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Ray Mancini-Arturo Frias: A fan remembers

Mancini (right) attacks Frias. Photo from The Ring archive
08
May

Thirty-eight years ago today, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini not only won the WBA lightweight title from Arturo Frias, he also authored the culminating chapter of a years-long pursuit rooted in love of family. Ever since learning of his father’s star-crossed boxing career — and the physical and emotional pain that resulted from it — Mancini, from age 14 onward, made it his mission to win the championship that had been denied the valorous World War II veteran. The scenes that followed this sensational shootout tugged at heartstrings and appeared straight out of Hollywood. In fact, Mancini’s life story has been retold in subsequent TV and movie ventures, but, try as they did, nothing could truly recapture the power of the actual event as it happened.

The following is one viewer’s recollection of the events of May 8, 1982, a day in which one family’s fondest wish became reality – and history.

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As a child growing up in a West Virginia town too small to be depicted on most maps, I witnessed the fruits of fulfilled dreams. Television , especially televised sports, most vividly portrayed the unvarnished joy that comes with achieving season-long goals, but I was particularly enthralled by those triumphs that took years – and sometimes a lifetime – to gain. More often than not, those who ended up standing atop these summits first had to endure the sting of failure, a sting that forced them to redouble their efforts and to dig deeper when their next date with destiny arrived.



One story that particularly inspired me was that of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, who hailed from the neighboring state of Ohio and who, to me, embodied some of the ideals I hoped to emulate — enthusiasm, earnestness, fortitude, tenacity, resourcefulness and faith, both in God and in oneself. Mancini and I couldn’t have been built more differently; at age 21, the 5-foot-4 1/2-inch, 135-pound Mancini was the picture of stocky athleticism while I, at 17, checked in at 5-foot-9 and a willowy 145 pounds — but I drew inspiration from his pulsating pugnacity and I strongly related to the Midwestern sensibilities that had shaped him. But the aspect of Mancini to which I was most drawn was his life story, a story that was brilliantly presented through the power of TV storytelling.

One of the sharpest memories I have of watching televised sports in the 1970s was the profiles that served to connect the viewer with the athlete. ABC gave these segments a name — “Up Close and Personal” — and they succeeded in conveying to us why we should care for them as people and why we should root for their success. CBS – the network that carried most of Mancini’s fights – didn’t have a formal name for these features, but they brilliantly told and re-told the tale that fueled the fighter’s passion.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, a dynamic young lightweight named Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini was blowing through opponent after opponent. Eventually, he earned a non-title fight with lightweight champion Sammy Angott in May 1941. Angott won a 10-round majority decision that most observers thought was undeserved, so a lightweight championship fight was being negotiated when the elder Mancini received his draft notice from selective service. The date was January 15, 1942, and Mancini, achingly close to a life-changing opportunity, pleaded for a furlough or a delay and even offered to donate his entire title-fight purse to the war effort. The U.S. Army was unmoved, and a disappointed Mancini reported for duty.

When fighting in Metz, Mancini was struck by mortar fire. Thirteen pieces of shrapnel were lodged in his body and doctors predicted he would be paralyzed. By the time he recovered from his injuries, the 5-foot-2 Mancini , now discharged, had blown up to heavyweight poundage, but through his typical perseverance he returned to the ring as a welterweight. Over the next three years he won 14 of 16 fights, six by knockout, and a match with Rocky Graziano was discussed but never signed. Mancini’s window of opportunity gradually closed, then was deemed shut after he lost his last four fights, the last two of which came against another Rocky — Rocky Castellani. Mancini ended his professional career with a 42-12-3 (16 knockouts) record.

Upon retirement, Lenny eloped with his girlfriend Ellen and began a career with General Fireproofing in Youngstown, Ohio. At age 42, Lenny became a father for the third time, and his second son, Ray, raptly listened to his father’s stories about life in the squared circle. A scrapbook detailing Lenny’s career was kept in the attic, and though Ray wasn’t allowed to see it unattended he managed to sneak peeks from time to time. It was in that attic that the seeds of a dream were sown. Ray’s admiration for his father was such that he wrote a poem for Father’s Day 1976:

I watch every step that this man takes,
I listen to every sound that this man makes,
I touch every part of this man’s face,
I hold this man’s body when we embrace

I cry every tear that this man cries,
I try every task that this man tries,
I keep every memory that this man keeps,
I leap every mountain that this man leaps.

I love you dad and I really want you to know,
I wanna be like you and walk in your shadow.
I wanna be like you and live with your great name,
for I am this man’s son and I will never bear him shame.

