Nowhere does Collins's presence loom larger than in Antioch, a small community 10 miles south of Nashville. Billy and Bettye Collins live there in a tiny blue house that's one strong gust away from kindling. They are poor. Three rooms, lots of old furniture and old memories. Money comes in the form of Bettye's disability check, a result of the rheumatoid arthritis that makes her unable to work. Billy receives a pension from his career as a truck driver.
On the walls are reminders. A black-and-white portrait of Ray, fists up. Ray's high school graduation shot. Trophies. In the back closet is a suitcase that contains much of the boy's gear—a mouthpiece, a tank top, some white tape. When they look through it, Bettye and Billy usually cry. Fourteen years, and the tears still roll easily. "He was gonna be a champion," says Billy. "Would've whupped Leonard and Tommy Hearns, I know that."
Ever since Ray's death, Billy, 61, has been on painkillers and antidepressants. His smoking keeps Marlboro in business. "Sad," says his wife. "Billy's always sad."
Bettye, 59, is a woman who stands behind her man—no questions asked. Billy is something different: angry, scowling, often intimidating. His nose, twisted and bent like a wad of chew, bears the marks of his boxing days, when Irish Billy Collins was closing in on a shot at the welterweight title. He retired in 1966 with a professional record of 37-17-1 and little money. His next career was driving rigs cross-country. "You think I wanted my son to follow me into boxing?" he asks. "Hell, no. But boxing was in his blood."
The four Collins siblings—Ray; Ann, 39; Lacy, 38; and Amy, 24—were brought up amid the smell of combat. Not only did Billy train fighters, but he also trained and fought pit bulls. The kids often trailed along to the dogfights, usually held in muddy pits fenced in by chicken wire. Pit bull fighting is the ultimate savagery: two combatants ripping each other to shreds. Billy made sure the message to his kids was clear: The tough win.
By the time Ray reached his early teens, he was waking up at 5 a.m., running five or six miles, going to school and coming home for workouts with his father. He had his first amateur bout at 13 and quickly earned a reputation around Nashville as a rugged s.o.b. with a lethal right. He fought his way to a 101-7-2 amateur record. He was talented, personable and white—all the things boxing was looking for. "He had the whole package," says Randy Gordon, a former Ring magazine editor and New York State boxing commissioner.
On Dec. 2, 1981, in Atlantic City, Collins made his professional debut, knocking out a tin can named Kevin Griffin in three rounds. Collins had 13 more fights over the next year and a half, including impressive victories over Dennis Home and Ricky Whitt, two contenders. He fought 12 times on ESPN. By June 1983 he was an undefeated up-and-comer with lots of dreams. He was 21, had won about $80,000 in purses and had married his 18-year-old high school sweetheart. They were expecting a baby any week. Boxing was his business, and business was good.
Then there was that Saturday night at the Garden.
Luis Resto was an eighth-grader, sitting in math class, when his future was decided for him. This was at P.S. 133 in the Bronx, a rough-and-tumble school where a kid without a rep was a kid without lunch money. Four years earlier, when Luis was nine, he and his mom and two siblings had moved to New York City from the town of Juncos, Puerto Rico.
In the middle of class a teacher yelled at Luis for talking. "I wasn't the only one saying things," he says today, still angry. "There were others too." No matter. The teacher grabbed Luis by the arm. Luis smashed his elbow into the teacher's face. "They didn't want me in school after that," he recalls. He was sent to a Bronx hospital that had a rehabilitation center for the mentally disturbed. Every day, he recalls, there were pills and shots. "I was there for six months of hell," he says. "It messes you up good. Finally, my mother took me out."