SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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. The son inherited his father's ring nickname, "Boom Boom," and his championship hopes. "Boom Boom" Mancini was also the hope of Youngstown, Ohio, a rust belt city that seemed down for the count and cheered when their favorite son won the lightweight championship of the world in 1980. And then, in November 1982, Ray 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 never got up. He died four days later. "Boom Boom" Mancini kept his title, but as he told us, the man who was considered a kind of poster boy for the sport - the clean living good son who won the title his father couldn't - saw his image changed.
BOOM BOOM MANCINI: After that fight, I became the poster child for everything that was wrong with boxing.
SIMON: 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." And Mark Kriegel joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARK KRIEGEL: Thank you, Scott. It's pleasure to be here.
SIMON: Help us understand the hopes and ghosts that Ray Mancini had on his shoulders.
KRIEGEL: Well, from a young age, he aspired to rescue the reputation and in fact 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.
SIMON: So, that's what put him in the ring?
KRIEGEL: Yeah. 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.
SIMON: And what made him a great fighter?
KRIEGEL: 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.
SIMON: Mr. Kriegel, let me get you to bring us back to that November night 30 years ago now - Duk Koo Kim and Ray Mancini in the ring.
KRIEGEL: Caesar's 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 in the middle of an NFL football strike. Bill Cosby's there. And Frank Sinatra and Julie 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.
SIMON: Frank Sinatra loved Ray Mancini.
KRIEGEL: 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.
SIMON: Was it the 14th round?
KRIEGEL: 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.
SIMON: We have to ask now, did anyone do anything wrong? Did Ray Mancini take advantage of a crumpled up opponent? Did Duk Koo Kim even, God forbid, do something wrong? Did the referee make a mistake?
KRIEGEL: No. Each of the protagonists and each of the supporting characters all acquit themselves admirably. And you're still left with a tragedy.
SIMON: Duk Koo Kim died four days later. What happened to Ray Mancini in the ring and inside his heart and mind?
KRIEGEL: 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.
SIMON: When we spoke with Ray Mancini, I wonder, did it make him more reluctant to hit an opponent? He said no. He said, you know, fighting's reflexive - you get hit, you want to strike back. But he said it did have this effect on him:
MANCINI: What haunted me was why him and not me? He was giving as good as he was getting. And who's the say it wouldn't be me next time?
SIMON: Which is probably not a healthy mentality to bring into the ring.
KRIEGEL: No. Fighters can't believe in ghosts. If he had had less imagination, less sensitivity, he probably would have survived this as a fighter.
SIMON: Ray Mancini also told us this about the direct and practical effect it had on his career:
MANCINI: We had endorsement offers before the Kim fight coming from an apparel company, a soft drink company and a cereal company. And certainly after that fight I was avoided like the plague.
KRIEGEL: He did. He became the most unlikely symbol for what was corrupt and objectionable and brutal about boxing.
SIMON: And, of course, as Ray Mancini told us, he admired Duk Koo Kim.
MANCINI: During that period of time, we were in that ring I knew him better than his mother, his fiancee, his best friend because I knew what he had on the inside, because I knew the courage and the heart that he was showing.
SIMON: You helped bring about a meeting between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim's son.
KRIEGEL: Yes, yes. 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.
SIMON: Mark Kriegel. His new book is "The Good Son: The Life of Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini." I also spoke with Ray Mancini. Thanks so much.
KRIEGEL: Thank you.
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