Unbeaten junior welterweight prospect Ernesto “Tito” Mercado wants to be a lot of things. A world champion. An all-time great. A star.

But what the 21-year-old couldn’t fathom becoming is what he describes as “an Instagram fighter.”

Without him even explaining it, we know what he means. There are plenty of his peers who are more interested in live streams and selfies than the fight, and they spend more time on TikTok than in the gym. To a point, it’s understandable. Everyone apparently needs “a brand” to get traction in boxing’s wild wild west. But when that interaction with everything but a heavy bag takes precedence, that’s when things can go haywire. Mercado is aware of it all, does his part, but also doesn’t let it consume him when he’s getting ready to get into a fistfight.

“Nowadays, I do think it's necessary,” said the Pomona, California, native. “I think it does play a role. I feel like not only the promoters, but the fans, they kind of require you to promote yourself out there. But to the extreme where I'm going to be just doing Instagram videos and not really focusing on my craft, that's not something that I’d be willing to trade off for. Back then, the most important aspect was the boxing, and the promoters did the promoting and all that stuff. But now it's kind of changed where now you see guys like Ryan Garcia who, don't get me wrong, I think he's a very good fighter, but if he would've stuck to his craft a little bit more, I think he would've done a lot better than what people think. But I think it definitely plays a role, but that's not my main focus. My focus is working on my skills and if I have time to go there, post and promote myself, then that's what I'll do. But my main priority is boxing.

It always has been. Mercado has had gloves on his hands since he was four years old, working in his garage as his father trained his uncle. It’s a life few understand, and while you can ask someone who started in their teens what they had to give up in order to train in the hardest game, when it’s all a young fighter has ever known, can they even know what they were missing?

“I've been in the gym my whole life, so it's harder to say what's really out there,” said Mercado. “But yeah, I feel like I did sacrifice a lot. Family events or being part of things with friends or relationships, whatever the case may be, I was always in the gym. So I feel like, in that sense, I never really had a normal life. I was always committed to a goal, which I still am right now. I'm not even there yet. I still got a long way to go, or I may get that lucky opportunity sooner than I think and get that title shot. But yeah, I had to sacrifice a lot. Every day that I would wake up, I would always think about boxing. So it's kind of hard to say that I had a normal childhood.”

That’s unfortunate that Mercado’s normal doesn’t match that of most 21-year-olds, but it’s the price to be paid to one day live a life few could imagine. And that’s why on the July 4th holiday, Mercado is in Nicaragua, the homeland of his father / trainer Ernesto Sr., to get prepared for a Saturday fight against Xolisani Ndongeni.

The South African sports a 31-2 record, has won five in a row, and is the latest in a series of veterans that Mercado has been fearless in facing. On one hand, you can say after a 280-11 amateur record, a fighter should be fearless, but that’s not always the case in the world of pro boxing, where most with Mercado’s spotless 10-0 (10 knockouts) record would get a little more “seasoning” before amping up the level of competition, but that’s not been Mercado’s style, as he’s only faced two foes with losing records thus far. And yes, former contenders Hank Lundy and Jayson Velez had both seen better days when they faced the Californian, Mercado did what a fighter should do in situations like that, ending those bouts in one and six rounds, respectively.

“I've always been the type of fighter to not let anything come to me; I'll go there and I go get it,” said Mercado. “That’s the type of fighter I am and I think that's what separates me from a lot of these fighters. Now I'm not saying being passive and waiting for that perfect shot is a bad thing, either, but I'm the type of fighter that's going to go out there and go get it, regardless. I'm not waiting for nobody. So whether it was the Hank Lundy of four years ago or the last four years, it would've been the same result. I think it probably would've been quicker because he would've been more quick to engage with me, thinking that he could do something. But I think it would've ended the night a lot faster.”

Talk to Mercado for any length of time and you’ll realize that he’s built a little different. He doesn’t talk in cliches and he’s got a confidence that’s matter-of-fact, not arrogant. Question if he’s ready for the best of the best at 140 or 135 pounds, and his answer will come back with a tone of, “Haven’t you seen me fight,” without him actually saying those words. Of course, he knows it, so if you will come out and ask him what happens if someone knocks on the door offering a title shot tomorrow, he’ll be on the first plane back from Nicaragua. After he fights on Saturday, of course.

“We're taking fights like this to keep me motivated,” said Mercado, who fought five times in 2022 and twice this year already. “As long as I keep taking fights like this, fights with bigger names, I know my opportunity to come and I'm just staying patient, preparing the best I can so that I look good and once that opportunity comes, I'm able to shine against those fighters. Don't get me wrong, it can be difficult to stay patient. And even when you get there, there's so much politics now where even if you're a mandatory, it's harder to get those fights. But the good thing is, when you keep knocking, eventually somebody's going to open.”

But will they open the door for a fearless 21-year-old with less than 20 fights willing to face anyone? Maybe not today, maybe not in six months. A year?

“Man, I hope I'm at least ranked in every organization,” Mercado said when asked what we’ll be talking about at this time in 2024. "At least top three. By this time next year, I hope I could get a title shot with any one of these guys. I don't know if Teofimo (Lopez) really retired or not, or Regis Prograis or the other guy, (Subriel) Matias or Rolly (Romero). I think he (Romero) is going to lose his belt pretty soon, though. But any of those guys, I think I'm definitely ready for 'em, and I feel like if you're not ready within your first 15 fights, I don't think you'll ever be ready, even if you have 30 or 40. So I feel like my time is coming soon and I know I'm going to shine when it comes.”