The Boxer Who Took A Life in the Ring

Ray Mancini was a champion, cultural icon, and a beacon of hope for his downtrodden town, but he struggled to escape the ghosts of his past.

Thirty-six years ago, South Korean boxer Kim Duk-Koo entered a Las Vegas ring for a world championship bout that would end with his death, trigger at least one suicide and change the sport forever.

For a generation of South Koreans, millions of whom watched live on television, the fight between Kim and world lightweight champion, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, remains a powerful memory.its tragic aftermath and the impact it had on the lives and families of its two protagonists.

For Kim, then 23 and fighting for the first time in the United States, the glitz of Caesar’s Palace with its celebrity audience including the likes of Frank Sinatra, was a different universe from his impoverished upbringing in Korea.

“I remember when we landed in Las Vegas for the fight,” his trainer, Kim Yoon-Gu,, recalled.“The city was all lit up at night. It was like landing on a garden of flowers in the desert. We’d never seen anything like it,” he told Agence France-Presse at the boxing gym he runs in Seoul.

Ray Mancini was the lightweight champion of the world, but he was also a man haunted by ghosts, ghosts that lingered and informed his life even before he stepped into the ring. First was the ghost of his father’s own boxing career. His father, Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini, was the number one contender for the lightweight crown before he was inducted into the Army. Yet in 1944, Lenny was wounded in action as a shell broke his shoulder and tore up his arm and left leg. He spent the next eight months in hospitals in England, Scotland, and France. Upon returning to America in 1945, he tried to resume his fighting career, and while he was able to win nine of his first eleven fights after being discharged, his weight had ballooned and he was no longer the same.

His second son, Ray, decided to fight himself and win the title his father never had the chance to due to his injuries. But another ghost soon developed after his older brother was shot and killed in February 1981.

Just over a year later, on May 8, 1982, Mancini fulfilled his dream and became lightweight champion of the world by defeating Arturo Frias, with the referee stopping the fight in the first round. He had won the title his father never had. Mancini became a national sensation. Frank Sinatra wanted to meet him, Sylvester Stallone wanted to make a TV movie about his life, and he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

However, Mancini is less known for his triumphs in the ring than for the tragedy that befell his opponent, Duk Koo Kim, during their 1982 fight. After fourteen rounds of furious fighting, which Mancini won by TKO, Kim suffered a subdural hematoma, falling into a coma he would never come out of. Four days later, Kim was dead. The tragedy did not end there as Kim’s mother committed suicide just months after the fight, as did the bout’s referee.

The fight itself was was a particularly brutal one. For 13 rounds, the two men went toe-to-toe in a slugging match that left both with badly swollen faces and struggling to see through bruised, puffed-up eyes. At the end of the 13th, Kim Yoon-Gu tried to lift his fighter, telling him Mancini was exhausted and exhorting him to put in one last effort to finish him off. “He clenched his teeth, nodded and said ‘Yes, I’ll do that’. And that was it. That was the last thing he ever said,” Kim said.

At the beginning of the 14th, Mancini connected with a straight right that snapped Kim’s head back and sent him crashing to the canvas. The Korean managed to haul himself up by the ropes to beat the count, but referee Richard Green stepped in to stop the fight. Kim Yoon-Gu had been tending to his corner and missed the actual knockout blow, but when he saw Kim on the ground, he knew at once that the fight was over.

“He was obviously hurt, but at that time we had no idea it was so serious,” he said. Back in his corner, Kim collapsed and was taken from the ring on a stretcher to hospital where he was diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain and underwent emergency surgery. He lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered and four days later he died.

On the flight back to South Korea, a traumatised Kim Yoon-Gu locked himself in the toilet and “cried and cried until we landed.The consequences of the Kim-Mancini bout were far-reaching and tragic in their own right. Four months after her son’s death, Kim’s distraught mother killed herself by drinking a bottle of pesticide.

Four months after that, referee Richard Green also took his own life, although there was no indication that his suicide was linked to the outcome of the fight for which he was never held in any way responsible. Mancini, a devout Catholic, endured a prolonged period of depression and, although he fought again, was never the same boxer.

“I thought about quitting the sport entirely. In the end, I decided to stick with it, but it was a very, very difficult time,” Mancini said at his gym where photos and posters of Kim Duk-Koo adorn the walls.

Mancini’s career and reputation both took a massive hit after Kim’s death. No longer was he the hard working man who managed to make the most of his fighting talents. Instead, he was tainted by Kim’s death in the eyes of the public, who saw him no longer as champion of the world, but as the man who killed Duk Koo Kim. He fought four more successful title defenses, but there was a hesitancy in his fighting that had not been there before, a lack of surety that caught up with him on June 1, 1984 when he lost his title to Livingstone Bramble.

Decades later, on June 23, 2011, Mancini had guests at his Los Angeles home for dinner. He sat on his stoop and welcomed Young Mee and Jiwan — Duk Koo Kim’s fiancee and son. Together, with Ed O’Neill of Married With Children fame, and Mancini’s children, they had dinner together. Ray thanks them for coming to America and a ghost that had haunted him for so long is finally put to rest in the midst of she who loved him most and the son who never had the chance to meet him.

The Kim-Mancini bout proved to be a watershed in boxing, triggering a series of major changes to the sport. Championship bouts were reduced from 15 to 12 rounds, the standing eight-count was introduced and the medical tests required of boxers before a fight were overhauled.