SEOUL, South Korea — He was the old man in the ring, an Army guy with a gold tooth, a soldier who knew how to size up unfriendly territory.

“I figured,” Ray Mercer said, “that if two men were left standing at the end of the fight, I wouldn’t have much of a chance.”

Right. He would be eaten alive. Mercer, a heavyweight boxer going for a gold medal, had the misfortune of fighting a Korean in his native land. And if you’ve ever heard the crowds here when a Korean is involved in a fight, well, suffice it to say, you’d be looking for a knockout, too. Or a trap door.

This was the last fight of the session. The crowd had been waiting all morning. So once it started, every punch brought an explosion of noise, the chants from the USA partisans dwarfed by those from the Korean patriots. Mercer landed a left cross. Baik Hyun-Man countered with two rights. Another left. Another right. You could barely hear your own thoughts and time was ticking down in the first round and Mercer had the Korean backing up and then
— wham! A left hook and Baik crumbled and Mercer was left with a frozen moment of silence.

Silence?

And then the referee signaled — over! it was over! — and Mercer leaped in the air and waved and twisted and all he could hear was his own heartbeat as only his heavy boxing shoes kept him from flying away.

Knockout.

Big score.

“What were you thinking when the ref called the fight?” someone asked Mercer, after he had won the gold medal, the second U.S. boxer to capture gold Friday.

“Oh, maaaan,” he said. “I was gonna go down and roll all around the canvas. But then I decided not to do that. I just went over and hugged my coaches.” And they hugged back. It’s always a pleasure when your fighter leaves nothing to the judges. Especially these judges.

But who expected this? First round? Against the Korean? Crumpled in the corner, Mercer doing flips in the ring, the gold medal going to a guy who had been fighting for only five years, and two of those he took off.

Knockout.

Big score.

“The left hook took him out,” Mercer said, smiling as he looked at his fist. “The coaches taught me that punch just before the nationals (in March). Before that, I didn’t even have a left hook.” This is how new Ray Mercer was to boxing. No left hook. This is how quickly he took to boxing: He nailed nearly all his opponents at the nationals with that punch.

The ring is filled with fighters who took to the gloves to escape poverty, to release aggression, to be the toughest kid on the block. Ray Mercer might be the only man who ever went into boxing to avoid marching.

“They told me in the Army if I started boxing, I wouldn’t have to do drills,” he said. “I was there the next morning.”

And today he is golden.

How nice a story on a U.S. team that has seen its share of setbacks. Missed buses. Missed chances. A favorite who was knocked out in the first round.

But Friday night, here was Mercer waving to his mother, and here came Anthony Hembrick, the victim of that tragic missed bus, jumping into the ring and hugging his teammate. And here came Riddick Bowe, who will fight in super-heavyweight tonight, high-fiving Mercer and Hembrick. They looked like a team. Mercer had helped bring them together.

“I’m the oldest guy on the team, so I think my mind is geared more to listen to what the coaches say,” said Mercer, 27. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me.

“I want to thank the guys in my unit, who have been picking up the slack for me while I’ve been boxing.”

“Didn’t you ever feel a little old?” someone asked. “Twenty- seven and just really starting a boxing career?”

He smiled and showed the gold tooth that has the letter “R” engraved in it because, well, just because.

“People tell me I’m too old to box. But I just tell them. . . . “

He laughed.

“I represent the older generation.”

Olden is golden. Knockout.

Big score. CUTLINE Ray Mercer leaps in celebration after winning the Olympic heavyweight boxing title Friday night.

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