Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s life was pure Hollywood. An Italian kid from a Youngstown, Ohio, his father Lenny Mancini, the original “Boom Boom,” had been a top-ranked contender before he was injured in World War II, ending his shot at being a champion. Ray started boxing to fulfill his father’s dream. He was not a graceful fighter, but he was relentless, driven to succeed where Lenny was denied. On May 8, 1982, Ray beat Arturo Frias to become the lightweight champion of the world.
Mancini was a real life Italian Stallion. Sylvester Stallone wanted to make a TV movie of Mancini’s life with Ray playing himself. And with Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing’s most marketable figure in the post-Ali years, recently retired, sponsors lined up to anoint Mancini as boxing’s next golden boy.
Then came Mancini’s Nov. 13, 1982, fight against Duk Koo Kim, a relatively unknown challenger from Korea. The fight was broadcast live on CBS from Las Vegas and went 14 rounds. Kim, as determined a fighter as Mancini, suffered severe brain injuries during the bout. Four days later, he died. Mancini instantly went from sensation to pariah. The endorsements vanished, and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini would forever be remembered as the fighter who killed a man in the ring.
His story has been chronicled, with great care and nuance, by Mark Kriegel in a new book, “The Good Son.” I recently had a chance to catch up with Kriegel and talk about the meaning of Mancini and his life before and after Kim’s death.
A: I had abiding interest in fathers and sons. My father got polio in 1944 when he was 11, which happens to be the same year that Lenny Mancini was hit by a mortar shell in France. Ray is a son of a fighter from Youngstown, I’m the son of an English professor from the Bronx, and despite all that I feel great kinship with Ray. His father’s motto was “I never took a step back,” and my father was all about “taking it.”
Q: You mean taking any hardship that came his way and surviving it?
A: Yeah, hard luck, physical pain. My dad had a macho ethos himself. He was a writer, mostly an essayist, and he wrote a lot about getting polio. I had a heavy dose of [Norman] Mailer and [Ernest] Hemingway. Those books were so prominent on my dad’s shelf, and those guys were in line with what he was about.
Q: So your connection with Ray was personal.
A: You’ve got to understand. There’s a lot in the book about Ray and his father, about the way Ray could feel the shrapnel in his father when he snuggled up next to him. I had very similar memories about my father’s body and his physical presence. When he got out of the hospital as a kid he reconstructed his body into something massive and spectacular. He was barrel-chested and handsome, but he walked on crutches. His legs were atrophied, but he did a lot of working out. I don’t know if Ray would articulate it like this, but we were both the sons of charismatic, wounded heroes.
Q: When did you first meet Ray?
A: In 1999, I was a columnist at the New York Daily News, and I did a column on the 17th anniversary of the Duk Koo Kim fight. I think it was the first time he’d talked extensively about the fight. In 2007, I’d left New York and was in California when I got a call from ESPN to do an interview on Mancini and the Kim fight for a doc they were doing. I did the interview and said, “Where the hell is Ray?” They said, “He lives in Santa Monica, he’s a divorced dad like you.” I got his number, I call him up and we meet for dinner at Il Forno, an Italian place in a strip mall on the less precious side of Santa Monica. It was Ray, me and the actor Ed O’Neill. We closed the place down, and it was the beginning of a long friendship with Ray and Ed. I kept coming back, and I couldn’t get off this idea about Ray and these ghosts that swirl around him while he’s having dinner at this joint in a strip mall.
Q: How long had you been in L.A. at that point?
A: Year and a half. I remember one night going out with Ed to a bar and I gave him my whole theory on Duk Koo Kim and the ghosts, and he looked at me like, “Yeah, you’re sort of right, but you’re sort of full of it. It has much more to do with his brother.” His brother? “Yeah,” he said, “check it out, you do the work.” Ed helped me all the way through, he read every chapter. And Ed is a reader. He has an almost Talmudic sense of the combat sports -- I’m serious about that. Boxing, MMA, he’s a black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
Q: Lenny Jr. was shot to death in 1981. While he was alive, though, he seemed to have a self-awareness that he wasn’t going to leave Youngstown, he was a product of that culture.
A: That’s right. Ray was the Good Son, and, I know this isn’t the polite way to say it, but his older brother was half a wise guy. Very charismatic, very sweet. Everybody loved him, he loved everybody, except he was still half a wise guy. He was an untamed spirit, unlike Ray.
Q: What’s the difference between writing a book like “Namath,” where you didn’t have access to the subject, and one like this, where you not only have access but also have a relationship with the guy?
A: On many levels this is more difficult. Because you have to be able to look yourself in the eye and know that you did the right thing journalistically, that you wrote the book you would have written if you didn’t know him. You want to be able to look your subject in the eye, and more importantly, his children in their eyes, and have them acknowledge that you did the right thing. I know I did the right thing with Namath, but I didn’t need his approval. This is different. This isn’t just a guy I know; this is a friend of mine.
Q: Was Ray cooperative?
