ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Advertised as his "Last Stand," former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, 42, turned his bout with Ray Mercer into a fight for the ages by winning a lopsided 12-round decision over his previously unbeaten foe at Convention Hall.
Holmes, a 4-to-1 underdog seeking to regain the crown he wore for more than seven years after a three-year layoff, used all his experience and guile in negating the punching power of Mercer, 30, who had reigned briefly as World Boxing Organization champion.
His rapier jab remained his principal weapon, but the "Easton Assassin" also kept the 1988 Olympic champion off balance with classic combinations, jarring uppercuts and crisp counter-punches.
Judges Phil Newman and John Porturaj both favored Holmes by a five-point margin. The third official, Eugene Grant, made it unanimous, 117-111.
Holmes, who dominated the heavyweight division before losing his title on a disputed decision to Michael Spinks in 1985, and then losing a close rematch with Spinks the following year, had failed in a previous comeback try when Mike Tyson stopped him in four rounds in 1988.
He now has his eyes on heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, but may have to oppose another ex-champion, George Foreman, before getting his chance.
"Everyone says you have to lay down and die when you're over 40, but I never believed it," said Holmes, who had fought five nondescript foes before tackling Mercer.
By mid-fight, the crowd's allegiance was squarely behind the brave, old warrior, cheering his ring generalship and courage. Mercer (16-1), never known for his boxing ability, simply did not have the answers.
"Now I have to learn how to box," said Mercer, conceding he had lost the fight.
Holmes (55-3) earned $1 million. Mercer's only solace was getting the bigger purse, an estimated $1.2 million.
AMercer came right after Holmes, stalking him in the first round.
Mercer continued to show disdain for Holmes' punching power in the second round as he walked straight in, absorbing several hooks to the body and head.
Mercer changed his tactics in the third round, landing five jabs before unleashing a right that landed high on Holmes' forehead. But he pinned Holmes in a corner and scored effectively to the body before Holmes launched a spirited rally.
A stiff right cross on the whiskers by Holmes drew only a smile from Mercer, who then unleashed a barrage of seven punches, (( forcing Holmes to buy time in a clinch. By the end of the round, Holmes had a nasty bruise under his left eye.
Holmes continued to show amazing stamina in withstanding Mercer's blows in round four, but his own punches seemed to have little effect on his younger foe.
Holmes withstood another battering early in the fifth round while content to fight Mercer off the ropes. He kept his shorter rival at bay with his long jab. Mercer was looking to land one big punch, looking for angles with little success. It allowed Holmes to steal the round as the crowd began to rally behind him.
The fight turned bizarre in the sixth round. After absorbing two punishing hooks by Mercer, Holmes showed the crowd he was not seriously hurt by conferring with a cameraman standing behind him. But the accumulation of the blows was beginning to take its toll. Holmes' left eye was almost shut after the sixth round ended.
Holmes found a second wind to start the seventh round, jarring Mercer with two stiff combinations, featuring short uppercuts.
Now the crowd was chanting "Larry, Larry, Larry," but Mercer briefly silenced them with a brutal right to Holmes' chin. But Holmes finished the round with an impressive flurry.
The pace slackened in the eighth round, with Holmes scoring mainly with his jab. Mercer pressed forward until landing a wide right that sent Holmes against the ropes. Holmes landed a hard right just before the bell sounded.
Holmes gained confidence in the ninth round when he briefly staggered Mercer with a left-right combination. Now it was Holmes pressing the attack.
It was Holmes who came out dancing to start the 10th round, flitting and jabbing in his best Ali imitation. He taunted Mercer and acted as if his legs had turned to rubber after catching an ineffective hook. Holmes now seemed firmly in control of the situation.
Mercer tried to quicken the pace in the 11th round, but Holmes used his reach advantage to keep out of harm's way. Mercer's efforts to bull his way inside were rebuffed by Holmes' crisp jab.
On the undercard, former lightweight champion Jimmy Paul stopped previously unbeaten Todd Foster, after 27 seconds of the seventh round.