It was a remarkable scene after what had been a remarkable fight. Alexis Arguello had retained his WBC lightweight championship by knocking out 20-year-old Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini at 1:46 of the 14th round. It was Mancini's first loss in 21 professional bouts. Mancini's lip was cut and his face was puffy, but considering the number of left jabs he had absorbed, Mancini didn't look too bad at the postfight press conference. He started with a little joke: "It would have been a helluvan upset, huh?"
It would have. Arguello is one of six men to have held world championships in three weight classes. At 29, he's at his peak: He's 16-1 in title fights—with 16 wins in a row—and has a 72-4 record. Still, last Saturday afternoon in an overcrowded ballroom in Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, Mancini gave Arguello all he could handle.
"I'm just glad it's over," Mancini said. "It takes a lot out of you—these championship fights." It had been a tense, emotional few days, and it showed. "The disappointment's going to hurt longer than these wounds. I wanted to win it for my father...." Mancini's voice cracked, and his eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry I'm not acting like a professional," he said, trying to smile.
In a few minutes, Arguello arrived. He is a strikingly handsome man, a slim Omar Sharif, but now there was a cut on his left eyelid and a purple crescent beneath it. "It was the best fight so far this year, my friend," he said to Mancini. Then, to the press: "I think my heart is special. But his heart is bigger than I have."
Arguello is a gentleman as well as an estimable champion, and he knew Mancini's story well—how Mancini wanted to win the championship for his father, Lenny (Boom Boom) Mancini, who was drafted in 1942 before he could fight for the lightweight title and then sustained a shrapnel wound in WW II that ended any hope for a title. The elder Mancini attended Saturday's fight in a wheelchair because he was convalescing from a heart-bypass operation three weeks before. "After the fight I saw Mancini's father," Arguello said, "and I felt bad." Then, as if he needed to explain the thundering right hand that dropped Mancini and obliged Referee Tony Perez to stop the bout, Arguello added, "But it's my job." He sounded apologetic.
Shortly afterward, Mancini excused himself to be with his father, pausing to say, "This isn't the end of the story. This is the standard first chapter. I'll be back. I'm just sorry that...sorry for all the people...." His voice began to crack again.
Which was when the champion put an arm around Mancini and spoke to him as one would to a younger brother: "You don't have to be sorry. This is a better experience than any fight you've ever had. You'll be better for this." Mancini nodded, and with a roomful of eavesdroppers, Arguello told the kid about his first title fight, how he had lost by decision to Ernesto Marcel in February 1974 and had cried afterward, how he now drew on that experience and was a better boxer because of it. This took place about 15 minutes after Arguello had nearly taken Mancini's head off. When the champ was through, Mancini thanked him and everybody clapped. Quite a show.
Arguello was born in Nicaragua, but has lived in Coral Gables, Fla. the past three years because of political strife in his homeland. He held the WBA featherweight title from 1974 to 1976 and the WBC junior lightweight title from 1978 to 1980, and last June he won the WBC lightweight championship from Jim Watt of Scotland. He has designs on Aaron Pryor's WBA junior welterweight title, which would make him the first to win championships in four divisions. He has even talked about moving up two divisions to fight Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight crown. "I don't need $10 million or $20 million," he concedes. "Just one million." The $400,000 he made fighting Mancini was his largest purse. "Mancini's strengths are that he's in great shape, he throws a lot of punches, and he's very aggressive," said Eddie Futch, Arguello's trainer, before the fight. "He makes fighters hurry their punches. But it's hard to hurry Arguello. Mancini's never been hit by a fellow that hits as hard as this guy."
The key to the fight, according to both men, was whether Arguello's left jab could keep Mancini from moving inside, where he's most effective. Said Arguello: "I have the equipment to fight him any way he wants, but I know if I get close to him, I'm in trouble."
The other question was whether Mancini, who fights best at a whirlwind pace, would have the stamina to go 15 rounds. "Arguello has won most of his title fights in rounds 10 to 15," Mancini said before the bout. "I'm a 15-round fighter, he's a 10-round fighter," Arguello would explain after the fight. And to his great pain, Mancini was proof of that assertion.
More than 500 fans from Mancini's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio had come to see the fight, and when the judges were announced, the Ohioans booed. Mancini's manager, Dave Wolf, claimed on the morning of the bout that "the fight's fixed—one of the promoters came to me with tears in his eyes, saying, 'The fix is totally on. You've got to win by a knockout, and even then you might get disqualified.' " The WBC had appointed a Nicaraguan judge, an American judge and a Puerto Rican judge. Tony Perez, the referee, is also Puerto Rican. "Three Latins out of four officials—what more do I have to say?" Wolf said, suggesting he might not let Mancini fight. He apologized after the fight. The judging and refereeing were faultless.
Arguello is a notoriously slow starter, and Mancini, who gave away 7½ inches in reach, was able to move in close early in the fight. Working hooks and uppercuts to the taller—5'9" to 5'4½"—Arguello, Mancini led after five rounds on two of the three judges' cards. Arguello kept jabbing, with little effect. Then Futch suggested right uppercuts to the body, and Arguello was able to keep Mancini at bay, winning rounds 7 through 9. Both Futch and Arguello would say later that the body blows were the turning point, although Mancini claimed that none was damaging. "A fighter doesn't feel the pain," Futch says, "but he becomes slower and drops his gloves just enough to open up the head."
After Round 10 one judge had Mancini ahead, one had Arguello and the third had the bout even. Then, at the start of those critical rounds, 11 to 15, Arguello rose to the occasion. "I tried everything I knew to get inside," Mancini said. "He just wouldn't let me."
In Round 12 Arguello went over Mancini's lowered guard with several straight right-hand shots—the last of which Mancini seemed to walk into—and Boom Boom went down, a few seconds before the bell, for the first time in his pro career. Mancini was in trouble throughout the 13th, and his corner nearly threw in the towel. He survived, however, and Wolf asked him between rounds how he felt. "I want to finish," Mancini said. He rushed out gamely for Round 14 and tried again to get inside, but Arguello finally caught him with two left hooks and, as Perez rushed to stop it, that final, devastating right to end the fight.
Afterward, Mancini's mother, Ellen, recalled the scene in the locker room when Boom Boom laid his head on his father's shoulder and cried in disappointment. "He told him, 'Daddy, I didn't bring it to you like I wanted to,' " she said. "Lenny was very calm and comforting. He told him, 'That's O.K., you're still our champ.' " Then she remembered what Arguello had said about how the loss would make Mancini a better fighter. It was small comfort. "You know?" she said, "I wish Alexis would move up to that other division now."
She speaks for a lot of lightweights.