IT WAS JUST SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
"IT WAS JUST SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED"
This is not an easy story to write. It’s a devastating story with a lot of sad endings. It’s a story in which one person dies. And then other people die because of the first casualty. It’s a story of shattered dreams. It’s terribly sad. But, unfortunately, it’s one of those stories that did occur and did cause changes in the sport which were meant to make things safer in boxing for all participants from that point forward.
The story revolves around two men. These two men were both in a position to hold the world in the palms of their hands with their futures limitless. They encountered each other in a boxing ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 13, 1982. They arrived at this venue by travelling different routes, but for the rest of time, these two men would forever be connected. One man lost his life. The other would carry the burden of guilt for his death with him as long as he lived.
Raymond Michael Mancino was born in Youngstown, Ohio on March 4, 1961. His father, Lenny Mancini, had been a professional boxer and he gave his son his nickname ‘Boom Boom’. Ray also later took his father’s ‘alias’ surname of Mancini as well. Lenny had been a highly ranked contender in the 1940s, but when he was wounded during World War II, his dream of fighting for any kind of championship was dashed.
Lenny was determined to imbue his son, Ray, with the boxing bug. He pushed his boy to start training at a boxing gym when he was quite young. Ray would look at his father’s scrapbooks with the sepia-toned photos and deify Lenny. He also knew his father’s story and very quickly, he wanted to work his way up the boxing hierarchy and compete for a title, the title his father could never win.
Ray’s first professional fight took place on October 18, 1979 against Phil Bowen. Mancini’s wild punching style overwhelmed Bowen and Ray knocked his opponent out in the first round. It was Mancini’s style that endeared him first to fans at and, later, to television executives. He often appeared to be flailing without offering much in the way of defense. But he went at his opponents so quickly and so furiously that they often had no choice but to cover up and hope for an opportunity to counterpunch.
He continued to fight and piled up victories along the way. Six months after his first fight, on April 30, 1980, halfway through the first round, he knocked out Bobby Sparks to win the Ohio State lightweight title. Lenny Mancini’s son was on his way. When the elder Mancini fought, Lenny’s nickname had been “Boom Boom”. That name fell to Ray as well and he was now working his way up the boxing ladder.
A year later, May 16, 1981, the world began to take notice of the younger “Boom Boom”. Jorge Morales had been the North American Boxing Federation’s lightweight champion for nine months and his first title defense was against Mancini on CBS’ Sports Saturday show. The fight took place in Kiamesha Lake, New York, which is less than two hours upstate from Manhattan.
Mancini started the fight slowly, but he worked the champion back against the ropes for a good part of the fight, landing multiple flurries of rights and lefts. The constant barrage of punches wore Morales down and was unable to land any counters against the Mancini onslaught. By the end of the ninth round, Morales’ left eye was swollen shut and the ring doctor would not allow him to come out for the tenth round.
The 20-year-old Mancini advanced his record to 19-0. Fifteen of those wins were by knockout. Morales was 23 at the time of the fight and his record fell to 32-7-2. Ray told reporters after the fight that he was “keeping this title for myself because the world title is going to my dad”. A couple of months later, he defended his NABF title by earning a unanimous decision against Jose Luis Ramirez. He was ready to compete for a world title.
Before he would get there though, in September of 1981, Lenny had to have heart surgery -- coronary bypass surgery, to be exact. Ray would be fighting one of the best boxers in the world in Atlantic City on October 3. Alexis Arguello was the lightweight champion and not even the bypass would stop Lenny from seeing his son fight for that world title belt.
Lenny and his wife, Ellen, were at ringside. The elder “Boom Boom” was only allowed to attend the fight if he promised to remain calm. As the fight ensued, though, remaining calm became a difficult process for Mr. Mancini.
“When Lenny started to grip my hand harder and harder, I knew he was fighting this fight inside himself,” Ellen told a reporter. “When Ray got knocked down to one knee in the 12th round, I felt my own heart stop and it’s a healthy one. I thought Lenny was going to jump out of his chair.”
Mancini took the fight to the champion over the first seven rounds and there are numerous reports that say he was ahead on points for much of the fight. But what had been a positive point for Mancini in his previous fights, proved to be his downfall against the slicker Arguello. His aggressiveness was exploited by the champ and when Mancini would dive in with a left hook, Arguello would counter with a left jab of his own. He bloodied the challenger’s nose early.
Mancini was rocked in the 12th round right before the bell. In the 13th round, Arguello cut Mancini again, this time inside his mouth. Dave Wolf, Mancini’s manager, wanted to stop the fight, but the corner talked him out of that. In the 14th round, Arguello landed a pair of lefts and a right and Mancini was down again. He got up right away, but referee Tony Perez called it at that point.
As the multitude of people crowded into the ring, Lenny Mancini and his son lost sight of each other. Lenny stared straight ahead. A doctor sat with him. It felt like an eternity, but eventually, Ray made his way out of the in-ring mob and over to the ropes where his father was. His face was a swollen mask and his eyes were filled with tears, but he looked down to his dad, made a defiant fist and told Lenny that he was okay. As people in the crowd cheered him, Ray blew a kiss out to them.
Lenny and Ellen made their way to Ray’s locker room and instead of going directly to the interview room, Ray followed his parents. When he emerged from his private inner sanctum and met with reporters, he told them what happened in his private moment with his father and mentor.
“I put my head on his shoulder and cried. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Dad’. And I was worried for my mother too. She was concerned about her baby.” At that point, the still-20-year-old Mancini began to cry again. He spoke to the reporters apologetically. “I’m sorry if I’m not acting professional. I’m sorry if I’m getting choked up. We took our shot but Alexis is just a super fighter. He took over the fight like a champion should.”
Mancini also added a dash of defiance into his comment. “It isn’t the end of the story, just the end of a chapter. I learned a great deal from a great champion today. It would have been one hell of an upset, huh? But I proved I was a worthy contender and I’ll be back as champion some day.”
“You always have to go into the ring thinking you’re the boss. You go in acting like you’re the champ. I was in there staring at this man with all this knowledge and trying to take away the championship with desire.” As Ray was talking with reporters in the interview room, Arguello entered. He walked over to the challenger and stood above him and put his hand on Ray’s head. Arguello even offered an apology.
