Livingstone Bramble, doing a Rastafarian two-step, threw a hard right jab at a soap bubble and popped it dead. This was earlier this week in the tennis pavilion at the MGM Grand Hotel, where everything smelled of liniment and chicken feed and dust.
Bramble, the WBA lightweight champion, was swatting bubbles blown by his trainer, Ruppert Nel Brown, while an inquisitive apostle of reggae unleashed scream after scream through the speakers of a hi-fi funk box: "Are you feeling hot? Hot? Hot?"
Bramble, 24, preparing to defend his title against Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini Saturday night, shouted back, "Yot! Yot! Yot!"
"It's like a farm around here," Dan Duva, the promoter, was saying. "The place is insane. The man's a kook, a real nut. I don't even try to figure it out. His way of doing things, it's like he's got no way of doing things."
The day before, somebody set up a coop full of chickens near the ring, and others brought pet snakes and ferrets and pit bull terriers. It was like an offering to Jah, the earthly embodiment of God, with Bramble receiving the beastly gifts at the altar.
His hair was fixed in nappy corn rows, covered with a quilted tam of red, green, yellow and black -- in honor of the flags of the Rastafarian culture. Bramble, dancing as if moved by the spirit of Bob Marley, the late reggae artist who was as famous for his giant marijuana stogies and "dreadlocks" hairdo as for his music, posed for pictures with everyone but the owner of the chickens.
"I hate those damn birds," he said. "They're like Mancini. They're slow, mahn. I grab them around the neck and never let go. I strangle them, mahn. You know what I mean?"
On June 1, 1984, in Buffalo, Bramble became the WBA champ by stopping Mancini on a technical knockout in the 14th round, overcoming 4-to-1 odds "with an approach as weird and unorthodox as his approach outside the ring," manager Lou Duva said.
"I tell my young fighters, 'Don't watch Bramble, whatever you do.' He leads with the wrong foot and goes from right to left whenever he feels like it. In real life, he has a dog named 'Snake' and a snake named 'Dog' and he's always walking around sucking on yams and ginseng roots. I don't try to change him; he's too good at whatever it is he is now."
Bramble (22-1-1, 14 knockouts) was born on the West Indies island of St. Kitts, but moved to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, when he was 9. Bramble is one of 10 children. His father worked at an oil refinery and on a sugar-cane plantation, and his mother at an old folks home. As a teen-ager, Bramble joined the Rastafarians, the religious sect that worships Ras Tafari Makonnen, the last emperor of Ethiopia who was crowned His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I on Nov. 2, 1930.
"My culture is not the culture of Ray Mancini," Bramble said. "Anything different in America is strange. It must bother you, mahn, that nobody can sit down and put me on a piece of paper. I'm a thinking mahn. And I am chosen, destined. I'm the only Rasta prizefighter there is . . . The only way Mr. Boom Boom can beat me is to get me sick. All my life, I feel nobody can defeat me. When I'm in the ring, I'm the perfect warrior. Mancini, if he comes out there and doesn't act right, I'll bite his goddamn ears off."
Bramble, a vegetarian, has not eaten meat in 13 years, although Lou Duva once said he possessed a "cannibal instinct." His diet consists primarily of fish, spaghetti, fungi, pumpkin and coconuts, and he spends most of his spare time before a big fight watching TV in a hotel room he shares with a six-foot boa constrictor and a ferret named Spider.
"I take my friends wherever I go," said Bramble, who once found a dead cat in the road and skinned it, then tacked the pelt to his living room wall.
Bramble admits that he's "crazy people," and adds, "I'm not the kind of guy who shakes hands after the fight. Mancini says I don't know how to act like a champ. He comes into the ring and acts like I'm supposed to hand the title over, give it to him. I hate that Mancini, mahn. I want to destroy him and cut him up real bad. I want to ruin his face and flatten him out and forget him."
Bramble has lived in New Jersey the past six years, first in Passaic and later in Montclair, where he met Charlene Miller, the mother of his 2-year-old son, Aluja Shanoy. The child is as rambunctious as a June bug on a porch light and spends the lazy moments before his father's workouts throwing lame punches at the kneecaps of most anyone standing around.
"The boy's name means 'Fight for Jah,' " Miller said. "But I worry about the boy fighting more than I do Bramble. Bramble's not gonna let anybody hurt him."
Miller said it takes 25 minutes to fancy the French braids in Aluja's hair and "about twice that for Bramble. Sometimes it's longer, depending on what kind of mood he's in."
Bramble's moods are erratic and sometimes a source of distress for members of his camp. His iconoclastic nature is a publicist's nightmare, and he's known to shout at reporters who ask what he considers self-indulgent questions.
"Livingstone Bramble is a man of many moods," Dan Duva said. "He can go from being the easiest guy in the world to be around, then turn around the next minute and be the sort of fellow you don't want to see again the rest of your life."
Duva opened negotiations for a Mancini rematch the day after their first fight but faced major complications when the WBA ruled it would not sanction an immediate rematch. Bramble, who might have drawn a more lucrative fight against Hector (Macho) Camacho or Aaron Pryor, had no interim defenses.
"They made an exception to the rule," Duva said. "And, as it turns out, with Bramble making $750,000, this will be the largest purse for a lightweight fight ever. Mancini will be getting $500,000, which ain't peanuts."
About a week before the June 1 bout, Bramble called Mancini "a murderer," and said he would inscribe the name of Duk Koo Kim on his robe. Kim was the South Korean fighter who died as a result of blows received after 14 rounds of rough play with Mancini. After that storm of controversy blew over, Lou Duva, adding to the prefight hype, decided Bramble needed a witch doctor to curse his opponent.
"We need some voodoo," Duva said he told Bramble.
"Voodoo?" his fighter asked.
"No, you do," Duva said.
Marvin Matthew, a St. Croix history teacher and junior high basketball coach, posed as the mysterious Dr. Doo. He attended a press conference dressed in dark sunglasses, a low-brow derby, an elaborate dashiki and a cane with a gold-plated handle in the shape of a dog's head. After being introduced to a crowd of journalists and spectators, the good doctor merely nodded and remained standing some distance from the fighters.
Mancini, unflinching, watched the dispassionate manner in which Dr. Doo turned the pages of a tome that was supposed to have been filled with curses. Duva said, "It had Boom Boom worried, I know it did. You know he was thinking something was crazy here. And all along that book was nothing but a big medical text."
Duva said he plans to spring another surprise on Mancini at the prefight press conference later this week, but he refused to give a clue as to what it might be. "You think Bramble's wild now," Duva said, watching Dog the snake belly across the ring ropes and hiss at a cameraman. "You ain't seen nothing yet."