Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini has always had a soft spot for Buffalo. His paternal grandfather, Nick Mancino, moved here during the Depression when his wife took up with another man in their native Youngstown, Ohio. He has fond memories of those visits to see "Grandpa Nick," a bootlegger, at his house on Commonwealth Avenue.
"Buffalo is like a second home to me," Mancini, the former world lightweight boxing champion, said Tuesday. "I have a lot of ties there. That's why I wanted to fight in Buffalo. My uncle had a newstand on Hertel Avenue. Yeah, I'm big on Hertel. My cousin, Vinny Mancino, is a Buffalo city cop. My cousin, Vinny Gnozzo, has worked at the airport there for 37 years.
"As a kid, I went to Buffalo every year. One of my greatest memories was a Thanksgiving. I was 8 years old. There was a terrible blizzard and we got stuck there. I remember we stayed in a firehouse."
So, it was only natural that Buffalo would be one of the stops on a nine-city book tour for "The Good Son," the recently released biography of Mancini's life. He and author Mark Kriegel, who has written acclaimed biographies of Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, will appear at the Barnes and Noble store on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst at 7 p.m. tonight.
Mancini said he expects 15-20 family and friends at the event. He said his cousin Vinny joked that he would provide the security. Ray isn't likely to attract as many people he did for his most famous trip to Buffalo — his unsuccessful title defense against Livingstone Bramble at the Aud on June 1, 1984.
There were about 15,000 people there, most of them cheering wildly for Mancini, who entered the ring in a white robe with the Italian flag stitched on the back. But Bramble, who had taunted Mancini by bringing a phony witch doctor to a pre-fight news conference, stopped him in the 14th round.
"I remember, six weeks training was always perfect for me," Mancini recalled. "I trained seven weeks for that fight. I wanted to beat him so bad. I went to Lake Tahoe and had a great camp. But I peaked about a week before the fight, That last week, I was lethargic, slow. I had no excuses.
"Your body is an instrument. You've got to fine-tune it. It's like a knife, if you use it too much, it gets dull.
"I run into people from Buffalo and they're always wonderful to me. They say, ‘Boom, I'm from Buffalo. I bet you don't want to talk about that fight.' I say, ‘No, it was a great event, it just didn't turn out the way I hoped."
Mancini, 51, was the golden boy of boxing at the time, a major draw. But the sport was in its waning days as a popular American spectacle, worthy of national TV coverage.
And Mancini was fading too, in early decline after killing Korean Duk Koo Kim in the ring 18 months before.
Boxing people felt Mancini was never the same fighter afterwards. As Kriegel points out, it was a perfect but lethal match of unrelenting fighters who refused to back down. Mancini's father, Lenny, a top lightweight contender in his day, had instructed him to always move forward. Kim had the same warrior spirit. He predicted before the fight that one would die in the ring.
Kim's death renewed calls for boxing to be abolished. Mancini became a symbol of the sport's brutality.
He had represented everything that was good about boxing. He was a dignified fighter who never quit, a "good son." He let the world know he wanted to win a title for his father, the original "Boom Boom," who was never the same fighter after being struck by German mortar fire during World War II.
"(The Kim fight) didn't define me," Mancini said. "I understand that I'm best known for that. "But I'd like to think I had a pretty good career. I won a title for my father. I defended five times. I was the first lightweight to earn seven figures."
That's one of the virtues of "The Good Son," a well-crafted and impeccably researched book that should enhance Kriegel's status as the best sports biographer we have today.
The Kim fight was the central event of Mancini's career, but it wasn't what defined him as a man.
Still, Kriegel did a masterful job with Kim's story.
He went to Korea and found Young Mee, the woman who had been pregnant with Kim's child when he died. He met Kim's son, Jiwan. Late in the project, they agreed to an interview.
Later, Kriegel arranged for a meeting with Mancini at his home in Los Angeles, where he now owns two movie production companies. Young Mee and Jiwan met Mancini's three children. Mancini tells about his guilt over Kim's death. He admits he began to lose his love for boxing after that fight.
Jiwan confesses that he hated Mancini when he first viewed a videotape of the fight that took his father's life.
But he said that passed and told Mancini, "It's not your fault." He understood that his father never stepped back in the ring, like Ray, and it cost him his life.
"I thought it was important to meet the son of the man who died at my hands," Mancini said. "I really admire Mark for that. He was the first reporter they had ever talked with about it. And what a wonderful experience it was, very emotional. Jiwan said, ‘Now I know I'm truly my father's son.'
"I think The Good Son is a very good title on many levels," said Mancini, who is very proud of the book. Kriegel said he would tell the truth. Some of it, like the murder of his brother, Lenny, would be painful. But Ray trusted him. He wanted the book to be a legacy for his three kids.
The father-son theme runs through all of Kriegel's sports biographies.
Namath was crushed when his parents divorced and struggled to become a good husband and father. Maravich was consumed with trying to please his father, a coach. Mancini used to pore through his father's boxing scrapbooks as a boy. Winning a title for his father was what drove him.
"It was the same thing," Kriegel said. "But it was stronger here. Namath didn't cooperate, and Pete was dead. It was a nice thing to have such access to the intimacies of a life."
Interesting, how all three subjects of Kriegel's biographies were born in Rust Belt steel towns located within 50 miles of each other: Youngstown, Ohio (Mancini); Beaver Falls, Pa. (Namath) and Maravich (Aliquippa, Pa.).
So each, in its way, is a tale of post-war industrial America, and the role sports played in the lives of these young men who emerged to become superstars.
When Kriegel writes about the demise of the steel industry in Youngstown, and the families who struggled through it, it sounds like the story of Buffalo, too. Maybe that's why Boom Boom Mancini likes coming here, because it feels like family, like coming home.