“I’m sorry for you, Ray, but it’s my job.” He sat down behind the table and beside Ray and he spoke to reporters about his view of the match while Mancini was still there. “I think my experience and conditioning was the difference. I knew Ray would have to slow down. But my friend (Ray) and me made one of the best fights of the year today. I think Ray is going to be a champion.”
At that point, Mancini excused himself. He wanted to go sit with his father again. As he got up, Arguello rose as well and put his arm around him and the two shared a private moment. Arguello told Ray that this fight might be ‘better than all the others Mancini has had combined. He would learn from the experience and it would make him a better fighter.’ It was such a gracious message to a respected opponent.
As the two boxers stood talking to each other, Ellen Mancini looked on. Afterward, she told a reporter, “I know what Alexis means, but I don’t think this was the better thing. It was a bitter thing.”
Mancini still held the NABF lightweight belt and he set about defending that. His trademark ferocity served him well as he defended his title not once but twice. On the day after Christmas, 1981, in Atlantic City, he knocked out Manuel Abedoy in the second round. His next fight was scheduled for January 23 and was supposed to be with the WBA’s top contender for the lightweight crown, Ernesto Espana.
But in mid-January, Mancini’s opponent was changed and he would now be fighting Julio ‘Diablito’ Valdez. According to news reports, Espana was intending to use the fight against Mancini as an elimination bout to get the opportunity to fight the WBA lightweight champion Arturo Frias.
But the WBA ruled that since Espana was the Number 1 contender, he should have a direct shot at Frias. As a result, Espana and Frias would meet the following weekend to determine who would emerge as the champion. But what they also decided was that the winner between Mancini and Valdez would get the next fight against the winner of the Frias-Espana bout.
Going into the Valdez fight, Mancini was the 10th ranked lightweight contender in the world, according to Ring Magazine. His record going into this fight was 21-1. Valdez came in with a mark of 16-9-1. But Valdez came in with a height and reach advantage over Mancini and that would come into play early in the fight.
Valdez had the ability to move well on his feet and his height and reach combined to give Mancini some problems in the first few rounds. He acknowledged that the taller Valdez was a handful but he trained to handle longer fights after the October match against Alexis Arguello.
“Some people said after the Arguello fight that I didn’t have any late-round power. But I think today, they found out that I’ve got plenty of power in the late rounds. He’s (Valdez) a headache, I’ll tell you right now. He took some tremendous shots throughout the fight, but he kept coming. He stood there and he was taking them, but you can’t take too many before it catches up with you.”
The victory for Mancini meant that he would now be getting a chance at the WBA lightweight championship against either Arturo Frias or Ernesto Espana. They would fight seven days after the bout that Ray had just won. Frias would eventually defeat Espana, but it was a controversial ending. Regardless, the fight between Ray and the champion Frias would take place in May in Las Vegas.
With his rise in national prominence, many facets of Ray's career began to become better known. Mancini was naturally a lefthanded boxer but his father converted him to the other hand because southpaws have more difficulty getting fights. But what that did was make his left hook to the body his most devastating punch. His training regimen was examined as well.
The 135-pound fighter was estimated to throw 100 punches in each round. In order to maintain his body and enable him to keep up that pace, he trained by standing neck-deep in a swimming pool and he just sparred with the water. “If you don’t throw punches, you don’t win,” reasoned Mancini, in a feature in Family Weekly magazine a week before the Frias fight.
Lenny watched Ray in his training and preparation and he marveled. “I never had the kind of preparation he has for his fights. Watching Ray get in shape would hurt anybody.” When Ray was younger, Lenny would tell him about his days in the ring. And Ray did his best to always remember every one of those stories as if they were gospel.
“My father always talked to me about having more heart than anybody else. He always did. No matter how hard he was hit, he kept coming at you.” For his part, Lenny was fond of saying, “I never took a step backward....but sometimes, I wish I did.”
“The inspiration he gives me is something special,” Ray said of his father. “I look over from the ring and see the look on his face – though I don’t make a habit of it. And I wink at him to let him know I’m in control.”
Mancini was asked about the Arguello fight and what his mental condition was coming out of that bout. “I learned a tremendous amount about myself. I know that even when I’m hurt, I don’t lose my composure and faith. That means a lot to you when you get back in the ring.”
Away from the ring, Ray allowed his mind to drift away from pugilism. He did so by putting pen to paper and crafting poetry. “When things move me, I like to write about them. I don’t plan it but when they happen....it’s just a gift I’m blessed with.” According to the Family Weekly piece, when Ray was 13 he wrote a short poem for Lenny. It was entitled I Walk in Your Shadow. The last line of one verse read, ‘I leap every mountain that this man leaps’.
His father was never able to make that one majestic leap. When Ray had his first opportunity at it, Alexis Arguello was there to thwart him. On May 8, Ray Mancini was determined to prevent the same thing from happening when he faced Arturo Frias in Las Vegas.
As was pretty much customary back in the early 1980s, the fight would be seen on CBS’ Sports Saturday, their afternoon showcase. As was becoming the tradition for Mancini’s fans and boxing fans from his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, many made the trip to the Aladdin Hotel in the Nevada desert for this bout to root on their man. They had cause for concern early.
As the opening bell sounded, both fighters rushed out to the centre of the ring and began trading punches. But Frias caught Mancini with a left hook early that shook the challenger. When that happened, Ray went from gladiator mode to thoughts of survival. But he got himself righted quickly and began to attack once again. In fact, he knocked Frias down with a left hook of his own in that first round.
It wasn’t long after that hook caught the champion that Mancini had him on the ropes and unleashed what was reported as 34 punches in 22 seconds to Frias’ noggin. Frias tried to get his hands up to cover his head, but the young Ohioan was absolutely relentless. Seeing that the champion was not punching back, referee Richard Green jumped in to stop the fight with six seconds remaining in the first round.
Frias was shocked at the turn of events. “I was stunned, but I knew what was going on,” he told reporters after the bout. “I felt it shouldn’t have been stopped. It would have been an even round.”
