Nonfiction | June 01, 1986
Never Say Never: Ray Mancini's Last Fight
On a cold winter morning in Youngstown, Ohio, Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, who had once been the lightweight champion of the World Boxing Association, said goodbye to his mother and father and left home for Nevada to begin training for the most important fight of his career. His final training camp was at the El Dorado Hotel, in downtown Reno, and when he arrived there he found large cardboard cutouts of himself propped against slot machines in the casino. There were banners that said “Welcome, Boom Boom!” and “The El Dorado Welcomes Ray Mancini!,” and several gamblers in polyester gathered around to wish him luck. Mancini was used to such treatment. In boxing circles, he had always been a big star, and he knew how to smile and make small talk, and also how to accept a handshake without doing any damage to the instruments that had helped him to earn almost six million dollars in purse money.
Mancini had an executive suite of rooms in the El Dorado, closed off from public view. Like most veteran boxers, he despised the discipline and routine of getting into shape, so he was glad to be meeting a boxer for whom he had a genuine dislike—Livingstone Bramble, a complex and worldly-wise Rastafarian from the Virgin Islands. Bramble had taken Mancini’s title away in Buffalo, New York, in June of 1984. Mancini had not been himself that night. He’d felt sick and out of sorts, as if he were coming down with the flu. He thought that Bramble had proved to be an unworthy champion. This had less to do with Bramble’s talent than with his comportment. He had insulted the Mancini family and had done stupid things, like messing around with voodoo and boxing with a chicken. These antics had grated against Mancini’s own love of the fight game, his respect for its rituals and institutions, and has increased his desire for revenge.
He did his roadwork in the high desert country, running along paths that skirted the base of snowcapped mountains. He skipped rope, tossed around a medicine ball, and kept tabs on his weight. Almost every afternoon, he sparred with his sparring partners in a full-sized ring at the El Dorado. He was a compactly built man, thickly muscled. He had a broken nose and a scarred face, but he still dreamed of becoming an actor someday. Among his friends he counted Playboy bunnies and movie stars. He knew Mickey Rourke and Sly Stallone. He knew Frankie Avalon well, and Avalon had told him that whenever you do a film you leave a chunk of your life behind. That made sense to Mancini. He was twenty-three years old, and his brief and sometimes tragic time in the ring was drawing to a close.
Mancini started his career as a pro by fighting in and around Youngstown. He told local reporters that he was dedicating himself to winning a lightweight title in honor of his father, Lenny, the original Boom Boom, who had been a contender himself until he was wounded on a French battlefield during the Second World War. This made for good copy, and Mancini soon picked up a canny, ambitious manager, David Wolf, a former sportswriter who knew the value of a property. With Wolf guiding him, steering him away from potentially dangerous opponents, Mancini followed a cautious path to the top, and in May, 1982, after a vicious loss to Alexis Arguello, he beat a shopworn fighter, Arturo Frias, to become the W.B.A. champ.
Mancini was still handsome and relatively unmarked when he knocked out Frias, and his good-natured personality had made him very popular with fans. He was white, Italian, and eminently marketable. The television networks loved him because he had crossover appeal and attracted both men and women. Mancini had never been a stylish boxer; there was little art to his hooks or jabs. He had won twenty-three of his twenty-four pro bouts simply by giving better than he got, by being more courageous and intense than his opponents. The only drawback to his flailing approach was that it had cost him dearly. In swarming over other fighters, he’d left himself open to blows, and he’d been hit more often, and with better shots, than less aggressive men.
He had his first title defense in November, 1983, against the South Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim, in a match that CBS televised. There were more qualified fighters around, but Mancini was kept clear of them. Duk Koo Kim was a mystery man. Though the W.B.A. ranked him first in the lightweight division, he had never fought in the United States, and he spoke no English. Apparently, he saw himself as a warrior going into battle, defending the flag of his nation. On a lampshade in his motel room he scrawled “Kill or be killed.” In the ring, he turned out to be a fierce but unskilled brawler, and he lasted through thirteen brutal rounds before Mancini dropped him. Duk Koo Kim did not get up again, nor did he ever regain consciousness. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in a Las Vegas hospital, and his mother donated his vital organs to science. A month later, she killed herself by drinking poison.
