The first hammer fell in the form of a crushing hook slung by Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini into the right side of WBA lightweight champion Arturo Frias. And then all the carefully planned strategies were lost in the blur of a barroom brawl. The hook was thrown just 18 seconds into last Saturday's title fight at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. The end came 156 seconds later, with Frias, his face and nose torn, shorn of his title but safe in the arms of Referee Richard Green. "What you saw was skyrockets and fireworks," Mancini shouted as blood poured from his cut left eyelid.
And so the title passed from Frias, a heroic loser, to Mancini, 21, who immediately lateraled it to his father, Lenny, 62, whose dreams of the same championship had been shattered by a mortar blast on a battlefield in France in 1944. Six pieces of German shrapnel blasted Lenny's name forever from the ranks of the world's premier lightweights.
Seven months ago WBC champion Alexis Arguello almost pinned a no-return ticket on Boom Boom. Dropped by Arguello in the 12th round, Mancini was stopped in the 14th, his first loss in 21 fights. The son's dream of winning the title for his father took a standing eight count. "But don't write him off," Arguello said then. "Someday this young man will be champion."
Arguello could hardly have imagined how quickly his prophecy would come true. Or how fate would bring Mancini and Frias to their explosive meeting in Las Vegas last week. On Oct. 3, the day Arguello defeated Mancini in Atlantic City, Frias, although ranked No. 10 by the WBA, was regarded as no more than a gritty club fighter with the grim future of $3,000 paydays.
Frias won his first 20 fights as a pro but, curiously, didn't appear in the ratings until he lost a controversial 10-round decision last May in Caracas to Venezuela's Ernesto Espa√±a, the ex-WBA champ. Convinced that Frias had been robbed by local officials, the WBA placed the 25-year-old Mexican-American from Los Angeles at the bottom of its July 1981 listings, then ignored him.
Late last November, while Claude Noel, then the WBA champion, was training to defend against Gonzalo Montellano, Frias was in a Los Angeles gym getting ready for a $3,000 fight at the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas. Monte-llano suffered a hip injury, setting off a frantic search for a substitute. "There were only 11 days remaining before the fight," says Mort Sharnik of CBS, which televised the bout. "We needed a contender who was already in training. We went right to Frias."
Frias stunned the fight world and Noel, knocking out the champ in the eighth round. That earned Frias $40,000. Less than two months later, on Jan. 30, he made another $120,000 with a technical decision over Espa√±a, the eternal No. 1 contender, in L.A. Leading on all cards, Frias' left cheek was ripped open by a butt in the ninth round. The bout was stopped and Frias ruled the winner.
Backed by CBS funding, promoter Bob Arum then signed Frias, for $175,000, to defend against Mancini, who had won twice by knockouts after losing to Arguello. "Hold it," said the WBA, which ruled that its own officials had erred in the Frias-Espa√±a fight and that Frias must make yet another defense against its favorite lightweight, the 27-year-old Espa√±a.
"We're not buying any more of their garbage," CBS's Sharnik said. ABC also announced it would have no part of an Espa√±a fight. CBS decided it would still telecast a Frias-Mancini fight, if not for Frias' WBA title, then for Mancini's North American Boxing Federation championship. For the same money.
Pepito Cordero, Espa√±a's manager, graciously agreed to accept $50,000 from Arum to permit Mancini to fight Frias first. He also extracted a promise that the winner would fight Espa√±a—a badly spent warrior—within 60 days.
The WBA was satisfied, but then six days before the fight, Frias was cut on the bridge of his hawk nose while sparring. The cut was small, horizontal and below the eyeline.
"Art, it will open up and bleed," Dr. Donald Romeo, the Nevada State Athletic Commission physician, advised. "But it's below the eyes and I'm not alarmed. If you want to postpone the fight I'll back you 100 percent."
Frias elected to fight. He borrowed hockey-goalie-type headgear from Mancini for the remainder of his sparring. A few days later the two fighters met as they ran across a Las Vegas golf course. In passing, Frias shouted his gratitude for the loan. "My pleasure," Mancini yelled back. "Anytime."