The way the first round began surprised Mancini and after he got rocked early, his philosophy in the fight went from fight to just stay in it. “I was just hoping to get through the round. Art came out and he stung me early. He was right on top of me. Who knows how long it would have went? It would have been brutal.”
As the former champion, Frias received $175,000 for the fight. His record fell to 24-2. Mancini received $100,000. Mancini was now 23-1. More importantly, Ray had achieved one of his lifelong goals – to win a world championship for his father. It’s one thing to hunt down a title. Now as the holder of the belt, Mancini would become the hunted. Every contender would be gunning for him. He would be measured by how well he defended that crown.
After being able to reflect on being the holder of the world championship belt, Mancini appeared on CBS television for an interview and he was asked to describe how it felt to be the top lightweight on the planet. “It’s the greatest feeling. It’s a feeling of self-accomplishment. It’s a feeling of contentment knowing that I have this title. It’s a feeling of relief that I finally reached my goal.”
The one advantage to being the champion is that he had some say as to where his fights would take place. His first title defense would take place in a high school football stadium in Warren, Ohio, not far from Youngstown. Mancini was giving back, allowing the people with whom he had grown up to come and see him fight. He was also providing the country the chance to see his home.
The ‘Rust Belt’ had been hit with hard times in the late 1970s and early ‘80s and Mancini was the man who represented all of the people who had become disenfranchised by the economic downturns that affected the region. His victories were their victories. All of the fans watching Ray fight saw something of themselves in him.
What the country was also getting to see, many for the first time, was a fighter who wanted to win for his father. Ray was training at Grossinger’s up in the Caatskills in New York State for his first title defense against the Number 1 contender Ernesto Espana. His parents were there to visit and support him. Before the fight, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson caught up with the family at the old resort hotel.
As they all sat for breakfast one morning, the Mancinis were talking about what the title meant to them. Lenny spoke to Anderson about Ray. “He’s making me very happy,” the elder Mancini told the writer. Ray then retorted, “After 40 years, if he never got it, he’d be just as happy.” “No,” Lenny came back with. “It means more to me because my son gave it to me.” As this back-and-forth went on, Ellen sat smiling broadly.
The city of Warren, Ohio is 18 miles northwest of Youngstown. Not really far at all. The fight would take place at Mollenkopf Stadium, which is at Warren G. Harding High School. Ray Mancini was excited to hold the fight there. “It’ll be the biggest boxing card they’ve ever had in our area,” he told Anderson. “It’ll be a sellout – 20,000.”
Everyone knows that home field advantage is a real thing in sports. Could it be a benefit in boxing? It wouldn’t take long to find out.
July 24, 1982 was a beautiful, sunny 85-degree Saturday in Warren, Ohio. The high school football stadium was packed and everyone was in a gala, holiday mood. Warren mayor, Dan Sferra, was thrilled by the turnout and credited Ray Mancini with giving the area a boost. “Mancini gave us some much needed vitality today, a shot of pride, if you will.”
The crowd was marvelous and the day was grand, but it was the fight that was the thing that day. And the crowd energized the hometown boy. Espana had a 5-inch advantage in height over Mancini, but that didn’t matter to the champion. The challenger’s head may have been ‘up there’, but his ribs, liver, kidney and spleen were ‘right here’ and Mancini hit them all with gusto. Referee Stanley Christodoulou of South Africa stopped the fight one second before the end of the sixth round.
“I could hear him moaning and groaning when I went to his body in the second and third rounds,” Mancini said in a post-fight interview. “I knew then that it was only a matter of time. I think I got him with a left hook to the liver in the third and it almost stopped him dead. I knew then I had him on the run. Eventually, the body shots made him leave his head open and I went for it, starting the fifth round.”
Once the fight was over, Espana quickly left and avoided reporters. But one of his handlers did talk briefly with some of the press. “That kid’s dynamite,” he said of Mancini. “He’s kind of like molten lava. He just keeps coming at you.”
There was some controversy the night before the fight when it came to which corner each of the fighters would be assigned. Espana’s corner sat in bright sunshine while Mancini’s corner was nestled in beautiful shade. The discussion took place between the management teams of each of the fighters. Dave Wolf was Mancini’s manager and Pedro Aponte looked after Espana’s affairs.
Everything had been pretty comfortable between the two until Aponte made the crack that his fighter was sitting in the full sun while Mancini was in the more comfortable conditions. It wasn’t necessarily a serious complaint. It was more of a little jab. Wolf replied, “We’re the champion”. “Let’s flip a coin,” Aponte came back. “Only if I have heads and tails,” replied Wolf.
Things began to get a little contentious at this point. Aponte said, “Either flip a coin or let whoever enters the ring first choose his corner.” Knowing that the champion is always the last one to enter the ring, Wolf was going to have nothing to do with that suggestion. Aponte then went to the official WBA observer, Ramos Jordan of Puerto Rico, for a ruling. Jordan suggested a coin flip.
Wolf contended that the WBA did not concern themselves with who chooses which corner they occupied and that the local boxing commission should be the one who decides. Larry McManus was the chairman of the Warren boxing commission and he said that, in Ohio, it was the tradition that state champions chose their own corners.
That answer didn’t seem to satisfy Jordan. In fact, it seemed to irritate him. “What commission is this? Are you a member of the WBA?” Wolf was happy with McManus’ response. He told Jordan, “It doesn’t matter. The local commission is in charge.” The furor seemed to grow from there. Voices were raised and arguments increased in volume. As the boxing folks were shouting at one another, a religious group began filing into the room that they had rented.
One of them sat down at a piano and began playing hymns. Some people were singing. Others had signs decrying ‘the devil’. As the visitors had been singing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, it was decided that Espana would enter the ring first, but Mancini would still sit in the shade. And Aponte, the man who started the whole thing, sat there smiling.
By November of 1982, Duk Koo Kim was the Orient and Pacific lightweight champion and the Number 1 challenger for the WBA title. He had won the Korean lightweight crown in 1980. He had a fiancée at home in Korea and a baby that would be born the following June. His life was good and had never been better. It wasn’t always this way for the 27-year-old boxer though.
