Patrick Reusse: Three fighters and the lure of boxing

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 5, 2007 - 10:10 PM

Pat O'Connor, Boom Boom Mancini and Ricky Hatton were idolized by their hometowns.

Pat O"Connor after winning a unanimous decision from Larry Buck in their 10 round 1972 fight.

Photo: Pete Hohn, Star Tribune

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Warren Zevon was the featured artist in the vehicle's CD player. The selection was "Boom Boom Mancini,'' Zevon's 1987 salute to the lightweight champion and the passion for him in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

"Hurry home early, hurry on home; Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon," serves as the classic Zevon refrain.

You listen to that for a couple of minutes, play it again, and then lament that it has become so rare in modern times for a boxer to capture the soul of his hometown -- to put the populace's self-esteem in his mitts as certainly as a successful NFL team in Pittsburgh or Green Bay.

Mancini's father, Lenny, was the original "Boom Boom" and a championship contender, until he was injured in World War II. Son Ray took the nickname and carried the hopes of Youngstown, a Rust Belt city, into a lightweight title fight against champion Arturo Frias.

It took place on the night of May 8, 1982. Thirty seconds into the fight, Frias had Mancini bleeding with a combination of punches, and then Boom Boom came at him in the middle of the ring and sent Frias reeling.

"He fought for the title with Frias in Vegas; And he put him away in round number one," wrote (and sang) Zevon.

Saturday night, another young man will be carrying the hopes of a decaying industrial city when he steps in a Las Vegas ring. Ricky Hatton of Manchester, England, will attempt to swarm his way to a victory over the great Floyd Mayweather in a pay-per-view match of unbeatens.

The residents of Manchester City are called Mancunians, and they are said to have invaded Las Vegas 25,000 strong for Saturday's fight. More than 80 percent came without tickets, simply to be part of the celebration if Hatton were to pull off the upset at 2-1 odds. The pay-per-view price is a hefty $54.95 -- with a $10 surcharge if you want to see the punches delivered in HD.

Ed Caesar of London's Sunday Times did a lengthy article last month on the bond between Hatton and his hometown. When not in training for a fight, Hatton still plays in a pub darts league for New Inn, a place his parents formerly owned. He describes his life in Manchester as that of "a rummer, a pubber, a clubber ... a little scallywag."

Hearing "Boom Boom Mancini," reading several articles on Hatton ... it got me wondering again about Rochester's Pat O'Connor, the last boxer to truly take over the soul of a sizable Minnesota city.

O'Connor was 16 when he won the 147-pound title in the National Golden Gloves in 1967.

"Pat came into Winona by train after winning the title, and there was a 20-car escort waiting for him to lead him to Rochester," said Dan O'Connor, his brother. "When the caravan got to Rochester, there was a parade for him.

"The fight he had with Duane Horsman, the pride of Chatfield, still holds the record for the largest crowd ever in the [Mayo Civic] Auditorium ... 7,000-something."

O'Connor turned 18 on June 6, 1968 and made his pro debut the next night with a second-round knockout of Muhammed Smith. O'Connor's six-round decision over Horsman, a veteran of 59 fights, in March 1969 was O'Connor's 13th fight in his first 10 months as a pro.

He stayed on the fast train -- drawing large crowds in Rochester, St. Paul and LaCrosse, Wis. Finally, on Sept. 14, 1972, in front of an estimated crowd of 7,500 at Met Center in Bloomington, the 31-0 O'Connor lost in a TKO to veteran Andy Kendall. Referee Wally Holm stopped the fight at 1:07 of the seventh round.

Pat had 13 fights over the next 5½ years and lost five. He was done after losing a second 10-round decision in a row to Minneapolis' Rafael Rodriguez on March 27, 1978.

Pat's brother Dan runs the Fourth Street Gym in Rochester. "We have another National Golden Gloves champion here in Rafael Butler," Dan said. "He's 29-4 as a pro and I can't draw 1,000 people when he fights. It's too bad. He's a great young man."

O'Connor paused and said: "We have a fight between Rafael and Joey Abel on March 22, Minnesota's two best heavyweights. You should come down here for that one."

Sadly, the ringside dignitaries on March 22 will not include Pat O'Connor. Now 57, Pat is a chronic alcoholic.

"He's in the Olmstead County jail; another DWI," Dan said. "At least we know where he is. He can't hurt anyone in there. He gets out in a few months. We'll see what happens."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. preusse@startribune.com

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