Ray Mancini carried hopes and ghosts into the boxing ring. He was the son of a great contender, Lenny Mancini, who was wounded in World War II before he ever got a chance at a championship. Mancini inherited his father's ring nickname — "Boom Boom" — and his championship dreams. In 1980, Mancini succeeded in winning the lightweight championship of the world, earning him widespread adoration.
And then, in November 1982, Mancini met a South Korean boxer named Duk Koo Kim in just his second title defense. Duk Koo Kim went down in the 14th round — and he never got up. He died four days later.
Boom Boom Mancini kept his title. But Mancini, once the clean-living good son who won the title his father couldn't, saw his image changed. "After that fight, I became the poster boy for everything that was wrong with boxing," Mancini told NPR.
Mark Kriegel, who has written acclaimed biographies of Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, has written a new book, The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. Kriegel talks with NPR's Scott Simon about how Mancini's pursuit of family honor was marred by tragedy.
On the pressure Mancini felt to succeed as a boxer
"Well, from a young age, he aspired to rescue the reputation and, in effect, redeem his father. And as Ray grows up, as a boy, he goes into the ... laundry room in the basement, and excavates all the old clippings of his father — his father's fights — and as a kid he says, 'Hey dad, I'm going to win the title for you.' ...
"I think it was a will to rescue a wounded father, to correct the past. It was his way of saving the family honor. And what came of it was an enormously successful career — for a time, he was the hottest thing out there."
On what made Mancini a great fighter
"Ray made himself a great fighter based on desire. Ray wanted it more. He believed in sacrifice. He was, in literal terms, willing to bleed more than the next guy. He was willing to take two punches to give one, and, like his father, he always came forward, and he ... regarded that as a mark of virtue in a fighter."
On the night of the November 1982 match between Mancini and Duk Koo Kim
"Caesars Palace had just unveiled a new outdoor ring, and you have to remember that boxing was still a major American sport. There was a great deal of celebrity interest. It's a big Saturday afternoon fight on CBS. It's the middle of an NFL football strike. Bill Cosby's there, and Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo are front and center. And in the days before the fight, Sinatra had actually sought an audience with Ray, which Ray was astounded at ...
"[Frank Sinatra] loved Ray Mancini. And he says, 'Listen. You're doing us all proud, kid.' Just before the fight, Sugar Ray Leonard had announced his retirement, and what that left was Ray Mancini as arguably the most marketable athlete in America ...
"It was the 14th round. It was supposed to be an easy fight; it was supposed to be something of an exhibition. And from the beginning, you could see it was much more arduous for both fighters. And they're both coming forward. Neither is going to concede any step. And finally, in the 14th, Ray comes out, hits him with a left hook, Kim collapses, falls backward against the ropes, the ring becomes a frenzy. And Ray doesn't even know that Kim is ... badly hurt — he can't see."
On who was responsible for Kim's death
"Each of the protagonists and each of the supporting characters all acquit themselves admirably. And you're still left with a tragedy."
On the effect of Kim's death on Mancini, who told NPR, "It haunted me, was why [Kim] and not me? He was giving as good as he was getting. And who's to say it wouldn't be me next time?"
"The idea of the sport had been holy to Ray, and now that Kim's death had incited a national debate about boxing and a backlash against Mancini himself, he felt it became corrupted. There ... was nothing joyous in it anymore — all the righteous reasons for which he had fought were now gone. ...
"Fighters can't believe in ghosts. If he had had less imagination, less sensitivity, he probably would have survived this as a fighter ... He became the most unlikely symbol for what was corrupt and objectionable and brutal about boxing."
On the meeting Kriegel helped bring about between Mancini and Kim's son, Chi Wan, in an attempt at reconciliation
"Chi Wan and Young Mee, his mother, come to Ray's house. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an awkward meeting and it didn't begin with a certain excessive formality and stiffness. And where I think they really started to break the ice was when Ray picks up the photograph of his father after the Billy Marquart fight from 1941 where his father was, in fact, battered. And I think that everybody in that room found something haunting and familiar in that image that they all identified with, and it started to ease up from there."