The crystal chandeliers in the ballroom at the El Dorado Hotel gave off a rich, diaphanous glow, but there were no hard angles in the face of Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini to hold the light. He stood strong and silent before a great, gilded mirror, listening to one of his cornermen warn the casino crowd not to smoke or talk or stand during the workout.
They had gathered to watch the former world lightweight champion train -- bored, blue-haired women in silly straw hats and red-rimmed glasses and men who looked restless for action at the keno board. Someone was asking Mancini for a picture.
"Give us trouble and we'll show you the door," Chuck Fagen said, looking absurdly boyish in his oversized baseball cap. "Let the man work in peace, please. Come on now. Please."
Mancini (29-2, 23 knockouts) is only 23, with five hard years in the professional ring and over $6 million in earnings, but already his facial features appear blurred, smoothed over, permanently lost in the obscuring shadows. His nose is broad and flat, and there are thick humps of bone and flesh over each eye.
Earlier today, at a press conference in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, Livingstone Bramble, the man whose WBA lightweight championship Mancini will try to take away here Saturday night, had produced a voodoo doll from a blue velveteen sack and repeatedly poked its eyes with a straight pin. "That doll's you," Lou Duva, Bramble's manager, had said. "It came straight from the Virgin Islands. Take a good look at it, Ray. Look at those eyes, Ray."
"How your eyes feeling now?" Bramble had taunted Mancini. "You think you can see me, Ray? You think you can look me in the eyes? Wait see how you feel in the ring on Saturday night."
Mancini reacted joylessly, chuckling only for propriety's sake, and fiddled with the strange object Bramble had given him moments earlier. It was a ceramic ashtray in the shape of a human skull, a Valentine's Day present, "just something for good luck and good health," Bramble had said. "Something to remember me by."
"Something made in China," Mancini retaliated later. "Something cheap."
Only eight months ago, these same two men met in a ring at the War Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo and engaged themselves earnestly in what might have been the best and most brutal title bout of 1984. Mancini "was stopped," as fight people love to say, in the 14th round of a scheduled 15-round bout. He left the ring with a stream of blood leaking from his right eye, scarring the meaty white flesh of his cheek and disappearing into the corner of his mouth.
"First I beat him dead with my mind," Bramble, a Rastafarian, said this week. "Then I beat him dead with my fists."
David Wolf, Mancini's manager, said, "The Ray Mancini we sent into the ring last time was already used up. Two weeks before the fight he was ready, going top speed at 15 rounds of sparring. But in the final days, he got progressively worse. On the morning of the fight, he could hardly get out of bed, his legs were so heavy. He was flattened out, and a malaise set in. Instead of being psyched up, it was like he was watching the 97th rerun of something that hadn't even happened yet."
Mancini said, "Last time, I trained seven weeks. I took just a week less on my routine this time. I think I hit my physical peak last week, went through a short downslide and am now picking it back up. In June, I had no guns out there. It was a scary feeling. I was praying to God to hold on and to give me strength. I did my best, but I know I was lucky to last 14. Even at the beginning, there was nothing in me to give."
A few hours after losing the title he had held for almost two years, Mancini made Wolf vow to schedule a rematch. Mancini, lying on his back in a hospital bed, said he wanted it as soon as possible. But that proved a difficult task. As late as December, Wolf said, both camps feared the fight wouldn't happen.
"It was so cutthroat," Wolf began, scratching his raw stubble of beard. "We came to three different agreements to fight Bramble before one finally held. I never went through so much aggravation in my life to see a fight off."
According to Wolf, promoter Dan Duva had to get a waiver from Tyrone Crawley, the No. 1 contender in the lightweight division, before the WBA would sanction the fight. Wolf said Duva "paid the kid (Crawley) $100,000," releasing Bramble from his mandatory defense obligation. That freed Wolf to negotiate further "for the only fight Ray really cared about. He wanted revenge and he wanted to get his title back."
Now there is speculation that Mancini will retire if he loses to Bramble, but that seems unfounded. Mancini generally shrugs his shoulders and evades the issue altogether. His first goal as a fighter, he maintains, was to win the title for his father Lenny, 65, a former top-ranked lightweight who abandoned his dream to win the title after World War II broke out and he joined the Army. "Financial security," as he puts it, was another consideration, but that came early and with considerable ease.
"My only plan now is to win on Saturday night," Mancini said. "I'm not looking past Bramble. After I get the title back, I'll sit down and see where we go from there."
Wolf said, "Regardless of the outcome, if he fights well and is fit after the medical exams and still has the desire, he'll continue to fight. If he doesn't fight well, I think he won't fight any more . . . He certainly doesn't need the money now. But the competitive drive that has pushed him all along may make him want to fight again. If the hunger is there, he'll want to keep it up. And right now it's there."
Mancini had hoped to star in the television movie being made about his boxing career and relationship with his father, who will be played by actor Robert Blake. The movie, "I Walk in His Shadow," completed shooting this week and is being produced by Sylvester Stallone for CBS. It will feature Doug McKeon ("On Golden Pond") as Mancini, who auditioned for the lead role.
"I really wanted it," Mancini said. "It was the most important thing in my life. But it turned out they were committed to make the movie during the time I had planned to train for Bramble. I was real disappointed but there was nothing we could do."
The title of the movie, which is scheduled to be televised in June, comes from a poem Ray wrote when he was 13 about his father. "They wanted us to delay the fight so Ray could act in the movie," Wolf said. "That showed a definite absence of knowledge on their part about our business."
The ending of the movie will show Mancini beating Arturo Frias for the lightweight championship on May 8, 1982, at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. A few days ago, Mancini said beating Bramble and regaining the title would make a great sequel. He sees himself before the cameras, he said, "pulling off something as big as Rocky Balboa's comeback. We'd just as well start making plans now because I'm going to do it, no matter what you hear from Bramble."
Wolf said Mancini "is more relaxed now than he's ever been as a pro," but Dan Duva, who has not been allowed to observe Mancini's training sessions, said the atmosphere at "their camp is Gestapo-like. But there are different ways to approach the fight. Mancini's real quiet and serious. You can feel the tension. Bramble, on the other hand, is serious but he's also enthusiastic. The other day he got into a sparring session with a chicken and killed it. And you should have seen, there were showgirls running around with cake and coffee and everybody was dancing."
Wolf appeared wounded when told of Duva's remarks. "I don't see any German shepherds or armed guards around here, do you? Gestapo-like? I think the atmosphere here is nice. I'll let it speak for itself."
As he spoke, a young woman holding a child stood up and leaned against a side wall. She lifted the baby high on her shoulder and patted his back, trying to get the baby to burp. A security guard walked over and told the lady to please sit down or leave, there were rules. Without saying a word, the lady got one last look at Mancini, looking at himself in a mirror, before retrieving her purse and leaving the room.