It was an ugly affair, and mean, but none of the 11,758 who saw Livingstone Bramble, the World Boxing Association lightweight champion, turn Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini's face into bloody mud will forget the horror and the heroics staged here tonight.

Bramble (23-1-1) won the unanimous decision by one point and retained the title he won from Mancini last June. It was his first title defense. Judges Dave Moretti and James Rondeau scored the brawl 143-142; Edward Levine had it 144-143.

But the frantic nation of Mancini supporters thought the former champion had pulled off a miracle victory in this bloody crucible on the University of Nevada-Reno campus. When asked if he planned to retire, Mancini (29-3) said, "God willing if I should decide to have another one . . . right now, it doesn't look too good, right?"

Mancini said it "wasn't fair to myself to answer whether or not I'll give it up now. I need a good rest. I need some tender loving care from my family. I wish I had a wife. This is a good time to have a wife . . . They say when you're troubled to listen to your heart and it will direct you. If it says go on, I will. I've got to be true to myself."

His left eye started bleeding halfway through the third round, after the fighters stood toe-to-toe at center ring and pounded each other with uppercuts. Early on, neither fighter could escape the brutal assault that seemed his destiny, and at times courage overcame good common sense and the pace picked up.

At one point in the ninth round, with blood flowing profusely from the network of cuts over Mancini's eyes, observers at ringside yelled for the referee to stop the fight. Their cries seemed to inspire the lightweights to work all the harder, and the result was devastating. It seemed inconceivable that either could remain standing.

"I tried to work on the left eye a lot," Bramble said, "especially in the middle rounds. After a while, though, I just quit, because it seemed to no avail. By the end, I wasn't even thinking about the eye or the blood."

Mills Lane, the referee, stopped the fight twice -- in the eighth and 15th rounds -- and called on the ringside physician to check Mancini's face, which was never free of crimson rivulets streaking down his cheeks and dribbling from his chin. Lane said he "never felt Ray was in trouble."

There was blood caked in his hair and in Bramble's hair, and the blue canvas was splotched red.

Mancini said, "I was cut early. It was hard; I know it hindered my fight. But the cuts have been a part of my life the last two years. Sometimes I couldn't see the punches coming because of the blood in my eyes."

Bramble said, "I want to apologize to Ray and his mother and father for any discriminations I may have made against them. It's no way Ray Mancini should retire unless he wants to. I don't see any lightweight who can beat him. He fought the great fight tonight. He fought like the champion he is."

Only David Wolf, Mancini's manager over the last five years, called for the 135-pounder from Youngstown, Ohio, to retire. "My own feelings are I would rather see him call it off and say it's through. There was so much dignity out there; it would be the right time to call it off. But the decision must ultimately be his."

Bramble fought brilliantly, employing a style so unorthodox not even he could later translate it into simple street talk. He changed his stance from right to left in an effort to confuse Mancini.

"I wasn't slow getting off," Bramble said. "Ray was prepared to fight. It was much tougher than the last fight. It was a perfectly executed fight, a very scientific fight. I had to change up a lot because Ray fought so good. I was never really hurt, though . . . I've been fighting for 16 years and this coconut never got stunned. I'm not going to say who beat who or who got the most punches in. All I'll say is that it was a great fight, a great, great, great fight . . ."

At the postfight press conference, Mancini looked as if he had red slugs sucking away at the corners of his eyes. "I really had to box because of the blood and my eyes," he said. "Usually, when my eyes are good, I try to go out and bang it up. I don't know who won which rounds or who won the last rounds but I do know it was good, all of it was good."

In round 13, Lane wiped the petroleum jelly from Bramble's face after Mancini's corner complained that "the guy's wearing a goddamned mask." Wolf also screamed out against Bramble's hair, which was fixed in porcupine braids that "keep going right into his (Mancini's) cuts."

But it was more than his opponent's hairdo and Vaseline mask that hampered Mancini, who seemed to have lost his punching power before the last five rounds. At times he succeeded in breaking through the champion's guard, but even then he lacked much strength.

"I knew I was a proud challenger and wanted to capture something I'd lost," Mancini said. "And I knew he was a proud champion and wanted to keep what he'd found. There was no way either of us would let up."

Round 15 will endure as a most courageous effort on the part of both fighters. They exchanged swipes that could peel the bark from a redwood, and the blood flew. When they stood head-touching-head in those moments of impossible will, who could figure either man could live to see it through?

In the end, both stood hugging each other at center ring. The crowd broke into a mad, triumphant song, and the world was changed. Mancini had changed it, and Bramble had changed it. "Ray, I love you, I love you," Bramble cried. "I love you, Ray."

And Mancini didn't say it, but he knew it. He loved Bramble in the way of rivals. "We're men, professionals," he said. "We were out there pushing our bodies, pushing them hard. It's mutual respect we were after tonight. It's respect that makes you go. We can both be proud."

In the first of the undercard bouts, Louis Espinosa stopped Juan Romero, a 125-pound Phoenix native, in the fifth round of a scheduled eight rounder.

In the second bout, Donny Poole (23-2-1), a chesty 145-pounder from Toronto, stopped Chino Bermudez (53-22), a former lightweight champion from Mexico, in the third round.

Tony Cisneros (20-9) and Loris Stecca (31-1-1) met in the third preliminary bout, in what turned out to be the least-dramatic match of the night. The TKO came at 1:33 of the third round with Cisneros lying in the ring ropes.

Maurizio Stecca introduced Kid Castillo, a rangy southpaw, to the rough world of professional boxing in the following bout. Maurizio, a brother of Loris Stecca, was a 1984 Olympic gold medal winner on the Italian boxing team.

At 126 pounds, he possesses remarkable speed and fury, but lacks the great upper body and arm strength needed to produce a quick knockout.

Stecca (5-0) won a unanimous decision after six rounds.