Mancini and Kim forever linked
November 12, 2007
Of the thousands of times Ray Mancini pulled on a pair of boxing gloves and stepped inside a ring, the thought had never crossed his mind.
But as the pain increased during his fight with Duk Koo Kim in an outdoor stadium behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Nov. 13, 1982, Mancini considered throwing in the towel. Lightweight title be damned.
His head throbbed. His hands ached. He couldn't breathe without feeling like he was being stabbed.
As he considered his options, surrendering began to seem wise.
Had he quit, 25 years of pain would have been washed away in an instant.
Mancini takes a deep breath and sighs.
"My body, physically, wanted to quit, but mentally, I wouldn't allow it," he said. "That's not who I was. Ray Mancini was not a quitter."
Sadly, neither was Duk Koo Kim.
JUST ANOTHER PAYDAY
The 21-year-old son of a World War II veteran and the 23-year-old child of South Korean rice and ginseng farmers battled fiercely for the WBA lightweight championship on that mild Saturday before a national network television audience.
Because there had been a major fight between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello in Miami the previous night, few of the regulars on the boxing circuit attended the Mancini-Kim bout, despite the fact that Mancini was one of the game's rising attractions.
He was personable and good-looking and had a style that frequently left his opponent's face, as well as his own, bruised and swollen.
"There got to be a point around that time when people realized that if you were a boxing fan, you had to see the kid fight," said Mancini's promoter, Bob Arum.
"Each fight seemed to top the next. It didn't matter who he was matched against. It was Mancini they were coming to see. He was the show."
Mancini was being groomed for a fight against Pryor, who on that Friday night at the Orange Bowl stopped Arguello in the 14th round of a bout that the late boxing writer Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated called, "one of the fiercest title fights in recent memory."
Nothing of the kind was expected for the Mancini-Kim fight. It was just another payday for Mancini and an opportunity for CBS to develop a relationship with an emerging superstar. Little was known of Kim, who brought a 17-1-1 record but had never fought outside of Asia and had no opponents of note on his record.
Royce Feour, the longtime boxing writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was one of the few reporters at ringside for the Mancini-Kim bout.
"The talk around Caesars Palace the week of the fight was that, indeed, Kim was not a qualified opponent," Feour said.
Curious to learn more about the mysterious South Korean, Feour arranged to meet Kim in Kim's suite at Caesars a few days before the fight.
The introverted Kim offered little of himself, but Feour noticed a lamp shade on which Kim had handwritten something in Korean. Feour asked the interpreter what it said.
The answer: "Kill or be killed."
NO STEPPING STONE
Though Kim was widely viewed as a stepping stone, Mancini believed otherwise. He had pored over tapes of the South Korean and knew he would be a serious threat to his title.
"People in America are not sophisticated about boxing from the sense that they just don't have an awareness of anything that goes on outside this country," said Mancini, at 46 an independent film producer and the owner of a cigar manufacturing company.
The scheduled 15-round bout drew a number of A-list celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby. They saw an unexpectedly competitive and highly grueling bout. Mancini tore at Kim at the opening bell, only to be met by fierce resistance.
"Nobody really knew much about Kim, but it wasn't too long into the fight before we were looking at each other and saying, 'Hey, we have ourselves a fight here,' " said Sig Rogich, who was a member of the Nevada Athletic Commission before eventually becoming an advisor to President George H. W. Bush.
"This wasn't one of those fights where you automatically expected the champion to win. Each round was incredibly hard-fought."
Mancini wasn't known as a devastating puncher; but he wore down his opponents with the volume of punches he threw and his sheer will to win. Mancini would take three to give one if he had to, and he fought with a religious fervor.
"I was competitive like that naturally, but I was raised that you just never quit and would come and come and come and give every last ounce you had inside of you," Mancini said.
As he looked across the ring, he saw himself in the man he was battering. Kim took a series of flush, hard punches and not only didn't flinch, but fired back almost immediately.
It wasn't long before Mancini's left eye was swelling grotesquely.
"I was very impressed at Kim's ability to absorb punishment and to dish out a lot of his own," said Jim Hunter, who covered the fight for Reuters.
The fight was uncomfortably tight for Mancini fans just past the midpoint, and for the first time in his career, Mancini was having doubts. Aching and uncertain, he considered asking his corner to stop the bout.
"The only thing that saved me was the way I trained," Mancini said. "I trained more physically than most fighters. I had an old-school trainer, Murphy Griffith, and we used to do a lot of things that fighters years ago would do. I'd go neck deep in water and shadow box four-minute rounds. I'd push a boulder up a hill. I'd do push-ups with a 60-pound sack of sand on my back.
"The thought of quitting entered my mind, but I thought about the way I had worked. I worked like a dog to get ready for my fights and I knew if I could dig down, I'd find a way to keep going."
The frenetic pace was having a subtle effect on Kim, too. He was attacking in spite of Mancini's onslaught, but his rallies were fewer and the punches he took were cleaner.
"Boom Boom never changed his strategy," said Marc Ratner, who attended the fight as a fan, but went on to become the most famous boxing administrator in the world when he ran the Nevada Athletic Commission for 13 years. "He was the stronger of the two and eventually, he began to wear Kim down."
Mancini controlled the 10th through 12th rounds of the 15-round bout and pounded his gloves together with glee as he walked back to his corner after the 12th.
He was beginning to think positively.
