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The Candy Slim Story

By Geno McGahee

“Remember the name ‘Candy Slim!’ Champ next year! Don’t bring us mortal men. We want to fight giants!” – Don King

Boxing has a lot of tragedies and it also is a stage for redemption. There is no wonder why people are attracted to the sport of boxing. It’s not merely the thrill of the knockout or the epic battles that men go through inside of the ropes. It’s the storyline and the personal nature of the sport. In other sports, it’s a team effort and often the individuality is lost. In boxing, you are alone, and you are also risking your life in hopes of making a good living. The world of boxing is an escape for the impoverished and a chance for the no-hoper to become rich and famous. The crowds cheer for that. We love underdogs and to see a man defy the odds and escape the rough past is inspirational.

The story leading up to the fight is as important as the fight itself. It is the promoter’s job to sell the event and there has been no better salesman than Don King. King was able to push Chuck Wepner as the “everyday man” looking for a chance to hit the lottery against Muhammad Ali. It was a mismatch that should have drawn no press, but it was all over the news and is still talked about to this day. Don King has a flare for promoting heavyweights. He has pushed many of them into the publics’ eye. Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, and many more have been showcased by King. One fighter early on was a man named Jeff Merritt. He went by the nickname of “Candy Slim.”

In the beginning stages of Don King’s boxing journey, he eyed the heavyweight division. He wanted to own all of the top heavyweights because that is where the money was and the more money, the more heavyweights, the more power that he had. Three heavyweights appealed to him in 1973: Earnie Shavers, Ray Anderson, and Jeff Merritt.

Don King, being an ex-con, could easily relate to Merritt, a man that had been arrested for rape, burglaries, and had drug charges. Merritt had a much more important battle going on outside the ring with heroin, and King knew that if he could control that portion of his life, then he may have a world champion on his hands. King quickly removed Merritt from all other managers and assumed the role, now guiding the career, and getting the story out to the world. He was representing a flawed human, battling inner demons, and hoping to conquer heavyweight boxing.

In 1973, Merritt had a record of 21-1, 16 KO’s. He stood 6 feet, 5 inches, and had broken the jaw of Earnie Shavers in sparring. He had dynamite in his hands and had the size to make some serious waves in the division. The first minor wave occurred on September 10, 1973, in New York City.

Many of the fans in New York that night were there to see the closed circuit broadcast of the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton, but they would also be seeing a glimpse of the potential future of the division in Merritt, a man that sparred with Muhammad Ali and gave him all he could handle.

The opponent chosen for Merritt on this night was former WBA Heavyweight Champion, Ernie Terrell. Terrell has an impressive record of, 45-8, 21 KO’s, and had only been knocked out on one occasion. Older former champions are usually the building blocks for up and coming prospects. Most former champions leave the sport on their backs. Terrell was a warrior, taking on some of the biggest names of the time. He held victories over Zora Folley, Cleveland Williams, Bob Foster, George Chuvalo, and Doug Jones, the man he defeated for the title. He would lose a decision to Muhammad Ali, but held strong for 15 rounds. Unfortunately, most of his best bouts were ten years old before he stepped into the ring in New York in 1973. He was coming off a decision loss to Chuck Wepner, a clear sign that he should hang up the gloves, but the money was right and he was back in the ring, attempting to stop the rise of Don King’s heavyweight.

When the opening bell rang, “Candy Slim” pounced, and the former WBA Title holder had no answer and referee Arthur Mercante stopped the contest at 2:42 of the first round. In the dressing room, King boomed: “Remember the name ‘Candy Slim!’ Champ next year! Don’t bring us mortal men. We want to fight giants!” It was a great night for Jeff Merritt and one for Don King, who was still trying to establish himself in boxing. The future was very bright.

Merritt would follow up the win over Terrell with another good win, a TKO in three over Ron Stander, before facing off with the unremarkable Henry Clark. It was another first round knockout, but this time, “Candy Slim” was on the wrong end. Only in boxing can one defeat ruin you. Merritt was damaged goods after this fight, abandoned by King, and quickly falling back into the madness that was his life on the outside of the ring. He was knocked out again by Stan Ward in three rounds, and then had a ten round draw with Billy Daniels, a man that had only won 23 of his 47 bouts.

In 1982, he would have his final bout against Memphis Al Jones, a career loser, with a record of 12-31-2, going in. Merritt got the thrill of victory one last time as he sent Jones to the floor and out of the fight inside of one round. Merritt would leave boxing with a record of 24-3-1, 19 KO’s.

The man known as “Candy Slim” was all but forgotten and fell deep back into the world that he tried so hard to escape from. He resurfaced in 1991 in Las Vegas, a homeless addict begging for money and ranting and raving about Don King, who was in town promoting a Mike Tyson – Razor Ruddock fight. Barefoot at the Mirage Hotel, he told the gamblers and fight fans: “I was Don King’s first fighter. I’m Candy Slim. Give me a dollar.” It was a sad ending, but thankfully, there is redemption even without the assistance of the ring.

“Candy Slim” is now reportedly working on his life story, cleaned up his act, and is living with his family. His past is sorted and his ring exploits were exciting. He fought in the golden age of heavyweights, held his own in sparring sessions with some of the best of the time, and may have been a major part of that era had he not had the problems that he did. “Candy Slim” is another one of those comets in boxing, burning out quickly but leaving quite the impression. He had the potential to be a star, but never achieved it.

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