Ernesto “Tito” Mercado isn’t wasting any time.
The 20 year old lightweight prospect turned pro 10 months ago under the tutelage of his father and trainer, Neto Mercado. He’s fought five times, and won all five by knockout. Only one of those made it to a second round, and Tito is still a little frustrated that it wasn’t wrapped up in one.
On May 12th, Mercado will enter the ring for the sixth time in less than a year when he faces Jose Zaragosa (8-4-1, 2 KO) as part of a UFC Fight Pass show in Montebello, California. He took a break from training and fight preparation to speak with Bad Left Hook about his first months as a professional.
Among the highlights: Tito believes his knockout streak is a result of skilled boxing, as opposed to the headhunting mentality of other notable young fighters like Edgar Berlanga. He’s not happy about the process that made him a Team USA Olympic alternate behind Keyshawn Davis, and hopes to settle the issue in the ring as professionals. And Tito has ambitious plans beyond a potential Keyshawn Davis showdown, including big name opponents and a big move up in size.
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
BAD LEFT HOOK: Tito, good to meet you. You’re still very early in your pro career, but it seems like you’re not having any problems with the transition so far.
TITO MERCADO: No, definitely not. A lot of times, people say “Oh, that guy doesn’t have a pro style.” I don’t think it’s that. If you have a good style, it’s a matter of little adjustments. There’s no such thing as a pro style, or only being suited for the amateurs. I don’t really believe in all that. You just have to make the adjustments to succeed.
You’re obviously handling the transition well, But, there is a history of some very talented guys having a bit of difficulty in their first fights with the style change between what wins as an amateur and what works for a pro fight. Did you or your team work on anything in particular to avoid that trap when you moved up?
Not really. We watch a lot of fights, so we had an idea of what to expect. Whether it’s sitting on our punches more, taking our time a little more. Just those basic adjustments that can go a long way if you really stick to them.
One of the next speed bumps young boxers often encounter is that surprise that comes, or the need to adjust the first time they face an opponent who isn’t overwhelmed by their talent or their power. It obviously hasn’t been a problem yet, but is your trainer working in the gym to get you ready for when you step up to that level?
Yeah, of course. And the fighters that we’re fighting now? Anything can happen. Especially the way the boxing world is going. A lot of “journeymen” are upsetting guys they shouldn’t be upsetting. So, we take every fight seriously. And we make the proper adjustments for every fighter.
Your next fight is on May 12th against Jose Zaragosa. He’s a guy who only has four losses, and almost all of those came against very highly regarded lightweight prospects.
His last fight was against Keyshawn Davis, who is obviously on a fast track with Top Rank. Zaragoza also lost a decision about two years ago to Tyler Tomlin, another rising lightweight who we’ll see on ShoBox in June. What are you expecting in this fight, and what will the result tell you about where you are at this point in your career?
I expect the same Zaragosa from all the fights we’ve watched. To be a brawler, to try to make me look bad and awkward, make me look nasty. We already know that coming in. But, the fights we’ve seen, we see a lot of holes in him. And the prospects that he’s fought, they took him out in two or three, a few rounds. We want to do it in the first, and just show why we’re different than everyone else.
That’s how it is at the end of the day. We want to show we’re the best. And to do that, you have to do things the others haven’t done.
Well, you haven’t had much trouble wrapping things up quickly in your first five fights. The first one went into the second round, but none of the others have. Is that a goal for you? Are you trying to end it fast, or is that just what’s naturally happening as you go about your business?
Honestly, man? The worst part of that first fight… It really doesn’t bother me, because I want to get rounds. But, that first fight should not have went second round. The dude was spitting out his mouthpiece, buying a lot of time when I was knocking him down.
Regardless, I’ve been getting those first round knockouts. And it’s not something I’m trying to do right away. Some fighters have pop, some don’t. I’m just doing my job. There’s a lot of fighters, for example Berlanga, that go and look for that knockout right away. I do mine based on skills. And if that knocks people out in the first round, then that’s fine, too.
I’m glad you mentioned Berlanga, because your knockout streak reminds me of how he got a lot of heat after a long streak of his own. Now you hear the commentary about him maybe losing something on the way up because he didn’t get many rounds, and he didn’t get that work in, and he never really had to win in a different way to develop as a pro.
Given how you did as an amateur, that doesn’t seem as likely to be a problem for you. Do you feel like you already did some of that work when you were younger?
All that experience, it just transfers over to the professionals. People say it’s good to have a strong amateur background, and it’s true. I feel like all that stuff transfers.
And Berlanga? He was just focusing too much on the knockouts and not working on stuff. He was just swinging for the fences most of the time. For me, I’m just working on my skills and trying to fight. When I clip them, unfortunately they just fall. So, I’m doing my job, but I’m doing it based on skills and not just swinging for the fences.
One common story among young fighters lately is how COVID and the Olympic qualifying cycle changed everyone’s plans to one degree or another. How did that whole process impact your decisions to pursue the Olympics or just make the transition to professional boxing?
