It came out of Africa late in the summer of 1960 and smashed across the Caribbean with 150-mph winds. Just before it moved up to batter Florida and the East Coast of the U.S. in a billion-dollar rampage. Hurricane Donna hit the West Indies island of St. Kitts at the moment a future WBA lightweight champ was born squawking and squalling.
When the winds abated, neighbors came around to see Henry and Carmen Bramble's 11-pound, 8-ounce baby boy. "Everyone say, 'Oh my! The hurricane do so much damage, call him Donna,' " recalls Carmen. And for the first 18 years of young Bramble's life, the nickname stuck.
"My name's Donna," he'd tell a girl.
"That's funny," she'd say. "Mine is, too."
Nobody calls him Donna anymore. He likes Livingstone, which is his real name, the one his aunt Winifred gave him, and a boxer who punches as hard as Bramble does pretty much gets the name he wants. "It was after Dr. Livingstone," he says. "You know, the fellow who discovered medicine in Africa."
Bramble won the right to be called champion last June when he dethroned Boom Boom Mancini on a 14th-round technical knockout. He's scheduled to defend his title against Mancini on Feb. 16 in Reno.
An unorthodox boxer, to say the least. Bramble leads with the wrong foot and switches from right to left in a way that leaves him wide open. "I tell my young fighters, if they want to do everything right, don't watch Bramble," says his manager, Lou Duva. "He does everything wrong, but it turns out to be right. His opponents don't know what's coming next, and that pause trying to figure him out becomes their downfall."
Mancini's manager, Dave Wolf, sees it another way. "Livingstone's greatest strength is his belief in himself," Wolf says. "And that in itself is a great power." Duva calls it Bramble's "cannibal instinct."
Bramble is, in fact, a spindle-shanked Rastafarian who eschews meat, walks with a swaggering confidence and speaks a patois of heavily Africanized English, but his accent is more New Jersey than Caribbean. For the last six years he has lived in the Garden State.
He favors urban guerrilla garb like camouflage pants and wears his hair in corn rows, which Duva calls cornfields. All this is usually topped by a kind of crazy-quilt tarn Bramble designed in red, green, yellow and black—in honor of the flags of St. Kitts, Ethiopia. Jamaica and the Rastafarian culture.
Bramble seems to cultivate eccentricity; consequently, he's a promoter's nightmare. He resists being photographed, and he doesn't like being interviewed. The media, he believes, make him into a kook. "The truth is," says Duva, "he is a kook. After every one of his fights I commit myself to a mental institution for 10 days to recuperate."
Duva and Bramble argue heatedly over training schedules, money, weight and personal deportment. "Bramble's the only fighter in my stable I can't control," says Duva, who handles two other world champs and four Olympic gold medalists, including Mark Breland. "You try to educate Coconut Head, but he doesn't listen; he rebels."
Bramble, who's 22-1-1—a draw in his second fight, with Bruce Williams, and a loss on points to Anthony Fletcher are the only blemishes on his four-year career—has had six trainers. He wanted Sugar Ray Leonard to prepare him for the rematch with Mancini, but Duva explained that Leonard isn't a trainer, so Bramble settled for Ruppert Nel Brown, who trained him when he was an amateur. "If you don't know Bramble, you don't know how to train Bramble," says Brown. "You don't change him. Any change is a step backward."
"The old pirates who work with Bob Arum and Don King try to change you for a dollar," Bramble says. "The more the downpressers try to change me. the stronger I stay. A man is not judged by his hair but by his judgment, his cleanliness and his wisdom. I'm still fighting. I will be stronger as I'm able to keep my culture."
Bramble believes he's a true Israelite, one of the black Hebrews exiled to Babylon. He worships Ras Tafari Makonnen (1892-1975), who on Nov. 2, 1930 was crowned His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Power of the Holy Trinity, 225th Emperor of the 3,000-year-old Ethiopian Empire, Elect of God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Heir to the Throne of Solomon, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The Rastafarians regard him as Jah, the earthly embodiment of God. "I'm the sole Rasta prizefighter," says Bramble. "I'm the chosen one. This is my destiny."
He also says, "In boxing you coexist with your opponent and become his complement. You absorb his attack and use his force to overcome him."
An inspiration to Bramble is the late Bob Marley, the mystical, militant prophet of reggae who called for blacks to unite against the exploitative forces of the "Babylonian West." Bramble entered the ring for the Mancini fight to the tune of Buffalo Soldier, Marley's paean to black soldiers who fought Indians on the American frontier.
Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta
Stolen from Africa, brought to
America, Fighting on arrival,
fighting for survival.
"Even if I'd lost that fight," Bramble says, "just by playing the music I'd have won. Ever since I came up from the islands I been fighting for myself. People here ambush you night and day."
St. Kitts is a small, green island shaped like a leg of lamb and dominated by a dead volcano named Mount Misery. Bramble's father patched together a thin living there, laboring on a sugarcane plantation, while his mother raised nine children, of whom Livingstone is the seventh.
At six, Livingstone's cousin, Battlin' Douglas, an amateur fighter, gave him a pair of boxing gloves. Livingstone and his older brother Frederick each wore a glove on one hand and wrapped a sheet around the other. "I didn't always win," Livingstone says, "but I didn't ever quit."
