“The Body Has Only So Many Fights In It”: The Ray Mancini Story

RENO,NV - JANUARY 14,1984: Bobby Chacon (L) smiles with Ray Mancini during the press conference after the fight at the Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nevada. Ray Mancini won the WBA World lightweight title. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
Bobby Chacon smiles with Ray Mancini during the press conference after their fight at the Lawlor Events Center in Reno on January 1, 1984. Mancini won the WBA world lightweight title. (The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

“Mancino” in Italian translates as left-handed or, in boxing circles, “southpaw.” However, Raymond Michael Mancino, born in Youngstown, Ohio, on March 4, 1961, was neither a southpaw nor Mancino to the boxing fraternity. The orthodox pressure fighter soon became known as Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in the professional ranks.

Years ago, many Italian Americans doctored their names for promotional and publicity effect. Rocky Marciano was born Rocco Francis Marchegiano, Joey Maxim was Giuseppe Antonio Berardinelli, Willie Pep was Guglielmo Papaleo, and Lou Ambers was Luigi Giuseppe d’Ambrosio. It was the same with Mancino, as “Boom Boom” explained. “My birth name is Mancino [pronounced Man-ch-ino], but my professional [boxing] name was Mancini [Man-ch-ini]. My father boxed in New York in 1939 and they put him down as Lenny Mancini, and he said, ‘No, no. My name is Mancino,’ and they [the promoters] said, ‘No, no. You’re down as Mancini. Sounds better. Flows better.’ That’s how I got the Mancini name.”

Born into a loving middle-class family, Mancini developed a passion for boxing because of his father, unlike many others who were fighting to improve the quality of their lives or stay out of crime. Trained by the legendary Ray Arcel, whose illustrious charges included Henry Armstrong, Ezzard Charles, and Roberto Duran, Lenny Mancini built an impressive record [cited on Boxrec as 46-12-3], but never fully reached his potential. Mancini set the record straight. “Actually, it was 55-12-3. To be honest, even more than that. He had about twenty fights before he started fighting in New York, which is when they started officially recording all his fights. He turned pro in 1937, was about 20-0 but couldn’t get any fights in Ohio, so that’s why he went to New York [in 1939].”

Lenny was made of granite. “He was never knocked out or stopped in any amateur or professional fight. People don’t know how impressive that is, because there’s only a few fighters of that generation, that era, who achieved that. Billy Graham is one of them [record of 102-15-9] and Kid Gavilan being another [108-30-5].”

Unfortunately, an injury in the Second World War limited his abilities when he returned to the ring from active duty. “He was a front-line infantryman and got hit by a mortar shell. Those guys, they all got hit. When he got injured, he was left for dead. Eventually, he got carried off by his comrades, but the doctor said he’d never live because he lost too much blood. Then he said he’d never walk again because he had too much shrapnel in him. Then they said, certainly, he’ll never fight again. Eventually, he came back to do all of that.”

Before his injury, Lenny was ranked as the number-one contender in the world in the lightweight division and a world-title shot was inevitable. Unfortunately, on his return to the ring, he was never the same man and his dream was shattered. Ray would eventually pick up the baton for his father, fulfilling his dreams on what would be a rocky road to success.

At eighteen, after a successful amateur career of fifty fights (with forty-three victories), aged eighteen, he adopted his father’s moniker of ‘Boom Boom’ and turned professional on October 18, 1979. “My father was eighteen when he turned pro. I was given the nickname as a little kid, ‘Boom Boom Jr.,’ but when I started in the amateurs I was Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. But amateurs don’t put no food on the table. You have to understand, the body only has so many fights in it, whether it be as an amateur or pro. If you have a long amateur career and a short pro career—or vice versa—you still have a certain number of fights in you. Eighteen was the right time for me to turn pro. Eighteen is also when you start to become a man. You’re through with high school. Back in the day, you’d turn eighteen, get out of the house, get a job. It wasn’t like your parents said, ‘We don’t love you no more’; it was more like, ‘Get your ass out of the house and get a job!’ That’s how it was back then.”

Mancini won his first professional outing on October 18, 1979, against Phil Bowen via a crunching first-round knockout. The Youngstown favorite recalled the contest: “It was a terrific feeling, especially because I’d broke my thumb in my last amateur fight, which was in March [1979], so getting back in the ring and winning that first fight by knockout against a big, tall, strong guy was great.

“I had a lot of early knockouts in my career. On the record, you may think, ‘He wasn’t fighting anybody,’ but it wasn’t like that. In my second fight, I fought a guy called Lou Daniels in Phoenix, Arizona, and I dropped him twice. He got up and finished the fight, which was exactly what I needed at the time, to get rounds under my belt and give me a tremendous confidence-builder knowing I could do those rounds. That went six rounds. In fact, I never fought a four-round contest; the shortest scheduled was six.”

