One boxing expert said this: "Joe Frazier had it. Frazier was the classic overachiever. He'd come at you, a one-armed, short-armed, predictable fighter. But he beat the unbeatable man. That's what this kid's got. An intensity. It's something you can feel—a three-dimensional thing. It takes away the other guy's enthusiasm to fight. Money can't give it to you; that's not enough incentive. It's got to be something else."
The young boxer he was talking about is Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, a 20-year-old, 5'6", middle-class white kid from Youngstown, Ohio. Two years ago, Mancini was president of his senior class at Cardinal Mooney High School and had a scholarship offer to attend Xavier University in Cincinnati. Now he is seeking the lightweight boxing championship of the world—a title he believes rightly belonged to his father 40 years ago. That's who he wants to win it for: Lenny (Boom Boom) Mancini. That's what gives him his intensity, "it's like a mission," Ray says. "It's like something on my shoulders." He is behaving like a man in a great hurry to complete his mission. Since turning pro in October 1979, Ray has won all 19 of his fights, 15 by knockout, and has soared from unheralded amateur to the WBC's seventh-ranked lightweight. If he wins his next fight, on July 19 against fourth-ranked Jose Luis Ramirez of Mexico, a title bout will surely follow.
Of course, funny things can happen on the way to a title bout. Lenny Mancini was a great lightweight in the late 1930s and early '40s. Ray Arcel, whose most recent meal ticket was Roberto Duran, spotted Lenny in Youngstown in 1938 and brought him to New York. Lenny was 19 then, and short (5'2"), with stubby legs (24 inches at the inseam). His upper body, though, was powerfully developed—more like a middleweight's than a lightweight's. In Lenny's first fight in New York, Charly Varre broke his jaw in the opening round. Lenny came back to his corner and told Arcel, "I lost all my teeth. I can't feel no teeth."
Arcel looked into his mouth and said, "You're all right."
July 12, 1981
Lenny shrugged it off and won the four-round fight on a decision. He was out of action for six months.
By 1939 Lenny had attracted quite a following in Brooklyn, where he had most of his fights. Fans loved his relentless attacking style and dubbed him Boom Boom. Later he beat Billy Marquart twice, Joey Fontana and a rough customer called Chief Crazy Horse. Mancini became known as a "one-man riot gang." One boxing scribe wrote, "With Boom Boom, you wound him up and he couldn't stop punching." He never took a step backward and was willing to accept two punches to deliver one. And he was knocked off his feet only once in 88 fights.
In 1941, Sammy Angott was the lightweight champ. Boom Boom and Angott met in a non-title 10-rounder that year—both were over the 135-pound weight limit—with Angott winning a split decision. The referee gave the fight to Boom Boom, 7-2-1, and when the decision was announced, there was sustained booing. That was Mancini's biggest payday: $5,000.
On Nov. 11, 1941, he had his final lightweight fight as a civilian. It was against the Canadian champion, Dave Castilloux, in Montreal, and this time Boom Boom won by a decision. "Mancini was the perpetual motion kid himself," one newspaper reported. Always popular with the fans, Boom Boom was given a standing ovation when the decision was announced. The win established him as the No. 1 contender for Angott's crown.
Negotiations for a title fight were under way when, on Jan. 15, 1942, Lenny Mancini was drafted into the Army. His manager told him to request a 30-day furlough so that he could get his long-awaited shot at the title. Mancini even offered his entire purse to the Army. Selective Service's answer: We want you, not your money.
And that was it. Boom Boom was assigned to the Medical Corps and stationed in Rockford, Ill. One day a patient pointed to a tray of medicines and asked for something for his sore throat. Boom Boom brought him back a bottle of iodine. "You trying to kill me?" the patient screamed. So Boom Boom was reassigned to the library. Later he was a phys-ed instructor. Then orders came through that all athletes in his company were to see combat duty. He became an infantryman, and on Nov. 11, 1944, he was hit by mortar shrapnel in Metz, France. "That Metz deal was a slaughter," he recalls. "I never saw anything like it. The shell landed about 15 feet away, and all I felt was a jolt. I couldn't move. I thought I'd had it."
Shrapnel, six fragments in all, tore through his back, arm and leg. Physicians were able to remove only four. He was six months recuperating. At the end of June 1945, he was discharged from the Army with a Purple Heart. But Boom Boom was no longer a lightweight. He weighed 190 pounds.
Against doctors' orders, Boom Boom began training again. Boxing was his life. That's all he knew. He got his weight down to 152, but could go no further. By 1946 he was fighting again as a 5'2" middleweight. He absorbed terrible punishment, but he never went down, and he was cut only once. His skin, uncommonly tough, would swell instead, and the fights would go the distance. Soon he was seeing double out of his right eye. There was talk of a fight with Rocky Graziano, who was on his way to the top, and a $25,000 payday, but Graziano fought Sonny Home instead. In December 1947, Boom Boom retired at the age of 28. His professional record was 73 wins, 12 defeats and three draws.
