In a lot of ways, if someone is a professional athlete at the age of 21, there’s got to be a level of maturity involved that isn’t shared with their peers. But every once in a while, there’s an athlete that goes beyond the call of duty when it comes to being an adult while everyone else is trying to figure out life. 

Ernesto “Tito” Mercado is one of those unicorns, especially in a boxing world where some of the best fights are taking place on social media and not in the ring. Don’t bring up that possibility to the Pomona junior welterweight, who will compete for the fifth time in 2023 against Jeremia Nakathila on November 11.

“I guess it’s the way I was brought up in the gym and the way I was brought up in life,” said Mercado. “I don't really like doing all this talking. I believe that fighting brings the best out of you, and I just want to be able to prove myself. That's why I feel like more than anything, I don't really care too much about all the Twitter fighting.”

Yet what he’s found out in the year since he truly burst on the scene with a sixth-round knockout of Jayson Velez is that actual fighting speaks a lot louder than anything else, and as he looks to move his record to 13-0 next week, people are listening, especially his fellow prospects.

“Me fighting these guys and being able to dispose of them the way I'm doing or beating them decisively, I think that's been, at least in the boxing community, putting a lot of guys on notice, especially the guys in my division now,” he said. “I just think it's time for my next fight after this one to start getting all the world to see me by being televised and for the whole world to see me so we could build up these big fights.”

Yes, with 12 pro bouts, but without a big promoter who has a broadcast deal, Mercado is ready to start making big fights and putting his stamp on the sport. He’s got the talent, he’s got the personality and backstory; now he needs someone to, as they say, put some hustle behind the muscle. It almost sounds like the Sugar Ray Leonard story, where, armed with lawyer and adviser Mike Trainer, navigated the game without signing away everything to one promoter. Now I’m not saying Mercado is Sugar Ray Leonard, but it is an intriguing situation to watch, especially since the last year has seen the Californian start struggling to get fights.

“Honestly, it's been difficult since my third or fourth fight,” he admits. “There's a lot of better guys that we were trying to fight. Besides Nakathila, a lot of them turned it down. I'm not going to say no names because I don't want to ruin potential fights that I could get down the line, but there's a lot of guys, a lot of top guys that we've been trying to get fights with and they just keep rejecting us. Either it doesn't make sense to them or it’s just too much risk, so it does get frustrating at a point, but I know if I keep knocking on the door, eventually somebody's going to answer.”

So is being on that “most avoided” list a compliment or a curse?

“A little bit of both,” Mercado said. “If I don't get those fights, then somebody's going to always criticize you, saying, ‘Why are you fighting guys that aren’t the best of the best?’ while I'm trying to get in there with them. Obviously, I feel like I get the respect I deserve, but some of the fans or even casual fans won't understand that because they're not seeing what's going on when I'm in the process of trying to get fights.” 

I’d say it’s a curse at this point, but that’s the price that often has to be paid if you’re young, talented and a knockout artist. Namibia’s Nakathila should be a good test, though, considering that he’s been the distance in a championship fight with Shakur Stevenson and owns a stoppage win over Miguel Berchelt. The 33-year-old did get halted in two rounds by unbeaten Raymond Muratalla in May, a result Mercado would like to match in the “Phoenix Center” in Ontario, California where he’s fought four of his last five fights. Win this one in impressive fashion and close out the year at 5-0, and 2024 might be his breakout campaign. 

If it is, he’s ready. An old soul in a young man’s body.

“That's what I liked about the old days,” said Mercado, who dropped the names Salvador Sanchez, Willie Pep, Archie Moore, Mike Weaver and Richie Sandoval over the course of our conversation.  “All these guys, the way that people got attention was by fighting. Obviously, they didn't have social media and all that. The promoters were doing their job promoting, but it was just fighters fighting and looking remarkable and focusing on their craft. Now it's a whole different kind of aspect people are looking at now. If I had a choice, I wish I would've been brought up in the 80s or 90s, where there were actually real fighters, and the way you got popular was by word of mouth, where everybody was talking because they knew that you were something special and that you were the goods.”