Not long after, Ray, who had excelled in football, baseball and basketball, surprised everyone by announcing he wanted to train for the Junior Olympics as a boxer. Although he had thrown punches at his father’s duffel bag since age 10, it wasn’t until then that he took the first step toward filling a familiar void.

Following a stellar amateur career, Mancini turned pro with a one-round KO of Phil Bowen October 18, 1979 in Struthers, Ohio, then knocked out 10 of his next 11 opponents before winning step-up fights against Johnny Summerhays (W 10) and later Norman Goins (KO 2) and Al Ford (W 10). Mancini’s hard-charging, volume-punching style was a natural for TV and once they learned the reasons behind his career, his story was impossible to resist.

Mancini won the NABF lightweight title by stopping Jorge Morales in nine rounds to earn a bout with Jose Luis Ramirez, who had won 71 of his 74 professional fights, with the winner promised a shot at WBC lightweight champion Alexis Arguello. Given the styles, Mancini-Ramirez promised to be an all-out war but “Boom Boom” surprised observers by turning boxer. The tactic allowed him to score a dominating 12-round decision, and, with that, his first date with destiny was set for October 3, 1981 in Atlantic City.

By now, the public was well versed in the Mancini story line and they were further charmed by his boy-next-door demeanor. This endearing combination resulted in a seismic shift in terms of rooting interests; Arguello, who had won over the U.S. market with his fusion of fistic skills and top-shelf sportsmanship, was now the man the majority wanted to lose while Mancini was cast as the aspirational hero in this melodrama. Even I, who greatly admired Arguello for his skill and gentlemanly behavior, was hoping to see the upset.

The pumped-up Mancini started strongly and after 10 rounds he was ahead on points. But Arguello, a seasoned 15-round fighter, bided his time, then proceeded to pick apart the tiring Mancini with his exquisite jabbing, pinpoint power shots and superior ring savvy. Mancini was driven to a knee in Round 12, severely beaten in Round 13 and stopped by a series of vicious blows in Round 14. During the post-fight interview, a smiling yet compassionate Arguello did his best to comfort the heartbroken Mancini.

“I love your father,” he said. “That’s the most beautiful thing you have, like I have my father. I promise that if I can do something for you, let me know, please.”

Mancini consoled by conqueror Arguello. Photo from The Ring archive

Mancini feared that he had just lost his one and only chance at a championship, but his robust performance against Arguello – as well as the skillful behind-the-scenes work by his team – enabled him to secure a No. 3 ranking from the WBA as well as a second title opportunity against its champion Arturo Frias following wins over Manuel Abedoy (KO 2) and Julio “Diablito” Valdez (KO 10).

While Mancini’s story made him a natural fan favorite, Frias was also a feel-good story. Born in East Los Angeles, Frias fell in love with boxing when he received his first set of gloves at age six. His childhood idol was lightweight champion Mando Ramos and when he heard Ramos was going to appear at the Resurrection Athletic Club near his home, he knew he had to be there.

“I rushed down there to see him,” Frias said in the April 1982 edition of International Boxing. “Just being near the champ and seeing other kids my age box settled it. I was going to be a boxer! I asked the program director if I could be in the next tournament and he told me okay — if I helped take care of the gym. He handed me a broom, and that’s how I got started.”

Frias began his amateur career at age 10, going 102-9 before turning pro in 1975. He won his first 16 fights, then laid off for 25 months because of hand injuries. To make ends meet during the healing process, he drove a truck for a linen company. When he returned to the ring in June 1980, he won four straight to earn a crack at former WBA lightweight champion Ernesto Espana. Frias gave Espana all he could handle, but because the fight was staged in Caracas, Venezuela, the home-country fighter emerged with a controversial majority decision win. Undeterred, Frias scored a 10-round decision over Rosendo Ramirez three months later, then rebounded from a first-round knockdown to bludgeon highly-touted Mexican Juan Graciano in five rounds.

Then fate smiled on Frias.

Gonzalo Montellano was to fight WBA lightweight champion Claude Noel, but “Sonny” suffered an injury in training. The fifth-rated Frias had been preparing for a fight that was to have taken place the week after the December 5, 1981 Noel-Montellano bout, so Frias eagerly accepted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Seizing the moment, Frias applied unending pressure and dominated throughout. In Round 8, Frias slammed home a counter right that caught Noel winding up on a right uppercut. The Trinidad native was unable to beat Mills Lane’s 10-count, and, at the 1:52 mark, Frias had scored one of the year’s biggest surprises.

“It felt beautiful,” Frias said of the knockout punch. “It’s the proudest day of my life. I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud to be lightweight champion of the world.”