A: At first he said, “Why do you want to write about me?” I sat him down and said I want to write about fathers and sons. I said, here’s the deal, this is what you’ve got to understand first: Every place you don’t want to go, I’m going to go -- the Kim fight, your divorce, the death of your brother. I’ll be so deep inside all of that it’s going to make you sick. You’re not going to get paid; I can’t pay you. I don’t do as-told-to’s, and worst of all you’re going to have no control. If it’s an issue of fact, I’ll consider it, but if it’s an issue of style or interpretation, you have no control over the manuscript. But, if you want a book on fathers and sons, something for your kids to understand, I’m the guy. He goes, “OK, I’m in.”
Q: And was it painful for him?
A: No, I don’t think so. He’s a narcissist like me, so some of it, he loved.
Q: Was there anything he objected to?
A: We almost came to blows about one word. And the one word was “need.” I wrote that when he goes back to Youngstown he needs to take the long way around the bar to shake everyone’s hand. They’re all saying, “Ray, we love you.” He needs the adoration. He goes, “No, why do you say that?” I said, “I’ve seen you, you need to do it. It’s like oxygen to you.” He says, “No, I don’t need it. I like it, but I don’t need it.” So we got into one of these Joe Pesci- Robert De Niro conversations. “I like it. What do you mean ‘need’? That’s not ‘need’, that’s ‘like.’”
I had my pride and he had his, and I changed it semantically but still got the point across.
Q: Was he pleased with how it turned out?
A: He saw that I was true to my word. It wasn’t just a book about him and Kim, although it had a lot of Kim in it, of course. The Kim stuff ties together in a way that you couldn’t get if you were writing fiction. Real life is infinitely more perverse than fiction.
Q: Right. Kim was always the hook.
A: I did this reading recently. My parents were there, my brother, guys I grew up with. And Artie Lange, the comedian, was there, and asked the most perceptive question I’ve been asked about the book. He goes, “Could you have done this book if Duk Koo Kim hadn’t died?” And I hate to say it, but the answer is no. In terms of the architecture of the story -- I know this is a cruel and callous way to talk about it -- but it raises the roof on the construction of the story.
Q: If Kim didn’t die, Ray would have been in line to capitalize on being a media darling, he’d have gotten all the endorsements that were up for grabs because Sugar Ray Leonard had retired.
A: If he doesn’t die it’s like a perfect, happy story for Ray. Talk about an anomaly, a happy boxing story. But because it’s a boxing story, it can’t be that.
Q: Some of the most riveting material in the book is in the year or two after the Kim fight, listening to Ray struggle to sort out what happened.
A: I think he did sort it out for himself. There’s no way the outside world is going to let him forget, and that includes me, his friend, Mark Kriegel.
Q: His friend Mark Kriegel or his biographer Mark Kriegel?
A: I can’t make that distinction. If I couldn’t make that distinction as a biographer why would I make it as a friend? I didn’t stop being his friend because I’m his biographer, and I didn’t stop being his biographer because I’m his friend. However you want to characterize it -- did I exploit it? Yes. Did I use it to tell a story about fathers and sons? Yes. Did I also use it to aggrandize Ray? Yes, I did that too. I say "exploit" almost facetiously, because I knew Ray didn’t want to go there, and I knew I was going to go there and I wanted to go there. I had to go to Korea and do everything I could to find Kim’s son.
Q: For the reader, it’s such an elemental dilemma to put yourself in. To imagine being in Ray’s shoes and wonder how you’d deal with killing a man.
A: Yes, but I think Ray did recover. His line, he said it a thousand times, was “I did it for righteous reasons.” He did it to be a hero, and after that fight there was nothing righteous about boxing anymore. The audience stopped looking at him as a hero and began looking at him as a pariah.
Q: You said he had come to peace with what had happened. How did meeting Kim’s son Jiwan last year impact him?
A: I think Jiwan wanted the meeting more than Ray. Jiwan is the one who asked me for the meeting. I brought it to Ray and tried to remain neutral. Forgive the cliché, but I think it was an offer Ray couldn’t refuse. That was a request he couldn’t turn down, but I think he felt ambivalent about it. It was going to bring everything up again. I think he was happy to meet the kid and see that the kid turned out really well.
In a story that is about sons who redeem their fathers, I'm not sure anyone has been as redeemed as Duk Koo Kim. Here was a guy who was dirt poor, had everything going against him the way he grew up in Korean culture. His kid comes out in a blazer and a polo shirt, he’s a dentist, he’s finishing up dental school, he’s a major-league kid. It’s amazing that he’s crossed class barriers, social barriers. Jiwan’s accomplishment is considerable, to say the least.
Q: Was the book made by this encounter?
A: It added immeasurably to the book, but I think I had a good ending anyway. The narrative didn’t depend on the meeting. I would have ended it with the second-to-last chapter, with Ray’s son getting a draw in the ring in his one big fight and putting boxing aside and going to play high school basketball. He did what he had to do and left that whole cycle of fathers and sons and boxing alone.