By Graham Houston
Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was one of the gamest crowd-pleasers in recent boxing history and his life and career has been done justice by Mark Kriegel’s excellent biography The Good Son: The Life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. The book is almost as much about Mancini’s relationship with his father, the former lightweight contender Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini, and their hometown of Youngstown, OH, as it is about the fighter, which I believe lifts it to a level above the standard boxing biography.
Lenny’s presence looms large, while images are evoked of the blue-collar town that the Mancinis called home, with mob figures prevalent and the underlying theme of struggle as factories closed and working people saw an old way of life fading into history.
Mancini had only 34 professional bouts, winning 29, but he burned like a shooting star across the TV screens of America in the 1980s, capturing the WBA lightweight title and taking part in some classic fights, including one of the most dramatic one-round battles in ring history when he outslugged Art Frias in 174 violent seconds in a fight shown on the CBS network. “Ninety seconds into the fight, Ray had a cut above his left brow,” Kriegel relates. “Frias was a bloody mess, though most of it coming from a gash on his cheek and the bridge of his nose.”
Inevitably, much of the interest in this book will centre on Mancini’s tragic fight with Duk Koo Kim, who fought Mancini toe-to-toe before wilting in the 14th round on Nov. 13, 1982.
I remember watching the fight live on CBS and wondering what was keeping Kim going as the Korean fighter took Mancini’s best punches and kept firing back. “Bing, bing, bing, bing. I’m hitting him with everything for like a minute,” Mancini told Kriegel. “And then he just backs off, like, celebrating. He just took my best shots and he’s putting up his arms in triumph.
“That’ll take your heart away.”
Kim was taken to hospital after the fight with a blood clot on the brain, and four days later he was taken off life support when doctors were unable to find any sign of brain function.
There, obviously, was no post-fight celebrating for Mancini while Kim lay comatose at Desert Springs hospital in Las Vegas although Mancini attended a Las Vegas show featuring Frank Sinatra at the personal invitation of the showbiz icon. (“It might as well have been the pope inviting him.”) Sinatra introduced Mancini to the audience with laudatory words but the fighter “felt like a perpetrator”, Kriegel informs us, while wearing a “counterfeit smile”.
Mancini’s rivalry with the eccentric but tough and capable Livingstone Bramble is vividly recaptured. Bramble did everything he could to upset Mancini before their first title fight, in which Mancini was a big betting favourite, even casting a “voodoo curse” on the champion. The Rastafarian Bramble didn’t believe in voodoo, Kriegel notes, but “Faux voodoo was perfect to piss off and confuse such a devoted Catholic as Ray.”
Bramble won two gruelling, bloody fights with Mancini, but complimented his opponent’s courage. “I couldn’t take the pounding I gave him, no way,” Bramble told Kriegel. “I would never try to measure my heart with his, never.”
Kriegel’s research is impressive and his writing carries the reader through the book’s 267 pages (not including acknowledgements, notes and an index) at a fast pace. His descriptions of Mancini’s big fights are detailed and compelling, with interesting background information that will no doubt be new even to the most devoted of boxing fans. Mancini’s sometimes-troubled personal life is chronicled to complete a picture of a fighter with, as Kriegel puts it, “a unique combination of innocence and arrogance”. I found the book difficult to put down once I started reading it, which is the highest recommendation I can offer.
The Good Son: The Life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, is published by Free Press; hardcover, illustrated, $27.
The first woman boxing judge, Carol Polis, tells her story in The Lady is a Champ (with Rich Herschlag). While Polis’s boxing anecdotes are interesting the story has a wider reach, relating the struggles of a single mother who is also a cancer survivor.
Polis is unsparing in describing the breakdown of her marriage to boxing referee Bob Polis, which seemed in part due to their careers in boxing going in different directions with the wife getting more officiating assignments than the husband: “As I put more and more notches on my boxing bedpost, Bob slowly boiled.”
Yet Polis’s first fight as a boxing judge, at the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1973 was not a great success. She had a Hungarian-born flyweight named Paul Kallai beating a boxer from Ohio named Leroy Krienbrook in a four-round bout but the referee and the other judge had Krienbrook winning widely, with the referee giving every round to Krienbrook. Polis remembers the crowd’s jeering reaction when the MC read her scorecard: “These were cheers I did not want, not one of them. To me they were sarcastic, each one cutting like a knife.”
Polis persevered, though, recognising that she had been too generous to Kallai in her scoring, perhaps because she was sympathetic to the former jockey with the “boyish face” who was giving boxing a try in his late 30s. “This could never happen again,” Polis writes. “If I had to put myself in complete mental isolation for every fight I would ever call, then that’s what I would do.”
She had, she notes, learned a valuable if slightly humbling lesson: “Never allow yourself to get lulled into looking at just one boxer.”
Polis went on to judge many significant fights in Philadelphia — although sometimes described as being from that city she resided in the suburb of Fort Washington — and earned a reputation as a competent official, leading to her selection as a judge in WBA title bouts in the U.S. and globally.
As a woman official she occasionally faced issues that men didn’t have to deal with, such as being stalked by a “secret admirer” in Argentina and having an objection raised by Marvin Hagler’s co-manager, Goody Petronelli, to Polis’s possible appointment to judge one of Hagler’s title fights.
Polis supplies anecdotes on Philadelphia fighters such as Cyclone Hart, Boogaloo Watts and Bennie Briscoe and has fond recollections of Joe Frazier and the former Pennsylvania commissioner Zach Clayton.
Anyone who likes to read about an individual struggling to overcome adversity and retaining a positive outlook in bleak moments should find Polis’s book an enjoyable read.
The Lady is a Champ (Carol B. Polis with Rich Herschlag); published by Velocity Publishing Group; soft cover; 298 pages, illustrated; $19.99.