By December 1980, a little over a year since his debut, Mancini was 15-0 and was already eyeing the ultimate prize in boxing. Events, however, would take a tragic turn. On February 14, 1981, his brother, Lenny Mancini Jr., was shot dead in a case surrounded by suspicious circumstances. He was only twenty-five years old. “Me and my brother were very close,” Mancini recalled. “We fought in the amateurs together and, let me tell you, he was a better fighter than me. Better puncher, better boxer, took a good shot, but he lacked the discipline. That’s the one thing I had that he didn’t. He trained hard, but he played hard in between fights. You’ve got to take care of your body just as much out of training as in training. Also, he was a handsome son of a gun! The women loved him.

“When he died, it took everything away from me, my parents. When he died, a part of them died, and a part of me died. He was always the first person to jump in the ring whenever I won a fight. In my first fight back [after his brother passed], I was looking for him, but I knew he wasn’t going to be there. That was tough.”

Four weeks after Lenny Jr.’s death, Mancini knocked out Norman Goins in two rounds and then beat Al Ford three weeks later. Five weeks after that, Mancini defeated Jorge Morales to become the North American lightweight champion, which propelled him one step closer to fighting for world honors.

On October 3, 1981, less than two years after turning pro, Mancini was now 20-0 and in with Nicaraguan ring legend Alexis Arguello, challenging the Hall of Famer for his WBC world lightweight title. Until the twelfth round, Mancini was winning the fight, but then the wily Arguello flipped the script and stopped Mancini in the fourteenth. In typically honest fashion, Mancini admitted that he lost to the better man. “My brother’s passing had no effect on that fight. I’d made peace with it and moved on. I had four fights after that, which I’d won. Arguello beat me fair and square.”

Seven months later, on May 8, 1982, Mancini took on reigning WBA world lightweight champion Arturo Frias at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. “When you lose fighting for a world title, you’re never sure when you’re going to get another shot, if at all. People always say, ‘You’ll bounce back and get another shot.’ That’s ridiculous! I’d say, ‘Are you out of your mind? How many world title shots do you think a boxer gets?’”

Within the opening fifteen seconds, Frias connected with a crunching left hook to the jaw that could have easily halted Mancini’s second world-title challenge easily. Mancini remembered the jolting punch vividly. “I got caught. Art was a strong guy who had a come-forward style, and I was hoping he’d want to fight toe-to-toe, because I thought I was stronger, but he caught me with that big punch. Like with any boxer with power, if you’re a puncher, whoever lands first can turn around a fight, and he landed, shook me up, hurt me, and knocked me up against the ropes. But if you’re in great shape, it only takes a few seconds to recover and come back. I learned off my trainer, Murphy Griffith, that when you’re hurt, you do one of two things. You either cover up or fire back. I chose to fire back.”

Mancini made the right choice and his vicious response forced a first-round stoppage, earning him the belt he so desperately wanted to pass to his father. “The feeling of winning? It’s hard to explain. The best way to describe it is euphoric. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I had when my children were born. Can I also add [his wife was listening attentively in the background] getting married to my wife? That was also up there as one of the greatest moments of my life!”

After defending his world title two months later against Venezuelan Ernesto Espana, his next challenge would come from South Korea’s Duk-koo Kim on November 13, 1982. After fourteen rounds of relentless action, Kim was knocked out at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, and never regained consciousness. He died four days after the fight. Mancini revisited the crippling episode. “When I heard the news, my body sagged. I’d prepared for it because the doctor said there was probably no chance he was going to come out of the coma, and it was a matter of time. But, in reality, there’s no preparation for something like this. No matter how much you think your mind and heart can prepare, when you actually get the news, it’s a different story.

“You’ve got to be around people who love you and care for you, not just my family and friends, but my city [Youngstown] cared about me. My mother just sat there and cried and said, ‘Raymond, I wish there was something I could say to you,’ and I said, ‘Ma, you can’t. There’s nothing you can say. I gotta get through this on my own.’ People were there for me, letting me know they were thinking of me, praying for me. That’s all you can really ask at that point.”

The aftermath had catastrophic repercussions and not just for Mancini, who was still only twenty-one at the time. A few months after Kim died, the South Korean’s mother killed herself and, shortly after, the same fate befell Richard Greene, the man who had refereed the fight. A glaring media spotlight only added to the emotional turmoil. Mancini was eager to clarify some misreported facts. “I didn’t go over for the funeral. I’ve read a few times that I did, but it’s not true. We had a friend of ours from Youngstown, a Korean gentleman, who used to work for the Korean government at some point, and he acted as the intermediary for us. My mother was asking him to send condolences to Duk-koo Kim’s mother and express her wishes as she had also experienced the loss of a child.

“I wanted to go over, but it was felt that it wasn’t a good idea at that time. The family and the Korean government appreciated that I wanted to be there and show my respect, but I didn’t go on their wishes. I went to Korea several years later when there was a Korean production about Duk-koo Kim and I went to that, but that’s about it.”

