Candy Slim: The Curious Mystique of Jeff Merritt

By Mike Casey on November 29, 2015
Candy Slim: The Curious Mystique of Jeff Merritt
Where did Jeff Merritt go? Heaven, Hell or Las Vegas, the last city where he was sighted?

Merritt was one of those scary monsters of the game, one of that select group of fearsome and near mythical men who never stop intriguing us…

Archie Moore’s services were no longer required. He was out.

On a Monday morning in the mid-summer 1973, Archie walked out of the Grossinger Country Club in New York after being fired by Don King for not following instructions in the care and protection of King’s heavyweight protégé, Earnie Shavers. Training for a summer match at Madison Square Garden against Jerry Quarry (which would be shunted all the way back to December), Shavers suffered a broken jaw at the hands of eccentric sparring partner Jeff (Candy Slim) Merritt, another Don King hopeful who packed the kick of a mule in his boxing gloves.

According to Don King (so the story goes), it was all the fault of trainer and all-round legend, Archie Moore. King allegedly told a Madison Square Garden spokesman: “Moore went completely contradictory to my instructions. I told him not to use Merritt as a sparring partner against Shavers.”

Shavers had complained to Moore after the first round of sparring that his mouth was bleeding and that he thought he might have bitten his tongue. Moore, reportedly, didn’t remove Earnie’s mouthpiece and told him he couldn’t see any blood. He instructed Shavers to go out for the second round. But Earnie broke away in the middle of the round and went back to his dressing room, where he told Moore that he thought his jaw was broken. A preliminary examination confirmed Earnie’s fears and he was taken to hospital.

Asked how much the jaw hurt, Shavers replied, “It hurts me $100,000 worth.” That was his promised pay for the Quarry fight.

Jeff Merritt, pumped up with anger and God only knows what else, had given Shavers his busted jaw out of revenge, a story that Larry Holmes would later throw light on in his book Against All Odds. Holmes, who was also helping Shavers with his sparring at that time, wasn’t impressed by Merritt’s attitude and his actions. The incident catapulted Jeff into the public eye and it is probably no exaggeration to say that it made his name. But he had broken an unwritten rule of every fight camp and Holmes clearly didn’t approve.

Wrote Larry: “The Shavers gig turned out to be shorter than anticipated. Don King had sent Jeff Merritt to camp to spar with Earnie too. A few days into camp, Merritt, who was six-foot-five and had a helluva left hook, got into a slam-bang sparring session with Shavers and busted Earnie’s jaw. He didn’t seem contrite about it afterward.

“When I asked Merritt what prompted the fireworks, he told me that when he’d first come out of prison Shavers had whaled on him in sparring and busted him up pretty good. This was his payback. That ran against every code of conduct for sparring partners. The idea was to work with the man whose camp it was — be less like an adversary than a dance partner. Give him the kind of sweat he wanted. My philosophy was: Let him be what he wants to be but never let him hurt you.”

Jeff Merritt, alas, would never learn from his mistakes.

Scary Monsters

Merritt was one of those scary monsters of the game, one of that select group of fearsome and near mythical men who never stop intriguing us. They set up residence in the back waters of our minds like sleeping crocodiles. We always want to know more about them. We want them to scare us without hurting us.

We still love to read of how a snarling and ripping Jack Dempsey visited Gene Tunney in a terrifying nightmare while Gene was preparing for their first fight; of how Joe Louis made Max Baer freeze in his dressing room when his legs became locked to his bench; of how Sonny Liston bashed the top contenders of his day after terrorizing them into physical and mental meltdown.

In terms of fistic ability and enduring greatness, Jeff Merritt couldn’t hold a candle to any of those legendary boogie men of the ring. Yet that was the very reason for Candy Slim’s curious mystique, which prevails to this day. In his case, the bricks of terror are built on a flood plain of one or two incidents, one or two spectacular wins and a bunch of “What ifs?”

What if he had truly applied himself to his boxing? What if he hadn’t pulled out of that fight against so-and-so? What if some super trainer with the patience of a saint had been able turn Jeff into a model of dedication and commitment? How many guys would he have knocked out then? How high would he have flown?

