The names are unfamiliar to most boxing fans -- Musashi, Remy Bonjasky -- but suffice to say in the world of K-1 kickboxing, both men command a substantial amount of respect. This is what former WBO heavyweight champion "Merciless" Ray Mercer was facing when he decided to take a break from the boxing world in 2004 and enter the realm of professional kickboxing.
How hard could it be, Mercer probably thought. He had to have seen the videos of spectacular knockout after knockout and said to himself, "I can do that." Plus, the money was good and he had the opportunity to travel to Japan and be a superstar in a strange land. No more fighting the likes of Mario Cawley and Shawn Robinson for relative pocket change. This was what he liked -- the big show with the big money. One crack on one of these guys' chins and he would have been reinvented, George Foreman-style, in the Land of the Rising Sun.
It was too good to be true.
"I thought they'd put me in there with somebody that I could beat," said a laughing Mercer, who has since returned to boxing and the United States, where he will face Shannon Briggs Friday night at the Hard Rock Live Arena in Hollywood, Fla. (Showtime PPV, 9 p.m. ET).
But they didn't. In Mercer's K-1 debut in June of 2004, he faced hometown hero Musashi, who entered the bout with a 32-17-5 record, compiled mainly against the top names in the sport.
Mercer entered the ring in Nagoya that night with his two fists and a fearsome reputation, but there were two essential things missing -- his feet. Mercer decided to enter the ring with boxing shoes on, thus rendering him unable to kick under K-1 rules. Musashi, barefooted, had no such restraints. You can do the math.
"I knew nothing about kicking," said Mercer. "I wore shoes, so the guys I fought knew I wasn't gonna kick, even though I didn't know how to kick, and they knew I didn't know how to block anything. They let me have it."
So why not take the shoes off and take your chances trying to throw something, even as a decoy?
"I couldn't get no grip," he said. "I'm not used to wearing no shoes."
Regardless, Mercer had his moments -- albeit briefly -- before losing a 3-0 decision to Musashi. Only afterward did he learn the true meaning of the agony of defeat.
"I couldn't walk for three days after that," said Mercer, referring to the debilitating kicks to the legs that former NFL lineman and current K-1 superstar Bob Sapp once told me defied preparation.
In March of 2005, Mercer decided to give it another go in the kickboxing arena, and if the first bout wasn't bad enough, this time he was matched up with Bonjasky, a former Grand Prix world champion. Again, Mercer wore his shoes, but this time he got nailed with a high kick to the head 22 seconds into the bout. Game over. Boxing was a lot safer than this.
"It was painful," Mercer said. "Oh Lord, it was very painful.
"Them guys are made of something special. I was completely out of my element. It was an experience and I would actually do it again. But this time I would take the time to learn how to block and kick and all that stuff. But then again, maybe I'm getting a little too old for that, to try and join something else. But it was a great experience. I got a chance to go over there and meet some of the guys and compete in something I knew nothing about."
Mercer knows boxing though, and in June he returned to the ring with a lopsided 10-round decision over Darroll Wilson (who handed Briggs his first professional loss back in 1996).
"I was having fun in that fight," said Mercer. "I went 10 rounds, I didn't get hurt at all, I didn't get hit real bad, and the guy can punch. Plus, I only have to worry about two hands coming at me, not four things. And then you've got knees, oh my God."
You can almost hear Mercer shaking his head through the telephone as he recounts the folly of his brief leap to Japan.
At 44, your midlife crisis is supposed to consist of buying a motorcycle and getting a 21-year-old girlfriend, not getting kicked in the head. But for Mercer, a father of nine children ranging in age from 6 to 18, it was something he doesn't regret. In fact, the brief absence from the boxing ring has made him appreciate his second go-round even more.
"I feel great," he said. "I just feel that I'm in a league that I can handle, that I know a lot about. It feels good to be back to boxing."
On Friday, he gets a chance to put his name firmly back in the mix if he can beat Briggs in an intriguing matchup that would have been even more intriguing had it happened 10 years ago. But regardless of their ages, Mercer-Briggs has the potential for some fireworks, especially given Briggs' apparent dislike of his foe, which goes back to the days when they lived in the same house while being managed by Marc Roberts. Mercer says he truly has no idea about the source of this animosity.
