Hall of Fame Class of 2015: Ray Mancini
HALL OF FAME: CLASS OF 2015
RAY “BOOM BOOM” MANCINI WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR SHINING BRIGHTLY, BUT BRIEFLY, AND A TRAGEDY
His boxing career more or less was launched as an undersized setup man for a very large heavyweight novelty act.
From that humble beginning to his upcoming June 14 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the path traveled by Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini has featured more rises and dips than an EKG reading. He won the WBA lightweight championship, a distinction denied his World War II-veteran father (onetime lightweight contender Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini), and became vastly popular in part because of his all-action style and in part because for his status as a devoted, promise-fulfilling son and beacon of hope for his Rust Belt hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
But although America undoubtedly had a torrid love affair with “Boom Boom” the Younger, the passion was truncated: Discounting an unsuccessful, two-bout comeback, he fought for just 5¾ years. And at a crucial point during that stretch he was unfairly depicted as the poster child for all that is supposedly wrong with boxing. To this day, Mancini is haunted by the memory of his tragic, 14th-round stoppage of South Korea’s Duk Koo Kim. Almost immediately, Mancini’s image morphed from that of the kid next door who made good to someone who had killed a young father from a faraway land with his fists, as Kim, who collapsed in the ring, was declared brain-dead and removed from life-support four days later. CBS, which had happily promoted Mancini as its house fighter, moved quickly to sever its involvement in boxing, which affected the well-being of the sport far beyond the inner turmoil that sapped its onetime attraction of much of what had made him special.
Now 54 and living in Santa Monica, California, Mancini can only look back on his time in boxing with a mixture of accomplishment and, yes, regret.
“I don’t think any fighter starts out thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, and I’ll get in the Hall of Fame,'” Mancini, in his first year of eligibility, said when asked if he thought he’d receive a congratulatory call from IBHOF Executive Director Ed Brophy. “For me, I wanted to win the world title for my father. That was it. Then, when I won the title, I wanted to be the best champion that I could be, for the city of Youngstown, for my family. And third, I wanted to make some money and get some security.
“Winning the title is one thing. But there’s been a lot of champions who had it for about a day and a half. I wanted to do all the things a good champion should do. Did I do all that I set out to do? Enough to become a Hall of Famer? I don’t know. I didn’t know what it takes to get in; I still don’t. Is it stats? Is it impact? You tell me. But whatever it is, I’m very honored and very flattered to have made it.”
Mancini’s stats (29-5, 23 knockouts) are impressive but perhaps not overwhelmingly so. Although he was just 21 when he captured the WBA 135-pound title, on a first-round stoppage of Arturo Frias on May 8, 1982, in Las Vegas, it was his second shot at the big prize. The first came on Oct. 3, 1981, in Atlantic City, when WBC lightweight ruler Alexis Arguello registered a 14th-round technical-knockout victory. Following that defeat, the first of his career, Mancini scored two wins inside the distance to put himself in position to dethrone Frias and keep the promise he had made years earlier to his dad, whose own championship dreams were likely dashed when, on Nov. 10, 1944, near the French town of Metz, he was hit with shrapnel from a German mortar shell.
Maybe it all would have happened in any case for Mancini, who had all the prerequisites to be fast-tracked to stardom. He was white, Italian-American, good-looking, with a fan-friendly approach to his craft and a backstory that had even non-boxing fans reaching for their handkerchiefs once the saga of Lenny and his son gained traction. But there is at least a possibility that Mancini’s destiny would have been denied, or at least delayed, were it not for a 6-foot-9, 255-pound defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who had decided to take a break from his NFL career to try his hand at professional boxing.
As the NFL’s first overall pick in the 1974 draft, and a key figure of the Cowboys’ famed “Doomsday Defense,” Jones benefited from having all six of his bouts nationally televised by CBS, which aired Dallas games as frequently as possible. Jones was managed by former sports writer David Wolf, who successfully lobbied CBS to put another of his fighters, a young, unknown lightweight from Youngstown, on several of the telecasts in which “Too Tall” was the headliner.
Although Jones went 6-0 with five knockouts from Nov. 3, 1979, to Jan. 26, 1980, the opponents he was being spoon-fed weren’t as difficult to get past as your average NFL offensive lineman. Mancini, who was 1-0 when he signed on for the whirlwind “Too Tall” tour, was 5-0 with four KOs as an opening act, making a name for himself that he would continue to embellish after Jones returned to the Cowboys for 10 additional seasons.