Away from that flood plain, we have the proven facts that Merritt had little punch resistance, virtually no consistent resolve, a strong liking for drugs and a troubled mind that was all over the place. Yet for many, the monster image remains intact, stoked by Merritt’s ghost-like disappearance into some form of parallel or subterranean world from which he has never returned. Where did he go? Heaven, Hell or Las Vegas, the last city where he was sighted? Is he still there and still alive? No one seems to know, but everyone has a theory on what happened to him. Perhaps the saddest is that Jeff Merritt might well have died as a John Doe.

In his short-lived prime in the early to mid-seventies, Merritt, with his stylish Afro and the slightly wasted look of the stereotype rock star, was tall and rangy with sloping shoulders and a willowy physique. You could see where the leverage and the power came from. By the nineties, according to scattered and not always reliable reports, Jeff was a stooped and broken man, balding and frail, begging for drug money on the streets and telling anyone who would listen how Don King had mistreated him

“Motherfucker” was Merritt’s preferred word for King. The trail ends there. Nothing concrete has been heard of Jeff Merritt since.

What we do know from the accounts of Larry Holmes and others is that Merritt was volatile, unpredictable and almost constantly on edge. As Holmes discovered, just riding in a car with Jeff was an unsettling experience. “Boxing is full of strange characters and Jeff Merritt was certainly one of them,” said Larry. “I remember Don King sending him later to Ali’s camp at Deer Lake and giving Ali money to dole out to Merritt for his meals and incidental expenses.

“Merritt, who called himself Candy Slim — on account of he was sweet (or so he said) — waited until King left and then told Ali, ‘Gimme my goddamn money.’ Ali didn’t care nothing about the money. He gave it to Candy Slim, who started plotting to return to Ohio where King had his farm. ‘I’m gonna go back to Cleveland and kill them cows of his,’ Merritt vowed. He was still steaming about King’s holding out on his money. ‘Who does he think he is? I ain’t no little goddamn kid.’

“Merritt hated King for paying more attention to Shavers. No matter what King did for him, it wasn’t enough. Merritt called to get flight information to Cleveland and then drove down to Easton with me.”

Breakfast

Larry Holmes soon discovered Merritt’s idea of a hearty breakfast. “On the way we stopped in a drugstore and Jeff Merritt bought a bottle of Robitussin, the cough medicine. He liked to drink Robitussin to get high. He did that a lot in those days. Robitussin was his breakfast of champions. I was later told that the Robitussin they make today isn’t as potent as the product Jeff Merritt used to slug down.

“Anyway, we got to Easton and Merritt asked, ‘Where can I buy pot?’ Even though I no longer did drugs of any type, I knew where the dealers hung out and drove him to a street corner where a guy sold him three loose joints. As he smoked his joints he kept talking about shooting those ‘goddamn black Angus.’

“I drove him to the airport later that day. I never heard about King’s prize cows being assassinated. Maybe Jeff Merritt soothed his angry heart with another bottle of Robitussin. Who knows?”

Earnie Shavers added a little more to the story of the broken jaw in his book, Welcome to the Big Time. Here is what Earnie had to say about it, including details of a very heated card game in which Larry Holmes was also involved: “At Grossinger’s I was sparring with Jeff Merritt, a dangerous puncher like myself. Merritt had it in for me because of some past sparring sessions we had after he was released from prison. I had gotten the best of him every time. To put it bluntly, Jeff was a loose cannon.

“Jeff thought Don King showed favoritism towards me and we had nearly come to blows over a meaningless card game a few weeks earlier. Larry Holmes was also playing. There was a few grand on the table and I had the winning hand. Merritt claimed it was a misdeal because of some exposed cards. I grabbed the money off the table and invited Merritt to fight me for the cash. He knew better. I rarely got upset, but when I did I meant it. Merritt was the only boxer available to work with then, which was too bad because he clocked me with a left hook when my mouth was open and broke my jaw.”