In boxing, there is an ample history of accidental death, but Mancini is a sensitive man, and the fight left him devastated. A devout Catholic, he spent months consulting his family and his parish priest before deciding to go on. He acquitted himself fairly well in four subsequent bouts, including a promotion held in Italy, but then he came up against Livingstone Bramble, who—unlike Mancini—had risen through the ranks without a management team to help him. Mancini was a heavy favorite to win the fight, but Bramble surprised him. He is a wicked counterpuncher, and he sliced through Mancini’s attack and took him apart. Mancini bled so badly from cuts around his eyes that the bout had to be stopped in the fourteenth round. He spent the night in a Buffalo hospital, under observation. He had lacerations in both eyelids. One took eight stitches to close; the other took six.
Mancini had received such a beating that boxing insiders were concerned about his health. Bob Arum, a promoter who had worked with him, stated publicly that Ray should retire, and some other people agreed. Mancini was rich and famous, and since he had achieved his goal, he seemed to have no real reason to go on. He just wasn’t giving as good as he got anymore. The Home Box Office Network had done a computer analysis of the Bramble fight which showed that Mancini had thrown an amazing fourteen hundred and eight punches—more than a hundred per round. But he had landed only three hundred and thirty-eight, or twenty-four per cent. Bramble had landed fifty-three per cent of his punches. In spite of such evidence, Mancini pushed for a rematch. The truth was that he didn’t like being a loser. Already his market value had begun to decline. A publishing company had shelved his autobiography, and a magazine had cancelled its plans for a feature.
The idea of a rematch was fine with Bramble and his manager, Lou Duva. Mancini still had drawing power, and he would insure that the fight would be sold to television. (Without the money and legitimacy that television grants, boxing would not survive as a major sport.) Bramble, on his own, held no interest for the networks. He had no fans, except among reggae lovers and people from the islands, and advertisers would find it hard to be enthusiastic about a worshipper of Haile Selassie who wore his hair in dreadlocks and spoke of himself as one of the world’s oppressed. Also, Bramble’s boxing style was too subtle for the medium. He was a defensive fighter, calculating and intelligent, and he seldom got into trouble. In order to appreciate him, a viewer had to understand boxing as a sport, not spectacle. On the other hand, Mancini worked in broad strokes. Action was his metier, and his walloping delivery was perfect for an audience that was used to watching car crashes and cops chasing junkies through the streets of Miami.
Once Mancini had announced his intention, he had to be accommodated in certain ways. According to a W.B.A. rule, a rematch cannot be sanctioned unless each boxer has fought somebody else in the interim—this prevents a boxer from taking a dive in exchange for a guaranteed rematch. Bramble had fought Edwin Curet; the rule was waived for Mancini. In the WB.A. rankings, Mancini was only third, so Tyrone Crawley, the No. 1 contender, had to be paid off to step aside. Crawley got a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and a contract to fight the winner. To resolve questions about Mancini’s condition, Dave Wolf mailed around a packet of letters from private physicians which described the positive results of many tests. In the summer of 1984, Mancini had a CAT scan, and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a Manhattan orthopedic surgeon who was his chief medical adviser, found no subtle changes or irregularities in his brain tissue.
But Dr. Schwartz was concerned about the delicate skin around Mancini’s eyes. The skin was so tender that Mancini suffered subcutaneous cuts whenever he did any sparring; then, by the time an actual fight rolled around, the cuts were primed to burst to the surface, as they had done in Buffalo. Dr. Schwartz advised Mancini to wear a protective mask while he was training, but Mancini was reluctant to do so, fearing that his fans and the media would see it as a sign of weakness.
A W.B.A. site-selection committee chose Reno for the fight. More and more championships are being held in Nevada, because casino owners are willing to contribute toward the site-selection fees that the W.B.A. demands. Reno city fathers estimated that five million dollars in ancillary profits would spill over to local businesses, much of it in gambling action. After some negotiations, Dan Duva, Lou Duva’s son, signed on to promote the rematch through his company, Main Events. He shopped around the live-broadcast rights and sold them to HBO for more than a million dollars. CBS bought the right to show a videotape no sooner than a week after the fight. That put the promotion into the black, and Duva paid each fighter about three-quarters of a million dollars. It was unusual for a challenger to get as much as a champ, but boxing is a sport in which almost no point of reference is absolute.
