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Paul Upham is a senior boxing writer for SecondsOut.com and writes regular weekly articles for AussieBox.com.au. In 2003 he was rated No.11 amongst the worlds best boxing writers. He has appeared on air as a boxing analyst for Main Event Pay-Per-View, Sky Channel, Fox Sports, Sky News Australia, SBS television, Radio 2UE Sydney, Radio SEN Melbourne and writes monthly for The Fist magazine..
GUS MERCURIO

by Paul Upham

One of the great characters of Australian boxing, Augustino Eugenio Mercurio was born in mid-west America on August 10, 1928.

He was born to a fighting family with one brother and two sisters. Young Gus’ father fought under the name Vince McGurk and his uncle competed as Ray Miller. “My dad was a rough and tumble guy. He hit a referee and got banned,” said Mercurio, who served three years in the United States Merchant Service and three years in the US Marine Corp. “I did a lot of boxing in the Marine Corp. I found out early if you boxed, you had a good deal going for you.”

Upon completing military service, Mercurio turned professional, and after being injured in his last two bouts, and being fixed by a Chiropractor, he decided to study Chiropractic at a university in Davenport, Iowa for a four-year degree.

Upon graduation he went to California and did post graduate work. He first came to Australia in 1956. “I knew Olympic heavyweight champion Pete Rademacher in Washington and another fighter Joe Black and through them I had an opportunity to come to Australia as a doctor of chiropractor and be with the 1956 Olympic team,” he said. On arrival as a 32 year-old he lived in Ballarat and then Swan Hill, where he practiced as a Chiropractor and had a gymnasium where he taught local children how to box. “I had a couple of kids that the police had told to see me to get them off the streets,” he recalled.

In 1966 Mercurio moved to Melbourne, “I have lived there every since. I really like Australia.” Well know in the amateur ranks, Mercurio was elected Vice- President of the Victorian Amateur boxing association. In 1967, televised amateur boxing saw the beginning of a new career for Mercurio where he eventually became one of the most recognisable people on Australian television. “They started amateur boxing on Channel 9, the Golden Gloves and I started refereeing and making comments on air.” Mercurio’s performance as a commentator was so impressive that he was offered further work on the then Channel 0, now Channel 10. “I did some work for them on a Tuesday night,” he said.

In 1969 Crawford Productions, one Australia's most established and respected television production companies responsible for television shows such as the “The Sullivans” and “Cop Shop”, became interested in Mercurio. “They saw me and heard me on television and offered me an audition and that’s how I got into acting,” he said.

Mercurio’s unique gruff voice, extravert persona and talent for comedy saw him in starring rolls in the television series “Cash & Co.” and “Tandarra”. He has worked alongside Paul Hogan in “Crocodile Dundee 2”, “Lightning Jack” and the “Paul Hogan Show”. Other notable movie appearances include “Doing Time for Patsy Cline”, “The Man from Snowy River” and “The Blue Lagoon”. He has also been seen in episodes of the television series “Homicide”, “Division 4”, “Matlock Police”, “Mission Impossible”, 44 episodes of, “The New Adventures of Flipper”, “All Together Now”, “Blue Heelers” and 39 episodes of “Five Mile Creek”. During all of this he was also seen on “World of Sport” on Channel 7 for 13 years.

Did Mercurio ever dream of being a television and movie star?

“Never!” he laughed. “Looking back I did a lot of things and have many great memories.” But no matter the success he had on the screen Mercurio says, “boxing has always been my thing.” The Mercurio name hit the movie headlines again in 1992 with the international success of Gus’ son Paul Mercurio in the movie “Strictly Ballroom”.

“He never wanted to box,” said Mercurio Sr. “I never encouraged him or discouraged him. If he wanted to box, fine, but he never had any inclination to box. He’s better on his feet than his old man was. He’s better looking than me too. Of course, I am very proud of him and what he has been able to accomplish. I like people who are successful in what they like to do. He liked dancing and he was a success. I told him once that getting to the top of his profession is harder than being the heavyweight champion of the world.”

