by Annette Hinkle
In 1982, 21-year old boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was on top of the world. The lightweight champion from Youngstown, Ohio, was making good on a promise to his dad, Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini whose own boxing career was cut short by a World War II injury.
Mancini, who was described by sports publicist Irving Rudd as an “all-American boy with a touch of mozzarella,” was a real life Rocky Balboa and by the early ‘80s, he had it made. A top ranked boxer, endorsement deals, fans — even Frank Sinatra wanted to meet him.
“Network TV got involved in boxing and began showcasing the lightweights — it was a juggernaut — I was going to win the title for my father,” recalls Mancini. “I took it very seriously. When you’re exposed to the American public, you have the obligation to give them the best show possible.”
Then on the afternoon of Saturday, November 13, it all changed in an instant. During a CBS televised championship bout at Cesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Mancini knocked out his South Korean opponent, Duk-koo Kim. It was the 14th round of a very hard fought battle between two well-matched boxers.
But Kim never got up. He died four days later, leaving behind a pregnant fiancé in South Korea and a son he would never meet. It marked the end of Mancini’s career and the demise of boxing as a sport.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of what TV was doing,” says Mancini. “This fight came right after two fatalities, before the end of year, there was another one, but they were off TV. People didn’t know about them. This was Saturday afternoon – Caesar’s palace with the glitterati and literati. Suddenly, all the endorsements and good will disappeared. I became a poster boy for all that was wrong with boxing. I couldn’t understand it.”
“Other than the ending, it was a great great fight. What a warrior he was,” says Mancini of Duk-koo Kim.
Now, 30 years later, Mancini is telling his story in the documentary “The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini.” Based on a new book by journalist Mark Kriegel, the film, which will be screened on Friday, October 5 as part of the 2012 Hamptons International Film Festival, recounts the tale not as it played out in the media following the tragic event, but from the point of view of fathers and sons — Mancini and his father, as well as Jiwan Kim, the son of Mancini’s opponent who wanted to meet the man who changed his fate before he was even born.
“The meeting of Kim’s son – if you tried to write this in the script, people wouldn’t believe it,” says Mancini who notes that the meeting came about after Kriegel traveled to Korea and met Jiwan and his mother, Young-mi. “Jiwan was 10 or 11 when he found out who his father was. His mother tried to protect him. Kriegel was the first reporter anywhere in the world to speak to them.”
And when Jiwan said he wanted to meet Mancini, Kriegel made it happen. Young-mi came along as well. Mancini recalls Jiwan’s words upon meeting him: “He said, ‘I think if Mr. Mancini would’ve fought a bit differently, my father would be alive, and my life and my mother’s life would be different. For Mr. Mancini, the life of his children would be different.’”
While Mancini says he had made peace with himself over Kim’s death, he understood the importance of their meeting for Jiwan and his mother.
“I thought it was important for him to meet the last man his father was with in the ring,” says Mancini. “I may not have met him before or after the fight, but at the time, I knew him. My manager had sent me the tapes. He was my style fighter – I knew it was going to be a headache. He was a number one contender, he deserved a shot.”
“Jiwan needed to find closure in some way,” he adds. “I said what a great fighter his father was and Young-mi was a wonderful woman — sweet and genuine. I was more nervous about meeting her. This was the young man she was going to spend her life with. I felt so guilty for so long. She was so gracious, and put me at ease. She said ‘Let your spirit rest.’”
“The Good Son” The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini” directed by Jesse James Miller screens Friday, October 5, 2012 3:30 p.m. at UA East Hampton Theater 6.
Hamptons International Film Festival screenings and panel discussions will take place at venues in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Southampton, Montauk and Westhampton Beach from October 4 to 8, 2012. For the full festival schedule and tickets, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.