Commentary

Twenty-five years is a long time to carry a memory

Ray Mancini's tragic bout with Duk Koo Kim changed the lives of the fighters, their families and the sport of boxing itself forever.

Originally Published: November 13, 2007
By Ron Borges | Special to ESPN.com

Ray Mancini and Deuk Koo KimScott HenryThe repercussions of Ray Mancini's fight with Duk Koo Kim were far worse than he could have imagined.
Bob Arum wouldn't take the word of his longtime matchmaker, Bruce Trampler, when the subject of Duk Koo Kim and Ray Mancini first came up.

It's not that he didn't trust him; it's just that the pain was still too deep, even 25 years later, to take a chance.

Some scars never fade. The death of Kim was like that, a sad moment that happened in the past but which never disappeared. Twenty-five years is a long time to carry a memory, especially a leaden one, but the man who promoted Kim's last fight still needed to hear from Mancini himself before he'd release the film of that fight for use in a documentary on the former lightweight champion that will air Tuesday night.

After all, who wanted to relive that again?

If you were at ringside that hot afternoon behind Caesars Palace, the sun beating down and Mancini beating up a brave Korean fighter who had wrongly been named the No. 1 contender in the world for the lightweight title Mancini held, did you need to see the replay? When sadness like that has washed up against you, you don't need a video to remind you how it felt.

Arum, who had denied the film's release for all those years, told Trampler that if Mancini wanted to ask for the film's release, he needed to hear it from Mancini himself.

"I told Ray after that fight I would never, ever release the film and I intended to follow that," Arum said last week. "Then Ray asked me to … I did, but I don't think it's something I really relish seeing again."

What happened on the sunny afternoon of Nov. 13, 1982, would change the lives of both fighters and the future of boxing. By the time it was over, Kim lay in a coma from which he would never awaken, dying five days later at the Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas.

Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was never Boom Boom again. Maybe one small boom but seldom boom boom and never, ever Boom Boom. Never the same package of aggressiveness he'd been. Those days were over.

Boxing was never the same either, with the WBC quickly deciding 15-round fights were too dangerous and cutting the championship limit to 12. Several years later the WBA and IBF would follow suit and by the time the WBO was formed in 1988, 12 rounds were the norm. Gone were what had been considered for so long "the championship distance" -- Rounds 13, 14 and 15. They had been judged the fatal rounds for Kim and the evidence had been presented on national television.

[+] EnlargeMancini-Kim
Scott HenryDuk Koo Kim was on a 12-fight winning streak when he met Ray Mancini, but many feel the Korean fighter wasn't fit to challenge the champion.
The peripheral damage rippled even wider, like the circles that spread from a pebble dropped into a pond. The referee, Richard Greene, would commit suicide several months later for reasons that remain unclear. Kim's mother would do the same four months after her son's death, swallowing a bottle of pesticide for reasons that were so painfully clear it made many people wonder if boxing was a sport or just an act of barbarism one could no longer justify in civilized society.

Kim was a brave boy but ill-suited for the No. 1 ranking he'd been given by the WBA. And while his record was 17-1-1, he had but one knockout and had never been tested on a big stage nor faced the kind of force Mancini was at the time.

The champion had already spent a bruising night confronting Alexis Arguello in a title fight young Mancini lost, but not without making clear his fitness for such a challenge. Six months later he would get a second chance and not falter. Despite being cut early, Mancini beat down Arturo Frias to win the title and then did worse to his first challenger, Ernesto Espana, battering him for six rounds. His superiority over the untested Kim was clear and his advantage only increased when Kim had to labor mightily to get his weight down to the 135-pound limit in the final days leading up to their showdown.

Kim made weight, but not without draining himself. Yet round after brutal round his reaction to being rocked and hammered by Mancini was to do what real fighters do. He fought back. He fought back bravely despite obviously hopeless circumstances, fought back enough that Greene could never justify leaping between them to end Mancini's bombing raids even in the 13th round, when Mancini rocked Kim repeatedly with 40 unanswered shots, only for the 23-year-old Korean to somehow lash back at close quarters, tearing at Mancini with the ferocity of a blind fanatic.

Late in the fight former world champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who was working the broadcast with Tim Ryan for CBS, said, "I really thought fatigue set in, then all of a sudden he makes me change my mind."

Kim's bravery was never in doubt. The life was literally running out of him but he refused to give in until early in the 14th round when his depleted body could sustain no more punishment. Mancini hit him with a body shot and then a right hand flush on the bridge of the nose. Now woozy, Kim tottered backward and was hit by a second combination, the latter a straight right hand that drove him onto his back. Greene finally had the excuse he needed and stopped the fight with Kim struggling to get up.

He collapsed in his corner not long after the fight had been stopped and was lifted from the ring on a stretcher. He then slipped into a coma.

Later it was reported that taped to the mirror in his room at Caesars were the prophetic words: "Kill or be killed." In the end, that was Duk Koo Kim's sad fate.

Almost immediately after Kim's collapse it became obvious what would follow and 21-year-old Ray Mancini, Boom Boom no longer, prayed and wondered about it all before finally saying publicly, "I'm very saddened, very saddened. Very sorry too that it had to happen. When you think about it, you know these things happen in our profession, but it hurts me bad to know I was part of it …

"I don't blame myself but I don't alienate myself from it either. I don't know. Being a Christian I rely on my faith in God that all things happen for a reason. I'll keep praying … keep praying that hopefully I'll get some answers to some questions that have been popping into my mind the last day or so. I don't really know what to think right now.

