Last Saturday afternoon, in a ring set up in a high school football stadium in Warren, Ohio, 10 miles from Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini's hometown of Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley's favorite son made the first defense of the WBA lightweight title he had won on May 8 from Art Frias. The sun shone gloriously down on the 20,000 fans who paid up to $50 (in an area where unemployment is approaching 20%) to see Boom Boom take on former champion Ernesto Espa√±a, the WBA's No. 1 contender.
Mancini was confident he wouldn't let his people down. "I ain't no Gerry Cooney," he said two days before the fight. "I'm no white hope. I have black and Hispanic fans, too, because they know I battled for what I've got. That's why I made them bring me home to defend the title. These are my people, blue collars, the best fight fans. They know I'm an honest workman."
Mancini was that and much more. He parried Espa√±a's every thrust before battering him against the ropes to win on a TKO at 2:59 of the sixth round. In fact, Mancini's final barrage of hooks—18 in all—obliged referee Stanley Christodoulou to stop the fight after the bell had actually sounded to end the round.
Because Espa√±a is 5'10" and Mancini 5'6", Boom Boom didn't intend to wade in and try to knock his head off, as he did against the shorter Frias. "He's a tree," Mancini had said, "and you don't chop a tree from the top." Instead, he would patiently counter Espa√±a's jab with his own, and with that most basic of punches, the one he wasn't supposed to have in championship supply, he controlled the fight.
The first two rounds saw Mancini execute the counterjab to perfection. Espa√±a left was adroitly slipped or picked off, and Mancini's answering left would arrow in, lifting Espa√±a and his guard up. Then came hooks from all over. Mancini landed at a ratio of two to one at first and increased the percentage with each round. "I heard him moan and groan when I hit him in the body," Mancini said.
He was in shape to do high-volume punching, because he had trained as if he were preparing for a holy war. Murphy Griffith, Mancini's "pure conditionist," drew up an arduous regimen. At Grossinger's in upstate New York, Mancini ran up and down a 60-degree incline with 90-pound sacks of sand on his back. He beat two tires with a baseball bat for punishing four-minute "rounds." And he ran and ran on the road.
"Got to have this one," Mancini told a pep rally at the stadium on Thursday. "Money is no god of mine. I just want to be comfortable. I want my parents to be comfortable. I wanted to buy them a winter home in Florida. They said no. Maybe I can change their minds.
"If I win this fight, it's all there. I'm not long for this game. When my accountants tell me I'm comfortable—not rich, just comfortable—that's the day I quit."
Mancini's purse was $200,000 against 40% of the live gate and overseas TV rights. He could gross as much as $400,000. The fight was telecast to Venezuela and Italy, where Mancini is revered and may fight next.
In the second round, a cut Frias had opened over Mancini's left eye came undone, and a small slit appeared under the champ's right eye. They gave Espa√±a something to consider, even if he was unable to land on those areas. He didn't hurt Mancini until late in the third when he caught the champion coming out of a weave with a chopping right. "I was staggered," Mancini said, "but I snapped his head back with a jab and went downstairs. Then, in the fourth, he hit me again and nothing was there. I knew it was time."
This was when Boom Boom bloomed. Espa√±a smiled through Mancini's first hook combination—left to the body, and right to the temple—but then Boom Boom placed his head on Espa√±a's chest and sent seven whistling hooks to the jaw at the end of the round. Christodoulou, the South African who was officiating his 21st world title bout, had anticipated the bell and was stepping in. The bell, barely audible and possibly late, sounded as Espa√±a was being walked toward his stool.
From there it was only a matter of how and when Mancini would end it. On his way to the corner after the fifth, a round in which he twice landed 10 or more unanswered blows, Mancini looked over his shoulder to see if Espa√±a would make it to his stool. With more than two minutes gone in the sixth, the champion began his
final assault with a keen, over-the-top right. Espa√±a's long legs buckled as he stood near his own corner and didn't consolidate themselves until after Mancini had drummed Espa√±a across the ring to a neutral corner. Christodoulou stepped in to stop the bout almost simultaneously with the bell's sounding, which the referee never heard, and Espa√±a's corner's throwing in the towel.
"His neck muscles relaxed," Christodoulou said of Espa√±a. "I gave him every chance. His eyes were glazed. He was willing, but he wasn't ready. He was virtually defenseless, and his corner put up no argument."
Espa√±a earned $250,000, the biggest payday of his career. Nearly 28, his skills faded, his glory past, he announced his retirement after the fight. As for Mancini, who ran his record to 24-1, with 19 KOs, untold splendor and uncounted wealth lay ahead.
And with the uncertainty of Sugar Ray Leonard's future, Boom Boom has become perhaps the top attraction in American boxing.
"My division can be profitable," he said, flashing tiger's eyes. "Right now, I feel good. Did I start running around the ring after the fight? Did I? I don't even remember."
Those who had to scrape to pay their way into the stadium know that he ran around and will always remember that triumphant moment. "Ray is a better boxer than he knows himself," Griffith said. "He fought the perfect strategic fight, fought it to the T. Follow the jab in, bang the liver and kidneys, find the head when it shows. He was beautiful."