PGH POST-GAZETTE: Boxing hall of famer speaks about Pittsburgh-Cuba event on Roberto Clemente Bridge‏

Jul 19, 2016 by

By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In his 13-year professional boxing career and his 55 years of life, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini has experienced and witnessed more than most humans could ever hope to.

This Youngstown, Ohio, native has traveled across the country and the world for his career, held the world lightweight championship for a two-year period in the early 1980s and was a part of some of the most memorable fights in the sport’s history.

Even for him, though, what will unfold July 30 on the Roberto Clemente Bridge will be an unprecedented event, one that provided him with an opportunity few have ever received.

Though a previous engagement in Nevada likely will force him to miss the “Duelo del Siglo” or “Boxing on the Bridge” tournament July 30 in Pittsburgh that will pit local amateur boxers against Cuban counterparts, Mancini already understands the importance and symbolism of the occasion after accompanying the Pittsburgh-area fighters on a mid-May trip to Cuba.

“They’re beautiful people,” Mancini said Monday at a news conference for the event at PNC Park. “They’re wonderful, they’re warm. They’re good people. You see there’s a lot of poverty, but the people are happy. A guy down there said to me, ‘What do I have to be so unhappy about? We’ve got the sun, we’ve got the water, we’ve got enough food to eat.’ What people don’t know are the everyday things that you need. For instance, toothpaste, it’s hard to find. Band-Aids are hard to find. For women, feminine products are very difficult to find. That’s hard for people to understand.”

In March, the United States eased its travel restrictions to Cuba, allowing for educational trips. That decision made it possible for Mancini and the young boxers to venture to the island and train with Cuban fighters at some of the country’s famed boxing academies, where they attend school and spend much of their days training. Mancini, whose first wife is of Cuban descent, was something of a conduit for the group, someone who speaks Spanish and has a fundamental knowledge of the nation.

The trip gave them a glimpse at a world few in the United States have seen and even fewer could begin to understand. Rich Cantolina, 26, from Ambridge, who will be competing in “Boxing on the Bridge,” made it a point to converse with Cuban residents about their lives. He recalled meeting a hotel worker who lived off $22 a month while raising her 5-year-old daughter, going to the market only once a month to get rice and beans, and once every three months for various meats.

“You don’t have a choice there,” Cantolina said. “You have to do what you have to do to survive. That’s how they live.”

If the trip to Cuba built some kind of link for the select group of boxers, the event’s organizers are hoping “Boxing on the Bridge” can have an even greater impact.

A group of politicians, which included County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Rep. Mike Doyle, spoke of the metaphorical importance of the bridge, one named after a Caribbean and Pittsburgh icon that they believe can forge a bond between two countries forcibly kept apart by law for a half-century.

“It sounded like a good idea to me,” said Rick Steigerwald of the Pennsylvania state athletic commission, who also was a part of the Cuba trip. “I never thought [Doyle] was going to be able to pull it off.”

Tickets for “Boxing on the Bridge” are free and available to the public beginning at 11 a.m. Wednesday on the website ShowClix.com. The event begins at 6 p.m. and is expected to hold no more than 2,500 spectators.

It’s there that the group of local boxers such as Cantolina will have a pioneering opportunity that not even someone as decorated as Mancini ever got.

“I appreciate the kids that are here, that they went down there, that they’re taking the challenge,” Mancini said. “You want to challenge yourself; that’s the only way you become great. Greatness doesn’t come to you; you’ve got to go take it.”

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