A big-money fight always energizes a gambling town, so Reno was happy to play host to Ray Mancini. His fans began to fly in a few days before the bout and took advantage of package deals at various casinos. There were hometown boys from Ohio, high rollers in spring pastels, blond women in clingy, off-brand jeans; and almost every day they convened at the El Dorado to watch their boy sweat. Both Mancini and his trainer, a fierce-looking man named Murphy Griffith, whose shaved head most often reposed inside a New York Yankees cap, felt that he’d overtrained for the first match with Bramble, losing his edge in the gym, and they were monitoring his progress closely, trying to get him to peak at the right moment. The fans were banking on this, betting heavily on Mancini even though he was a three-to-one underdog, and they offered enthusiastic support.
“Boom Boom!” they shouted. Or, more pointedly, “Whip the freak!” The last press conference before the fight took place on a balmy afternoon in mid-February, 1985. Mancini arrived a few minutes before Bramble. Dressed casually, with his longish black hair combed back in an airy pompadour, he strolled in with some other young man of approximately the same size. They looked like members of a boxing dub, clean-cut kids from the suburbs. The press-kit photos of Mancini all dated from the Frias bout, so it was disconcerting to see how much his face had changed since then. He wasn’t unmarked anymore. His nose was broader, more splayed, and the skin was stretched tight over his cheekbones, as if it had no give left in it. Around his eyes, the flesh was pearly and shone under the lights. Only his charm was still intact. He was warm, open, and modest, and around him there gathered a palpable glow. When he smiled, his eyes flashed in their abused sockets, and the joy he took in his trade was manifest. He was glad to be a boxer, willing to accept the grueling dictates of the game, and the press respected him for that and acted as if he, not Bramble, were the champ.
“You going to retire after this one, Ray?” somebody asked.
“I don’t make predictions,” Mancini said.
Livingstone Bramble entered the room and sat at the other end of the table, playing a street tough to hype the fight. He understood the age-old ring drama of white against black, good against evil, and he handled the villain’s role with finesse. In his sunglasses and his Bramble brim, a flat, multicolored pancake of a hat, he brooded on cue and pretended to cast a juju spell on his opponent. He gave Mancini a ceramic skull made in Taiwan, and then, from a little sack, he brought out a voodoo doll and stuck pins in it. “Your eyes jumping around yet, Ray?” he asked. “I told you I’d do anything to win.” Bramble seemed to have no sense that he had crossed over an invisible border into the land of bad taste. Nobody knew what to make of him, not even his manager. He had a capacity for reinventing himself, baffling the white folks with his jive.
Bramble had been invited to train at the M-G-M Grand Hotel, a monolith out in the desert that had once burned up in a fire, dealing many gamblers the ultimate bad hand, and he was driving the security force crazy. He walked through the casino at all hours with a pet boa constrictor draped around his neck, enjoying the fact that he was pulling off a stunt that no other black dude was ever likely to duplicate. The M-G-M lion, caged on a lower level of the hotel, caught a whiff of the snake one night and reverted to jungle genotype, roaring and snorting, but that was no skin off Bramble’s back. He knew that his championship was provisional, and he took a carpe diem attitude toward it, enjoying himself while he could.
Bramble seemed relaxed around the Grand, but he had some secret worries. As an amateur, he’d never won a rematch, and he thought he might be the one who was cursed. He was angry at Dave Wolf, because Wolf kept insinuating that Bramble and his entourage (sunglasses, Bramble brims, black satin warm-up jackets) were using drugs. Lou Duva was also steamed about the accusation, and he had charged in return that Mancini’s corner was much more likely to use an illegal substance—Monsole’s solution, a banned medication that quickly closes cuts. (If Monsole’s dribbles into a fighter’s eye, it can blind him.) In a pact forged at a W.B.A. rules meeting, Duva and Wolf had agreed that their fighters would submit to a urinalysis after their match.
In addition, Bramble was upset about the treatment he’d been getting from the press. He was tired of hearing how wonderful Mancini was, how Mancini embodied all the traditional (and wonderful) American virtues. All Rastafarians know themselves to be eternal underdogs laboring under the weight of Babylon culture, and one night, as Bramble stood outside the Grand, waiting for an attendant to find his car—it was lost in the parking lot—so he could go out to a vegetarian dinner, he spoke of his dissatisfaction.
