Ray Mercer laughs heartily when someone wonders whether he could see himself past 40, trying to regain the heavyweight title against a young, ambitious slugger.
"No, when I'm 40, I'll be fishing. I care too much about my health," said the unbeaten heavyweight, who recently was stripped of his World Boxing Organization championship after signing to fight former champion Larry Holmes in Atlantic City, N.J., tomorrow night.
"Like they say in the commercial, you only go around once, and you've got to do what you enjoy. For some guys, like Larry Holmes, fighting is their whole life.
"Me? I enjoy hunting and fishing. I don't want to run into a guy as tough as I am today when I'm 40. I'd be at a real disadvantage against some strong kid. But by that time, I figure I'll have been champion for awhile, made several million-dollar purses, and built a nice nest egg to live on comfortably the rest of my life."
Mercer, 31 realizes he is in a no-win situation against Holmes, a 42-year-old grandfather. After a three-year layoff, Holmes began a ring comeback last April in a bid to regain the heavyweight crown he wore for more than seven years before losing a controversial decision to Michael Spinks in 1986.
"I realize that if I knock out Larry, people will say I just beat up a washed-up, old fighter," said Mercer (18-0, 13 knockouts), who is a 4-1 favorite. "And if I lose, it could be disastrous for my career. But if I'm losing the fight and knock him out in the ninth round, I'll still be happy.
"I can't worry about what people think. I'm an old soldier," said Mercer, who spent seven years in the Army. "When you go to war, only the strong survive.
"In my mind, I'm fighting a boxing legend, a man who ruled the heavyweight division for close to a decade, defended his title 20 times and won 49 straight before he lost.
"That is the Larry Holmes I'm prepared to fight, the one boxing historians still show great respect. When I beat him, I'll make a bit of history. Not many people can brag of knocking a great former champion into retirement."
Although he considers Holmes (53-3, 37 knockouts) one of his ring idols, Mercer insists there is no room for sentiment inside the ropes.
"I can't turn soft now," said Mercer, coming off a sensational fifth-round knockout of previously unbeaten Tommy Morrison. "Boxing is a business, a brutal one. The only way to get to the top in this profession is to beat everyone in your path. And right now, Larry Holmes is standing in my way."
Mercer still respects Holmes' trip-hammer jab, which proved a formidable enough weapon to beat five obscure opponents last year.
"Boxing is his only chance of beating me, but [Francesco] Damiani tried the same thing and wound up on his back," said Mercer, recalling his ninth-round knockout of the Italian fighter to claim the WBO title 13 months ago.
"If Holmes elects to slug with me, his age will really tell on him. He knows he can't survive more than five or six rounds going to war with me."