Two months later, Frias avenged his loss to perennial lightweight title challenger Espana by winning a technical decision in nine rounds, then signed to defend against Mancini in Las Vegas. Mancini-Frias matched two physically strong brawlers whose styles guaranteed fistic fireworks. For Frias to win, he had to exploit Mancini’s vulnerable defense and tear the scar tissue above his eyes. Mancini, by far the physically stronger man with his powerful torso and muscular legs, wanted to use his superior work rate and punching power to overwhelm the champion. Also, Mancini had to like his chances to win because, unlike the Arguello match, he wouldn’t be facing a three-division champion and a future Hall of Famer.

As the opening bell sounded, Frias quickly kneeled in his corner and crossed himself. Mancini, for his part, bounded to ring center and worked behind a bob-and-weave defense. Both men exchanged jabs, with Mancini’s being heavier and more accurate. The feeling-out process lasted less than 20 seconds, for Mancini ripped a right to the body and a double hook to the body and head while Frias connected with a one-two. Encouraged, Frias jumped in with another one-two and followed with a scorching hook that exploded off Mancini’s cheek. The punch caused Mancini to stagger, and Frias, seeing his chance for another surprising win, accelerated his pursuit. That pursuit was foiled by a well-timed Mancini clinch.

Mancini (right) sizes up Frias. Photo from The Ring archive

Frias landed a right to the body and a right to the jaw while the challenger countered with a hook to the face. Mancini ducked under a Frias right and connected with another hook. Frias whaled away with under-and-over rights while Mancini worked his left hand ceaselessly. Frias nailed Mancini with two jabs and a close-range right to the jaw while a second right deflected off Mancini’s upraised arms.

The fight might as well have been scheduled for three rounds instead of 15 because both men fought with no regard for anything beyond that. They were engaged in a high-speed firefight that could only end one way — violently and explosively. The only questions to be answered were “who was going to get knocked out” and “when will that knockout happen?”

Surprisingly, the underdog champion was getting the better of this slugfest and he even managed to make Mancini take a couple of backward steps. He also continued to connect as he tagged Mancini with a one-two, ducked under a wide Mancini hook, and dug a heavy right to the solar plexus, a second one to the ribs and countered a Mancini body hook with a short right to the jaw. The champion even turned southpaw for a moment, and, from there, he connected with a left cross to the jaw.

Despite getting the worst of the early chest-to-chest warfare, Mancini continued to engage the champion in the trenches. He missed with a short hook over Frias’ head but drove a right to the ribs. Mancini whiffed on a wide hook, then shifted slightly to his right and nailed Frias with a compact hook to the jaw that caught the champion in mid-punch. Frias, momentarily stunned, latched on and waited for referee Richard Greene to break them for the first time in the fight.

Mancini slipped a Frias jab, fired a right to the body and landed a cuffing hook to the chin. Frias pelted Mancini with a jab at long range, then immediately returned inside, where Mancini finally made Frias back up a couple of steps.

Frias came out of this skirmish with a slice under the left eye but that didn’t stop him from cranking fight consecutive rights to the body followed by a right uppercut to the jaw and a cross to the head. Through it all, Mancini unleashed left after left, missing with most but forcing Frias to expend far more energy than he surely wanted.

After Mancini cracked yet another hook to the jaw, Frias connected with a spring-loaded right uppercut. Mancini landed a counter hook to the head and banged two more at short range while bulling Frias to the ropes. With his back to the ropes, Frias fired two rights to the body and blasted a right-left to the head, sparking a furious exchange that brought the roaring crowd to its feet. At times, the two men resembled pinwheels blown by gale-force winds and there was no sign of letup.

Frias might not have sported the chiseled upper body of Mancini, but he proved he was his equal in terms of desire and physical strength. He had won most of the exchanges to this point and was showing the experts he was much more than a club fighter who had become champion as a result of being at the right place at the right time against the right champion. Given his style, however, he couldn’t have fought Mancini any other way — and he was about to pay a heavy price for his courageous stand.

At ring center, Mancini uncorked a blowtorch four-punch volley that shifted the momentum powerfully — and irreversibly. A looping hook and overhand right crashed in and a wicked hook wobbled Frias. Seeing this, Mancini swooped in and connected with a tremendous hook that dumped Frias on his behind.