“It’s always the same, man,” he said. “Everybody telling you what to do. You know what I’m getting for this fight? Seven hundred fifty thousand. Mancini, he’s probably getting more. You call that justice?” Bramble sighed and shook his head. “Boxing, it ain’t never going to change.”
After the press conference Bramble vanished from sight, gone off to some special chamber to replenish his juices, but Mancini continued to put on a show at the El Dorado. The crowd attending his final performance was larger than ever, and they howled when he bopped in to a Hall & Oates tune blaring from a ghetto-blaster. He took off his robe, climbed into the ring, and did some calisthenics, moving at top speed. He was in superb condition. His legs were solid from the roadwork he’d done, and he was trim and flat through the middle. The fight was fast approaching, so he didn’t spar—he had to protect his hands—but he laced on gloves anyway and threw punches at a pair of padded mitts that Murphy Griffith held up as targets. His hooks were powerful, coming from a low center of gravity, but his jabs lacked snap, and bystanders wondered aloud if they’d have any effect on Bramble, whose head was reputed to be as hard as a coconut. While Mancini danced around the ring, Fabulous Ford Jennings, one of his sparring partners, watched from a distance and wearily unwrapped tape from his hands. He was a lean, brown-skinned man, rather tall for a lightweight. He had run through his own set of calisthenics, doing situps and pushups and working a punching bag. This was the fourth time Jennings had trained with a champ, and the trappings of stardom no longer thrilled him. Sick of living in a room above a casino, he spoke wistfully of Fort Worth, his hometown, where he had turned pro at the age of eighteen.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t ever want to see another slot machine or craps table,” he said, letting the tape fall away from his fingers in thick ribbons. “You know what I’d rather see? Cows, pastures, and cracked old streets. I’d like to see some nature. That’s what I’d rather see.”
Jennings claimed to have started boxing when he was seven and maintained that in his twenty pro bouts he had been hit—really hit—just once. If you asked him where, he’d point to a scar over an eye and state proudly that he hadn’t needed any stitches—all he’d needed was a damn butterfly bandage to close the wound. He bragged that Mancini hadn’t been able to touch him, but sparring partners invariably believe that they can outbox their employers. Maybe Jennings was just building his confidence. He hadn’t had a fight in over ten months, and he was eager for action. He blamed “manager problems,” as boxers often do, and said he’d even written to the Texas State Athletic Commission about his plight. He had a new manager now, and felt that he was back on track.
In the evening, after a shower and a change of clothes, Jennings stationed himself at an upstairs bar in the El Dorado, wearing copious gold chains around his neck and making himself available to any feminine fringe benefits that might pass his way. His roommate, Raymond Reyes, another sparring partner, sat with him. Reyes was an intelligent young Puerto Rican from Manhattan, and he’d fought very little. He spoke in complex sentences and wanted to present himself as a well-rounded person, because he figured that would increase his chances of going on TV. Nobody cared to interview a fighter who couldn’t talk, Reyes maintained.
Three times, Raymond Reyes had been in the Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden. Intimidated by the perfect V-shaped torsos of the men he’d fought, he’d lost each bout, but he thought he was older and wiser now, a professional. The man he most admired was Hector (Macho) Camacho, a lightweight contender who’d had manager problems and problems with marijuana. In Camacho he saw a neat blend of flash and bravado. Reyes considered himself an aware person, somebody who understood the risks in boxing. He had seen punchdrunk fighters around the gym, and he planned to retire when he was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, before his own brain turned to mush. He was having a good time in Reno, maybe the time of his life, and he wanted to let his dream stretch out for just as long as he could.
In the literature of boxing, the punch-drunk fighter is a stock character. His speech is slurred; he walks with a stagger or on his heels; his memory is impaired; and his perceptual motor ability is diminished. In medical terms, the syndrome is known as dementia pugilistica. Scientists in Great Britain began to investigate it more than thirty years ago and soon amassed incontrovertible evidence that most former boxers were afflicted to some degree. This prompted the editors of The Lancet, the principal British journal of medicine, to state, in 1959, that the medical case against boxing was so strong that they were compelled to work toward its abolition. Boxing is still quite popular throughout the United Kingdom.
