Have I changed?" asks (rhetorically) the man once known for bleeding profusely. He boasts a Beverly Hills salon haircut (given by Ted, the dude with the blue fingernails), and he chomps on a thick stogie as he sits with a glass of wine in front of him, sushi on his plate, at a corner table in L.A.'s Cigar Bar, an exclusive spot that doesn't usually attract people who used to bleed profusely for a living. "I guess everyone changes a little bit."
What was it, 15 years ago that Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, the spunky kid from Youngstown, Ohio, in those tight Sasson trunks, won over boxing populists with a face-first approach? For more than two years he was the WBA lightweight champion. Has Mancini changed?
To start, he isn't even Ray (Boom Boom) anymore. He's Raymond, thank you very much, and you can drop the Boom Boom. As for the blood—well, forget the blood. "People ask me if I still wanna fight," says Ray...uh...mond. "Are they crazy? Are they nuts? I'm just glad I can still spell fight."
For the record, he can. It's F-I-G-H-T or, more accurately, N-E-V-E-R A-G-A-I-N. Recently, the 37-year-old Mancini says, he was offered the chance to return to the ring with a three-bout, $7.5 million deal that would allow him to pick his opponents. "The guy said, 'Ray, it's all rock-and-roll today,' " recalls Mancini. "People don't pay for the fight, they pay for the performer. I mean, it's stupid. Right now my life is good. I've got a wonderful wife, I've got three wonderful kids. Plus, I've got my title shot. My real title shot."
Mancini is, in fact, preparing for the biggest opportunity of his life, a starring movie role. "Even people who don't know too much," he says, "think this is the perfect film for me. They say this is my chance."
On top of his wavy brown hair, he wears a black cap that reads BODY AND SOUL. Those words come out of his mouth every fifth or sixth sentence. "Did I tell you about Body and Soul? Let's get some lunch. Roy Jones really impressed me last night. My babies are the pride of my life. Body and Soul is my biggest chance, you know. Body and Soul. Body and Soul. Body and Soul."
It is the name of a movie, the 1947 classic starring John Garfield and Lilli Palmer. The story is about a boxer from a small town in Ohio who gets seduced by the bright lights of Las Vegas. He leaves home to pursue a championship, but along the way he encounters the dark side of sport. Charlie Davis, the film's main character, could be a young Ray Mancini: The way he talks. The way he boxes.
"I've never been more drawn to a character," says Mancini, who has been in L.A. for nearly 13 years, putting in his time paying dues and scratching for parts. Two years ago he purchased the rights to the film, and he is starring in the remake, which he is also producing. Hollywood heavyweights Rod Steiger and Joe Montegna are in the cast. "I mean, this is what I was born for," says Mancini. "It's not just me playing a boxer. This is a character with substance and complexities and trials. It's the perfect opportunity—my chance to show something."
That's more important to Mancini than to many former fighters. He retired from the ring at 23, his mind intact but his legacy unclear. Although he was among the most popular fighters of the 1980s, he is known most for the 1982 bout in which he dealt his opponent, Duk Koo Kim of South Korea, fatal head injuries. It's a shame, really. Mancini could fight. He won the WBA title at 21, a gift to his father, Lenny Mancini, whose own dreams of boxing glory were ruined by a back injury he suffered during a tour of military duty in Vietnam. Ray was a stylish fighter—dartin' and movin', stickin' and jabbin'. He was a showman. The ladies loved him. The traditionalists (read: white crusties) ate him up. "For a long time," Mancini says, "boxing was everything to me. It was my life. Problem is, once you win the championship, everything changes. You're not fighting to win it anymore. You're just fighting"—he pauses—"to fight."
As he speaks, Mancini awkwardly maneuvers his truck through the tight streets of Beverly Hills, driving with one hand, illustrating his conversation with the other. His words come super-duper fast. At just 5'6", he doesn't look much like a brawler. Carmen, his wife of nine years, says, "Ray is a beautiful man—like a model."