Originally, I was [a Team USA] Olympic alternate. And I had qualified for the Nicaraguan team, to represent them in the Olympics. But COVID had a toll on everyone, and it affected my trip to Argentina to get my ticket to Tokyo. With that and the politics, it wasn’t right for me. So, I turned pro right afterwards. Didn’t want to waste any more time.
So, were you originally aiming to be part of Team Nicaragua? Was that the original plan, and then COVID led to you as a Team USA alternate instead?
Originally, I qualified for the US Olympic trials. I was supposed to fight Keyshawn Davis, but we both had medical reasons that kept us from fighting. They did a little evaluation, wanted to take us to camp and make the final selection for who they wanted.
I knew it would be about politics, so we tried to get a box-off in there. They weren’t having it. If it was up to me? I know I would beat him. And there was a lot of audience there, so it wouldn’t have benefitted them. Regardless of what might have happened, they had too much money invested in him.
It’s all politics, man. I knew I wasn’t going to get that spot. And when they announced me as the alternate, I was like, “I’m nobody’s alternate, man. I know what type of fighter I am.”
Then Nicaragua called me. They told me, “We want you to try out for the spot. Come fight for it.” And that’s how it’s supposed to be, right? So I went, fought for my spot, and got it. Then the first time I was supposed to travel to Argentina [for the Americas Olympic boxing qualifier], it was canceled for COVID.
Fast forward to August, and I had decided to make my pro debut. Then I get another call from Nicaragua saying there’s still a chance I may be able to do it. I waited for the qualifiers again, then they canceled it on me again.
I felt like, ’Damn, that was a whole lot of time wasted. I’m not going to play that game no more, waiting to see if they select me or not. I’m just going to turn pro already and get my career started.’
I want to try and separate the frustrations you experienced with the organizational politics of the US Olympic system from how you and Keyshawn Davis relate to each other personally. You’re a talented guy, he’s a talented guy, I would have loved to see that qualifying fight. And I hope I’ll see it someday now that you’re both pros.
Is that something where the two of you know and respect each other? Or is some promoter going to try and sell OLYMPIC BAD BLOOD if you two end up in the ring somewhere down the line?
As far as the respect goes? I have no respect for him.
There was just a lot of tension built up around that fight. And when we got to camp, there was a lot of tension built up around the two of us. I think it definitely brings a good fight to the pros, given all the backstory and all that.
Definitely, that’s going to be a big fight. And after him? I want to take out his stablemate, Shakur Stevenson.
[Reflex non-verbal reaction]
I’m just being honest, man.
I know my capabilities, and I know what I can do. I’m not Oscar Valdez, so it’s gonna be a whole different fight.
But, I guess you could say there’s bad blood in a way. If we see each other, we’re not going to get into a fight with each other. But, we have that tension built up. We want each other.
Well, you didn’t get a chance to settle it in Olympic qualifiers, so I get it. You’re aiming for big names. It’s good to have that confidence and motivation when you’re young.
Let me ask you about your size. You’re 5’10”, and fighting as a lightweight now. You’ve already mentioned guys in a few different weight classes. How big do you think you could get? Given your height and your build, do you see yourself moving up in the future?
I definitely expect to go up in weight. That’s the whole beauty of boxing. You’re able to go up in weights, make a bigger name for yourself winning in new divisions.
I feel like I could hit 168 based on my height. I have a pretty long reach for a lightweight. 73, 74 inch reach, that’s a long reach. And I feel like those two factors, I could move up the weights for sure.
You fight next week, and you already have a next fight scheduled for June. That one would be your seventh fight in just less than a year as a pro. Are you planning on slowing that pace down at all in Year Two of your professional career?
I’m an old school type of fighter. I like fighting. I like being in the ring.
I know a lot of prospects now can’t even get three or four fights in a year. We barely see them fight! And like they say, inactivity is the worst enemy for a fighter. Even if I’m a world champion, I’d love to fight five or six times a year if possible.
I want to be in the ring as much as I can. I like fighting, man. So, definitely always active.
It’s probably a good thing for a young guy like you to stay busy with boxing. Keeps you away from jazz music, Socratic philosophy, all the things that lead young men into delinquency and hooliganism.
100% man. Keep me in the gym. Keep me in the gym.
All jokes aside, what do you actually do between fights? Any hobbies, interests, or family stuff that fills your free time?
On top of my dad being my trainer, we’re very family oriented. We’re always doing things together. And my brother boxes as well, so it’s a whole family thing.
And honestly, man? I like to compete all the time. I like to compete and gamble. If we’re playing basketball? I’m gonna bet you some money, and I’m gonna take that money. Or if it’s golfing? I’m just so competitive, man.
It’s crazy. Even when I leave the gym, I feel like I’m still in there trying to compete with everybody. Anything I do, it’s all competition. If we go play golf, I’m gonna race you in the golf carts. Everything I do is competitive. That’s how I spend my time.
Any last thoughts to share, or something you’d like to say directly to anyone who reads this interview?
I always give my prediction for every fight. And it’s gonna be another first round knockout. I’m a man of my word. When I say something, I always do it. I always come through.
So, stay tuned. There are going to be a lot of big things coming for me soon. And I want all the big names.