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One boxing expert said this: "Joe Frazier had it. Frazier was the classic overachiever. He'd come at you, a one-armed, short-armed, predictable fighter. But he beat the unbeatable man. That's what this kid's got. An intensity. It's something you can feel—a three-dimensional thing. It takes away the other guy's enthusiasm to fight. Money can't give it to you; that's not enough incentive. It's got to be something else."
The young boxer he was talking about is Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, a 20-year-old, 5'6", middle-class white kid from Youngstown, Ohio. Two years ago, Mancini was president of his senior class at Cardinal Mooney High School and had a scholarship offer to attend Xavier University in Cincinnati. Now he is seeking the lightweight boxing championship of the world—a title he believes rightly belonged to his father 40 years ago. That's who he wants to win it for: Lenny (Boom Boom) Mancini. That's what gives him his intensity, "it's like a mission," Ray says. "It's like something on my shoulders." He is behaving like a man in a great hurry to complete his mission. Since turning pro in October 1979, Ray has won all 19 of his fights, 15 by knockout, and has soared from unheralded amateur to the WBC's seventh-ranked lightweight. If he wins his next fight, on July 19 against fourth-ranked Jose Luis Ramirez of Mexico, a title bout will surely follow.
Of course, funny things can happen on the way to a title bout. Lenny Mancini was a great lightweight in the late 1930s and early '40s. Ray Arcel, whose most recent meal ticket was Roberto Duran, spotted Lenny in Youngstown in 1938 and brought him to New York. Lenny was 19 then, and short (5'2"), with stubby legs (24 inches at the inseam). His upper body, though, was powerfully developed—more like a middleweight's than a lightweight's. In Lenny's first fight in New York, Charly Varre broke his jaw in the opening round. Lenny came back to his corner and told Arcel, "I lost all my teeth. I can't feel no teeth."
Arcel looked into his mouth and said, "You're all right."
Lenny shrugged it off and won the four-round fight on a decision. He was out of action for six months.
By 1939 Lenny had attracted quite a following in Brooklyn, where he had most of his fights. Fans loved his relentless attacking style and dubbed him Boom Boom. Later he beat Billy Marquart twice, Joey Fontana and a rough customer called Chief Crazy Horse. Mancini became known as a "one-man riot gang." One boxing scribe wrote, "With Boom Boom, you wound him up and he couldn't stop punching." He never took a step backward and was willing to accept two punches to deliver one. And he was knocked off his feet only once in 88 fights.
In 1941, Sammy Angott was the lightweight champ. Boom Boom and Angott met in a non-title 10-rounder that year—both were over the 135-pound weight limit—with Angott winning a split decision. The referee gave the fight to Boom Boom, 7-2-1, and when the decision was announced, there was sustained booing. That was Mancini's biggest payday: $5,000.
On Nov. 11, 1941, he had his final lightweight fight as a civilian. It was against the Canadian champion, Dave Castilloux, in Montreal, and this time Boom Boom won by a decision. "Mancini was the perpetual motion kid himself," one newspaper reported. Always popular with the fans, Boom Boom was given a standing ovation when the decision was announced. The win established him as the No. 1 contender for Angott's crown.
Negotiations for a title fight were under way when, on Jan. 15, 1942, Lenny Mancini was drafted into the Army. His manager told him to request a 30-day furlough so that he could get his long-awaited shot at the title. Mancini even offered his entire purse to the Army. Selective Service's answer: We want you, not your money.
And that was it. Boom Boom was assigned to the Medical Corps and stationed in Rockford, Ill. One day a patient pointed to a tray of medicines and asked for something for his sore throat. Boom Boom brought him back a bottle of iodine. "You trying to kill me?" the patient screamed. So Boom Boom was reassigned to the library. Later he was a phys-ed instructor. Then orders came through that all athletes in his company were to see combat duty. He became an infantryman, and on Nov. 11, 1944, he was hit by mortar shrapnel in Metz, France. "That Metz deal was a slaughter," he recalls. "I never saw anything like it. The shell landed about 15 feet away, and all I felt was a jolt. I couldn't move. I thought I'd had it."