Banana skins

The Jeff Merritt trail is a messy one of banana skins that he could never step around and natural talent that he could never fulfill, speckled by only the odd stick of fistic dynamite that kept him in the picture as a talking point. Great publicity and great promise would be followed by eccentric behavior that befuddled his handlers. In 1970, a very strange and somewhat bizarre press conference took place in which Merritt was accompanied by his latest muse, an Algerian belly dancer called Leila, who was teaching him isometric exercises.

How the sports writers on hand loved Leila as she jigged and gyrated to prove the value of her teaching. Who cared about the boxer when the belly dancer was in full flow?  “Jeff breathes beautifully,” Leila told the bug-eyed ensemble in a dreamy voice as she demonstrated her stuff. “You put your arms behind your head like this. You breathe deeply. Now feel how tight it is around the shoulders. You throw the right hip to the right, then the left hip to the left like this….”

Merritt then stripped to the waist to reveal the impressive results of Leila’s coaching, though he didn’t look as pretty as Leila. Jeff was going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world according to the confident members of his eclectic syndicate, which included comedian Henny Youngman, Bob Arum and former champion Joe Louis.

In 1967, when Merritt was still only 20, he won a conditional parole from the Missouri Penitentiary and a chance to make himself a better boxer under the guidance of Joe Louis and Sandy Saddler. Jeff had served more than two years of a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. Louis and Saddler were impressed by his boxing ability and the aim was to train him up for the Olympics and hopefully a professional career. “I fought all the time in prison,” Merritt later explained. “It was tough. But Joe Louis heard about me. He got me out after 29 months.”

Jeff never became an Olympian, but he certainly had every chance of being a top ranking professional. Yet his muddled head was always in conflict with his obvious talent.

You have to show up when you want to become the champion of the world and Jeff didn’t always do that. In August 1971, the Miami Beach Boxing Commission suspended Merritt when he failed to show for a scheduled 10-rounds bout at the Miami Beach Auditorium. The 1,843 fans in attendance were told that Jeff had sustained a hand injury.

However, trainer Angelo Dundee revealed that Merritt had complained of feeling weak. “All these good fighters have idiosyncrasies,” said Dundee. “You can’t figure them out. The kid’s just mixed up.”

Yet when Merritt did show up, he attracted big crowds. In two successive appearances at the Miami Beach Auditorium in May and June of 1970, he pulled in a combined attendance of over four thousand for his TKO victories over Eddie Vick and Charley Polite. The public loves a puncher and it loved jolting Jeff — when he was in the mood to be there.

Merritt really seemed to be going places at that stage in his career. Having turned professional in 1968, he had lost only one of his 15 fights, a third round knockout defeat to Johnny Gausse. That loss came in Jeff’s sixth bout and showed his vulnerability for the first time, but he quickly got over it and rolled to 16 successive wins to tee up a Madison Square Garden match with former WBA champion Ernie Terrell in September 1973. Only Stamford Harris and the hardy trio of Roy (Tiger) Williams, Henry Clark and Roger Russell took Merritt the distance during that streak.

Big Ernie Terrell was enjoying an unlikely and quite impressive revival. It seemed for all the world that he had been permanently knocked out of the picture by consecutive losses to Muhammad Ali, Thad Spencer and Manuel Ramos. But back came Terrell with six straight wins that included a sixth round knockout of the world ranked Venezuelan puncher Jose Luis Garcia, who had made his name by knocking. out Ken Norton. That success pushed Terrell back into the top ten, but then he slipped up by losing a decision to Chuck Wepner.

In truth, the win over Garcia had flattered Terrell. The once magnificently conditioned Venezuelan had ballooned in weight after enjoying too much of the good life and was then involved in a car crash in which a person died.

Nevertheless, Terrell was still a serious opponent for anyone when he stepped into the Madison Square Garden ring against Jeff Merritt. Only Cleveland Williams had stopped Ernie inside schedule in his 54-fight career, and what Merritt did to Terrell left a lot of people breathless. For the first two minutes of the opening round, Jeff and Ernie didn’t do much. Then Merritt exploded. A long left hook stunned Terrell and had him wobbling. Jeff drove him across the ring and then unleashed a barrage of punches that prompted referee Arthur Mercante to stop the fight at the 2:42 mark. It was Terrell’s last fight.