In an incredible twist in the script, about three years ago (2015–2016), while making his biopic, The Good Son, the son of Kim requested to see Mancini. After spending decades feeling resentment against him and having many questions to ask about the fight, his father and Mancini’s family, Kim Chi-Wan, came over to Youngstown, Ohio, with his mother. (It’s worth noting that Duk-koo Kim’s wife was pregnant with Kim Chi-Wan at the time of his death). “They wanted to meet me, and I said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely. I wanted to meet him too. That was important for him and important for me.”

Mancini continued. “In the documentary, you see me there at the front of my house. They say he’s ten minutes away, then five, and I turned to the director and cameraman and said, ‘Look. You better get this [footage correctly] because you’ve got one chance to get it. I can’t do this again.’ That was important.” Questions were asked, questions were answered, and there was closure for both parties.

In the fourteen months after the tragic contest, Mancini defended his world title against Orlando Romero, and on January 14, 1984, came up against two-division world champion Bobby Chacon. Mancini couldn’t refuse the fight. “I loved Bobby Chacon. He was one of my heroes. He had already been in fights-of-the-year with [Cornelius] Boza-Edwards and Rafael Limon. How could you not love Bobby Chacon? How could you not root for a guy like that? When I was offered the fight, I knew I was too big and too strong but, as fighters, you know you want to fight the best, and at that time he was in back-to-back fights-of-the-year and wanted to challenge for my title, so I said, ‘Yes, of course.’” Mancini stopped Chacon in three one-sided rounds.

After Chacon, the tide turned for Mancini when he lost consecutive fights against Livingstone Bramble between June 1984 and January 1985. “After the Kim fight, I was looking for the door [retirement]. By that stage, I wanted to fight as often as I could and make as much money as I could, then get out.” After sustaining an injury that required seventy-one stitches to one of his eyes in the second fight, Mancini hung up the gloves. He was only twenty-four. As he pointed out, “I had thirty-four fights and was only cut in five fights, but three of those times were in my last five contests.”

Two fights lured him back to the ring before the curtain finally fell on his career. On March 6, 1989, he stepped through the ropes against legendary Hector “Macho” Camacho for the vacant WBO super-lightweight title. Mancini explained why. “I was retired for four years and didn’t want to fight no more. But Camacho was personal. I would fight him in a New York minute and, as you know, a New York minute is faster than most.

“That was one fight that I wanted that should have happened in 1984, before the Bramble fight. Bramble was willing to take step-aside money, but his people started complaining. I told my guys, ‘Forget about it. Once we beat Bramble, we’ll go ahead and fight Camacho.’ That was my mindset. I didn’t want anybody saying I ducked the fight. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped. But when it was offered four years after retirement, of course I took the fight. I was still young, twenty-eight, and still able to do it.”

After twelve close rounds, Mancini lost a split decision against Camacho. Then, three years later, he made his last appearance in the prize ring as a professional boxer. But his heart wasn’t in it anymore as he squared off with Greg Haugen on April 3, 1992. “I was acting in a Broadway play in New York, and the promoter came up to me and asked if I wanted the fight. I let my ego get involved and thought I could still compete like a world-class athlete. The training camp went great, but they’re treacherous also. I got in the ring and said to my trainer, ‘I don’t want to do this tonight,’ and he replied, ‘It’s a hell of a time to tell me now!’

“After Camacho, I got married, my first two children were born, with the second one born in November 1991 and I went into training camp in February 1992. I felt so guilty not being around. Remember that song, ‘Tears in Heaven’ by Eric Clapton? It would come on every day at about 3 p.m., and I’d be getting ready to go to the gym, and I’d be bawling my eyes out, crying like a baby. I couldn’t control it because I missed my son and felt guilty for not being there.

“I was at a different point in my life. I’d never had kids, never been married before throughout my career. My theory before was, ‘You’re getting carried out tonight, or I’m getting carried out tonight,’ whereas my mindset for this fight was, ‘Please, God, don’t let me get hurt. My wife and my kids need me.’ That’s the difference from before. I couldn’t fight no more, but my ego had made me think I could. You know what ego does? Ego gets you your ass whooped.”

In 2015, Mancini was recognized for his achievements and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. It came as a surprise to the evergreen fifty-eight-year-old. “That meant everything. When they called me to tell me I was on the ballot, I already felt like I was a winner. I never thought my career warranted Hall-of-Fame status, mainly because I didn’t fight long enough. Then when they told me I’d been elected, that was such a high, but I said, ‘I don’t believe my career has warranted it.’ I’ll never forget a writer said to me, ‘No, I disagree. It wasn’t the quantity of the fights, it was the quality of your fights.’ I said, ‘Okay. I’ll take it! It was a very proud moment.”

 

About Paul Zanon 15 Articles
Paul Zanon has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the number-one bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport and has been a pundit on London Live Boxnation.  He is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly and a number of other publications. Paul is member of the British Boxing Writers Club.