"He was the most amazingly sensitive child," Ellen recalls. "When he was six, seven, eight years old, Ray would get his daddy in off the street if he'd had too many beers. He'd say, 'Sit down, Dad, take off your shoes.' Then he'd tickle his cheek until he was asleep. Only then would he relax. It wasn't that he was embarrassed for him; he just didn't want anyone outside to see his father that way."
When he was 10, Ray gave his father what is now Lenny's most precious possession. It's a block of wood he made in shop class, a piece of two-by-six cut at an odd angle. A photograph of a grinning Ray is pasted at one corner, and across the top is inscribed CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK. That's how he thought of himself. Once in a while Lenny would put up his hands in the living room and say to Ray, "Let's see what you can do," letting Ray pound away at them. But that was the only boxing Ray did. He played basketball, baseball and football, like the rest of the guys in school. "I'd never fought," Ray says, "but in my heart I always knew that one day I would."
"One time he was watching his older brother, Lenny, train down at the gym," Ellen recalls. (Lenny Jr. was tragically shot and killed this past February by a girl who said he was teaching her how to shoot a gun.) "The coach, Ed Sullivan, asked Ray, 'How does he look?' Ray said, 'Fine. But you know what? I'm going to be the best boxer you ever had.' I kept trying to channel him in other directions, but he always kept coming back to boxing."
When he was 13, Ray wrote a poem for his father, entitled I Walk In Your Shadow. The second stanza reads:
I cry every tear that this man cries,
I try every task that this man tries,
I keep every memory that this man keeps,
I leap every mountain that this man leaps.
In the evenings, Ray would ask his father to tell about his fights, stories he had heard dozens of times. Lenny would resist, and then finally give in, telling him in that gruff voice how, say, he beat Billy Marquart twice in a month. After which a Cleveland writer had said, "It is the opinion of this scribe that Lew Jenkins won't hold the lightweight title long if he's foolish enough to step into the same ring with the squat little Italian in a title bout. Lenny is a fistic tornado, a young wildcat, and a human dynamo all rolled into one." Ray knew all the clippings by heart. He had gone through his father's scrapbook so many times that he remembered more about Boom Boom's career than Boom Boom did. He'd seen the pictures of his father with Joe Louis, with welterweight Tony Janiro, with lightweight champ Lou Ambers. He learned the old names, the dates and places, was keeper of the memories.
When Ray was 15, Ellen says, he announced that he wanted to train for the Junior Olympics. "It came out of the clear blue sky," she says. "I asked him, 'In what? Football?' " He was a star in three sports: defensive back in football, point guard in basketball and centerfielder in baseball. Now he would get on with his life's work and become a boxer.
He started as a southpaw. "He was wearing his father's old trunks and old shoes in training, literally trying to walk in his father's footsteps, and finally I asked him if he wanted me to go up and get the old mouthpiece, too," Ellen recalls. Ray eventually was outfitted with new equipment, and in his first tournament he won his first five fights, one a 13-second knockout and another a 31-second affair. He lost a split decision in the regional final, and returned home with a silver medal.
Then Ed Sullivan, his amateur trainer, made him a righthander. "I do everything left-handed except bat and box," says Ray, whose greatest thrill is still a game-winning, 360-foot home run he hit in a state baseball tournament. Lefthanders had trouble getting fights, Sullivan knew, and the switch would give young Boom Boom a devastating left hook. Like his father, Ray had a powerful upper body, but he had a narrow 26-inch waist, and was longer-legged—30 inches at the inseam. The additional leverage made Ray a fearsome puncher from the start.
But his style wasn't suited for the amateurs. He achieved a fine 43-7 record, but he never beat an Olympic-level boxer, or won a national AAU or Golden Gloves title. Amateur boxing favors a stand-up, jabbing style. Because there are only three rounds in a bout, wearing down your opponent with a body attack means very little. Mancini was a croucher who would plow in amid a swirl of hooks. "When we first saw him," says Dave Wolf, the former sportswriter who is now his manager, "Ray was a face fighter, like his father. He'd come at an opponent bobbing and weaving so he could fight him in close, and he wasn't above hitting you with a passing elbow when he threw the hook. That's the sort of thing that turns off amateur judges, and it's just what you're looking for in a professional fighter."