Two months later, Merritt was at it again when he floored tough Ron (The Butcher) Stander three times in the second round and stopped him in the third. A year earlier, Stander had gone four rounds in his title challenge against Joe Frazier, who couldn’t knock Ron off his feet. People make these comparisons and get excited. This Jeff Merritt guy was a whirlwind! How could he fail?

All Jeff had to do in his next fight was score a repeat win over Henry Clark at the Oakland Coliseum in California. Confidence ran high in the Merritt camp. Jeff’s handler, Drew (Bundini) Brown, who never spoke a few words when a few thousand would do, had no doubts about the outcome of the fight: “It ain’t gonna go five rounds. We came here to stop the clock and Jeff’s gonna take him out.”

Merritt added, “Clark’s a powder puff puncher.”

Oh dear. Bundini Brown was wrong about the winner and wrong about the round. “Powder puff” Henry, perhaps a little annoyed at being so scathingly dismissed, came out of his corner with cement intent and bashed a stunned Merritt to defeat in just 47 seconds.

Jeff’s professional boxing career was all over bar the shouting. A third round TKO defeat to Stan Ward followed the Clark disaster, after which Merritt struggled to a draw with veteran Billy Daniels, who was losing to just about everyone else by that stage in his career. The year was 1976 and Jeff Merritt wouldn’t fight again until the last hurrah of a first round TKO victory over Al Jones in 1982. Unfortunately, this wasn’t Al Jones from Florida, who had retired several years before after compiling a respectable 33-3-3 record that made him a borderline top ten contender. It was Al Jones from Memphis, who had his day in the sun by knocking out Boone Kirkman in one round but did little else in a bottom-heavy 11-35-2 career.

Jeff Merritt’s career clock stopped at 24-3-1 with 19 knockouts. And that was it. The scary monster was gone.

Sketchy

Everything is sketchy about Merritt’s career. So many would-be stories run straight up a back alley and lead to inconclusive results. Now you see him, now you don’t. Tales of promise come to nothing, just as they did when the Beach Boys’ eccentric genius Brian Wilson was trapped in his own web of mental illness and substance abuse.

More often than not, Merritt’s name comes up in connection with other fighters or in relation to his dangerous non-boxing activities. On June 8 1971, he spoilt a cozy little gig for former champion Floyd Patterson by knocking out Willie McMillian in two rounds at Miami Beach. Patterson was scheduled to fight McMillian in Toledo on June 29, but the Toledo Boxing Commission quickly removed that event from their calendar.

Commission chairman Sam Youngheart said: “We’re anxious to have professional boxing return to the Toledo scene, but we want to make sure that the fans are going to get their money’s worth and that the boxers and their managers are protected as well.”

A month later, Floyd Patterson fought Charley Polite instead at Erie, Pennsylvania, winning a 10-rounds unanimous decision.  At least Charley’s 14-18-3 record vaguely resembled Willie McMillian’s 14-11-2.

Merritt popped up again in 1978, during a six-year hiatus in his boxing career, when he was found not guilty of attempted murder after shooting a man named James Ward five times in a downtown Cleveland bar. Jeff successfully pleaded self-defense.

It seemed that everything was out of kilter in Jeff Merritt’s jumbled world. Even his few glories were sometimes accidentally tarnished. Whilst scanning old newspaper reports, I came across a warm tribute to the retired Ernie Terrell, in which the reporter — quite obviously not a boxing man — informed his readers that Ernie had ended his honorable career with a first round knockout victory over Jeff Merritt.

Death

I can find no death date for Merritt, so we must assume he is still alive, in which case he would be 68. Even though he made a mess of his life, I still wonder where he is and what kind of surreal world he is floating through. It all comes back to intrigue and mystique and our fascination with the unseen and the untouchable.

In the 1971 film, The French Connection, Gene Hackman’s character — tenacious New York cop Jimmy (Popeye) Doyle — keeps a favorite trumped-up charge in reserve for those of his drug suspects who have hidden their cache in a safe place. He arrests them for picking their feet in Poughkeepsie.

