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KID CAAN : A Hollywood Star Gets Off the Ropes, Back Into the Ring


It's Monday night at the Forum. Boxing night. A pair of bantamweights bobbed around the ring, sweat splashing in all directions. Near the dressing room entrance, pacing back and forth, was a nervous fight manager, anxiously awaiting his boxer's turn in the spotlight.

"Our kid's hungry," he told a visitor, who was standing with one of the boxer's trainers, a short, friendly man with a bent nose. "Anytime you've been in jail at 16 for armed robbery, you want to go through anything but that again.

"When we first saw him, he was awful. But he had tremendous raw talent. He's got a good jaw, he's very fast and he can really hit. But he's got no left, so we gotta teach him some technique. That's if he'll listen."

A roar came from the crowd. The manager--who is also a movie star named James Caan--eyed the ring just as one of the bantamweights bounced off the ropes. To hear Caan good-naturedly complain about his protege, Mike (The Bounty) Hunter, you'd think the 26-year-old ex-con turned aspiring heavyweight was personally responsible for the gray creeping into Caan's curly, auburn hair.

"Yeah, our kid's got a long way to go," Caan said, wiping sweat from his brow with one of his big, meaty hands. "When I first saw him, he was a real clown. He'd come out with this long gunfighter's coat and a mask and all this cocky. . . . I mean, he was the kinda guy you wanted to see get knocked out.

"So I told him. OK, you got the attention. So from now on, I'll wear the outfits. You do the punishing."

Caan tugged at the crotch of his jeans. "I'll tell ya, he didn't do any punishing in his last fight. He looked like a bum."

He laughed. "I told him afterwards, 'It's a cinch you went in for armed robbery, 'cause the way you were fighting out there, you certainly couldn't have done any time for assault 'n' battery!' "

James Caan has only been a fight manager for a few months. But when you hear him discuss fight strategy with trainer Joey Mangiapene--quick, rhythmic talk about counter-punching and cutting off angles--you wish you'd brought Damon Runyon along as an interpreter. Caan certainly looks the part. His brow creased with wrinkles, his stocky build still firm, his hands gnarled from years of rodeo riding, he looks far more like an aging sparring partner than a movie actor.

The fight crowd seemed to agree. A few onlookers stopped by, asking for autographs or wanting their picture taken with him. But most treated Caan like a regular. Born in Long Island City, Caan has the staccato enunciation of someone who grew up by the subway tracks in the Bronx. He blends right into the colorful fight-game scenery--a blood 'n' sweat subculture that seems frozen in time--relishing the fierce combat, the oddball characters and the easy male camaraderie.

Of course, that's not the only scenery the fights offer. As Caan and Mangiapene head for the dressing rooms, the trainer spots a leggy gal in line at the beer stand. He nudges Caan, pointing in her direction. Caan studies her outfit, a backless dress held up by one lone button below her neck.

"Geez!" Caan exclaimed, shaking his hand va-va-voom-style. "But what's up front?" Mangiapene nodded with mock-gravity. "Plenty."

Caan reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen-knife. "This oughta do the trick," he said mischievously, flicking the knife in the air. "One button is no problem at all."

Just then, Caan and Mangiapene reached the entrance to the dressing rooms. A baby-faced guard let Mangiapene pass, then put out his hand, asking Caan to show his identification.

Mangiapene was indignant. "Hey, whaddya doing?" he said. "Don't you know who this is?"

The guard stared blankly at Caan, then shook his head. "Come on," Mangiapene growled. "This is Jimmy Caan. What's your problem, huh?"

It's no surprise that the guard didn't recognize Caan. The youngster was probably still in nursery school when Caan was nominated for an Oscar in "The Godfather" and an Emmy in "Brian's Song," movies that won him a reputation as a "skyrocketing" star and prompted one newspaper poll to tout him as the No. 3 "Sexiest Man" in America (the winner was Tom Jones).

It's been nearly 15 years since those triumphs--and time has not been on Caan's side. At 47, Caan's lean, boyish good-looks have been replaced by a ruddy, but rugged middle-aged build. He's trimmed down considerably from the chunky frame he showed off in his current film, "Gardens of Stone," where he gained 20 pounds to play the part of a grizzled Army sergeant.

But Hollywood isn't always nostalgic about its less-fortunate sons, especially ones that have been out of the public eye for a few years. As one studio exec put it when he spotted Caan around town recently: "Wow, the guy looks so old. "

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