The phone in the Mancinis' Youngstown home rings for the zillionth time in the past two weeks, and Lenny, on a day off from his job at General Fireproofing, his employer for 30 years, grumbles as he rises to answer it. It's painful to watch him move. He limps all over. Age, boxing and the shrapnel wounds have all left their marks. On top of that, he broke his right wrist a month ago in a fall. He is partly blind in his right eye and speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if the old jaw injury still bothers him. His voice is deep and very gruff, not unlike Marlon Brando's Godfather. "El!" he calls to his wife, Ellen, after answering the call. It's another ticket order. The Mancinis have always sold tickets to Ray's fights out of their house in Youngstown, but Ray's popularity has overwhelmed them. The 1,480 tickets they were allotted for the forthcoming Ramirez fight were sold out in days, and when the requests kept coming, they finally had to take the phone off the hook. "Never again," Boom Boom swears.
Ellen Mancini—Mrs. Boom Boom to Lenny's friends—met her husband in 1947 when they literally walked into each other on a New York street. He took advantage of the situation to flirt with her. When she asked him to move out of her way, he declined. So she asked if he thought he owned the sidewalk.
"I bought it this morning," Lenny reported.
"Then I'll walk in the street."
Naturally, they fell madly in love. The next time they met, on July 15—his birthday—he asked her for a little funghi. Funghi is Italian for mushrooms. But Ellen is Irish. When Boom Boom demonstrated that what he wanted was a kiss, by puckering his lips in a mushroomish way, she gave him one. That December he retired from boxing, and in January they eloped to Baltimore. She was 19, and when she told her father, he started to cry. She asked him why. She was married; he should have been happy.
"But he's a fighter," her father said.
When he suggested that Lenny might start to knock her around, she reassured him. "Besides, I can always outrun him," she said.
Ellen plays a good game of racquet-ball, and once bowled a 269, with 10 straight strikes. It was she who used to play catch with Ray in the yard. But it was the father that Ray idolized. Other kids said they wanted to be policemen or firemen when they grew up, but Ray said he wanted to be a boxer. Everyone seemed to think that was pretty cute. "They'd tell me, 'Ray, your dad was the uncrowned champion,' " he says now, "and I saw how people around town treated him, how they idolized him."
"He was the most amazingly sensitive child," Ellen recalls. "When he was six, seven, eight years old, Ray would get his daddy in off the street if he'd had too many beers. He'd say, 'Sit down, Dad, take off your shoes.' Then he'd tickle his cheek until he was asleep. Only then would he relax. It wasn't that he was embarrassed for him; he just didn't want anyone outside to see his father that way."
When he was 10, Ray gave his father what is now Lenny's most precious possession. It's a block of wood he made in shop class, a piece of two-by-six cut at an odd angle. A photograph of a grinning Ray is pasted at one corner, and across the top is inscribed CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK. That's how he thought of himself. Once in a while Lenny would put up his hands in the living room and say to Ray, "Let's see what you can do," letting Ray pound away at them. But that was the only boxing Ray did. He played basketball, baseball and football, like the rest of the guys in school. "I'd never fought," Ray says, "but in my heart I always knew that one day I would."
"One time he was watching his older brother, Lenny, train down at the gym," Ellen recalls. (Lenny Jr. was tragically shot and killed this past February by a girl who said he was teaching her how to shoot a gun.) "The coach, Ed Sullivan, asked Ray, 'How does he look?' Ray said, 'Fine. But you know what? I'm going to be the best boxer you ever had.' I kept trying to channel him in other directions, but he always kept coming back to boxing."
When he was 13, Ray wrote a poem for his father, entitled I Walk In Your Shadow. The second stanza reads:
I cry every tear that this man cries,
I try every task that this man tries,
I keep every memory that this man keeps,
I leap every mountain that this man leaps.
In the evenings, Ray would ask his father to tell about his fights, stories he had heard dozens of times. Lenny would resist, and then finally give in, telling him in that gruff voice how, say, he beat Billy Marquart twice in a month. After which a Cleveland writer had said, "It is the opinion of this scribe that Lew Jenkins won't hold the lightweight title long if he's foolish enough to step into the same ring with the squat little Italian in a title bout. Lenny is a fistic tornado, a young wildcat, and a human dynamo all rolled into one." Ray knew all the clippings by heart. He had gone through his father's scrapbook so many times that he remembered more about Boom Boom's career than Boom Boom did. He'd seen the pictures of his father with Joe Louis, with welterweight Tony Janiro, with lightweight champ Lou Ambers. He learned the old names, the dates and places, was keeper of the memories.