"It's hard for me. I'm kind of numb by everything. I pray for him. Right now I'm not thinking about any fights. I'm not thinking, 'What's next?' I really have to see what happens to Kim … though I know the inevitable. It could have easily been me. It was such a rugged fight. What's to say it couldn't be me next time?"

I'm not thinking, 'What's next?' I have to see what happens to Kim … though I know the inevitable. It could have easily been me … What's to say it couldn't be me next time?

-- Ray Mancini

At Mancini's side was his priest, Rev. Tim O'Neill, who had traveled with him from Youngstown, Ohio. The two spent long hours discussing what had happened. Answers were not easy to find but eventually acceptance came. Mancini went on to continue his career, winning several more times, including a savage third-round stoppage of a well-past-his-prime Bobby Chacon.

Yet within two years he would lose his championship to unheralded Livingston Bramble and never again fight with the same unfettered aggressiveness he showed in the Kim fight.

Mancini would always deny that the Kim tragedy and his own retirement were related and in fact made two unsuccessful comebacks from his 1985 retirement to try to prove that point. But Arum saw the candle flicker and die out in Mancini up close that afternoon in Las Vegas.

"He was never the same," said Arum, who promoted all of Mancini's major fights. "He didn't have the same zip, the same enthusiasm. He didn't have the same zest for fighting."

Mancini was not the only person who asked hard questions about what the next step should be. Arum called for boxing to be suspended for several months while a blue ribbon committee studied how to make an inherently dangerous activity safer.

The WBC immediately cut the length of world title fights from the traditional 15 rounds to 12, claiming a study had revealed most fighters were more severely injured during those final three rounds. It was a stance which, if taken sooner, would have altered the history of the sport, for many great victories were decided in those "championship rounds." Had Leonard's first fight with Thomas Hearns been a 12-round battle, it is Hearns' hand that would have been raised. Had Rocky Marciano's first fight with Jersey Joe Walcott been a 12-round affair rather than 15, he would not have retired as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in boxing history.

The list of how the sport's history would have been changed rolls on and on, but the WBC's shift was followed five years later by the other major sanctioning bodies.

At the time of her son's death, Yang Sun Nyo flew to Las Vegas and asked that his organs be used in transplants, saying, "My true reason for the transplants is that my son can live forever and have everlasting life in this world."

His kidneys would later be transplanted, but, according to hospital officials, a patient who originally had agreed to have Kim's heart transplanted in him decided that "they could not live with all of the publicity." That heart was never donated.

Some years later, a pop musician with an existentialist bent named Warren Zevon would write a song called "Boom Boom Mancini." Among the lyrics are these lines:
When they asked him who was responsible
For the death of Duk Koo Kim
He said, "Someone should have stopped the fight," and told me it was him.
They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back
Hurry home early -- hurry on home
Boom Boom Mancini's fighting Bobby Chacon.

In fact, Mancini had never said the fight should have been stopped, agreeing with most ringside observers that Kim's refusal to retreat made that impossible until he was finally knocked to the floor.

Duk Koo Kim
Bettmann/CorbisFive days after he collapsed, Kim died from his injuries. The prophetic note he left in his hotel room before the fight had come true.
Ironically, both would become odd stars of pop culture. A movie and a 14-minute song (one for each round) were made about Kim's life in Korea while Mancini went on to a minor acting career in Hollywood.

When he entered the ring behind Caesars that day in the fading desert sunlight, Mancini was already the toast of Hollywood, a kid with good looks, a big smile and a tear-jerking story about how he'd lived out his father's broken dream of success in the ring and breathed life into a dying industrial town in the middle of America's rust belt.

By the time he left the ring, he was a sad-eyed champion who had learned how deeply pain can hurt. Within two years he would quit boxing: "I'd lost the passion and love for it. I still wanted to fight but I didn't want to pay my dues. I didn't want to train."

He left believing he would still be a Hollywood celebrity, but soon learned how right his father, Lenny, who had lost his own boxing career when he was injured during World War II, had been when he used to tell his son, "One day the headlines, next day the breadlines."

It wasn't quite so dramatic a fall from Boom Boom back to just plain Ray, but on the eve of a 1989 comeback in Reno, Nev., against Hector "Macho" Camacho, a fight that would end badly for Mancini, he said, "I was in the light for a while but the light moved. I want to be in the light again. Producers and agents told me that if I fought, I could be hot again.

"I used to rebel against that but Hollywood is all about who's hot and who's not. I don't like it. I don't understand that business. I'm no naive kid but here's a guy like Larry Holmes, champion for years, or a comedian like Red Buttons, one of the greatest ever, and they can't get arrested. Then there's William Perry a … a … a novelty item, getting millions of dollars in offers. Two years later he's canned.

"A year ago I wanted to go to a fight. I paid for my tickets and sat 15 rows back. After people started talking about this fight [against Camacho] last year I got a call from Caesars. They were interested in bidding for it. They said they had tickets for me for the Leonard-Lalonde fight. Comps. With a room.

"One of my friends said, 'I guess you've arrived again.' I don't like it but that's the way this world is. No matter what happens, I didn't make a mistake [coming back seven years after the Kim tragedy]. I won't have to live with any what-ifs. Putting yourself on the line is half the victory."

For Duk Koo Kim, it was all the victory he ever got.

Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.

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