Ray Mancini • Boom Boom •

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Ray Mancini turns 58 today.

The former lightweight champion of the world, Mancini carried hopes and ghosts into the boxing ring.  His father, Lenny Mancini, was the number-one contender in an abundantly talented lightweight division.  Lenny’s chance for a championship ended not with a title shot, but with fragments from an exploding German mortar shell in France during World War II.  Ray Mancini inherited his father’s ring nickname – Boom Boom – and his championship dreams.

Born in the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, on this date in 1961, Ray Mancini willed himself into becoming a great fighter.

He wanted it more than his opponents.  He believed in sacrifice and was willing to bleed more than the next guy.  Always-charging, Boom Boom was willing to take two punches just to deliver one.

In May 1982, Mancini took the WBA lightweight title from Arturo Frias with a first-round TKO.  An Italian-American, Boom Boom became the country’s real-life Rocky Balboa.  After a sixth-round knockout of Ernesto Espana is his first title defense, he faced 23-year-old South Korean challenger Duk Koo Kim on November 13, 1982.  Kim had struggled to make the 135-pound weight limit and had to lose several pounds shortly before the fight.

Boxing was still a viable sport in the early 1980s.

Caesars Palace had just unveiled a new outdoor ring and there was a great deal of celebrity interest in Ray Mancini’s fights.  With the NFL in the middle of a players’ strike, CBS Sports telecast the Mancini – Kim fight live on a Saturday afternoon.  Bill Cosby was there.  So was Frank Sinatra, who sat ringside with his pal, Jilly Rizzo.

Sugar Ray Leonard had announced his retirement before the fight, leaving Mancini as perhaps the most marketable athlete in America.  Sinatra loved Ray Mancini, telling him before the fight, “Listen.  You’re doing us all proud, kid.”

It was supposed to be an easy fight, almost an exhibition for Boom Boom.  But Kim, toughened by growing up in horrible poverty, fought valiantly.  The bout turned into a slugfest.  In the 14th round, Mancini came out and hit the South Korean with a left hook.  Duk Koo Kim went down — and never got up.  He slipped into a coma and died in a Las Vegas hospital four days later from a massive blood clot in his brain.

“I had all the respect in the world for this guy.  I just wanted to win the fight.  I never wanted to see him get hurt.  It was devastating.”

Boom Boom kept his title but was never the same.  Once the clean-living good son who won the title his father couldn’t, the sensitive Mancini saw his image change.  “After that fight,” said Mancini, “I became the poster boy for everything that was wrong with boxing.”  He became the symbol for what was corrupt and objectionable and brutal about the sport.

Kim’s death haunted Ray Mancini.

There was nothing joyous in boxing anymore.  All the righteous reasons for which he had fought were now gone.  “After his death, I simply lost all passion for the sport,” said Mancini later.  “I really did.” Mancini was 21 when he fought Duk Koo Kim.  A few days before the fight, Kim had written “Kill or be killed” in Korean on a lampshade in his room.  Following the bout, Mancini went into a deep depression.  The hardest moments came when people approached and asked if he was the boxer who “killed” Duk Koo Kim.  Mancini blamed himself for the South Korean’s death. “He died once,” Mancini explained, “and I felt I was dying every day.”

“He was a tough kid.  Too tough, really.  Too tough.”

The dead fighter’s mother committed suicide three months later.  The following year, Richard Green, who had officiated the bout, took his life as well.

Ray Mancini successfully defended his title twice before facing Livingstone Bramble in June 1984.  Less than 18 months after the Kim fight, Mancini lost to Bramble by TKO in the 14th round.  Boom Boom lost not only his title but needed 71 stitches around one eye and spent the night in the hospital.

Mancini returned to the ring twice in attempts to regain his world title.  He officially retired in August 1985 at 24.  Boom Boom returned to the ring in 1989, where he lost a split decision to Hector “Macho” Camacho.  Mancini’s final fight came in April 1992, where he was stopped in the seventh by former lightweight champion Greg Haugen.

When Duk Koo Kim stepped into the ring with Ray Mancini in November 1982, his fiancée, Young Mi Lee, was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Thirty years later the child, Jiwan Kim, and his mother came to Mancini’s house in California in an attempt at reconciliation.  It was awkward.  It was tense.  The ice was broken when Ray showed a photograph of his father after the Billy Marquart fight from 1941 where his father was battered.  Everyone in the room found something haunting and familiar in that image and all identified with it.  The mood lightened after that.

In 2000, Ray Mancini visited Korea to support a film about the life of Duk Koo Kim.  He was understandably apprehensive upon arriving, then couldn’t believe what happened.  “The Koreans treated me like a national hero,” said Mancini.  “They treated me with love and respect.  You see, in their eyes, Mr. Kim died a warrior, a hero.  He died honorably for something he believed in, something he defended.”

As a result of Kim’s death, the sport of boxing shortened all title fights from 15 to 12 rounds.