In the United States, there was little research into the physical effects of boxing until recently, when the journal of the American Medical Association started publishing editorials and papers that constituted an all-out assault on the sport. Dr. George Lundberg, the Journal’s editor, contended that boxing is as medically unsound as cigarette smoking, or driving while drunk. Its sole purpose was for one man to inflict injury on another, and on that basis alone, he said, it should be banned. The editorials caused a controversy, and Lundberg received angry letters from pro-boxing colleagues, who accused him of trying to deprive boxers of their rights in a free society. None of the correspondents took issue with the scientific data; it was as convincing as it had been abroad.
Of the research papers published in the Journal to date, the most troubling is “Brain Damage in Modern Boxers.” In it, a team of New York doctors give an account of how they found unequivocal signs of cerebral dysfunction in eighty-seven per cent of the pro boxers they studied. The doctors’ sample was admittedly small, being made up of eighteen volunteers—thirteen former pros, two active pros, and three active Golden Glovers. The former pros were between twenty-five and sixty years old. They hadn’t retired for medical, neurological, or psychological reasons, and they had no known history of drug or alcohol abuse. They’d had, on the average, a total of eighty-three amateur and pro bouts each. The average number of pro bouts was twenty-nine. Only one of the pros was a slugger, like Ray Mancini. The others were artful boxers, who practiced self-defense.
The subjects took a battery of neurological tests, including an EEG and a CAT scan. The three Golden Glovers (who had fought about as much as Raymond Reyes) had no measurable brain damage, although there were indications of subtle brain injury. Thirteen of the fifteen pros had abnormal results. They suffered from a variety of complaints, such as disorientation, confusion, temporary amnesia, and Parkinsonian disturbance. The doctors noted that the subjects were successful boxers, not bums. Among them were two world champs, two national Golden Gloves champs, a Pan American Games champ, and three ranking contenders. These were men who could take a punch. In their four hundred and sixteen bouts, they’d been knocked out just sixteen times.
The paper was not definitive, but it had many serious implications for the sport. Brain damage was not the result of a single hard knockout punch, as some boxers believed; rather, it appeared to be related to the amount of time a fighter spent in the ring and to the amount of punishment he received. Nor was brain damage confined to professionals; it showed up among amateurs. One of the active pros had fought just once for money, but he already had a cavum septum pellucidum—a cave, or tear, in the membrane that separates the lobes of the brain. He’d had thirty-four amateur bouts and countless hours of sparring. Furthermore, brain damage seemed to be a widespread condition among fighters. Its early stages were often undetectible, except through the use of sophisticated, expensive technology, such as a CAT scan. Worse still, the condition was degenerative, and symptoms often did not materialize for years.
“The cumulative effect of multiple subconcussive blows is a likely etiology,” the doctors concluded. In response to their work, the A.M.A. adopted a resolution that states, in part, “Despite some positive aspects of the sport, the American public is best served by strong A.M.A. opposition to boxing at all levels.”
The Lawlor Events Center, on the campus of the University of Nevada, was filled almost to capacity for the Reno Rematch. Dan Duva put the crowd at about twelve thousand people and the gate at about eight hundred thousand dollars. The ringside seats at Lawlor went for two hundred dollars apiece, and in them were W.B.A. officials, local politicians, media types, lounge comedians, showgirls, aspiring showgirls, and showgirls who’d fallen on rough times and were turning tricks. A few cowboys from the range wandered around, half-blasted, done in by many reloads of whiskey at a bar near the arena that featured dead, stuffed animals—big-horn sheep, a water buffalo—in glass cases, just like a museum.
There were six bouts on the undercard at Lawlor. They were part of the netherworld of boxing, in which certain chosen fighters are “built up” for the big time. In such bouts, young boxers who have potential and whose looks, style, or race might make them attractive to the TV networks take turns defeating journeymen—tomato cans, they’re called. The journeymen have no union to represent them as other professional athletes do, so they don’t work for a fixed rate of pay. They have no medical benefits or pension plan. Their job is to travel from state to state and get knocked out, usually as quickly as possible. They take the same risks that champions do, but they take them for peanuts.