"I thought that when we were living together in Marc's house that everything was cool," said Mercer.
"We were playing cards once, and I [drank] a beer and he told my manager, but that was the only thing that we went through. He talked about all this animosity but I didn't see it there. Now, he's talking and I'm like, 'Where did all this come from?' I didn't know he felt like he felt."
He knows now, and Briggs was in fine form at the New York press conference announcing the bout.
He made no bones about his dislike of Mercer and that he was going to punish him on Friday. It made for great copy for the media in attendance, but Mercer was having little of it, and he stormed out of the presser. Will he lose his cool in the ring if Briggs starts jawing at him again, or is he mature enough to put those feelings aside and stick to the game plan once the bell rings?
"I'm old enough to put it to the side," said Mercer.
"Shannon said I'm jealous of him, and I don't think I've been jealous since I was 10, over some girl or something like that. But being 44, you don't get jealous about anything. I like to see young people make it in this world and do a lot of things. As a matter of fact, I never knew that he was in movies or that he was doing the stuff he was hollering about doing when he was at the press conference in New York. I never knew all that stuff.
"I don't wake up every morning thinking about Shannon Briggs. I got a family that I love; I've got nine kids that give me more joy than being in any movie or anything else could give me. So when he says I'm jealous, I don't know what he's talking about."
People are talking about Briggs-Mercer though, and that's a good thing for ticket sales and pay-per-view buys. But there are also those making themselves heard loud and clear when they say this is just another excuse to gouge the boxing public and that Briggs and Mercer are just in it for the payday. Mercer doesn't duck such questions.
"To tell the truth, getting paid is the name of the game," said Mercer.
"Everybody has a job to do. The commentators that say stuff like that, they're getting paid just for saying that. They're getting paid for talking. Evidently, we want to get paid for what we do, and this is our profession. For somebody to say something like that is, to me, a little bit ignorant. A fight is a fight. Of course we want to get paid.
"We're getting hit and taking damage to the brain. So when they say Ray just wants to get paid, of course I want to get paid, but I really want to win. I'm a gold medalist and a former world champion. I'm not in this just for the money."
At 44, he doesn't have long in the game. But with the division as wide open as it is, a victory or two over "name" opposition could open the door to an optional title defense for one of the four champions. If that happens, hey, anything can happen in a fight when two men over 200 pounds start throwing punches.
Mercer admits he doesn't know what the future will bring, but he does know that if opportunities arise, he has to take them -- that's something he didn't do in his fighting prime.
"All I know is that I have to win this fight and things will follow," he said.
"I've been in the game long enough to know that. I'm getting exposure, so if I get in there and look good and win this fight, then things are gonna open up for me. Being older now, I know to take advantage of the opportunities I have, which, when I was younger, I took for granted. Now it's much harder to get ready, and as you get older things get a lot tougher for you. But I am in great shape."
For a fighter many believed wasted away some good years by not taking his craft seriously enough in the gym, being in shape for this fight is of utmost importance. You can fool the fans in this sport once or twice, but not consistently. Mercer wants to make another run in the sport -- whether it's for love or money, only he knows -- and he has to perform Friday. So why should the fans tune in for Mercer-Briggs?
"Evidently, the way Shannon's talking and the way he has that little hatred for me, I know he's gonna put on a good show, and I'm in there just trying to make a living and trying to win, and styles make fights," said Mercer.
"Here we are, we were with the same manager for a long time and we never even sparred. I'm just finding out now that Shannon feels this way about me, and we're gonna go in there and take care of business. For him it's personal; for me, it's just business and I want to win this fight. I think it's gonna be a good show and I think it's a fight people want to see."
And at least, Mercer won't have to worry about any kicks coming from Briggs.
"Knowing that you're not going to get kicked, and knowing that you only have to worry about two hands is a relief," he said, laughing.
You could get smacked with a dreadlock.
"I'm not worried about no dreadlocks."