By Thomas Gerbasi
Don’t get scared away by the headline. This isn’t one of those sadly typical boxing stories where a fighter not just past his prime but past his sell by date in the sport returns for a payday. That’s not where Ray Mancini is at 52 years old these days.
Yet more than 21 years after his last bout, it’s almost like “Boom Boom” has made a return to the world’s consciousness in a way that no ill-advised comeback fight could ever do.
Whether it’s the brilliant 2012 biography by Mark Kriegel, “The Good Son,” a recent documentary of the same name that has earned critical acclaim, or the t-shirts popping up from brands like Roots of Fight and No Mas that celebrate the former lightweight champion’s heyday in the 80s, Youngstown’s finest is back.
“Who woulda thunk it?” laughed Mancini. “It’s always a surprise when people think of you in high regard or they want to do something. It’s so long after my career, I’m thinking ‘who cares now?’ But with the book and the documentary, and now we’ve got t-shirts and stuff like that, it’s a good time, and I’m very flattered by it.”
So why now?
“I can’t answer that,” he said. “I don’t know, and I mean that sincerely. Like when Kriegel approached me about doing the book, I said ‘Mark, with no false modesty, I don’t know what can be told that hasn’t been told already.’”
Kriegel found the story, focusing “The Good Son” on fathers and sons, whether it was Ray and his dad Lenny, or Duk Koo Kim (the title challenger who died of injuries sustained in his 1982 bout with Mancini) and the son he never met. Forget about it being a great boxing book or a great sports book. This was one of the best books of the year across any genre. And to think, Mancini didn’t even want to be involved initially.
“When I first retired, people were saying ‘oh, write a book,’” he said. “I’m thinking first, I ain’t even lived a life; let me live a life first. And then ten years ago I’d start to get offers and I’d say ‘who’s gonna care now?’ I’m one of these guys that if I walk into a bookstore and I see a book by a contemporary athlete, I go ‘who cares’ because this guy hasn’t even lived life.”
Mancini did come around though, and he’s glad that he did.
“I’m flattered, I’m honored, I just don’t know what to say. I guess for every era there’s an era that preceded it that people hear about or want to know about, and it intrigues them.”
And Mancini’s era of the 1980s was certainly intriguing. Some (including me) would call it boxing’s last Golden Age, an era where fights were on network television every weekend, fights were front page news, and the best usually fought the best. And when your best included the names Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Salvador Sanchez, Wilfredo Gomez, along with a countless array of other stars, that’s golden to say the least.
It’s also not bad when you consider that the aforementioned group had to follow another stellar era in the 70s, a decade that may be epitomized by 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, the third bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Mancini narrated a soon to be released mini documentary on the fight for Roots of Fight, and when you see Ali and Frazier battle it out in the Manila heat, you’re reminded of Mancini’s line that after a tough fight, you know your opponent better than their families or friends know them.
“They absolutely knew each other,” said Mancini. “From those wars, they knew each other very, very well. Growing up, I was a Joe Frazier fan and a fan of anybody who had that style: Duran, Frazier, (Carlos) Monzon – guys who would come forward. And I was not an Ali fan by no means. But over the years I got to meet Ali and got to know him and become friends with him and you see why he’s bigger than the sport. And he’s the only one. He not only changed the boxing game, he changed pop culture. If you had the Mount Rushmore of pop culture in this country, it would be Ali, Bob Dylan, and a couple other guys, maybe Michael Jordan would be up there. Joe was my guy though. I loved Smoke. And as he got older he still had a lot of resentment and animosity toward Ali, but little by little he let it go.”
Hearing Mancini talk about Ali-Frazier III, you have to wonder what goes through a fighter’s head seeing a war like that, especially knowing that he had seen his share as well.
“First you see what great shape they’re in, mentally and physically and emotionally to be able to withstand the punishment,” he said. “People don’t understand how far the body will go. The old saying is ‘the mind’s the general and the body’s the army.’ The body will do whatever the mind tells it. But how far can the body go for human endurance? I thought the first fight was spectacular, but then you’ve got the third fight that is just unbelievable.”
It was the kind of fight that compelled you to watch boxing some more, even if only on the remote chance that you would see such brilliance and grit one more time. The same were true of the epic battles of the 80s, when it seemed like every weekend held a Mancini brawl, a Matthew Saad Muhammad-Yaqui Lopez epic, or a clash between the best welterweights on the planet. And more often than not, the fights were free on network television, something Mancini believes is necessary if boxing is to have another golden era.
“People often ask me, ‘what does boxing have to do to get back to the popularity it once had,’ and without network television, we’ll never have the popularity we once had,” he said. “That was the key. With network television, I was exposed to over 60 million homes domestically and over 100 million homes worldwide. Now they say there are 30 million homes capable of Pay-Per-View. If you get a two percent buy rate, you consider that a success. Well, that’s only half a million people. So if I was fighting and I had three, four, five million people watching my fights and close to ten million people worldwide, it’s a little different. And what they did back then is they created a story. With a lot of these other fighters, they do tell stories beforehand and they get to meet them on a personal level, and HBO and Showtime have tried to do that, but instead of it coming off as personal and intriguing, it’s coming off as manufactured and boring as hell. These guys seem like they have to create personas. Adrien Broner is a terrific fighter, but he’s Mayweather lite. Get your own persona, come up with something of your own, make it original. For years, guys were trying to impersonate Ali, and that’s what they were, Ali impersonators. There are very few original personalities out there, and if they’re not original, they’re not intriguing.”
Ray Mancini never had that problem. He was an original, he was intriguing, and though he got paid for his work in the ring, he fought with the intensity of someone you believed would do it for free. Maybe that 2013 comeback isn’t such a surprise anymore.
MANCINI ON MAYWEATHER
So what of “Money” Mayweather? Mancini likes the pound-for-pound king personally and professionally, but he still holds a torch for the Mayweather of his era: Sugar Ray Leonard.
“He (Mayweather) is very special talentwise, and he’ll go down as one of the great fighters of all-time, there’s no doubt,” said Boom Boom. “He does things that Ray Leonard couldn’t do. But, the difference is, he would never beat Ray Leonard. Ray Leonard knew how to close the show. Ray wanted to take you out, he wanted to annihilate you, he wanted to hurt you. This kid don’t have that. This kid will slap you death for 12 rounds, but he’s not going to engage if he don’t got to. And that’s the difference.”
And as good as he thinks Mayweather is, he’s leaning towards the upset when the Las Vegan battles Saul “Canelo” Alvarez this September.
“I’m picking Canelo,” said Mancini. “He’s bigger and stronger and he’s coming into his prime. I love Floyd, he’s a real good kid, but Canelo is coming into his own. He’s built like a linebacker, and if jumps on him (Mayweather) right from the get and makes it a dogfight, he’ll beat him because Floyd won’t be able to keep up with this kid. Nor does he want to. But that’s not Canelo’s style; he likes to give two rounds away. I hope they’re smart enough to understand if he gives two rounds away to Floyd, he’s got to win seven of the next ten to win the fight, which ain’t gonna happen.”