Dave Wolf handled two of the young boxers on the undercard. In order to sign Mancini, Dan Duva had agreed to sign them as well, and to find them opponents and put their pictures in the fight program. Wolf had the right to approve the opponents, as every manager does, and he considered himself an excellent judge of what was appropriate. In his six and a half years as a manager, his charges had lost only seven times.
For Louis Espinosa, a junior lightweight, Wolf approved Juan (El Tigre) Romero, who had lost about a third of his pro bouts. Espinosa worked Romero over, hitting him so hard and so often that when Romero went down, in the fifth, he waved a bright red glove and shouted, “No mas! No mas!” For Donny Poole, a Canadian welterweight, Wolf approved Chino Bermudez, a tall, slightly flabby man in his thirties whose eyes had an Oriental cast. Bermudez came from either Los Angeles or Tijuana, and he’d had seventy-four recorded pro bouts. In his youth, he’d been a winner, but now he lost consistently. He had arrived in Reno not long before the fight, and when he stepped onto a scale at the weigh-in, dressed in the clothes of a fieldhand, he proved to be ten pounds overweight. He had looked unlikely then, but in the ring he looked downright implausible. Every now and then, he did something well, drawing on memory, but Poole hit him almost at will. Bermudez went down in the second, swooning, and went down twice more in the third before the fight was stopped.
Dan Duva would say later that he couldn’t do much about the caliber of such bouts. Managers just wouldn’t let a hot prospect go against somebody who might beat him, not unless the money was right. As for Dave Wolf, he didn’t think that the fights had been mismatches. In his opinion, Romero was a decent boxer, and Bermudez, a wily veteran, had actually taught some things to Donny Poole. Besides, there were budgetary considerations involved. Romero was part of an inexpensive package deal out of Phoenix, which also included Tony Cisneros, another knockout victim. Jerry Lewis (twelve wins, thirteen losses) wasn’t part of the package. Vince Dunfee knocked him out, and Lewis went home to California and got word that his license to fight in that state would not be renewed. Chino Bermudez got a similar notification, and headed for Mexico.
Ray Mancini, wearing a red silk robe, paraded into the arena throwing punches and kisses. The crowd, mostly white, rose as a body and cheered when he slipped through the ropes. Moments later, Livingstone Bramble made his entrance, to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” a reggae song about black men who’d been conscripted into the Union Army and forced to kill Indians. “I’m just a buffalo soldier, fighting for survival,” Marley sang, and Bramble, in black trunks adorned with a yellow skull-and-crossbones, danced in the ring, eyes closed, while in a front row, his supporters from the Virgin Islands held aloft his infant son. Bramble’s dreadlocks were slick with Vaseline, and so were his nose and cheeks. The fans booed him, but Bramble had expected as much. “In America,” he’d once said, “if you’re different they say you’re strange.”
The fight started briskly. Mancini came out smoking and carried the fight to Bramble. Bramble’s height advantage and superior reach—he had several inches on the challenger—made things difficult, but Mancini compensated, as always, with courage and daring. He stood toe-to-toe with the bigger man and took three punches in order to land one. Bramble scored points throughout these exchanges, refusing to brawl. Instead, he waited patiently and looked for openings. When he threw a jab, he threw it with authority, in a clockwork way, often aiming for the eyes. Mancini was honed as sharp as he could be, but his scar tissue and the subcutaneous cuts he’d got in training soon betrayed him. In the second round, Bramble sliced a cut into his right eyelid; the skin around his left eye began to swell and turn red. Then, in the fifth, Bramble opened an inch-long gash near the left lid, so that blood flowed down Mancini’s cheek, as if he’d been slashed with a razor.
Somehow, Mancini kept himself together. He had a fine sixth round, wiping the blood away with his gloves and slowing Bramble with a series of efficient hooks to the body, but Bramble took charge again in the seventh, working the eyes, jabbing at them, widening the cuts. When Mancini returned to his corner at the bell, he complained to his cornermen. “I can’t see,” he said. His cut man, Paul Percifield, closed the wounds as best he could, but Bramble opened them again in the eighth, and the referee called in the ringside physician, Dr. Charles Filippini, and sought a medical opinion as to whether or not Mancini should continue.
