Ken Jones: Farewell to a boxing legend who never stopped learning
Thursday 16 September 2004
When a man of some prominence in his sphere dies, people who knew him make little statements for the press saying, "He will be sorely missed". It is about all they can say for publication. Probably they'd feel they were being mawkish or affected or something if they said that there are so few men like Dennie Mancini that we can't afford to lose one of them.
Late last week, word came that Mancini had suffered two heart attacks and might not make it through the night. All day long phones were ringing, friends and associates of Mancini calling one another - the former footballers George Cohen, Johnny Haynes, Alan Mullery and Eddie Baily, boxing promoters, fighters Mancini had worked with, sports writers who had come to respect his judgement.
It was not simply a man of substance in his sport they were mourning when Mancini stepped out of this life at 71, three years short of completing 50 years in boxing as a trainer, agent and cuts man. They were mourning a friend.
Mancini was a feisty guy who could start a row in an empty house, but one of the things about him was his generosity. Hearing that the great former featherweight champion Willie Pep had fallen on hard times, he mailed a cheque to him every Christmas. Others benefited from his kindness.
Christened Anthony Luigi - nobody quite knew how he became known as Dennie - Mancini came from a famous boxing family whose roots were in Monte Cassino in Italy. An uncle, Alf Mancini, boxed a 20-round draw with Len Harvey in 1926, while a cousin, Tony, was a welterweight contender in the 1960s.
The great American trainer Ray Arcel once said: "I'll tell you something about trainers. I mean - and that includes me - you're only as good as the fighter you work with. I don't care how much you know, if your fighter can't fight, you're just another bum in the park." It was a view with which Mancini concurred but they were both selling themselves short.
After busting up his hands as an amateur, Mancini was determined to stay in boxing. "It's been my life," he told me many times. When boxing was permitted on Sundays during the Second World War, Mancini never missed a show at the Alexandra Theatre. "I'd get up close as I could to see how the cornermen went about things.
"Later I started working with leading trainers, just helping out. I worked with Al Phillips, a top boxer who became a manager and agent. He liked me and had a big stable of fighters in the Fifties. If Al couldn't make a fight, he'd call me. I'd do anything to learn my trade, sit in any corner, four-round fights, championship fights, anything. I worked with Danny Vary, who was Terry Downes's chief second, Willy Ketchum, the great American trainer, and Henry Cooper's man, Danny Holland. I was in the corner in Stockholm helping Dan Florio when Floyd Patterson fought Eddie Machen in 1963. And you just learned from those guys, it was fantastic. I did a proper apprenticeship. I'm still learning."
When Frank Warren superseded Mickey Duff as Britain's leading promoter he wasn't slow to call on Mancini's vast experience. "He knew so many people in boxing all over the world that his advice was invaluable," Warren said. Mancini's skills as a cuts man brought him regular employment in Germany, working the corner with Sven Ottke, Marcus Bayer and Henry Maske.
Shortly before Nigel Benn defeated Gerald McClelland, of Detroit, for the World Boxing Council super-middleweight championship on 25 February 1995, a contest that would have tragic consequences for the American, who was left blind and disabled as a result of brain damage, Mancini received a call from Angelo Dundee. In the course of their conversation Dundee expressed the opinion that McClelland was struggling to make the weight. In the opening round Benn was knocked half out of the ring and sustained a cut that required Mancini's urgent attention. "Normally I would have been outside the corner but now I was up close with Benn," Mancini said. "Remembering what Angelo had said, and from what I'd seen, I told Nigel that McClelland had put everything into that first round and had very little left."
An extraordinary thing about Mancini's stories was that you never heard one of them until you heard it from him. You'd hear them often later, for others borrowed his yarns and used them over and over again, but you heard them first from Mancini.
The last time we spoke, which was a few days before his death, Mancini sounded stronger. His spirits were up. "I'm planning a 70th birthday party for John [Haynes]," he said. "Will you be able to make it?" I asked. "I'll be there," he replied. It was probably the only promise he never kept.
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