Photo from The Ring archive

Up at three, Frias suddenly looked the worse for wear. A glob of mucus hung from his upper lip and more blood flowed from underneath his left eye. When Greene asked Frias if he was fit to fight, he did what all real fighters did: He nodded “yes,” and the fight continued.
With his ultimate dream now in sight, Mancini stormed in behind a wild right. A hook to the body steered Frias to the ropes and it was there that the challenger unleashed an unstoppable hailstorm of blows. Over the next 16 seconds, Mancini threw 34 punches — landing 25 of them — and Frias was unable to respond with a single punch. At the 2:54 mark, Greene stepped in and stopped the fight, an act which sparked a wild celebration. A jubilant Mancini leaped into the arms of his handlers and blew a kiss to the crowd. As he was lifted into the air, it was made obvious that Frias wasn’t the only one who bore the scars of battle as his left eye was framed by a mouse below it and a cut above it. But in this moment, Mancini felt no pain, only euphoria.

The new champion fought through the crowd to congratulate Frias for his stirring effort, and a few seconds later Mancini’s parents joined him in the ring. When Mancini spotted them, he no longer was the rough, tough brawler but a proud son who wanted nothing more than to share his triumph with the man who served as his inspiration and the woman who gave him unconditional support and encouragement. Overcome with emotion, Ray wept as he hugged his parents simultaneously. Only they – and the rest of Mancini’s family – could fully grasp the significance.

As a fan, I was absolutely thrilled, not just by the final result but also how that result unfolded. Although I had no issues with Frias, I, along with virtually everyone else outside Frias’ orbit, wanted to see Mancini finish the fairytale, and he did so in spectacular style.

The only round of Mancini-Frias remains one of the most explosive in title fight annals and the CompuBox numbers I complied for my first book “Tales From the Vault” reveal that Mancini landed 63 of his 114 total punches to Frias’ 45 of 93 while also leading 54-31 in connected power punches. But the narrow percentage gaps in Mancini’s favor — and the above-average figures of 55%-48% overall, 56%-52% jabs and 55%-47% power — proved beyond doubt that this was a two-way war.

“I thank God for the strength and power he gave me to win (Frias’) title,” Mancini said after the fight. “I’ve been on both ends of the coin and I know how it feels to win and to lose. Art is still a champion. Nobody can take that away from him.”

Addressing Frias’ effort, Mancini said, “Art stung me early; he was all over me. I was hoping to just get through the first round. But then when I got him on the ropes I just kept throwing punches until the referee stopped the fight. Who knows what would have happened if the fight had gone onto the second and third round? This is the greatest thing in my life, and I will be a true champion. I will give everyone who deserves it a shot at my title. And I will certainly give Art a rematch. He gave me a chance at his title. Now I will give him a chance at mine.”

There would be no rematch with Frias, but Mancini fulfilled his promise of being a fighting champion. Ten weeks after beating Frias, Mancini knocked out Espana — the mandatory challenger — in six rounds before an adoring crowd in Warren, Ohio. But that victory was followed by tragedy as Mancini knocked out Deuk Koo Kim in the 14th round of an action-packed fight. Kim died four days after the bout and, in a grotesque twist of fate, Kim’s mother and referee Richard Greene committed suicide within four months of the bout. The Mancini-Kim result prompted the WBC to reduce its championship fights from 15 rounds to 12.

The deeply sensitive Mancini was haunted by the Kim fight, and he didn’t receive any measure of closure until 2011 when he met with Kim’s son and fiancee. Less than two months after the Kim fight he decisioned George Feeney in a non-title fight, then struggled against Orlando Romero before scoring a one-punch KO in Round 9. Mancini was more impressive against Johnny Torres (KO 1) and Bobby Chacon (KO 3) but Livingstone Bramble, the new mandatory challenger, ended Mancini’s reign June 1, 1984 in Buffalo via 14th-round TKO. Mancini lost the rematch to Bramble by split decision, then lost a pair of comeback bouts against Hector Camacho (a debatable L 12) and Greg Haugen (an emphatic KO by 7) before retiring for good at age 31 with a 29-5 (23 KOs) record. In 2015, Mancini received the ultimate honor by being elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Like Mancini, Frias re-entered the ring two months later but wasn’t nearly as successful as Ruben Munoz stopped him in five rounds. But Frias bounced back nicely with wins over Joe Perez (W 10), Javier Rios (KO 3), Jerry Lewis (TW 4) and Jose Torres (W 10). Frias’ momentum was stopped cold as the 15-17-2 Kelvin Lampkin scored a ninth-round TKO. Frias ended his career August 15, 1985 in Sacramento by losing to Chacon in five rounds. At age 28, Frias retired with a 28-5 (8 KOs) record.

 

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 19 writing awards, including two first-place awards, since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics” (available on Amazon) and the co-author of  “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers” (also available on Amazon). To contact Groves about a personalized autographed copy, use the email [email protected] or send him a message via Facebook.

 

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