After his success in amateur administration in the 1960’s, Gus Mercurio made the change to the professional ranks on March 8, 1969 when world bantamweight champion Lionel Rose defended his title against Alan Rudkin at the Kooyong Tennis Stadium in Melbourne. “I switched from the amateurs to the pros and judged some of the fights that night,” he said. “Then I went up to the commentary box and did the main event radio call with Jimmy Taylor, a South Melbourne football hero.” Since that time, Mercurio has continued an on-going association with professional boxing. After a tent fighter had died in Geelong, he was part of the group that made a presentation to the Victorian Government to control and regulate boxing and he became a member of the first Victorian Boxing Board of Control, which he served for twelve years. He was acting Chairman for one year and also spent time as the President of the Australian National Boxing Federation (ANBF). “I’ve been there and done that as a referee, judge and administrator,” he says.

Mercurio was the referee for the Lester Ellis vs. Barry Michael super-fight in July 1985. “Barry Michael kept talking to Lester,” he said. “He talked him out of the fight. He’d say, ‘come on old man, is that as hard as you can hit. You can hit harder than that’. Then he would say, ‘You can’t take that one huh? You didn’t like it? I’ll give you another one.” Another of Barry Michael’s earlier fights with Al ‘Earthquake’ Carter in September 1981 in Melbourne saw Mercurio in the middle. “Barry threw ‘Earthquake’ a kiss before the fight,” he said. “‘Earthquake’ came out and hit Barry with a shot in the shoulder, which turned Barry white. It was a hell of a fight. Barry could get under a fighter’s skin. He would talk his way through a fight. He deserved a lightweight title fight two or three years before he got one. People were ducking him. The American matchmaker Don Elbaum came out to watch Michael. No one would fight him though. He was going to fight Ray Mancini at one stage and they knocked him back. He was too tough. Barry was a real tough some of a gun.” Mercurio has been around the boxing game throughout his whole life and has some interesting memories on some of the sports unique characters.

Rocky Graziano: “I remember seeing Rocky Graziano fight Pete Read in Milwaukee. In fact, I sparred Graziano while he was getting ready for his fight. A tremendous tough guy. But he expected everything. Everyone would have to reach in their pockets for him.” Heavyweight greats Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis & Jack Johnson: “I saw Rocky fight before he was champion and he was fantastic. I also saw Joe Louis in action and one day I met Jack Johnson when he was in New York with his beret, holding his cigar with its holder. Having met him I read everything I could on him.

” Bobo Olson: “When I met him, I said to myself, ‘my god, he is a middleweight’, but he was also a light heavyweight. He was a big, huge guy.” Carmen Basilio: “A tough guy.” Sugar Ray Robinson: “He fought Ted Ola, a stable mate of mine. He’d come into the gym and call everyone, ‘Ole Buddy’. A smiling face, but you could tell back then he had been hit a lot. But absolutely, the greatest. He was better than Henry Armstrong. Armstrong had one style. You’d wind him up and let him go. Robinson could think his way around the fight and he was a boxer-puncher. He hit Don Fullmer with that left hook backing away and almost tore his head off. He was such a nice guy to meet. He would talk to everybody. I remember when he was on manslaughter charges in Chicago when his opponent died. In the investigation they said, ‘didn’t you realise you had him in trouble?’ Robinson replied, ‘Mister, that’s my business, to get them in trouble.’

Rocky Mattioli: “The forgotten Australian world champion. I was there that night he defended his title at Kooyong and he knocked out Elisha Obed. He hit him with a tremendous shot and froze him. He was a tremendous puncher. I refereed him one time he fought a guy from Canada at Melbourne Town Hall. In the midst of a clinch I went to break them up and he let go a left hook and hit me in the arm and my arm went numb.”

Hector Camacho Sr & Roberto Duran: “I remember watching Hector Camacho Sr. one night and he just wandered through the crowd before the fight. Sam Soliman reminded me of him recently doing that in Japan. He was a real showman Hector with absolutely no fear. Like Roberto Duran. But unfortunately with Roberto, you had to walk across the street with him because if you didn’t, he would walk out in the middle of traffic. No fear, none whatsoever.” Julio Cesar Chavez: “He was great. He was a tremendous individual, but now he has changed. I met him in Mexico City. A gentlemen and magnificent public relations for himself.”

