A Bout Face: When a pug?s mug opens up, Ray knows how to keep him fighting.
A Bout Face: When a pug?s mug opens up, Ray knows how to keep him fighting. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Chris Ray was among the couple dozen minglers at the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s recent monthly meeting. The crowd was mostly boxing officials, promoters, and ex-fighters.

Ray was the only cut man in the room. Unless he’s working, he’s pretty much always the only cut man in the room.

“My face is being seen,” he says, after passing a business card to a promoter. “That’s why I’m here. Good for work.”

Ray is a freelancer these days, and that’s a tough go. There isn’t a huge demand for his specialized services, the most prized of which involves stemming the flow of blood from open wounds in less than 60 seconds.

“I say I’m a surgeon by trade, the street trade,” he says with a laugh. “I never met a cut I didn’t like.”

Cut men work for a percentage, usually 2 to 5 percent of a fighter’s take, with the higher portions coming in title fights. There’s not much glitz to the job. Whatever glory the fighter doesn’t get goes to the trainer. All but fight-game insiders ignore the contributions of cut men and other so-called “seconds.”

Proof of this disrespect: Everybody remembers the scene from Rocky where our hero, blinded by swollen eyes, yells, “Cut me, Mick!” But who remembers who actually took out a blade and sliced open the fighter’s flesh to free the gathered fluids and reduce the swelling? It wasn’t Burgess Meredith’s Mick. No, the dirty deed was done by Benny, Rocky’s cut man, played by real-life cut man Al Silvani. (BTW: Cut men only blade eyelids in boxing movies, not in the real world.)

But Ray says being a part of the scene on fight night provides thrills that can’t be found elsewhere. “The parties, the women, the glamour—it’s all there!” he says.

Ray, 48, didn’t get into the fight game for glitz, however. Growing up on Capitol Hill, he had learned to box at the local gym, the Christ Child rec center, but knew he wasn’t good enough to make a career as a fighter. He hoped to become a veterinary surgeon, but college wasn’t in the cards.

So after high school he took a job at American Type Culture Collection, a Rockville outfit that collects animal tissues. Ray says he learned everything he needed to learn about bleeding and cuts while harvesting organs and assorted other body parts from guinea pigs, mice, rats, and whatever other dead animals were brought to that workplace.

“I learned how to ignore the vein,” he says, “and if for some reason I did touch the vein, I knew how to stop the bleeding.”

He continued to work out in boxing clubs, just to stay in shape, and spent a lot of time at Finley’s Gym, the beloved-but-now-closed fighter’s hangout on the Hill. And while there he became friends with a young D.C.-born-and-bred flyweight named Mark Johnson.

Johnson asked Ray to start working his corner, and, because of his experience with wounds away from the gym, became the camp’s cut man by default.

It worked out well for all concerned. Johnson had lost his second pro fight—a questionable 1990 decision against Irish fighter Richie Wenton in Belfast on St. Patrick’s Day. (“That’s why I never fought outside this country again,” Johnson says with a laugh.)

But Johnson didn’t lose again for 11 years.

Johnson, known by the nickname “Too Sharp,” began fighting out of Los Angeles to move up the lightweight ladder, since so many of the top fighters in the division were Latino.

“They called Mark the ‘Border Patrol,’” says Ray, “because these guys would come up from Mexico and he’d knock ’em out and send ’em back.”

Johnson went on to become one of the best flyweight fighters of all time and the first African-American to wear the 112-pound world belt.

Ray and his special cut kit were around for all of Johnson’s title ride.

Every cut man’s kit is a little different, and Ray says he likes to keep some of his key ingredients a secret. “You don’t give away your recipe,” he says. “I just call it my cookies and cream.”

Because boxing is regulated state-by-state, Ray says, he can’t bring the same batch of coagulants and anti-inflammatories to the ring with him for every fight. (Some cornermen would use Krazy Glue and cement if allowed.)

But his kit always includes some basics. There’s petroleum jelly, which is put on a fighter’s face in globs in the dressing room before a fight and between rounds to keep the skin as moist and malleable as possible—dry skin will split more quickly from the tat-tat-tat of leather gloves. That’s why old fighters bleed a lot easier than kids, Ray says. (While speaking in generalities, Ray dispels a theory I’ve arrived at from a lifetime of watching boxing from the stands or the couch: “White guys don’t cut easier,” he says.)

And Ray carries various cold packs, usually plain old ice bags and an enswell, which is that piece of steel with a handle that you see pressed against a fighter’s face as he sits on his stool. It’s kept on ice and applied with pressure to facial lumps between rounds to prevent swelling.

If there is in fact bleeding, Ray breaks out the cotton swabs and a cut man’s best friend: adrenaline, in a solution dabbed directly into the nostrils or on an open wound.

“That stops the bleeding right away, every time,” says Ray.

Johnson only had one cut of note during his fight career. It came in 2003, when the bridge of Johnson’s nose split open while he was trying to recapture the super-flyweight title from Fernando Montiel.

“Chris closed it before I knew what was going on, and I walked away with my third belt that night,” recalls Johnson. “A good cut man does more than stop you from bleeding. He gives you that confidence that if you get cut, he’ll be able to stop it. If you get swelled up, he’ll handle it. A good cut man is also a trainer, coach, manager. He’s everything. That’s what Chris brings.”

Johnson retired in early 2006, leaving Ray to work as a freelancer. To pay some bills, Ray has taught boxing fitness classes at area gyms for non-pugs, mostly female. (The sessions are often billed as “Fight Like a Girl.”)

But he still wants to get back to the big time. That’s why he was passing out business cards at the Boxing Commission meeting.

And over the weekend, Ray got a reminder of what he used to have with Johnson. He worked double duty on the undercard of Saturday’s Roy Jones-Felix Trinidad pay-per-view bout at Madison Square Garden, showing up in the corner for Baltimore’s Emmanuel Nwodo and D.C.’s DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley.

Ray is grateful for every paycheck. But neither of the Garden gigs will turn into a recurring role. Nwodo is 33, and his second-round KO of 39-year-old Ezra Sellers won’t catapult him above journeyman status.

Corley, also 33, lost a unanimous decision to undefeated 20-year-old Devon Alexander. It’s Corley’s fourth loss in a row, and after the fight, the former junior welterweight world champion announced he’s retiring.

“I really liked working with Chop,” says Ray. “Too bad it didn’t come earlier.”