Tuesday, May 30, 2023  |


Ray Mancini for real: A review of ‘The Good Son’

Fighters Network

The good son cover I started reading “The Good Son: The Life of Ray Boom Boom Mancini” by Mark Kriegel with a jaundiced eye. There are a lot of mediocre books about fighters who were embraced by the media and whose fame outweighed their ring accomplishments. But from the prologue on, it’s clear that “The Good Son” is far more than a “golly gee” biography.

Ray Mancini was marketed to the American public as the All-American boy. Or, as Top Rank publicist Irving Rudd proclaimed, “the All-American boy with a touch of mozzarella.” He represented Youngstown, Ohio, to the United States the way Manny Pacquiao represents the Philippines to the world.

Mancini received what Kriegel calls “the highest blessing in American sports, that consecrating kiss of network television.” In 1984, Sport magazine ranked him as the second-highest paid athlete on the planet in terms of performance income, ahead of superstars like Mike Schmidt and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Ray paid a heavy price before, during and after his glory years.

The Good Son” begins with the story of Ray’s father. Lenny Mancini turned pro in 1937 and was a promising lightweight. “He gave the fans what they wanted,” Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News told Kriegel. “Kept throwing punches, never quit. He took a shellacking even when he won.”

Describing a post-fight photograph of Lenny at age 21, Kriegel observes, “His face is undergoing the inevitable inexorable transfiguration from puckish to pugilistic. Its supple features have begun to flatten and purple. His lips are bruised and split. A cut sack of swollen tissue hangs over his left eye. The right eye is completely closed, clenched like the seam of a mussel shell.”

Lenny went into the Army after Pearl Harbor. He came out a physically broken man who fought for four more years as a ticket-selling club fighter and, when the money was right, as an opponent. “He might have become the lightweight champion if he hadn’t gone into the Army,” legendary trainer Ray Arcel said in 1945. As Kriegel notes, “That was just another way of saying Lenny Mancini would never be a champion. He had the stink of ‘what if?’ about him.”

The younger Mancini idolized his father. Looking at photographs in old scrapbooks, Kriegel recounts, “Raymond didn’t see a club fighter with a busted eye and dried blood on his lips. He saw a hero. It might as well have been Christ on the cross.”

Ray Mancini’s career was in significant measure a tribute to his father. His journey through the sweet science was guided by two of the smartest men in boxing. Manager Dave Wolf was knowledgeable, tenacious, a pain in the ass to deal with and devoted to the best interests of his fighter. Promoter Bob Arum was well-connected and built stars better than anyone else in the business. With their help, Mancini (who was already a matchmaker’s dream) became, in Kriegel’s words, “The Last White Ethnic, more valiant than violent, a redemptive fable produced by CBS Sports.”

Ray turned pro in 1979 at age 18. On Oct. 3, 1981, he challenged Alexis Arguello for the WBC lightweight crown. Asked by a reporter if he was ready to fight an opponent of Arguello’s caliber, Ray answered, “Why don’t you ask my father how many title shots you get?” In private, he was more to the point: “How the fuck can you call yourself a fighter and say ‘no’ to a world title? How is anyone going to believe in me if I don’t believe in myself?”

Arguello broke Mancini down round by round en route to a 14th-round stoppage. Seven months later, Ray got a crack at WBA beltholder Arturo Frias.

It’s bullshit that I control the WBA,” Arum said after Mancini KO’d Frias in the first round. “When I want something done, I have to pay off [Pepe] Cordero. Anytime you want a fix in the WBA, you bribe Cordero and he takes care of it. Cordero took me to the cleaners. Half a million bucks [in various inducements to make Frias-Mancini].”

On Nov. 13, 1982, at age 21, Mancini defended his WBA title against Duk-Koo Kim. It was a brutal back-and-forth slugfest. Kim collapsed in the 14th round and died four days later. Kriegel explores the fight and its emotional impact on Mancini in detail. There were also economic repercussions.

Ray Mancini,” Kriegel writes, “was boxing’s equivalent of the boy next door. Now [Americans] had to reconcile their trust and affection with the idea that he had taken a life. Negotiations for his endorsements came to an abrupt end. There would be no soft-drink deal, no shoe deal, no apparel deal. The Mancini fable had been corrupted. The All-American boy, a televised icon of righteousness and redemption, now engendered conversations of money and murder.”

Arum has similar recollections, noting, “To have him associated with this tragedy cast a pall on the sport. A lot of sponsors had second thoughts, and once that happens, there’s no money. If you’re an advertiser, you don’t want to see death.”

More ring conquests followed, but boxing was taking a toll on Mancini.

You feel like Hercules,” he’d once said of knocking out an opponent. “You always want the guy to get up after the count of 10. But when you knock him down, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. There ain’t nothing better than to stand over a man and see him down on the canvas. Nothing.”

Now, more and more often, Ray was on the receiving end of the punishment. Looking at his face in the mirror in his dressing room after a victory over Orlando Romero, he told himself, “Oh, God. I don’t want this. You can’t buy a face.”

Mancini lost his title at age 23 when Livingstone Bramble stopped him on cuts in the 14th round. Numerologists might note that the three worst rounds of Ray’s life (his knockout losses at the hands of Arguello and Bramble and the punch that sent Duk-Koo Kim to the grave) were all numbered “14.”

There were three more fights, all of them losses, spread out over the next seven years. It was during this time that Ray turned to acting on the theory that it might be better to play a fighter on film than to be one.

Kriegel is honest about his subject’s strengths and limitations as a fighter. The crossroads fights are dramatically recounted and put in context. Kriegel also explores the underside of the Mancini narrative.

Youngstown, when Ray lived there, was referenced in the national media as “Murdertown” and “Crimetown USA.” “Where else in America,” Kriegel asks, “would the chairman of the county Democratic Party call the police to arrest FBI agents for trespassing at a mob boss’s restaurant?”

There’s no suggestion in “The Good Son” that Ray did anything illegal insofar as organized crime was concerned. But more than one of Ray’s older relatives was affiliated with the mob. And there were times when Ray showed a fascination for the company of fringe mob figures. The “feel-good” stories about the All-American boy didn’t mention those associations. Nor did they reference the fact that Ray’s older brother was found dead in bed with a bullet that entered his head an inch and a half behind his right ear.

Neilsen families didn’t want to hear that,” Kriegel writes. “‘Boom Boom’ was a family show serialized for Saturday afternoons.”

The most gripping portions of “The Good Son” describe Mancini in retirement. “I was in the light,” he said. “But the light moved.”

Ray cheated on his wife, which led to the end of their marriage. Worse, violence had been passed down from generation to generation in the Mancini home. Kriegel describes in painful detail how Ray became physically abusive toward his own children. To his credit, he eventually confronted the issue and appears to have resolved it.

Ray broke a pattern of violence that has been in his family for generations,” his ex-wife, Carmen, told Kriegel. “Nobody recognizes that. Nobody celebrates it. But that takes a real man.”

Kriegel is a good researcher and a good writer. “The Good Son” treats Ray Mancini with respect but acknowledges his flaws. It also conveys an admirable understanding of the sport and business of boxing.

Raging Bull” was a great movie because it wasn’t just about Jake LaMotta. It explored the generic soul of a fighter. “The Good Son” isn’t just a book about Ray Mancini. It’s a look into a fighter’s soul.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book (“And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing”) was recently published by the University of Arkansas Press.