Jeff Fenech: “I remember seeing Jeff in his third pro fight. He looked the goods. He was like a tornado and would go and take them apart. Jeff benefited from having Bill Mordey in his team.” Kostya Tszyu: “I saw him destroy Hiles in his very first fight on that rainy day when Fenech lost to Nelson. We didn’t see too much that day because he blasted him away. There wasn’t much to see except for the ferocity, which reminded one of Roberto Duran. Kostya Tszyu deserves Hall of Fame induction when he’s eligible. He has a tremendous thinking and boxing brain. He is very disciplined. He exemplifies that boxing is a thinking game.”

When it comes to boxing in the year 2004, there are many problems around that Mercurio really despises. The top of his list being mismatches allowed by local boxing commissions.
“I sometimes wonder about their knowledge,” he says about those governing the sport. “If the commission is going to accept a fight on what the promoter tells them or what the trainer tells them the fighter’s records is, that’s wrong. If you can’t verify a record, how can they authorise a particular fight? Taking a kid that can win and putting him in against a kid that can’t win is not a contest. There is no reason to have mismatches with the availability of the information on the Internet.”

Mercurio wants to see the best amateurs in Australia fighting off against each other. “From whatever organisation, that way you get the top boxers representing Australia,” he said. “And you have the top pros coming from that, not that the amateurs should be the breeding ground for professionals, but it is.” The current health of Australian boxing with a number of fighters on the verge of world title shots and hopefully winning world titles can only be good for the sport says Mercurio. “Absolutely, it brings kids out of the woods,” he said. “When Lionel Rose won, kids came out of the words. When Famechon won, more kids came out of the woods. The same again in the 1980’s with Fenech, Ellis, Michael and Harding, a lot of guys came along all at once. There seemed to be a proliferation, like the golden times, at that point.”

Though, Mercurio is not convinced about the worth of Anthony Mundine. “Ali was a lovable guy, but who was hated by some red necks, but a lovable rogue no less. Mundine is not a lovable rogue,” he says. “Anthony Mundine has put a stain on himself that is very hard to remove. Danny Green says, ‘I’ve never met the man’ and that reflects badly on Anthony when he has been bad mouthing him.”

Another issue on a worldwide scale that annoys Mercurio is the day before fight weigh-in.

“Get rid of the 24 hour weigh-in for sure,” he says. “I want them weighing in two hours before. Bring in penalties so severe that if they are a rated fighter they lose their rating and get a year’s suspension. People will say that is too severe. To come along to a fight not ready to fight, you pay the penalty. There is documented proof about the amount of weight boxers can put on from the weigh-in a day before and it allows mismatches. Why have weight divisions if that is the case? Forget about every division except heavyweight. I don’t think it is right and we are ruining boxing. We are hurting and driving fans away by having 17 champions in 13 or 14 different organisations. In my day, if someone asked you who was the middleweight champion of the world, you knew straight away. If you don’t know who is who, you lose interest. The proliferation of titles, organisations and the weights are our biggest problems. Right now there are four organisations, each with a different heavyweight champion! Go figure!”

Over the last two years, Mercurio has taken pleasure from his involvement on the board of the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame. This years ceremony to induct the next batch of Australian boxing legends will occur on October 23, 2004 at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne.

“We should honour our fighters and it is historical,” said Mercurio. “Don’t forget, these guys brought fame and credit to Australia. We’ve had nine world champions in a country of currently 20 million people, that’s fantastic.” As for the future of the sport, despite its problems, Mercurio has no doubt that boxing will always be around.

“Boxing will always survive because of he fact there are always kids who want to fight,” he said. “But as the standard of living rises in the world, there are less of those people who have to fight their way out of the slums and the ghettos. I don’t know where boxing will go, but it will always be there. There is something about one man against another man when they both think they can win that people will always want to see.” While he turns 76 this year, Mercurio has no intention of slowing down, though old injuries from horse falls during his acting career prevent him from refereeing, “too may stunts,” he smiles. “We did it all in those days. I like riding horses, but falling off them was a different story.” But judging is still a passion of Mercurio’s. “I want to do more boxing,” he said. The World Boxing Council has given him a number of assignments over the years and he has judged and refereed more than two-dozen world title fights, including Roy Jones Jr.

“I am a traditionalist and I just love being around the fights,” he says.

 

Photograph of Gus Mercurio by Paul Upham © Paul Upham 2003-2004



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