The Brambles moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in 1969. That same year, in his amateur debut, a 70-pound Livingstone beat Kid Ringo. A couple of years later he turned Rasta on the advice of Kid Lamumba, a local welterweight. Bramble kept fighting, once giving away 19 pounds to an opponent known as the Fighting Duck. By 1979 he'd run out of opponents in the Caribbean. He came stateside to prepare for the Moscow Olympics, but the Virgins joined in the U.S.-led boycott.
Bramble stayed, turned pro and settled in New Jersey. "When I discovered him he was like a lost puppy," says Duva. "But to be honest, I never envisioned him to be a world champion. Everything about him was too erratic."
Sucking on a ginseng root, Bramble saunters around the three-story house he rents in Montclair. The clink of gold necklaces announces his presence like a bell on a cat. He shares the house with his sister Sandra, his son, Alvja, whose name means Fight For Jah, and Brown. Alvja is a self-possessed 2-year-old who seems to regard grown-ups as big but slightly stupid playmates. "My daddy took Boom Boom's belt," Alvja says, "and Boom Boom's pants dropped off."
The living room is outfitted with a St. Kitts flag, a Marley poster, a print of Nastassja Kinski clad only in a boa constrictor, an animal skull—"The last dog that bit me," says Livingstone—and the pelt of an alley cat. Bramble found a dead cat on a street and skinned it: "I didn't want to waste it."
The house also contains a number of live beasties. Bramble has a boa, a python, a ferret and 13 pit bull terriers. The python goes by the name of Rebel, the ferret is Spider, and the four older dogs are Snake, Killer, Tiger and Mrs. Easy, whose recent litter Bramble helped deliver. Bramble had to give away Dog, his other boa, because it was getting too rambunctious. Rebel used to eat Dog's rats. Bramble doesn't consider Rebel a pet, because "you can't pet him." The python reminds him of Mancini. "He'll find you and strike at you all day," Bramble says.
Bramble, whose nickname is Pit Bull, fights more along the lines of Snake. Says Brown, "Both go in for the kill. If you better than he, he won't quit till he dead." Bramble brought Snake down to St. Croix last year. They strolled along the beach with Brown and Spotty, a poodle that belonged to Brown's son. Spotty snapped at Snake. Snake locked his teeth into Spotty's spine. Bramble tried to break them up by tossing them into the waves. Only Snake swam ashore. The late Spotty drifted out to sea. Otherwise, his pelt might now be hanging on Bramble's wall. Snake looks a bit like Petie would have if Petie, the pooch owned by the Little Rascals of movie fame, had run into a Roto-Rooter.
Bramble credits Snake with making him champ. "Besides my son," he says, "Snake's the best buddy I got. He's thoughtful and kind and honest and true. I see the willpower he has. If he wants something, he just goes out and gets it. He makes me strong by being the way he is."
But Bramble doesn't want Snake to rest on his laurels. He's thinking about installing a treadmill on which the dog will perpetually run after Spider the ferret. "I don't want Snake to get lazy while I'm in training camp." he says.
A lot of time in camp is spent on psychological preparation. Bramble's a terrific psych-out artist. "He may be very unsophisticated," says promoter Dan Duva, Lou's son, "but he's pretty shrewd. It's very difficult to tell when he's serious or just trying to gain an edge."
Before their first fight. Bramble called Mancini a murderer. He wanted to have the name Duk Koo Kim, the South Korean lightweight who died after being KO'd by Mancini in November 1982, inscribed on the back of his robe. Lou Duva suggested "Voodoo" instead.
"Voodoo?" said Bramble.
"No, you do."
In the end Lou got Marvin Matthew, a St. Croix history teacher and Bramble's former junior league basketball coach, to pose as a voodoo man. Dr. Doo. Matthew was decked out in dark glasses, a derby and a dashiki and carried a mysterious tome that turned out to be a medical textbook. The Fright Doctor turned an evil eye on Mancini. "The only effect Dr. Doo had was on our television reception," claims Wolf. "We couldn't pick up ESPN."
However, Lou says. "Ray's an emotional guy. You could see him start to sweat and get edgy." For the rematch Duva promises even more powerful mumbo jumbo. "Just wait till my Italian mind starts working," he warns.
Bramble abandoned his secret bulengi punch, a kind of modified bolo named after the Caribbean eggplant, when he hurt himself training for an October tune-up with Edwin Curet. He won a unanimous 10-rounder without it. Bramble is going into the Mancini rematch very, very confidently. "Instead of Mancini. I call him Boy-cini," he says. "I beat him so bad I should be his daddy." But Bramble's recounting of their first fight is not, strictly speaking, correct. He was behind on two cards when the fight was stopped. Nevertheless, he was extremely disciplined. He forced Mancini to fight his fight. Mancini never found a way to neutralize Bramble's nine-inch reach advantage.
Asked why he'd thought he would win the first fight. Bramble repeated the title of a Marley song: Them Belly Full, but We Hungry. Now Boom Boom has to work up an appetite himself. "The whole Mancini story is on the line," says Lou Duva. "This Italian's going to be fighting heart and soul to prove to America he wasn't just a hyped-up media star. But that's not going to be enough. He's got to have talent."
Whatever happens in this Rasta-pasta rematch. Bramble plans a postfight vacation in Alaska. "The last time I go, it's 24 hours daylight," he says. "This time, it's 24 hours dark. I won't be able to see who I am." Livingstone, we presume.