Kim was two years old when his father died. His mother had no job and married four different men over the course of her life. According to Kim’s journal, just after his father passed away, he became ill with the virus that had also killed his father and almost died. His mother left Kim in her sister’s care and took any job she could find. Sadly, she was not able to hold a job for very long. Kim wrote that his “childhood dream was having a bowl of hot rice”.
Kim’s mother had left her third husband because his grown son had become very cruel to her. She took her own two sons and the three walked to the fishing village of Banam, 18 miles from the demilitarized zone, where she begged for food for her two boys. There, she met and married her fourth husband, a farmer and fisherman. That man had three sons and the five boys were forced to get along together and co-exist.
In his journal, he wrote that one of his new ‘brothers’ used to pull him around and made him fight other children for the older kids’ amusement. Kim hated them all for their cruelty. As a child he began to try to map his life out. He became determined to work his way out of his poverty and make a prosperous life for himself.
There were fun times in his childhood, like finding and catching his own seafood to eat, catching wild rabbits and ‘sledding on frozen rice paddies’. But the fun days were grossly outnumbered by the days of hardship and impoverishment.
At 16, he left his mother’s home and moved to Sokcho, which is approximately 120 miles west of Seoul. He got a job in a bakery and worked there for about two years. He then moved to Seoul and found work as a welder in a steel mill. But after an argument with his boss, he found himself out of work and out of money. He had pride and hated being looked down upon. But at the same time, he had nothing. At times, he would speak of being tremendously angry.
He found himself living under a bridge and for days, he ate nothing but crackers and drank water. He found a job selling books on palm reading in coffee shops. He made very little for each book that he sold, but it was something. He was able to eat more than crackers. He became determined to make something of himself. He wrote in his journal of how he hated his childhood but had come to grips with how his mother had parented his brother and him.
“I know I cannot afford to be lazy.... I must create ‘something’ in order to realize my great dream.... I never liked my mother very much as a kid. I had wanted her to raise me on her own. I guess I was too young to know.... But now I understand my mother and feel sorry for her. That’s why I want to be a good son and bring her happiness. In order to do that, I must reach the top.... A country boy named Kim Duk Koo will show the world something.... I shall run and fight until I am covered with blood and sweat.”
Kim was 23 when he began fighting professionally back in December of 1978. He had three bouts in three nights, all of which were held at the Munhwa Gymnasium in Seoul. He won the first two and lost the third on points. He would not lose another fight on his way up the Asian boxing ladder.
In 1980, he fought three times, winning all three matches. Two of his wins were on points, the other was a knockout. The last one won him the Korean lightweight title. By the end of 1981, Kim was 12-1-1. He was on his way in the boxing world. His dream was coming true. In the second half of 1981, he met Young-Mi Lee and he pursued her respectfully but relentlessly.
“It was love at first sight for him,” Lee told Michael Shapiro for a 1987 piece in Sports Illustrated, “so he used to chase after me. At first he asked me for a cup of tea, and after that, he called for dates. That was in the fall of 1981, so the memory is not so clear. In the beginning, I didn’t like him too much because he was a boxer. He was serious, but I wasn’t ready for a relationship. He kept on calling, but I turned him down. Finally, he wrote me a letter.”
Lee had the letter and she continued with Shapiro. “It begins, ‘When a man cries because his heart aches, the whole world cries.’ Eventually, I began to like his personality. He was very strong, very brave, manly and well-mannered. I visited where he lived – it was a poor area.” Kim lived with another boxer, Bong Sang Lee. In Kim’s room, he had framed pictures from his bouts hanging on the wall.
His most prized possession was a scrapbook that he kept with mementoes, pictures and articles from his fights. In his room, he also wrote out sayings, mottoes and slogans. One of them, Lee said, read, ‘POVERTY IS MY TEACHER’. She said it was written in blood. Then, Lee told Shapiro, “he showed me his journal”.
After reading his thoughts, his words, Lee realized that Kim would be the man she would spend her life with. “I couldn’t help but cry. He cried. I thought, ‘Although he may not be rich or successful, he needs me.’” The couple got engaged in June of 1982. By that time, he had been the Orient and Pacific lightweight champion for four months after winning that belt in February. He then defended his crown three times more before they agreed to marry.
Kim had used the money he got from winning the Orient and Pacific title to buy himself a proper suit and to rent an apartment for himself and Young-Mi. There were parties at Lee’s parents’ home in Seoul and in Banam at his mother’s to celebrate their engagement. But the highlight, for Kim, was hosting a barbecue at their apartment for people. Pride and confidence were all over his face.
Lee had never seen Kim in the ring, but he did take her to a match so that she could have some kind of understanding of what a boxer’s existence was like. By the end of July, Kim was 17-1-1. He had risen among all the lightweight fighters there were to the point where he was the top challenger in the world. His next fight would be against the world champion, Ray Mancini.
Duk Koo Kim had only fought once outside of South Korea and that one fight had been in the Phillipines in Paranque City. This trip to the United States would be the first time that Kim had travelled outside of Southeast Asia. When he got to Las Vegas and saw the wide roads, the vast expanses of land, the lights of The Strip, the waitresses in their Roman outfits, he proclaimed, “This is like Heaven!”
American boxing pundits and media knew nothing about Kim except for his record. He was the top contender for the lightweight crown and yet, his abilities in the ring were dismissed by many in the Western boxing press.
One person who did not discount Kim’s record or his abilities was the lightweight champion himself. Mancini and his people had video on Kim. Some of his people were scouting his Vegas workouts. In an interview with Tim Ryan, Sugar Ray Leonard and Gil Clancy, Mancini told the broadcasters that he spent his pre-bout time preparing for a long fight with the Asian champion.
“If I told you I did, you wouldn’t believe me, but, I planned on it being a long fight. I saw film. The guy was very impressive. Rough. Tough. Hungry. Determined. Those are the worst kind. This guy’s got a tremendous chance – a great, great body puncher. I expect a long fight. I prepared that way, let me put it that way.”
One issue for Kim had been his weight and he had to work to get under the 135 pound limit. Each man measured in at 5 feet-6 inches and their arm spans were identical at 66 inches. Each man was strong on his feet and both were able to take a punch. That ability would not just come in handy for this fight, but would be an absolute necessity in order to last any length of time at all.
