Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Boom Boom Mancini by Warren Zevon

Boom Boom Mancini

Written and performed by Warren Zevon.

You can hear the studio version in this tribute video to Boom Boom Mancini. To listen to Zevon perform this on the Letterman show, click here. There’s a bizarre video of Zevon performing this song live at Boston’s South Station.

“The name of the game is be hit and hit back”

Write a line like that and you can go home knowing you’ve done your job. It comes from Warren Zevon’s song “Boom Boom Mancini,” as tough and hard a song as you will ever hear. His voice – direct, insistent, in your face, singing from a place that has learned some hard lessons – finds its match in the pounding and furious rhythm laid down by Bill Berry and Mike Mills of R.E.M. No jingle-jangle here as Berry pounds the drumheads. Peter Buck fills out the sound with wailing guitar riffs. This is not background music. (Here’s a clip of a live performance from the Letterman Show.)

Zevon tells the tale of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, a true story, but the art comes in selecting the facts and telling them right. Zevon’s paean succeeds with the sparseness and incisiveness of a Raymond Carver story. In the first verse, we glimpse an entire life:

From Youngstown, Ohio, Ray Boom Boom Mancini
A lightweight contender, like father like son
He fought for the title with Frias in Vegas
And he put him away in round number one

Mancini’s not from somewhere in America; he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, a place by the early 1980’s well past its prime where the only types of luck found were hard and none. Calling Mancini a “light weight contender” signals the famous desperation of Marlon Brando in the movies (“I coulda been a contenda…”) and establishes that Mancini must compete for all he’s to get. We learn that Ray’s carrying on in the family business (“like father like son”). Indeed, his father, Lenny, the first “Boom Boom”, was a contender from Youngstown back in the 1940’s, his career cut short by injuries from the war. So it goes. Boom Boom makes good on his promise, taking the title from Arturo Frias in Vegas, where else?

Mancini stood out as a boxer not only because of his back-story, but because of his ferocious style. The bell would ring and he’d sprint to the middle of the ring and start wailing on his opponent: no artistry, no tactics, just a frenzy.  The camera loved him and fans couldn’t resist.

The song doubles back to an early fight against then champion Alexis Arguello who “gave Boom Boom a beating/Seven weeks later he was back in the ring.” What follows is a couplet that offers a code to live by:

“Some have the speed and the right combinations
If you can’t take the punches it don’t mean a thing”

Zevon needed to learn this lesson. This song comes from the album Sentimental Hygiene, released in 1987, Zevon’s first studio album in five years and the first after a notorious falling from the wagon. Don’t tell me about talent, don’t tell me about skills, tell me about your heart, about your fortitude, about your willingness to get in the ring every day.

We get one more verse and this tackles the lasting image of Boom Boom Mancini. On November 13, 1982, a 21-year-old Mancini entered the ring to defend his title for only the second time facing a 23-year-old challenger from South Korea named Duk Koo Kim. Televised live on CBS on a Saturday afternoon (you can see the last rounds here), the fighters pummeled each other during the opening rounds, yet as the fight progressed, Mancini landed more blows with greater force and his pounding took a toll on Kim.  A barrage that Mancini landed in the twelfth round nearly ended the fight. Kim wobbled in the next round, but managed to land a few punches that let the fight continue. By the fourteenth round, Kim had lost all tenacity and Mancini easily landed his punches. He swung a crushing left hook that caught Kim’s nose and followed with a left-right flurry that sent Kim to the canvas.

Had the story ended there we might know the match as a great test of two men’s skills with the champion prevailing. The story did not end when Kim climbed off the mat and headed for the locker room. Five days later, Duk Koo Kim died from the head injuries suffered in the fight with Boom Boom. In the months that followed, Kim’s mother committed suicide, as did the referee of the fight. Politicians and public commentators assailed the sport of boxing and the major boxing associations shorted their official bouts to a maximum of twelve rounds.

Boom Boom Mancini suffered too. He became known as the man who killed the South Korean boxer. For a while, Mancini blamed himself and fell into a depression. He stayed out of the ring and when he did return, he fought a pair of lesser opponents and looked unimpressive. It was not until his 1984 fight with Bobby Chacon that Mancini fought a truly worthy opponent and he rose to the challenge.

Zevon takes some license in telling this story: no melodrama in recounting the fight and no depression either. Zevon imagines a question put to Mancini about the death of Du Koo Kim and fabricates an answer “Someone should have stopped the fight, and told me it was him.”

Yet the final pair of lines packs the wallop in this verse. Zevon lashes out at the critics and we know he is talking about more than the boxing writers:

They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back

Put that last line over your doorway; repeat it every morning as you ready to go out into the day.

This might be the greatest boxing song ever. Yes, movie fans and even boxers might like “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky. Dylan has penned two fine songs – “Who Killed Davey Moore?” which takes a very different approach to a death in the ring and “Hurricane.” The Davey Moore song is clever and insightful, yet doesn’t capture the spirit of one man slugging another. “Hurricane” is an impassioned story song with some good glimpses of boxing (“Rubin could take a man out with just one punch/But he never did like to talk about it all that much/It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay”). It may be a great song about injustice, racism, American culture and Reuben Carter, yet it is not truly a boxing song. There’s the terribly sentimental “The Boxer” by Paul Simon (which Dylan covered on his bizarrely terrible album, Self Portrait.) ThreeSixMafia recorded “It’s a Fight” and Mark Knopfler has “Song for Sonny Liston,” both good songs and as different as the artist who recorded them. L.L. Cool J has a strong contender in “Mama Said Knock You Out,” not a boxing song per se, but one that captures the spirit. A favorite of mine is Tom Russeel’s “The Puglist at 59.” If you have other nominations, I’d love to hear them.

Warren Zevon included “Boom Boom Mancini” on his album 1987 album, Sentimental Hygiene and you can find it on Learning to Flinch and the collection Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon.

By the way, it turns out that Bob Dylan is both a fan of the fight game and Warren Zevon. Around the time of Zevon’s death in 2003, Dylan paid tribute to his fellow songwriter by performing a selection of Zevon’s songs, including “Boom Boom Mancini.” (You can hear a performance here.)  Dylan also played harmonica on the song “Factory,” which appeared on Sentimental Hygiene. Here’s a Dylan interview on Zevon from the Huffington Post:

Interviewer: Did you know Zevon?

Bob Dylan: Not very well.

Interviewer: What did you like about him?

Bob Dylan: “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” “Boom Boom Mancini.” Down hard stuff. “Join me in L.A.” sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. “Desperado Under the Eaves.” It’s all in there.

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