Dr. Filippini is in general practice in Reno. The Nevada State Athletic Commission paid him a pittance for his work, and he looked on it as he might on community service. He had presided at many fights, including four championships, but he’d stopped only one of them. He was aware that he was in a difficult position. There were millions of dollars riding on Mancini, and his fans were desperate for him to finish, since he appeared to be behind on points. Also, Dr. Fillipini knew that most boxing people mistrust physicians, and he wasn’t sure how Mancini’s corner would react to his presence. At other fights, he had been blocked from examining injured men, elbowed aside by irate trainers. “They just want us around to pick up the pieces,” he would remark later.
Dr. Filippini had given pre-fight physicals to all the boxers on the card, but the exams were cursory, and he wished he could do more. He had read the A.M.A. research, and it gave him cause for concern. He thought that every boxer should have a CAT scan at the start of his career and then after every bout so he could at least be informed of any change in his brain tissue. But a CAT scan is expensive, and Dr. Filippini didn’t know where the money was going to come from, except perhaps from the TV networks. He leaned over the ropes, pried open Mancini’s closed eye with his fingers, and peered into the bloody socket, determining that Mancini’s eyelids weren’t split and that his retinas were not detached. In essence, the cuts were a soft-tissue trauma. They might look awful, and impair Mancini’s vision to some degree, but they would do him no permanent harm.
So Mancini fought on. But the bout was not the same anymore—it did not seem clean or fair. Now a man with a handicap was pitted against a boxer in his prime. Mancini’s talent and bravery were not at issue. His body had just let him down. As he circled the ring, flicking his gloves against his eyes to wipe away the blood, he was reminiscent of many other champs in the final stages of their careers. There was something very moving and very sad about his pursuit of Bramble, something that went to the root of boxing’s problems. It was a sport that did not know where to draw the line. The line, such as it was, kept shifting, subject to crude economies—to the demands of networks, boxing organizations, promoters, and the other vested interests in control. On this point the record was clear: only rarely did a fighter get out of the game before it was too late.
Because Mancini had a touch of greatness, he landed punches, even good punches, but the blood still flowed. It spotted his chest and speckled his shoulders and back. Bramble was distressed by what he saw. If the eyes had been his, he would have quit and come back another day. Most boxers do not like to inflict unnecessary punishment, but Bramble had no choice. He had hammered Mancini last time out, and yet he had been behind on the judges’ scorecards. So Bramble worked the eyes. In all, he would hit Mancini six hundred and seventy-four times. Two hundred and fifty-five of those punches would strike Mancini in the face.
The image of a wounded fighter extending himself beyond reasonable limits has always been integral to the mythology of boxing. Maybe there was a period in history when a fan could have watched in innocence as Mancini got hit, admiring his competitive spirit, but that period had passed. The scientific evidence was in, and it told the truth about what was happening. When Mancini was hit on the jaw, or on the side of his head, his soft brain swirled and glided within his skull, imperilling blood vessels and nerve endings. His future as a person with charm and charisma—his future as a human being—was at risk.
Mercifully, the fight ended. Among most reporters who had kept score, Bramble was an easy winner, ahead by three or four points, although a few dissenters gave the match to Mancini. The judges, too, scored in favor of Bramble, but only by a point on each card. The HBO computer analysis showed that Mancini had connected with just twenty-eight per cent of his punches; Bramble had connected with fifty-five percent. Once again, Mancini had been beaten decisively, but he was ecstatic to have survived. When he met the press after the bout, he delivered a non-stop monolog fueled by a mixture of oxygen and adrenaline. He wore a maroon towel over his head, like a burnoose. His left eye was purple and almost shut. “I hope I’ve been good for boxing,” he said. “I tried.”
Somebody asked him if he were hurting.
“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not,” said Mancini. “But to what extent?”
Lenny Mancini—broken nose, shock of white hair—sat next to his son, and a reporter asked him if he wanted Ray to keep fighting. “If it was up to me, I’d say forget about it,” Lenny said.
“He always says that,” Ray said. “I’m his baby.”
Another reporter asked Mancini if he planned to retire. He said he had to think about it. “To thine own self be true,” he said. “You guys didn’t know I knew Shakespeare, did you?”
