-10-1.

Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy (18-2, 9 KOs) was fed a softie for his first defense of his European cruiserweight title in the form of 36-year-old Romanian Alexandru Jur who brought a 19-4 record but had defeated only four men with winning records. Except for a few brief moments, Jur showed little inclination to mix it up. McCarthy put Jur down with a body punch in round four and finished him off two rounds later with another body punch. The official time was 2:09.

McCarthy, who is of Irish and Jamaican descent, moves on to a date with fellow Brit Chris Billam-Smith. Jur lost for the fourth time in his last six starts.

Cologne

Credit Christopher Lovejoy for having the gumption to defy Don King who threatened legal action if Lovejoy went ahead with his match today with WBA “champion in recess” Mahmoud (Manuel) Charr. But the 37-year-old Lovejoy, who arrived in Germany all by himself, traveled a long way to destroy whatever credibility he may have had. Fighting off the grid, he had rung up 19 fast knockouts in 19 fights against 19 presumptive Tijuana taxi drivers.

Carrying 306 ½-pounds, the six-foot-five Lovejoy lasted less than two full rounds against Charr who was making his first ring appearance in 42 months. Lovejoy was counted out after being dropped with a volley of punches in the second round.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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