You couldn’t have asked for a nicer day for a boxing match in Las Vegas in November. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the crowd was frothy. Because Kim was fighting, a large contingent of Koreans made the trip from Los Angeles to watch him compete. And, in support of Mancini, there were a lot of folks who travelled from Ohio to cheer him on. The two groups chanted constantly and lustily for their men.
The opening bell was scheduled for noon local time in Las Vegas and the crowd appeared to have been ready much earlier. Both fighters were ready as well. There was tremendous anticipation for this fight, but the expectation was that it would be a comfortable defense for Mancini.
Mancini’s style was well known. He would give a punch and take one back readily and furiously. Little did many people know that Kim’s style was eerily similar. He would throw punches quickly and intensely without much concern for defending himself. It would make for one wild fight.
Everyone was now in their seats. The fighters had been introduced and were in their corners. Finally, the bell sounded. The first round began.
For about the first 30-40 seconds both Kim and Mancini stood about six feet apart and tried to punch each other from this distance. But neither man was able to accomplish much during this ‘feeling out’ process and it wasn’t long before they were standing almost shoulder to shoulder, head beside head and hammering each other like ‘Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots’.
Referee Richard Green had to step in a couple of times, first to warn Kim not to get his head in too close to Mancini, and later in the first round to warn both fighters about using their heads. Neither boxer was using their head intentionally, but Green stepped in to let both know he was watching. It was an intense three minutes of boxing. One thing that everyone saw – both men could give a punch and both could take a punch.
As the second round began, Kim came out of his corner hard and attacked from the bell. After a short period, both men were punching hard. The pace of the fight was almost incredible. It would be almost inconceivable that they could maintain this over the course of fifteen rounds. Mancini was establishing his left hook while Kim was relying on his right hook.
Green issued warnings once again about use of heads in the second round. What was interesting in this fight was that Kim was a natural lefty as was Mancini. But Mancini converted himself into a right hand dominant fighter. He could throw the right jabs but his left hook was still his big weapon.
The third round was more of the same with both men showing outstanding conditioning. One man would go on the attack and then the other. It was actually quite compelling to watch. The intensity each boxer showed in the fight to this point was absolutely riveting. But when Mancini went back to his corner, his left ear was split open and bleeding. His cut man, Paul Percifield had to close that.
One other thing bothered Mancini. He had tried to throw a left hook at Kim’s head but it bounced off the top. By the end of the third round, it was aching and swollen. The champion was hurting and he would have to work his ass off to win this fight. The fourth round was coming.
Both men jumped out of their corners to get at each other. Each man was planting his feet as they exchanged hard punches. Neither boxer seemed to care that they were leaving themselves wide open to counterpunches. Each held fast in their belief that they could withstand anything the other threw at them.
In the last minute of the fourth round, there started to be some holding on as Mancini and Kim began to lean on each other a little more than previously in the fight. This might have been the first sign of some fatigue, but the way each man had been going at the other, it was entirely understandable.
The leaning and the holding seemed to give Mancini an advantage as he was delivering a lot more short blows when they would get involved in the clinches. Short shots to Kim’s body and head were landing and he was able to deliver them with some power. They may not do damage in the short term, but over the course of the fight, cumulatively, they would become effective. In the sixth round, ring commentator Gil Clancy called the fight “an endurance test”.
That sixth round was somewhat even although Kim did manage to land a combination that wobbled the champion in the last 40 seconds. Just when it seemed that one man was gaining control in the fight, the other would come back with an attack that would cause his opponent to retreat. It was back and forth the entire time.
Clancy was watching this fight with some foreboding and trepidation. The boxers were six rounds in and this was as close to a war as a fight can get. Clancy was an old boxing guy from way back. He had been the cornerman for Emile Griffith back in 1962. On March 24 of that year, Griffith had beaten Benny ‘Kid’ Paret into a fatal coma. After seeing what he had seen in that fight, and comparing things to this one, Clancy was somewhat nervous.
While in commercial between the sixth and seventh rounds, he presciently told his broadcast partners as kind of an aside, “Either one guy’s gonna get busted up or nail the other guy very badly.”
Near the end of the seventh round, Kim landed a hard left to Mancini’s face as he had the champion against the ropes. Mancini stayed on his feet just before the bell rang to end it. It was more drama to add to everything else that had already occurred.
Kim started the eighth round hanging back from Mancini and dancing around. It was as though he had learned from the previous seven rounds and changed his strategy. Then when Mancini would attack with the right, Kim would counter with his hard left jab and it was landing. Both fighters were going to the body and doing it successfully. But as that eighth round was winding down, Kim could be seen gasping for air – but then he threw a right and a left that snapped Mancini’s head back.
By this point in the fight each man had some swelling around their eyes. In the ninth, Kim came out bouncing on his toes. He rocked the champion with a long left early in the round. Mancini was having a hard time slipping Kim’s punches. He was jabbing efficiently and effectively as the Ohio contingent was exhorting him to fight harder.
On the cards of a lot of the amateur judges, Kim had won Rounds 7, 8 and 9. On the CBS broadcast, the tone had become one of preparation for a new champion. In the tenth, the theme continued. The momentum of the bout changed with the breeze. One man had control of the fight and then the other did. As that round came to a close, Kim was doing a lot of leaning on Mancini.
The eleventh round began, and it was incredible how smartly the fighters were throwing their fists. Yes, they were tired but, very often, it was hard to tell that until near the end of the three minute segments. Halfway through the eleventh, Mancini landed an upper cut to the chest that dropped Kim to a knee, but he quickly stood back up and it was not ruled a knock down by referee Green.
Soon after that, Mancini backed the challenger up against the ropes and was pummeling him with punches. Kim doubled over and it almost appeared as if he was leaning into Mancini by propping his shoulder into the champion’s abdomen. It may have been the first signs of trouble for the Korean fighter.
Mancini really went on the offensive after that. Kim tried to punch back but he was flailing more than punching. None of his shots were landing. It was as if he was just trying to keep Mancini away long enough to survive to the bell. But then, near the end of the round, he regained his composure and fired out a left that knocked the Ohioan back a couple of steps.
The pace of the fight as the eleventh round came to an end was just unbelievable.
