ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Ray Mercer, who had not won a major heavyweight fight in three years, projected himself back into the title picture last night by upsetting two-time former champion Tim Witherspoon in a 10-round nonstop brawl at the Convention Center.
The Mercer-Witherspoon bout preceded the rematch between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota.
Mercer, who once owned the World Boxing Organization crown, staged a strong rally in the last four rounds to gain a unanimous decision. Two judges -- Paul Venti and John Poturaz -- favored Mercer, 97-93; the third official, Calvin Claxton, seemed out of line with his 97-91 scorecard.
In his most recent fights, Mercer had lost to current World Boxing Association champion Evander Holyfield and former World Boxing Council champ Lennox Lewis.
"It was not an easy fight," said Mercer (23-4-1). "I would like to do it again. I just love fighting. I gave a performance tonight like I haven't before. People will have to take notice."
Witherspoon (45-5) said he got a bum decision. "I thought I won easily," he said. "But I've been through these kinds of things before."
Nearly 39, and with little political clout with boxing's major sanctioning bodies, this setback could end Witherspoon's title quest.
Mercer, who lost a controversial decision to Lewis at Madison Square Garden last May, looked a trifle flabby at 239, while Witherspoon looked trim at 230.
Witherspoon landed the heavier punches in the first round.
The two fighters, making good on their pre-fight promise of a slugfest, were content to swap punches in mid-ring, showing little foot movement and seldom clinching. An overhand right by Witherspoon made Mercer give ground in the middle of the second round.
Mercer began answering back in Round 3, jarring the former two-time champion with a right.
He continued the assault to start the fourth round. A three-punch combination made Witherspoon hold on for a moment. But the Philadelphian caught Mercer with a roundhouse right. This only seemed to enrage the former Olympic champion, who responded with four hard punches. The action increased in tempo in the fifth round. Witherspoon landed a booming right flush on Mercer's chin, making his legs wobble. But Mercer again recovered quickly.
Mercer, who had not won since a decision over Jesse Ferguson in 1993, helped catch the judges' attention by closing the seventh round with a big right hand.
Mercer showed renewed strength in the eighth round, beating Witherspoon to the punch.
Witherspoon looked to be buying time in the ninth round, repeatedly fighting off the ropes.
With the decision seemingly hanging on the final round, Witherspoon came to life, swinging from his heels. But Mercer retaliated with several lusty blows.
It wasn't the only surprising fight of the undercard.
South African heavyweight Courage Tshabalala, who came in unbeaten at 19-0 with 16 KOs, was knocked out in the second round by Brian Scott (22-3) of Chicago.
Junior lightweight Joel Casamayor (3-0), a 1992 Olympic bantamweight champion for Cuba, looked impressive in stopping Roberto Sierra (4-6) in the first round.
And Philadelphia lightweight Terrence Cauthen, a bronze medalist in the 1996 Olympics, won his pro debut by winning a unanimous four-round decision over Victor Miller (0-1), of the Bronx.
Pub Date: 12/15/96