"One of the things that I think has really hurt boxing was going from 15 rounds to 12 for championship fights," Mancini said. "I lived for those championship rounds. "I always felt they were my rounds. I believed nobody had trained the way I had trained and that was going to pay off in those final three rounds."
Mancini began to drop straight rights off Kim's head, which resonated with a thud. Kim's counters were less frequent and less powerful, though he would land a hard left often enough that he couldn't be discounted, something recognized by Tim Ryan, who was doing the blow-by-blow for CBS Sports.
"Certainly, the underrated Kim is giving Mancini all he can handle," Ryan told his viewers in the 12th round.
THE FINAL MOMENTS
As the 13th opened – the first of Mancini's championship rounds – he landed a 35- or 40-punch combination, most of which were to Kim's head.
Referee Richard Green, one of Nevada's most experienced judges, was keeping a close eye on Kim, but never seemed to be on the verge of halting the fight.
And Ratner, who helped institute numerous safety measures during his term with the Nevada commission, never felt Green made a mistake by letting the fight continue.
"Ray was getting the better of most of the exchanges, but Kim was fighting back and he was defending himself and competing," Ratner said. TV analyst Gil Clancy, a highly regarded trainer, told CBS viewers that Kim was "still dangerous with that straight left hand." When the bell sounded to start the 14th, Mancini popped off his stool and sprinted toward Kim, who wearily pulled himself up.
Seconds into the round, he whistled a straight right that landed. Kim managed to avoid the follow-up left, but he couldn't avoid the right hand behind that.
The right landed flush on Kim's head, sending him hurtling backward. His head banged off the canvas as he fell on his back.
"Finally," Mancini thought.
Green ushered Mancini to a neutral corner. When he turned toward Kim to pick up the count, Kim was on all fours, attempting to pull himself up. He got about three-quarters of the way before tumbling back into the ropes.
Green quickly waved off the fight as jubilant Mancini fans stormed the ring.
What Mancini didn't realize as he raised his arms above his head in exultation was that the darkest days of his life were about to commence.
"I don't think the average fan understands how much the fighters have to commit emotionally to a fight like that," Mancini said. "When it's over and you win, there is this overwhelming sense of relief. I was really badly beaten up, and I felt like I'd gone to hell and back, but I did what I came to do, which was to keep my title."
Mancini walked to Kim's corner several times after the fight ended in a bid to congratulate his opponent on his gallant effort. But Kim was beginning a bigger fight, one he had little chance to win.
TURN FOR THE WORSE
A blood clot had formed on Kim's brain during the fight. Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, who performed 2½ hours of surgery on Kim that night at Desert Springs Hospital, speculated that it was caused by one or two powerful punches.
The surgery could not effectively stem the pressure on Kim's brain, and a traumatized Arum suggested in the emergency room that the sport be suspended until a panel could examine ways to make it safer.
As a man's life and a sport's future hung in the balance, Mancini was facing problems of his own. Sensitive even in the best of times, he was about to face a boxer's biggest nightmare: Kim was about die.
Four days later, on Nov. 17, 1982, a Nevada judge declared Kim legally dead and doctors removed him from life support.
"He died once, and I felt I was dying every day," Mancini said, softly. "When you're a fighter, you develop a respect for your opponent and I had all the respect in the world for this guy. I just wanted to win the fight. I never wanted to see him hurt. It was devastating."
There had been deaths in boxing before, but none resonated with the public the way Kim's had. The bout featured a glamorous champion in a famous venue live on national television.
Even those who never paid much attention to boxing knew of Boom Boom Mancini and Duk Koo Kim.
Smiling strangers would approach Mancini and ask, "What does it feel like to actually kill someone?"
Mancini wanted to vomit. His ire grew worse when his children were tormented at school. His daughter, Carmenina, was in second grade when a classmate approached her and said, "Your father is a murderer."
Mancini was distraught. He would lie in bed at night and see Kim's face, replaying the scene over and over in his mind.
He knew it was an accident, but it wasn't one he would easily forget.
Mancini returned to the place he had long sought refuge, winning a 10-round decision over journeyman George Feeney in Italy just three months later, but it wasn't the same.
Mancini, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., went 4-4 after the fateful fight, bouncing in and out of retirement before ending his career for good in 1992, after a loss to Greg Haugen, with a 29-5 record.
"He was never the same fighter," Arum said. "He just didn't have the thing that made him who he was. He was never as aggressive. He never threw the punches with the reckless abandon that he used to. He was shaken to his core."
It was a tragic fight in so many ways. Four months later, Kim's mother committed suicide. Green, the referee, committed suicide, too.
Ray Mancini lived on, haunted forever by the memory of that brilliant afternoon in the Las Vegas sun and a fight gone horribly wrong.
"The rest of my life, I'm not just Ray Mancini, I'm Ray Mancini, the guy who killed Duk Koo Kim," he said. "You never escape that. You wonder what it would have been like for the both of us if I had quit or if he had quit and this hadn't happened.
"I've done a lot of praying, a lot of thinking. I'm never really going to know why it happened. No one will. He was a tough kid. Too tough, really. Too tough."
I REMEMBER WATCHING THE FIGHT AND I REMEMBER THINKING THAT IT DID NOT LOOK THAT BAD AT FIRST. I also remembered that his finance and him were married after he died. Her photos looked so distraught. A fight where everyone involved lost.