Kim was showing more fatigue in the twelfth. His punches were flying but he wasn’t landing as many. At the mid-point of the round, he planted his feet and swung a wild left that Mancini ducked and Kim almost fell over. Seconds after that, the two men stood in the middle of the ring. Mancini was hammering Kim and Kim was just trying to defend. He wasn’t offering counterpunches.
Mancini, perhaps sensing that he had done some damage in the twelfth round, came out at the start of the thirteenth like a house on fire. He immediately went at Kim and began throwing 44 straight blows and forcing his opponent to try to cover up. He threw flurry after flurry at the challenger and the crowd was sensing that the fight might soon be coming to an end.
The American put it into fifth gear but Kim found his second wind, or maybe it was his third wind. Or fourth. With about a minute left, Kim slipped and Richard Green stepped between the fighters to check on him. The fight continued. The thirteenth round ended with the two men throwing everything at each other.
As the fourteenth round was about to start, Kim’s face looked like a swollen mask. In fact, both men looked like Howard Wolowitz might look after eating a jar of peanuts. Mancini had hurled everything he could at the 27-year-old Korean challenger and he had not gone down. But the fight was near its end and it would not take long. As the bell was just about to sound, Mancini gave himself the Sign of the Cross and jumped up to his feet again.
Right away, he staggered Kim. He threw a couple more combinations. He then threw a right, missed with the left and threw another right that connected directly with Kim’s jaw. The challenger fell on his back with his head on the ring apron just outside the rope. The fight was over. Kim tried to get up but had a difficult time. His balance was gone. His vision was impaired. Richard Green tried to put his arms around the wounded fighter to help him get back to his corner.
The fight had been televised in South Korea. Young-Mi was at a friend’s place in Seoul. She had not watched any of the fight but the suspense was eating at her. She asked her friend to turn on the television so she could see how Duk-Koo was doing. The friend told Young-Mi, ‘No’, the television was not working.
Just like that, the ring at Caesars Palace filled with people in the same way a bus gets crowded at rush hour. Mancini’s arms were in the air. His mother and father were beside him. The contingent of Ohioans was delirious. The cheers and the shouts and the noise went on and on. It was pandemonium.
After the fight, amid the celebrations, Mancini could be seen trying to make his way through all the people to get to Kim’s corner, but the mass of humanity prevented him from getting through. In 2017, Mancini did an interview with OTB Sports and he talked about the fight and the aftermath.
“I went over to see him after, going to his corner like every fighter. He was just sitting there. I was swollen, he was swollen. That’s it. I just seen him sitting there. I didn’t realize when we were celebrating over on my side of the ring, that he slid to the floor and they brought a stretcher. I didn’t know that or else, I wouldn’t have kept doing the celebrations.”
While so many focused their attention on Mancini and his defense of the world title, Duk Koo Kim had stumbled to the canvas in his corner. As he sat on the stool and his handlers were tending to him, Kim collapsed to the canvas once again. A stretcher was summoned and the unconscious boxer was taken to the Desert Springs Hospital.
Once at the hospital, doctors discovered a subdural hematoma – a blood clot -- and worked quickly to remove the clot from his brain. But Kim never emerged from his coma.
Donald Romeo was the ringside doctor at the fight. He described what he saw immediately after the fight. “We gave him a sniff of an ammonia capsule (smelling salts) and he pushed my hand away. It was the last good reaction he had. He seemed to slump off his chair to his left side several times and we had to pull him back up each time.”
Kim’s condition deteriorated quickly after that. Removal of the blood clot did not solve the problem. Dr. Lonnie Hammargren performed the surgery on Kim’s brain. The prognosis was not good. He spoke to the media the day after the fight.
“We know there is massive brain damage. We always try to keep a little hope, but his chances for survival are very small. These injuries are usually fatal. His eyes are fixed and almost all of his reflexes are gone. I haven’t seen the film of the fight and could not say if it was the last blow (that put him into a coma), but, in all probability, it was.”
Kim was put on a respirator almost right away. His condition was listed as ‘very critical’. Hammargren told the media that doctors drilled holes in Kim’s skull to remove the blood clot and to try to relieve the pressure on his brain. It swelled from the trauma of the final blows. He also said that a special sugar solution was used to try to extract excess water from Kim’s brain.
Mancini had tried to visit Kim in the hospital but, according to him, “the doctors wouldn’t let me”, intimating that they let him know it would not be a good idea. “They knew he wasn’t coming out of it (the coma) and that it would be a matter of time.”
Kim’s mother and his half-brother, Jong Ho Lee, flew from Seoul to Las Vegas. Lee brought herbal medicines. Kim’s mother had summoned acupuncturists who flew in from Los Angeles. The acupuncturists did what they could do but, recognizing that Kim would not respond, nor was he likely to, they returned home.
His mother, Yang Sun Nyo, pleaded with Kim to “wake up” and “open your eyes” before she was led from the room in tears. After four nonresponsive days in hospital, a judge was brought in to decide Kim’s status. Nevada District Court Judge Paul Goldman visited Kim and ruled that he was indeed legally deceased. His time of death was 6 pm, Pacific Time, on November 17, 1982.
Kim’s mother made the decision to have Kim’s vital organs donated for transplant. “His heart and kidneys and other bodily organs are strong,” said Dr. Hammargren. He did not know when any transplants would be performed. Kim’s body would be flown back to South Korea after a short memorial service by the Korean Residents Association of Las Vegas.
His body was shipped to Seoul and a funeral service was held at the Munhwa Gymnasium in front of 500 people. Kim was laid to rest with one of his trophies inside his casket. The coffin was wrapped in a South Korean flag. A movie was made about his life. The Tiger Who Does Not Cry played for 15 days in Seoul.
As the champion, Mancini would receive $250,000 for the fight against Kim. Kim’s share was $20,000. His life insurance policy paid out $60,000. There was a ‘fight’ over the insurance money among the family members. It eventually went to Young-Mi. She used it as a down payment on a house. Seven months after Duk Koo Kim had passed away, Ji Wan Kim was born.
Two months after the fight, all of North America had become embroiled in the argument against the sport of boxing. CBS had been bullish on Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. But now, CBS was out of the boxing business. In fact, promoter Bob Arum went as far as to say “The perception was that they had put on a mismatch and gotten a guy killed.”