Mancini smiled as he spoke of the encounter. "You know, he seems like a real nice guy," he said. "After the fight I'd like to sit down and talk to him. I'd like to meet his wife, Rose, and for him to meet my father and mother. I think we could be friends. Hey, if I wasn't fighting I'd be pulling for him. But I have to keep my perspective. I want to win this just as much for my father as he does for his wife and two kids, and it's not like I thought of winning it for my father yesterday. It's just a matter of forces, and only one of us will come out of it."
The plan devised by Murphy Griffith, Mancini's trainer, called for long-range sniping at Frias' wounded nose for the first four rounds. Murphy also suspected that the cut under Frias' left eye suffered in the Espa√±a fight hadn't healed. "The longer it goes, the better chance he'll bust up," Murphy said. "And when things aren't going his way he gets wild. That's the way we want him."
The elder Mancini, a fearless 5'2" brawler who was The Ring magazine's No. 1 lightweight contender in April of 1941, had his own advice. "Hook him to the body," he told Ray. "When he throws that big overhand right, you hook him."
The champion's people were urging him to be cool, to keep Mancini in front of him, to pick his spots. "Don't get overanxious like you did against Espa√±a," warned trainer Al Lira. "Don't lose your head. Take your time, pick him apart."
The advice was sound and useless. "Everybody knows how we both fight," Mancini said. "I won't have to look for him, and he won't have to look for me."
So much for the sweet part of the Sweet Science. Frias followed Lira's advice for just those 18 seconds. Keeping Mancini in front of him, he showed a nice jab and a short, crisp right hand, thrown straight and true. And then Mancini fired the hammer to the body.
"That's when he came unglued," Griffith would say later. "It turned him into a kamikaze."
Almost with a snarl, Frias leaped to the attack. Quickly, a hook to the head wobbled Mancini, and he struggled to stay erect. As Frias lunged to press his advantage, Mancini, bent low, fired a right hand to the head, stopping Frias cold. Then Mancini grabbed and held until his head cleared.
When they broke, they went at each other with both hands. A Frias right caught Mancini high on the head, ripping open the eyelid; a Mancini right hook un-zippered the scar tissue holding Frias' left cheek together. Both men seemingly swayed on the edge of disaster.
With his back to the ropes, Frias unleashed a blistering flurry. As Frias stepped forward, Mancini stunned him with a hook to the head. Frias backed off and stopped punching. Mancini was on him with two more hooks, missing with a right but slamming home a hook to the head that dropped the champion.
As Frias struggled to his feet at the count of seven, an image of last September's Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight flashed through Mancini's head. He recalled how Leonard, through the sheer volume of punches thrown, had forced Referee Davey Pearl to stop that fight in the 14th round. He could feel the power surging through his body.
When Green let the fight resume, there were 32 seconds left in the round. Mancini drilled Frias with a right and then drove him against the ropes with a barrage of hooks from both sides. Frias, his hands down, was helpless. As Mancini's relentless attack passed the 30-punch mark, Green moved in to stop the bout. The 33rd punch was a left hook to the head, the 34th a straight right thrown over the interceding arms of Green with 10 seconds remaining.
It took Green four more seconds to walk Mancini away from Frias and to signal that he had stopped the fight. It was officially over at 2:54.
In just 22 seconds Mancini had fired 34 punches, few missing. "In that remaining 10 seconds he could have hit him 12 to 15 more times," said Dave Wolf, Mancini's manager. "I can't believe the number of punches he threw in that round. The most he ever threw before was 169.1 know he bettered that."
Green's decision to stop it when he did was unquestionably correct. "I wasn't aware of the time, but it wouldn't have mattered," he said. "I looked at him and his eyes were rolling in his head. He could have been another Benny Paret [the welterweight champion who died after being knocked senseless by Emile Griffith in 1962]. Better a loss on his record and him still able to fight tomorrow."
Frias disagreed mildly. "I was stunned but I never lost track of what was going on," he said. "I heard somebody in my corner yell 10 seconds, and I just relaxed, trying to get my composure back."
After the fight Mancini went to the hospital, where eight stitches were taken to close his eyelid. The doctors ordered him not to spar for six weeks, which means he won't be fighting Espa√±a or anyone else before August. He had been chasing the title for himself and for Lenny since Oct. 18, 1979. He had earned the vacation.