YOUNGSTOWN - Throughout his career, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was hailed by many as something more than just a simple boxer. To scores of people he was a symbol - an embodiment of the Mahoning Valley's blue-collar ethic.
The Youngstown native racked up 29 victories and 23 knockouts during his professional career, and held the World Boxing Association lightweight championship from 1982-1984.
Unfortunately, many people's recollections of Mancini's time in the ring are headlined by his tragic 1982 match with Duk-Koo Kim, during which the South Korean suffered a fatal brain injury. However, thanks to sportswriter Mark Kriegel's powerful biography: "The Good Son: The Life of Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini," readers will have a chance to discover the full spectrum of Mancini's life and career.
Mancini returned to Youngstown this weekend for a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Boardman as well as the premiere of a documentary based on Kriegal's book. Although he visits his hometown frequently, Mancini said this particular trip held special signifigance.
"I would say I feel a mixture of nervousness and excitement about this trip home," Mancini said. "My whole story is out now. People who may have only known one part of my life now have a full picture."
A key portion of the story centers on Mancini's relationship with his father Lenny, the original "Boom Boom." Lenny Mancini was an up-and-coming lightweight fighter in the late 30's and early 40's. In January 1942, Mancini was negotiating a title fight when he was drafted into the army. Instead of fighting for the lightweight title, Lenny Mancini was eventually assigned combat duty in Europe. In November of 1944, he was hit by German mortar shrapnel and was forced to spend six months in the hospital recuperating. He never could get his weight back down to the proper level for lightweight competition, and retired from boxing in 1947 without ever having had the chance to become world champion.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ray idolized his dad. As a child he would spend hours in the family basement poring over old scrapbooks of his father's career.
"I never remember wanting to be anything else but a boxer," Mancini said. "People ask me all the time what I would have done if I hadn't become a fighter, and I don't have an answer. There was never any other plan. I wanted to be my father and win the title that he never could."
Mancini wound up winning the World Boxing Association lightweight title in 1982 with a first round knockout of Art Frias. He would successfully defend his crown four times over the next two years. However, before he became a nationally known superstar Mancini was a part of one of the most exciting nights in Columbiana County sports history.
On the evening of Oct. 28, 1980, Mancini defeated local hero Bobby Plegge (aka "The Salem Bomber") on a technical knockout in six action-packed rounds before a sold-out crowd at Warren's Packard Music Hall.
The 19-year-old Mancini-less than a year away from his first world title fight against Alexis Arquello-was undefeated in 13 matches, and on the cusp of stardom.
Plegge, then 26, was a former Ohio state light-welterweight champion who came in with a record of 21-8-1 and was determined to make advances in his own career.
Mancini recalls that night fondly.
"Whenever I fought in Ohio there seemed to be a different level of passion to the crowds," Mancini said. "That night against Bobby was one of the best atmospheres I can remember. He brought a very vocal crowd up from Salem, and I also had my fans. The place that night was crazy."
Plegge concurs with that memory.
"I was the biggest name down here in Columbiana County, and he was obviously the biggest name up in Youngstown," Plegge said. "People were very excited to see the area's two best fighters match up. I remember it being a carnival-type atmosphere."
Mancini got the early advantage, walloping Plegge 30 seconds into the fight with a blow to the right eye. Plegge fell to the canvas but was able to quickly gather himself and proceeded to give Mancini all he could handle.
Over the next six rounds, the two fighters staged what Morning Journal sportswriter Keith Gibson called "an organized war," with Plegge refusing to yield an inch to the heavy-favorite Mancini. However, Plegge suffered a pinched eyelid from that opening round punch, and by the end of round six, the ringside physician felt the injury had grown severe enough to recommend that the fight be stopped. Mancini was declared the winner. By all accounts, the fight had evened out after Mancini's early advantage.
"Naturally, I did not think the fight should have been stopped," Plegge said. "I could still see out of my eye. If the fight continued, I think I would have had a chance to win."
To this day, Mancini has nothing but praise for Plegge and the effort he delivered that night.
"Bob Plegge was as tough as they come," said Mancini. "He took every punch I threw at him. In some ways, I was fortunate the fight was stopped."
To his regret, Plegge turned down a proposed rematch in the following months. Mancini went on to national acclaim in the pages of Sports Illustrated and on the television cameras of CBS.
Plegge would retire from professional fighting in 1984 with over 20 career victories. He currently resides in Beliot and operates the Salem Boxing Club. He has run into Mancini a few times since their fight, and the two maintain a friendly relationship.
"I've teased Ray that he had to beat me before he became really famous," Plegge said. "Occasionally I caught myself looking at him fighting on TV, and wondering if that could've been me.
"But I love the small-town life I've had. I'm proud of what has been accomplished with the boxing gym since it opened. We have been able to use boxing to make a positive impact on the youth of this area."
Although Mancini resides in California, he, like Plegge, retains a deep affection for his hometown.
"Wherever I go, I will always carry the Youngstown area with me," Mancini said. "The people here were so passionate about fighting, and gave me so much support. I'm happy that I was able to give them someone to root for. I hope the book will inspire young people from my neighborhood and give them the courage to chase down their dreams."