People who had not seen the fight were characterizing boxing as a bloodsport and painting the network as setting up a fight between the champion and a hapless loser who couldn’t defend himself against a killer. They refused to see that it was a very even fight between two gallant men who refused to give even an inch to the other.
Ray Mancini had been trying to deal with what had happened in that ring in November. He wasn’t dealing with it particularly well. The guilt was overwhelming, even though he had scores of people telling him that it wasn’t his fault.
On February 6, 1983, Ray Mancini was scheduled to fight George Feeney in San Vincenzo, Italy. The fight would be shown on NBC, not CBS. As he was training in Italy for the fight, all of the questions that were being asked were about Duk Koo Kim. The Italian press were making up stories about Mancini and Kim’s family. It made his month there somewhat unbearable.
What exacerbated the pain that Mancini was feeling was the news that broke a week before the fight with Feeney. Kim’s mother, Yang Sun Nyo, had committed suicide by drinking a bottle of pesticide. There are stories that say she was completely overcome with grief over the death of her son and there are stories that posit that she was distraught about not getting any of Kim’s insurance money.
The fight with Feeney was a scheduled ten-round non-title fight, but, to Mancini, the pressure had become overly intense. The bout went the distance with Ray winning a slim, unanimous decision and after it was all over, it was like a weight had been lifted off the champion’s shoulders. Someone asked him, after the fight, how the buildup had been coming into this matchup.
“Scary,” Mancini responded, clearly relieved that a chapter in his life had gained a bit of closure. He was open to all questions and, of course, the subject of Kim’s death came up right away. “With everything that happened, I was under a lot of pressure. I’m very happy it’s over, very relieved. I need mental relaxation now. I had a lot on my mind before this fight.”
“That was definitely one of my toughest fights, and I hope nobody’s surprised. I said from the beginning that this man was tough and would bring out the best in me. He’s definitely a world-class fighter. He definitely has a champion’s heart.”
On July 1, 1983, the man who served as the referee for the Mancini-Kim fight, Richard Green, took a gun and shot himself in the chest. After the November lightweight championship bout, Green spent several weeks blaming himself for not doing enough to save Duk Koo Kim’s life. According to Steve Sneddon who was writing for the Reno Gazette-Journal in July of 1983, friends convinced him to understand that he was blameless.
Sneddon wrote about Green, “He was a fighters’ referee. Often, both men in a major fight would say that Green was their first choice as the referee.” Ed Brown was a member of the Nevada Athletic Commission. He had personal feelings about Green. “He was decisive. Boxers seemed to relate to him for some reason. They trusted him. He had the reputation of being fair.”
Roy Tennison was the Commission`s executive secretary. “He showed no impartiality one way or the other. He was as tough on a champion as he was on a challenger or a prelim fighter.” In 1980, he showed that when he officiated at the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. Ali was shouting as Green was talking to the fighters.
“He told Ali, ‘you have to be quiet. I’m the referee. I’m going to give the instructions’,” commission member Sam Macias told Sneddon.
As far as Ray Mancini was concerned, he carried the guilt of Kim’s death on his back for years. Bob Arum has stated numerous times that Ray was never the same fighter after the fight with Kim. Even Ray himself has said that the events of that day robbed him of many of the reasons that he took up boxing in the first place. In the documentary, The Good Son, he spoke about what the result of the fight did to him.
“To me, there was nothing righteous about it, but it’s an honorable sport,” said Ray in the documentary. “There’s nothing more pure than having one man facing another man, challenging (each other) physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, every which way. But that night, it took all the honour, it took all the love… it took everything away from me that night.”
But what everyone needs to remember is that the fight that November afternoon was truly a fight to the finish between two very similar boxers. These two men shared a similar mindset – Lenny Mancini’s mantra of ‘Never take a step back’. That Saturday in 1982, they both went at each other and at each other and at each other again.
As Peter McAlevey, former Newsweek writer and motion picture producer wrote in The Wrap, the outdoor arenas at Caesars Palace in those days didn’t have real locker rooms. There were tents with curtains that separated the fighters. Kim’s space and Mancini’s were separated by a curtain. As he was laying on the table trying to get some rest, Ray could hear Kim pounding the lockers on the other side of the cloth that delineated the two ‘rooms’.
As he was wailing on the metal boxes on the other side of the fabric that kept them apart, Kim was screaming something about “Kill or be killed” or “Either he dies or I die”. For Mancini, it was disconcerting, at best. Ray resolved in his mind, at that moment, that it wouldn’t be him that dies that day.
But neither man went into the fight that day thinking someone might actually perish.
After Mancini returned to America from the fight with Feeney in Italy, people would come up to him and ask him questions about how it felt to kill a man. He would be at autograph sessions and people would come and ask him the same questions. The subject would never leave him. It became unbearable for him and only exacerbated the guilt he felt.
After the fight, changes were implemented into many boxing organization’s rules stating that championship fights would now be twelve rounds, instead of fifteen. Many of the really horrible things that were happening to boxers were occurring in the last three rounds of matches. Also, the standing eight-count was invoked to further protect fighters.
Many years afterward, Ray Mancini agreed to meet with Kim’s widow and his son, Ji-Wan. It was tremendously emotional for him and for Young-Mi. Mark Kriegel wrote of the meetings of the trio for the New York Times.
‘Oblivious to the suburban serenade — chirping birds, a gentle wind rustling through the azaleas, the sound of children playing — Ray sits grim-faced and nervous on his stoop. Finally, he snaps to attention as the white Escalade comes into view.
‘The young man who emerges from the Cadillac is nattily attired: light blue sports jacket, silk pocket square, button-down shirt and khakis. At 29, Jiwan remains slender, his face still smooth and boyish. ‘Those same features had troubled him as a child. Jiwan would turn to his mother and ask, “Why is my nose flat and not as high as yours?”
‘Because you’re Duk-koo Kim’s son, she would think.
‘Now the ex-fighter and the fighter’s son exchange bows and a careful hug. “I wanted to meet you, and I’m very happy that you wanted to meet me,” says Ray, then, pausing, concedes, “I don’t know exactly what to say.”