He laughed and invited everybody to a big party at the El Dorado. Then, he went off to a hospital, where twenty-seven stitches were taken in his eyelids and around his eyes. By midnight, he was back in his suite, eating a dish of chocolate ice cream.
In the morning, at the M-G-M Grand, Bramble, still casual in jeans and Bramble brim, referred to himself as the lightweight champion of the universe. When somebody asked him why he hadn’t used his right hand very much during the fight, he said it was because the glove on it had not come from the belly part of the cow.
“Are you going to honor your contract with Tyrone Crawley?” a reporter asked.
Bramble was going to leave that up to his manager. The chump he really wanted to fight was Hector Camacho, who had been at ringside in a gold lamé suit and a pair of rhinestone-studded sunglasses. W.B.A. rankings aside, Camacho was worth a significant piece of cake.
“With Crawley, you get a guy who’s a stinking fighter,” Lou Duva said. He has a face like Broderick Crawford. “I don’t like a Crawley fight. There’s nothing good about him stylewise. It would just stink out the joint.” He meant that Crawley had a style that was similar to Bramble’s and might give Bramble trouble. He also meant that Crawley had no marquee value and might not sell to television.
Shortly after this, the full weight of Babylon came thrashing down on Bramble. The post-fight urinalysis revealed a banned substance in his urine—ephedrine, a crystalline alkaloid commonly used for relief of hay fever, asthma, and nasal congestion. Taken in large doses or injected intramuscularly, it elevates blood pressure and works as a stimulant. At first, Bramble was puzzled by how it had gotten into his system. He was a vegetarian, a true health freak, and he avoided chemicals of all description. But everyday he did swallow a capsule of Chi Power, a supposedly Chinese herbal concoction that he bought at natural foods stores. Chi Power contained Ma Huang, or Ephedra sinica. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, uninterested in Orientalia, fined Bramble fifteen thousand dollars.
Then his big payday with Hector Camacho dispersed into the ozone. The Crawley fight was scheduled instead, but Bramble broke a hand in training, and NBC cancelled its contract. For a time, the fight languished in limbo. When it was rescheduled, Crawley injured himself, and NBC again cancelled its contract. More months dragged by, and Bramble, a king without a kingdom, became so depressed that he told one of his handlers that he was thinking about moving to Montana and buying himself a cattle ranch. (In February, 1986, Bramble finally fought and defeated Crawley in an impressive performance. He had fired Lou Duva as his manager, and Duva was suing him for part of his purse. Of the five bouts broadcast on TV that weekend, Bramble’s received the highest rating.)
In the weeks following the fight, Ray Mancini took it easy. For the first time in five years, he let his body rest. When CBS broadcast its videotape, he appeared on camera live, without Bramble, and offered through puffy lips a revised version of recent events. Now he claimed that he’d won the fight convincingly, and that Bramble’s drug use ought to cost him the title. In New York, Dr. Schwartz examined Mancini again and told him that his cuts would be fully healed in a few months. Mancini flew to Florida and played some golf.
For a while, he couldn’t make up his mind about retirement. Every few days, he would phone Dave Wolf and ask if any new fight offers had come in. Wolf was getting plenty of them, all for big bucks. Mancini was still white and still popular. Would he be able to turn down a million dollars to go up about five pounds and fight a leading junior welterweight? Mancini himself didn’t know for sure. How many Americans could refuse a million bucks for taking a beating? And it wasn’t really the punishment that Mancini was concerned about—he had no idea if he could go through another training camp. He was tired of paying dues, and he had other options. COSMO wanted him for a photo session on bachelor hunks, and the William Morris Agency had signed him to a contract.
Mancini decided to move to Los Angeles. He bought a house there and put in time around the swimming pool. His movie star friends understood what he was going through and how a million-dollar deal rumbles around in your head. One day, he started working out in a gym at Mickey Rourke’s house. He took it slowly, testing himself, but he just couldn’t do it anymore. He’d had it with sacrifice and pain, so he called a press conference and said that he was hanging up his gloves to pursue a career as an actor. Probably he would never be a great thespian, but he thought he had it in him to do Rambo-type roles. He believed that he could make a go of it in Hollywood, but he would not rule out the possibility that maybe, in the future, if the circumstances were right, he might return to the ring.
“One thing I’ve learned,” Mancini said. “Never say never.”
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