When Ray was 15, Ellen says, he announced that he wanted to train for the Junior Olympics. "It came out of the clear blue sky," she says. "I asked him, 'In what? Football?' " He was a star in three sports: defensive back in football, point guard in basketball and centerfielder in baseball. Now he would get on with his life's work and become a boxer.
He started as a southpaw. "He was wearing his father's old trunks and old shoes in training, literally trying to walk in his father's footsteps, and finally I asked him if he wanted me to go up and get the old mouthpiece, too," Ellen recalls. Ray eventually was outfitted with new equipment, and in his first tournament he won his first five fights, one a 13-second knockout and another a 31-second affair. He lost a split decision in the regional final, and returned home with a silver medal.
Then Ed Sullivan, his amateur trainer, made him a righthander. "I do everything left-handed except bat and box," says Ray, whose greatest thrill is still a game-winning, 360-foot home run he hit in a state baseball tournament. Lefthanders had trouble getting fights, Sullivan knew, and the switch would give young Boom Boom a devastating left hook. Like his father, Ray had a powerful upper body, but he had a narrow 26-inch waist, and was longer-legged—30 inches at the inseam. The additional leverage made Ray a fearsome puncher from the start.
But his style wasn't suited for the amateurs. He achieved a fine 43-7 record, but he never beat an Olympic-level boxer, or won a national AAU or Golden Gloves title. Amateur boxing favors a stand-up, jabbing style. Because there are only three rounds in a bout, wearing down your opponent with a body attack means very little. Mancini was a croucher who would plow in amid a swirl of hooks. "When we first saw him," says Dave Wolf, the former sportswriter who is now his manager, "Ray was a face fighter, like his father. He'd come at an opponent bobbing and weaving so he could fight him in close, and he wasn't above hitting you with a passing elbow when he threw the hook. That's the sort of thing that turns off amateur judges, and it's just what you're looking for in a professional fighter."
Wolf, whose only clients at the time were Duane Bobick and Too Tall Jones, sent his trainer, Murphy Griffith, to the 1979 National Golden Gloves Tournament in Indianapolis to scout for prospects. Griffith, who trained fighters in the Navy for more than 30 years and is the uncle of five-time world champ Emile Griffith, was immediately taken with the young Boom Boom. "I saw the name," he recalls, "and I thought, 'Hey, I know a Mancini.' He was raw, but he reminded me of a little Marciano."
Mancini turned pro despite his father's objections, signing on with Wolf and Griffith and moving to New York. He slept on Griffith's couch and began to learn the jab and the art of defense. A month later he made his pro debut back in Struthers, a community outside Youngstown. Top billing. The cover of the program showed a picture of Lenny, looking gnarled and somewhat pained, raising the arm of his handsome, smiling son. The caption read, "The Second Coming."
"My father didn't want me to turn pro," Ray says. "He told me it was a tough life, a painful life, a lonely life. The first two you could get through, but it's that third one that's the bitch. He said he had to fight for a living. I didn't. But when I told him I wanted to win the lightweight title for him, what could he say?"
His mother thought of something. "Your father's got no regrets. He's had a good life," she told him. "After all, he's had me. Live your own life."
Ray won his pro debut in fine fashion, knocking out one Phil Bowen at 1:59 of the first round. He began to fight on the undercard of Too Tall Jones' bouts. Jones would tell friends that if he could fight like the white kid, he'd be the next heavyweight champion. Griffith was working on Ray's hand speed, teaching him to box and block punches. He gave him a course in fistic anatomy, showing him where to land punches that would do the most damage. Ray became a crippling body puncher, with the double left hook his most destructive weapon—the first to the rib cage, the second to the jaw. He won 12 of his first 17 fights on first-or second-round knockouts.
"His father didn't want him to fight," says Griffith, "but he told him if that's what he wanted, it wasn't enough to just want to be a fighter. You had to make sacrifices. Ray works so hard. He's been schooled to work hard. One thing we don't have to worry about is him running around."
Like the elder Boom Boom, in the ring Ray is in perpetual motion. Griffith compares him with Henry (Hammerin' Henry) Armstrong, who once held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles simultaneously. Armstrong used to throw 80 to 90 punches a round, hence the nickname. Ray averages more than 100. Yet he never gets so arm-weary that he stops pounding. He works out regularly on Nautilus machines to develop his already formidable upper body, and sometimes stands neck-deep in water and throws punches for up to an hour. Says Wolf, "He's in better shape than anybody he's going to fight, which is very comforting. People have to face the fact that not only is he devastating early, but he's going to be devastating all the way."