Perhaps the once swashbuckling Jeff Merritt is now doing little more than that.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Mike Casey 02:16am, 12/01/2015

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Sean. Yes, I would imagine it was a bit unnerving actually being close to Merritt! I didn’t realise that he had been declared ‘brain dead’ last year after being taken off life support (see comment by ‘old school’ below). That’s a sad end to the story and I was hoping for a happier conclusion. As for Don King, what can I say?

  2. Sean Matheny 02:41pm, 11/30/2015

    Very interesting story Mike!  I remember being around Jeff in the gym.  Larry Holmes calling him a loose cannon was extremely kind!  Nobody wanted to be around Merritt….he was just too crazy and disagreeable, and took erratic to whole new level.  King really treated him like crap too, once Candy Slim wore out his usefulness as a prizefighter.  By the 80’s, he was reduced to hanging out at local boxing shows begging for handouts.  “You remember me, champ….I’m Candy Slim Merritt. Help a brother out” He could really hit though….talk about blown potential!  Unfortunately, he was as my grandma would say just “a poor lost soul.”  This story brought back lots of memories….some of them not so good!

  3. Clarence George 10:32am, 11/30/2015

    In the movie, villain Fernando Rey stayed at the Westbury Hotel on 69th and Madison.  I was there many times.  Long gone, of course.

  4. Eric 08:34am, 11/30/2015

    Oops, meant to say Denny McClain was the one who drank a case of Pepsi a day. Lolich was the Detroit Tiger great who was known for his overweight body and enormous appetite. Denny would balloon up himself and even wind up doing prison time in the Big A federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

  5. Mike Casey 08:18am, 11/30/2015

    Thanks fellas. Yes, Don, Hackman was a great one.
    Interesting story about Frazier, Eric! I’d heard some stories about Joe and his drinking but it certainly didn’t seem to bother him. During a visit to the States many years ago, I bought Whitey Ford’s autobiography, which told of some mighty drinking sessions he had with Mickey Mantle

  6. Don from Prov 08:04am, 11/30/2015

    Great storytelling, Mr. Casey.
    I enjoyed the memories of the mercurial Merritt—

    And an article can never lose when in works Gene Hackman into the text.

  7. Eric 08:04am, 11/30/2015

    Jeff might have been responsible for the invention of lean. hehe. Damn, didn’t he make enough money to afford a cheap bottle of whiskey or wine? I never knew or suspected Joe Frazier was a heavy drinker until I listened to a Bob Foster interview a few years ago. Foster had picked Frazier up from the airport and while riding to their destination, Foster observed Frazier chugging a fifth of Scotch like water. Foster asked Joe how did he expect to keep in shape and drink like that, Frazier explained that fighting was a mind thing with him and that the alcohol didn’t inhibit him from getting in shape. It always amazes me what some great athletes can get away with and still remain great, Mickey Mantle drinking like a fish, Mickey Lolich dranking a case of Pepsi a day, Roberto Duran and his food binges between fights, Monzon smoking like Dean Martin, etc. A lot of those stories about how some athletes sacrificed all the vices in life to become great is total bullsh*t.

  8. Mike Casey 07:52am, 11/30/2015

    Old School, thank you so much for that information, which I didn’t know. So sorry to hear that it’s bad news for Jeff. Henry Hascup knows his stuff and is a great source. Jeff is officially alive according to all the record databases, but I feared there was something more to it.

  9. oldschool 07:36am, 11/30/2015

    Mike, terrific article. According to Henry Hascup in May 2014 “Jeff Merritt is very ill and today Jeff’s sister made the decision to take him off life support. Jeffery will reside at a local hospice until he is called by the lord.. so he will be in peace. Jeffery Merritt was declared brain dead on May 27th, 2014.”

  10. Mike Casey 07:07am, 11/30/2015

    Pity poor Delmore!

  11. Clarence George 06:50am, 11/30/2015

    I think that’s where Delmore Schwartz died.  Or maybe it was the Columbia.

