Boom Boom Mancini: The Boxer
When the fourteenth round began, I knew I took a lot out of him. But he came rushing at me. I sidestepped him. I hit him with a left hook that shook him up, a right hand that rocked him. Threw another right hand and missed it. Left hook, missed it. Then I shot the right hand, and I caught him square on the chin. I felt that punch. When he went down, when I saw him on his back, boy, I felt great. That was such a good win. A damn good win. The kind that makes good champions into very good champions. But there’s no joy in it now, no proudness.
–Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini
THE CHALLENGER WAS CARRIED FROM THE ring unconscious, strapped to a stretcher and operated on that night for a blood clot on the right side of his brain. The surgeon said the clot was the result of a blow or an accumulation of blows that Duk Koo Kim had taken during the fight with Ray Mancini. Kim was placed on life-support systems. “There is severe brain damage,” said Dr. Lonnie Hammargren. “The pressure will go up, and up, and that will be it. He’ll die.” Four days later, a Nevada State District Court declared Kim legally dead.
The reaction was swift. “No other sport is based upon premeditated blows to the brain,” wrote New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey of the November 13th bout in Las Vegas. He urged the abolition of boxing. Howard Cosell said he would no longer broadcast professional boxing. The World Boxing Council (WBC), one of the two worldwide organizations that attempts to regulate boxing, announced that all championship bouts under its jurisdiction would be cut from fifteen to twelve rounds.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission waited until its next regularly scheduled meeting– – four weeks after the Mancini-Kim bout –– to recommend new safety measures. The rule changes were approved by a vote of three to one. After all, it had been seven years since the last fighter had died in Nevada.
“Maybe I don’t blame myself,” Mancini says, “but I can’t alienate myself. I was part of it. And it hurts a lot to know that. That’s what bothers me more than anything. The day after the fight. I looked at my hands –– they were all blown up, like balloons; they were killing me –– and I said. ‘My hands could do that?’ It was hard for me to comprehend. My faith in God may not help me to understand it, but it may help me get through it.”
He returned to Youngstown, Ohio, behind dark glasses that covered his own bruises. Now that the steel mills have closed. the unemployment rate in that area is twenty-two percent, the worst in the country. Boom Boom, the local boy who made good and always comes home, is their one successful advertisement. The highway sign that welcomes you to Youngstown includes the information that Ray Mancini is a taxpayer. A street is named for him. Plans were being made for a man-of-the-year dinner. The man was Mancini. Never mind that his year included a fatal afternoon in Las Vegas.
“As soon as I got home, little kids were calling my answering machine, crying, crying. ‘Boom, we love you, we don’t want you to give it up, we want to see you fight again.'” Mancini says. The letters he received were “ninety-eight percent favorable. ‘Boom, go ahead. It’s not your fault.’ What bothered me the most was people’s insensitivity. ‘Hey, Boom. don’t worry about it. It coulda been you. Better him than you.’ I know they didn’t mean anything wrong. But what if it was me? His people would have been telling him the same thing: ‘Better him than you.’ Like that justifies it. That still bothers me. ‘Hey, Boom, it coulda happened to you at any time.’ Hey, I know that. I don’t want to hear that crap. Don’t tell me that.”
WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING IN that ring, anyway? That was the question asked when the Mancini-Kim fight was first announced. The answer, from the boxing insiders, was a wink. What you must remember is that, at the time. Mancini was America’s only white champion. Articulate. Adorable, if not handsome. A good son. A crowd-pleasing fighter inside the ring, the boy-next-door away from it. A hot property. Maybe even a movie. He loves movies.
“Did you see Rocky III?” Mancini asks. “When Burgess Meredith dies in the locker room? That choked me up. How about The Champ with Jon Voight? The old man works his way up to a title shot, he’s sick. he shouldn’t fight, but he wants to do it for the kid. And he dies right in the kid’s arms. Stuff like that appeals to me. Sure, they’re corny. No doubt about it. But corny hits a nerve. Corny sells.”
There were, before the Kim fight, at least three film companies bidding to turn a camera on the cornfield that was Ray Mancini’s twenty-one-year-old life. Get a load of the scenario:
His father is about to fight for the lightweight title when he’s drafted. The old man is wounded in action and doesn’t make it back as a fighter. His son – –let’s call him the kid – –dedicates his life to winning the title his father was denied. Nobody believes the kid is good enough. But he beats everybody. He’s in training for the fight with the champ when the doctors operate on his old man’s heart. The old man’s at ringside, in a wheelchair. watching the kid go for the title. And lose. The kid starts over. He earns another chance at the championship. This time, it’s roses. The kid’s the lightweight champ. And he embraces the old man in the ring. Corn? This is practically succotash.
“But it’s not a Rocky,” Mancini always tells people. “Rocky‘s a fantasy. My story’s true.”
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