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THE SEOUL GAMES : LATE BLOOMER : At Advanced Age of 27, Heavyweight Mercer Wins Gold, Aims for Pro Career

Times Staff Writer

Floyd Patterson was a teen-age middleweight when he won his Olympic gold medal, and Muhammad Ali an adolescent light-heavyweight when he won his.

So, in the wake of 27-year-old heavyweight Ray Mercer’s first-round destruction of hometown hero Baik Hyun Man, which catapulted this unknown to stardom and perhaps one day into Mike Tyson’s path, some questions occur:

Who is he?

Where did he come from?

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But most important, why did it take so long?

“He tried out in ’85,” said U.S. assistant coach Hank Johnson, “but he just never really made up his mind to be competitive, to go all the way, until this year.”

Why not?

“There were more important things, I don’t know,” said Johnson, smiling.

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“A boxer has to be true to his sport. You can’t be missing bed checks. You can’t be going to clubs.”

OK, so Mercer liked to get out and around. Finally, somewhat late in life, this Army corporal based in West Germany discovered he had something transcendent in those fists.

In one of them, anyway: his right hand.

Intrigued, Mercer let Johnson teach him a left hook. And that was just this spring.

You might think that 27 is pretty old to be an amateur, much less a one-armed amateur, but there he was.

And suddenly, here he is.

“Two weeks before the nationals, I didn’t have a hook,” Mercer said. “I depended only on my right hand. I took damn near everybody in the nationals out with it.”

That was a left hook that Mercer laid on the chin of Baik in parting. Now everybody in the internationals knows, too.

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In light of previous events at this venue, much was made of this match beforehand, in terms of its riot potential.

However, the night before, the U.S. coaches were invited to the swank Hotel Shilla to dine with South Korean officials, presumably so that the Americans wouldn’t feel a spirit of animosity.

In the spirit of international cooperation, and with the aid of other spirits, a new harmonic period began.

“We were eating,” Johnson said. “I was drinking orange juice, everybody else was drinking vodka. We started singing. Ken (Adams, the U.S. coach) and I sang ‘Stand by Me.’ We had ‘em rocking.’ ”

Did the Americans feel better?

“I’ve never felt any animosity,” Adams said. “I know how boxing is. Boxing is like this everywhere in the world. Anybody’s who’s on top, they want to see you knocked down.”

At 11:47 a.m., South Korea time, the capacity crowd in Chamshil Students’ Gymnasium got its wake-up call--Baik, the national hope, was taking the ring. But before the fighters were called to the middle of the ring, Mercer crossed over to Baik’s corner and said a few words to him.

“I thought that was right on time,” Johnson said. “If you noticed, there was a little silence, and then, when he made that gesture, it became like any other athletic sporting event--let the best man win.

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“And Ray did that on his own.”

Having defused the atmosphere, Mercer did the same for Baik. Mercer congratulated the South Korean again as the referee brought them together for the hand-raising.

He can handle Olympic heavies, he can handle the heavy going, so what’s next?

Turning pro?

“Definitely,” Mercer said beaming. Let Iron Mike know this is a long-term project, but it’s a thought.


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