In his New York debut, young Boom Boom knocked out Norman Goins in the second round with a vicious double left hook. Arcel, his father's former trainer, was in the crowd specifically to see the chip off the old block. "Just like his father," he said afterward. Lenny disagrees: "He's a lot more scientific than I was. A lot more smarter."
Ray had his biggest fight so far on May 16 against sixth-ranked Jorge (Kid Dynamita) Morales of Los Angeles, who held the North American Boxing Federation title. The bout was televised nationally by CBS, and Sugar Ray Leonard did the color commentary. Before the fight Leonard depicted Mancini as something of a brawler. By the middle rounds he was apologetically correcting himself to viewers. The fight was stopped after nine rounds. Boom Boom had won all nine on two cards and was ahead eight rounds to one on the third. He had averaged 110 punches a round, but what most impressed and surprised observers was that he showed he could stay outside and jab, despite his short (65¾-inch) reach. "Ain't but two ways you can fight in boxing," Griffith says. "Inside or outside. There ain't no in between. I've taught Ray to do both. He surprised a lot of people by boxing against Morales. A lot of little guys can only get inside and bang."
Like Lenny (Boom Boom) Mancini. That was his game. He got inside and banged. The simple truth is that Ray is a better fighter, more skilled, more versatile than his father ever was. And about the only person who doesn't realize it is Ray himself.
The Ramirez fight this month will also be televised by CBS. The winner hopes to land a title bout with WBC champion Alexis Arguello, who barely beat Ramirez on a controversial split decision last November. Ramirez is a lefthander; he is the Mexican lightweight champion; and he figures to be Mancini's toughest test. Boom Boom thinks it will go the distance.
"My father never fought a southpaw, so he can't help me on this fight," Ray says. He is a gracious, popular young man—not cocky—who talks very nearly as rapidly as he punches. "He told me, 'Just go in there and throw punches. That's all I ever knew.' That's what he says before every fight.
"Once he told me, 'Just remember, you've got too much heart for this guy. Think of that, and it'll get you through a fight.' I always do think of that. That was the thing about him—he had too much heart for anybody he ever fought. That's why I want him with me the whole day before I have a fight. You'd hit him and he'd keep coming at you. You couldn't slow him down. He was a feared fighter, and if he was coming up nowadays, he'd be a millionaire for sure. That's why I've got to do it for him. I know what he went through. The heartaches. He always says, 'I never took a step backward, but sometimes I wish I did.' I love it when he says that."
I want to feel this man's pains.
I want to be locked in this man's chains.
A writer from New York was interviewing Ray recently, and she said to him, "That's a great gig you've got going with you and your father." Ray wasn't sure what she meant, so, being polite, he smiled and nodded. "But really," she asked. "Why do you fight?"
"What do you mean?" he said. "I just told you. My father."
"Sure, sure," she said, certain she was onto something. "But why really?"
Ray caught on and, angry now, said, "It ain't no gig, lady, and I don't really care what you think." It was his first heavy exposure to Big Apple cynicism.
Already he's been exposed to the price of fame. Youngstown, an industrial city that has fallen on hard times because of steel mills closing down, is starved for heroes. In the two-county area around it, 28,000 people are out of work. Ray Mancini is a local boy who has made good and who hasn't forgotten his roots, and he is now Youngstown's own Hands of Stone. "I can tell you honestly," says one resident, "there's not too much else to go on here."
In the euphoria following his victory over Morales, Ray, who is trusting and outgoing in the extreme, accepted every request for an appearance and found out just how demanding people can be. Boom Boom Sr. accepted an invitation for Ray to speak at a father-son luncheon on Father's Day, but then forgot to tell Ray about it. A last-minute phone call got the two of them to the luncheon, very late, and when Ray arrived he was in a funk. His father's memory lapses have always exasperated him. "But then I thought about all the things he gave me that he never had, and about how lucky I was, and how petty I was being over something like his memory, and I was just embarrassed," Ray says. His message that day was that sons should realize their fathers aren't perfect, and have no right to expect them to be.
Ray Mancini isn't walking in a shadow at all. "I've told my father that if I am half the man he is, I'll be happy in life," he says. "But there are so many ways I want to be different from him, too. There aren't many sons that can really give something to their fathers. I'm fortunate to be able to. A lot of people ask me if I'll retire if I win the title. What will be my motivation? It's pride. A lot of guys win it once and lose it. But to hold on to it...."
The intensity is his own. Not his father's. It's a real, tangible thing, like a left hook, and it has taken him far. Whether he wins the title or not, young Boom Boom's all right. He's tackling life face first. And it ain't no gig.