“Dave Wolf was a brilliant guy,” Mancini said of his former manager. “My first fight (not with Jones) was in my hometown of Youngstown. The second was in Phoenix, the third in Washington, D.C., the fourth in Dallas, the fifth back (also not with Jones) in Youngstown, the sixth in Jackson, Mississippi, the seventh in Indianapolis. He had me going around the country with ‘Too Tall.’ But all that moving around got me noticed by more people when I was on the way up. A lot of guys when they start out, they stay in one spot for a while.”
The boxing world, having been introduced so early to Mancini, quickly became even more familiar with the tale of the little kid who loved to go down to the basement of the family home and pore over scrapbooks chronicling his father’s pugilistic career. It became Ray’s dream to live the dream that Lenny might have realized had it not been for his war injury.
Moments after Mancini blasted out Frias, he and Lenny, who was 84 when he died in 2003, embraced in a display of genuine love and affection. The scene would be played out time and again, in a manner of speaking, in film (a made-for-television movie) and in print (“The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,“ by author Mark Kriegel). Winning the title for his father meant more to the son than it did for himself. And it also provided a nice boost of civic pride to his hometown, which had fallen on hard economic times on Sept. 19, 1977, “Black Monday,” when thousands of its citizens reported for work at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, one of the world’s largest steel mills, and found the gates padlocked.
Mancini never knew the despair of losing a mill job – or maybe even the necessity of having one – but everything changed for him on Nov. 13, 1982, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He and Duk Koo Kim were throwing everything they had at one another. And the damage that was mutually inflicted was as frightful to witness as it was electrifying. “[Kim] was the mirror image of Ray,” said Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler. “It was like Mancini vs. Mancini.”
The actual Mancini dropped Kim in the 14th round and, although the valiant South Korean challenger beat the count, referee Richard Green stepped in to prevent him from absorbing further punishment. But by then it was already too late: Kim’s death and the subsequent suicides of Kim’s mother and Green drained the joy of boxing out of Mancini, as well as a substantial degree of his marketability.
“I can’t say how long I would have continued had that fight not ended the way it did but certainly after that I was looking for the door,” Mancini said.
Although he won four fights after the Kim tragedy, including two title defenses, the exit for Mancini presented itself in the form of back-to-back losses to Livingston Bramble, the first on a 14th-round stoppage, the second on a 15-round unanimous decision. A worsening problem – a tendency for the scar tissue around his eyes to be torn into bloody cuts – was a contributing factor in each instance. Mancini needed 14 stitches to close the gashes incurred in the first Bramble fight, 27 in the rematch.
There would be a four-year layoff from the ring, during which Mancini tried his hand at acting. But choice roles were few and far between, and, well, there is a certain comfort level in a man returning to what he knows best. But even though still chronologically young, the rust on “Boom Boom” showed as he lost a 12-round split decision to Hector Camacho on March 6, 1989, and was stopped in seven rounds by Greg Haugen on April 3, 1992.
“When my career ended, I was proud of it and I moved on,” Mancini said. “Boxing had served its purpose. I left with no regrets. I had lost my love for the game. Plus, my style of fighting was not made for a long career. It was fan-friendly, so you sacrifice longevity to make your mark while you can.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that people remember my fights. It sure beats the alternative. But in every fight, you leave a piece of yourself. It comes down to how many pieces you have left. The bigger the war, the bigger piece you need, and the bigger piece you leave in the ring. It’s sad, but when some guys are done, there’s nothing left. Your body has only so many fights in it.”
As was the case with the late Arturo Gatti, and maybe a couple of others, Mancini’s worthiness for the IBHOF has been questioned by those who believe his prime was too short and lacking the stamp of legitimate greatness. Mancini realizes he wasn’t a slam-dunk for induction and he said he could have lived with it had he been snubbed by voters.
“Boxing was one chapter in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t the only chapter. There were other things I wanted to do. To be honest with you, I didn’t think I warranted [induction] because I didn’t have that long a career. But one writer told me, `Yeah, but you had a big impact on the sport. You were part of a group of fighters in the early ’80s when network television got back involved. You brought boxing into America’s living rooms on Saturday afternoons because you were CBS’ guy.’
“You know what? I hadn’t really thought of it in that way. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll take it then.'”