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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

An Ex-Champion Goes at It With Body and Soul

April 26, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I can't forget the night Boom Boom killed a guy in Vegas. It was a terrible way for a good man to die. But it was also a terrible thing for a good man to live with, which Boom Boom had to do.

He was 21 at the time.

Two years before, Boom Boom was scuffling in smaller towns, trying to make a buck. It was dangerous work. Violent men, with faces that were masks of bent bone and bloody scar tissue, came stalking Boom Boom, eager to make his handsome face ugly.

One night after a scrap in Jackson, Miss., a guy who saw Boom Boom's fight felt he resembled "a young John Garfield."

Boom Boom called his Mom.

"Who's John Garfield?" he asked.

"An actor," she said.

"Was he a good actor?"

"Great," she said.

"Was he good-lookin'?"

"Great," she said.

That was all Boom Boom needed to hear. He got his mitts on every Garfield film he could find. "Force of Evil." "Humoresque." And one he definitely identified with: "Body and Soul." He loved them all.

He particularly loved one line.

Playing a prizefighter at the end of his rope, Garfield asks, "What you gonna do, kill me? Don't you know everybody dies?"

*

Julius Garfinkle was born March 4, 1913, in New York, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father ran a tailor shop on the Lower East Side. He hopped a freight train to California when he was young and became an actor. He became John Garfield.

Ray Mancini was born March 4, 1961. A youngster out of Youngstown, Ohio, he became a pro boxer at 19. A few weeks after his 21st birthday, he fought a tough customer named Arturo Frias. It took 2 minutes, 54 seconds for Boom Boom Mancini to become lightweight champion of the world.

Maybe you remember him.

I sure do. I remember him defending his title in Ohio on a Fourth of July and making Ernesto Espana see stars. I remember him losing that title in Buffalo a couple of years later, in a wild bout with one Livingstone Bramble that was stopped in Round 14.

And I remember how hard it was for Boom Boom to get over what happened Nov. 13, 1982. That was the night a fine Korean fighter, Duk Koo Kim, was knocked cold in the 14th round by Ray Mancini and never regained consciousness.

One man died. The other was hurt, body and soul.

Boom Boom did go back to work for a while, but eventually he retired young. He met a young Miami woman on a cruise ship, made Carmen Vazquez his wife, and still sings the "Love Boat" theme when he speaks of her.

Lured into a comeback, he stood in the ring thinking of his wife and three kids and wondered what he was doing there.

He wasn't ready to rumble.

CBS had made a movie of his life. That got him interested in the business, so Mancini began a new career as an actor, in movies, on TV, even off-Broadway. He moved to Santa Monica and formed a film company, Boom Boom Productions.

And for the past eight years, Boom Boom's all-consuming passion has been to produce a new version of "Body and Soul," with himself in the Garfield role.

He began filming last week.

"People say to me, 'Why don't you fight again? You're only 37. Look at George Foreman,' " Mancini says when I catch up to him in Reno, on location.

"I tell them, 'You nuts?'

"Yeah, right, look at Foreman. I mean, God bless George, I love him, but I only hope he still knows how to spell 'fight' in five more years."

*

Five years after he made "Body and Soul," John Garfield died of a heart attack. He was 39.

Mancini is trying to live life to the fullest. He and his wife run a company that manufactures a flavored-tobacco Dominican cigar called "Boom Boom El Campeon," which comes in amaretto, cognac, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, rum and mint. He says, "We're out to be the Baskin-Robbins of cigars, baby."

Meanwhile, a cast that includes Joe Mantegna, Rod Steiger, Jennifer Beals and Tahnee Welch has begun shooting a script written and directed by Sam Henry Kass, previously of TV's "Seinfeld."

It sure beats being beaten up.

"You know what they say, it's a small fall from a limo to the curb," Mancini says. "I've been to both."

Sometimes, small guys fall just as hard as the bigger guys do.

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