My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was my favorite boxer as a young teen, and remains my favorite even today. He could knock the living daylights out of you, could take a punch, and his story was awesome. Until tragedy struck. I assume most everybody knows about it, and it takes up a large portion of the book, but the author does a great job of treating it with dignity and respect.
Boom Boom was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, a rust belt former steel town with a big Mob presence. His dad had been a fighter and was the number one challenger in the world, up for the title fight, before World War II called and ended his career with a drastic injury. Ray grew up idolizing his father and it seems like he always wanted to be a fighter. He decided early on that he would one day win the world championship that eluded his father, and he would do it for his father. And he fought with fury. He had real presence about him, a magnetism, charisma, and since I lived in the Pittsburgh area with Youngstown so close by, he felt like a homeboy to me. Oh yes, I rooted for him.
He trained hard and he fought hard. Forgive me if I don’t get my facts straight, but I read this in e-book format and can’t go back to look up the figures, but by age 20 or so, Boom Boom was something like 23-0 or 23-1, most with knockouts. (He was a lightweight.) When he finally won the world championship, you feel like cheering alongside Ray. He fought a few more fights, but as is the case, you have to fight the top challengers to hang onto your belt, and in 1982, an unknown South Korean named Duk Koo Kim was the top challenger. Watching video of him, Ray and his team felt like he mirrored Ray in never stepping back, in always pursuing with dogged tenacity, in taking punches, and dealing out punishment. Ray, always confident, was a little worried, but he trained hard and when it came time for the fight — which I think was held outdoors in Reno — he was ready. But the fight was difficult — for both fighters. They pummeled each other. They held nothing back. They both bled and bruised and inflicted pain. It was a 15 round fight and it was pretty even until the 14th, when Ray caught Kim and knocked him out with a series of blows. Ray’s family and team rushed the ring, and he celebrated, but he missed seeing Kim taken out on a stretcher to a local hospital, where tests showed he had severe bleeding in his brain. He wasn’t going to live. Within about three days, Kim was dead and a lot of people now viewed Mancini as a murderer. It was devastating! He couldn’t believe it. And he thought, as did others, it could have been him. This death in the ring was the beginning of the end for Boom Boom. He’d fight about eight more times, losing four, getting abused twice by one person who won the belt off him (Bramble). His heart wasn’t in it anymore, so he retired. At age 23 or 24. Amazing.
However, the book is a lot more than just this. It shows Ray meeting his virginal Cuban American wife in Miami, courting her, marrying her and having three children together. It shows them moving to Santa Monica, where Ray ate and drank with famous people like David Mamet and Ed O’Neil virtually every night. Ray even tried to go into acting, getting some bit parts. Sylvester Stallone did a movie of the week of Ray, starring Ray. The book also has a chapter on Kim, and his upbringing, from a hard childhood to his eventual boxing stardom. It shows the pregnant fiance he left behind, his mother, his family. Ray was further devastated when Kim’s mother committed suicide three months after his death. Everywhere he went, people asked him about it, and he just wanted to leave it in the past, haunted the whole time by it. Eventually, Ray screwed up and went for another girl, an actress, was caught by his wife, who divorced him, but who remained a good parent with him for their children. In this book, we see Ray’s father, Boom, getting dementia, his brother Lenny getting shot to death. There’s a lot of tragedy in this book, as well as honor and excitement. It’s a well researched book and surprisingly meaty for being so short. Kriegel could have butchered Mancini — an easy target for some — but he treated him and everyone in the book with the respect they deserved, and I thought that was classy. I especially enjoyed the section when Kim’s fiance and son came to California to visit Ray and help heal him of his demons. Even if you’re not a boxing fan, this book has enough human interest in it to make it appealing to just about anyone. Recommended.