  12. Mike Casey 06:23am, 11/30/2015

    Decayed but absolutely electric, Clarence. I went there in ‘77 on my first trip to the States and stayed at the infamous Carter Hotel on Times Square. It made the papers for its - shall we say - lack of care and attention. All I seemed to do in my little room was kill cockroaches. I slept in a chair because I was too afraid of what might be in the bed. But the city itself was so utterly vibrant. It was the New York that Lou Reed used to write songs about.

  13. Clarence George 06:18am, 11/30/2015

    Speaking of 70 reminds me of the very funny Geico commercial, featuring a singularly obnoxious Peter Pan:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9qcWljsT7s

    And I also found this:

    http://www.scoutingny.com/french-connection-filming-locations/

  14. Clarence George 05:55am, 11/30/2015

    Jeez, I was even younger, Mike.  What a great movie.  And I remember that New York very well.

  15. Mike Casey 05:50am, 11/30/2015

    Thank you, Jim!

  16. Jim Crue 05:47am, 11/30/2015

    another gem
    Thanks Mike

  17. Mike Casey 04:41am, 11/30/2015

    Thanks, Bob. Yes, that’s what makes it so intriguing for me - not just the mystery of Merritt but the way in which other fighters respected him as a man of danger in the ring. You make an excellent point about Memphis Al Jones and his punching power. Boone Kirkman was a top 10-rated fighter by The Ring when Al knocked him out.

  18. Bob 04:19am, 11/30/2015

    What a story!  Back in the 1970s people always talked about the mysterious Merritt with reverence. Although rarely seen, he made an impression. Lots of great stuff here, especially the card games, Robitussin and the black angus.  And Memphis Al Jones, despite his terrible record, was quite a puncher. Jerry Quarry and Leroy Caldwell both said he hit them harder than any of their other opponents. He would make a great story. Thanks for this gem on Merritt, a most pleasurable read.

  19. Mike Casey 04:11am, 11/30/2015

    Yes, Clarence that was Mitch Green. A lot of bad blood between him and Mike. Alas, the lovely Leila would indeed by 70 or possibly more if she is still with us. That thought frightens me too! I was 16 or 17 around then. My dad - a policeman - had to accompany me to the cinema so that I could get in to see The French Connection.

  20. Clarence George 04:02am, 11/30/2015

    Isn’t Mitch Green the one who got into a tussle with Mike Tyson over a white leather jacket?  Something like that.

    Am I right in thinking that Leila must be at least 70 today?  Good Lord.

  21. Mike Casey 03:54am, 11/30/2015

    That’s the one, Peter - that’s the picture! As for Candy Slim against Mitch Green, you’re quite right. What a pair! I do wonder if Merritt is still alive and ticking - I certainly hope so as long as he’s not suffering.

  22. peter 03:49am, 11/30/2015

    Mike, thanks for more of the back-story on Candy Slim—a Mitch Green type of screwball—another confused heavyweight who drugged up his life. And thanks for digging up that memory of Merritt and that belly dancer. I have a glossy photo somewhere of them—a bare-chested Merritt in tight gray, polyester pants, fists up, smiling down at pretty Leila, with her groin arched provocatively toward him with her tiny finger-cymbals held above her head.
    ...(A fight between Candy Slim vs Mitch Green? Candy Slim wins.)

  23. Mike Casey 02:39am, 11/30/2015

    thanks, gents. Yes, Clarence, there was a picture of Jeff and the lovely Leila in The Ring at the time. she wasn’t half bad! As for the brilliant Hackman - that’s still one of my favourite scenes

  24. Clarence George 09:30pm, 11/29/2015

    Maybe I’ll get my head handed to me, and maybe I deserve it, but I never heard of Jeff Merritt.  But that only made the story more interesting.  The cherry on top, at least for me, is the disappearance.  There few things, if any, that fascinate me more than disappearances.  Also appreciate being reminded of the nifty pork pie hat Hackman wore in the movie.  And this Leila taught Merritt “isometric exercises,” did she?  I’ll just bet she did.  A shameless strumpet in need of the most stringent disciplinary measures, and no mistake.

  25. Johnathan Lee Iverson 08:48pm, 11/29/2015

    Boxing is littered with characters indeed. This was definitely an informative, as well as, exciting read. Very well written.

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