‘“O.K.,” says Jiwan. “I introduce my mother?”
‘Young-Mi is flattered by the passing years. With her hair up, a black cardigan with a print blouse, she’s still dark-haired and glowing even after the 12-hour flight.
‘Ray bows again. “I hope this does for you what it does for me,” he says, formally. “I can finally rest easy.”
‘“You’re happy?” Jiwan asks. “You can be.”
‘Born seven months after his father’s death, Jiwan always knew he was the son of a fighter. His grandfather had shown him a couple of newspaper clippings. But that didn’t ease the boy’s envy or his pain. Jiwan’s friends all had fathers. What about him?
‘“Where is my father?” he would ask, usually before falling asleep next to his mother.
‘“He is in America,” she would say. “Making money.”
‘“When is he coming home to bring me toys and gifts?”
‘Jiwan was 9 when he overheard a friend’s mother saying that he had no father. That night, Young-Mi told him the truth, which he kept to himself. “I did not think that I should talk about it so lightly,” Jiwan explains.
‘It hurt enough to have only a mother. But there was also the shame that followed Duk-koo’s death: his grandmother’s suicide and the portrayal of Young-mi as hoarding the insurance money. Besides, soon enough, the boy would have a stepfather with a factory job who took him to amusement parks.
‘“He treated me extremely well,” Jiwan says.
‘As a teenager, Jiwan would pore over his father’s journal. “I almost thought that I had written it myself,” he says. “It reflects almost the same thoughts that I had, and it made me believe that if I were in his place, fighting that fight, I, too, would not have stepped back.”
‘That’s not to say Jiwan was without regret. The warrior’s code — that admonition never to retreat — was something he regarded with ambivalence. Truth was, he wished his father had been less valorous.
‘“I wish he stepped back,” Jiwan says. “I know how difficult it was for my mother.”
‘When he was 24, a junior in college and already finished with his compulsory military service, Jiwan was given a DVD of his father’s fight with Mancini. He had no intention of watching it. He’d seen enough fragments of the fight (though not the final, fatal ones) on YouTube. Watching his father die wasn’t his idea of closure.
‘Finally, in July 2010, Jiwan and Young-mi consented to be interviewed for Mancini’s biography. It was difficult to reconcile the son of a dirt-poor fighter with the man Jiwan had become: studious, bespectacled, a second-year dental student in a polo shirt. Toward the end of the second session, Jiwan expressed interest in meeting Ray. “If he still happens to feel guilty about the fight of the past, if it still upsets him and makes him feel insecure, he no longer has to think that way,” Jiwan said. “To his sons and daughter, I would say ... I am sorry that you had to suffer. Your father is a good man and you do not need to feel pain because of the hurtful things that people say.”
‘The following June, mother and son arrived in Los Angeles with a camera crew filming a documentary based on the biography.
‘The visit begins with Mancini showing the photographs on his mantel: Ray with his kids, Ray with Ronald Reagan, Ray with Joe DiMaggio, and of course, the picture of his father — eye swollen shut, dried blood on his lips — after defeating Billy Marquart in 1941.
‘“To me,” Ray explains, “he’s beautiful.”
‘“Looks like you,” Jiwan says.
‘“After the fight with your father, yes.”
‘Now Young-Mi produces a sheaf of snapshots from her purse, moving back in time: Jiwan in his army uniform, smiling in his school blazer, a boy and his mother at a picnic, Jiwan as a plump baby, then the engagement ceremony that preceded his birth. The beaming groom and his resplendent bride sit before a great banquet table. Young-mi wears a spray of flowers in her hair, her mother-in-law, in a white silk robe, at her side.
‘“Your father’s a good dresser,” Ray says.
‘“How do you feel?” Jiwan asks, haltingly.
‘Ray looks him up and down, this young man with the silk pocket square. His own boys are in shorts and T-shirts. “You did well for yourself,” he says.
‘The Mancini children join them for dinner. Nina is considering a career in restaurant management. The coming school year will see Leonardo enroll at Santa Barbara Community College and Ray-Ray make varsity basketball as a high school sophomore. They dine al fresco, the table set with bottles of Southpaw.
‘“That’s my wine,” Ray says proudly, recommending the linguine mare e monti with baby lobster.
‘“I love pasta,” Jiwan says.
‘Soon, Ray raises his glass. “I felt guilty about what happened for a long time,” he says. “I felt guilty because of your mother. I felt guilty that you never met your father.”
‘Young-Mi dabs at her tears, but the confession continues even after the food arrives. “I didn’t know they carried him out on a stretcher,” Ray says. “It was a great fight, but after that there was nothing good about it. ... I had no love for it anymore. I was already looking for a way out.”
‘“It was better,” Jiwan says. “For your health.”
‘Jiwan has come with a confession of his own: before arriving in Los Angeles, he had finally watched the DVD. “Now I can tell you that when I saw the fight the first time I felt some hatred to you.”
‘But that, too, has passed.
‘“I think it was not your fault,” he says. “You deserve. Maybe now your family will be more happy.”
‘Next year, that long-awaited time for gifts, has finally arrived. And it’s the children who bear them.
‘Ray lifts his glass a final time.
‘“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for coming to America.”’
When Ray was married and had children of his own, the fight was never brought up. His former wife Carmen told a story to writer Mark Kriegel about the day that their daughter Nina came home with questions that had never been discussed in their home before.
“We really didn’t talk much about it,” said Carmen. “It was something that was there. We knew it, and we knew we’d have to find a way to explain it to the kids.”
Nina was at a third-grade basketball practice when a boy told her that her father had killed a man.
“That’s not true,” Nina said. “You should watch your mouth.”
Carmen and Ray hadn’t planned on explaining it this soon. Nina was 8 that day, when she came home crying. Ray calmed her down, and told her to have a seat on the couch. Then, not knowing what else to do, he put a tape of the Kim fight into the VCR.
She was brave to watch as she did, without tears.
“You see?” Carmen said. “It was an accident.”
“You didn’t mean to do that, Popi,” Nina said. “It was just something that happened.”
It was just something that happened. Forty years ago now. It’s still sad.
* * *
You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa. Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.