Recently I contacted one of the hardest hitting heavyweights during the 1970’s (when heavyweights were heavyweights) named Jeff “Candy Slim” Merritt, 24-3-1 (19), out of Kansas City, MO. A perfect example of one with so much natural ability that lacked conditioning in taking fights he could have won.
I was contacted by former boxer Kenny Rainford from the UK who employed Earnie Shavers for 10 years over there. He wanted me to ask Jeff about sparring with Earnie who was training for a fight with Jerry Quarry. “We were on Don King’s farm in Ohio. Don was leaving and told Archie Moore not to let me spar with anyone. Earnie is a hard hitter and you have to fight him. He punches like a mother f….er. I broke his jaw and Don was upset when he heard about it,” said Merritt.
Per Rainford Earnie said “the hardest work he had in sparring was with Merritt, Roy Williams and big Art Robinson. He would beat Jeff up when he wasn’t in shape but when Jeff was with it they went to war.” Rainford added “Larry Holmes always raves about Jeff being the uncrowned champ.”
Seems when Merritt was 15 he got in trouble for fighting so much and was put in a boy’s home where he turned 16. “Then they sent me to a young man’s penitentiary for fighting. I was only 17. Sonny Liston and I would later spar each other in prison. He wanted to take me with him when he left but the people he was with were trouble so they wouldn’t let me go. Bob Arum heard about me and got Joe Louis to come to the prison on a Monday and had me out on a Friday though I still had 3 years to go,” said Merritt.
He went to New York and was working with the Maritime Union where he would turn professional in February of 1968 knocking out Ronnie Williams in 1:20 of the first round. “Then I fought a bad guy named Joe Belton (the following month) and he had me on the canvas,” said Merritt. He would come back to win a 4 round decision. He would then score a couple of first round knockouts one being in MSG. Then back to the National Maritime Union Hall improving his record to 5-0 with 4 first round knockouts.
In his sixth fight in seven months he lost for the first time to Philly’s Johnny Gause in 3 rounds at MSG. “I ran out of gas,” said Merritt. Two months later back at the Maritime Hall he scored another first round knockout.
He was then brought into Philly to meet Roy “Tiger” Williams who was 9-0 at the Arena. I was asked by the Strazerri brothers to do a story on Williams for Boxing Illustrated. I went to the fight in March of 1969 and the fans were yelling “another stiff for Williams!” Merritt looked really cool in what looked like a black valor outfit with the jacket cut off at the waist. “Roy had me down. He had a real good right hand. When I got up I knew he was shook,” said Merritt. He would win an 8 round decision over Williams.
The following month at the Felt Forum in NY he was matched with Charlie “The Emperor” Harris, 7-4-1. “I broke my hand but stopped him (in 3),” said Merritt. Depsite the injury he was back the following month stopping Mike Bruce in the first round at Sunny Side Gardens in NY. The following month he won an 8 round decision over Philly’s Roger Russell at MSG.
In August of 1969 Merritt fights Henry Clark, 17-5-3 in the first of two bouts and wins another 8 round decision. It would be 5 months before fighting again but he would move to Miami and be trained by Angelo Dundee there. He would score 3 straight knockouts and at that time Muhammad Ali was able to gain a license to fight. “Don’t believe what Ali said in his book. He came into the gym wanting the toughest guy there. Dundee put me in with him and I knocked his head gear off and Dundee yelled to stop it. I was a good left hooker,” said Merritt. Ali claimed if he could hold his own with Merritt then he knew he could come back.
It would be 11 months before Merritt returned to the ring scoring a first round knockout and 4 days later travel to Nassau in the Bahamas to take on Stamford Harris winning a 10 round decision.
Merritt would return to the Bahamas and one fight in Jamaica before returning to NY to meet Ernie Terrell, 46-8, the former WBA world champion in MSG. Terrell had a 7 fight winning streak broken by Chuck Wepner in a disputed loss. In 54 fights Terrell had only been stopped once and that was by Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams.
“I was in the best shape of my life when I stopped Terrell (1st rd),” said Merritt. Terrell would never fight again. In Cleveland Merritt would stop Ron Stander in 3 rounds. Stander had lost in a title fight with Joe Frazier the previous year being stopped in 5.
In March of 1974 Merritt gets a call from Don King saying he needed him in order to save a card to fight Clark again. “I had been with a couple of women and took the fight for he promised me 10k but I was stopped in the first. He gave me 2k and said he’d see me in Cleveland but never did give me the rest,” said Merritt.
It would be over 2 years when Merritt would meet CA prospect Stan Ward in August of 1976 in Utica, NY, on 3 days notice.
“I had him all swelled up with one eye closed when I tired and was stopped in the third,” said Merritt. Four months later he would meet Billy Daniels, a one-time Ali opponent which would end up in a 10 round draw. We butted heads early in the fight and Daniels had a bad cut so it ended up a technical draw,” said Merritt.
It would be almost 6 years in October of 1982 when Sylvester Stallone brought him in to Tulsa, OK, where he would stop Al Jones in the first round. “I never did get paid in that one,” said Merritt. It would be his last fight!
It’s another story of “what could have been” with “Candy Slim”! The fighters that dedicate themselves in the gym and do their roadwork sometimes advance a lot further than those with natural ability and don’t! I’m afraid Jeff Merritt was one of them!