You may have seen the recent New York Times’ article about fighter Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and his reunion after 30 years with the family of Duk-koo Kim, the Korean he literally beat to death in the ring in 1982.
It wasn’t a mugging—in fact, reading Santa Monica sportswriter Mark Kriegel in the Times, it was Mancini being mugged, such was the ferocity of the fight. In the end, it came down to a matter of wills—Kim had stirred the pot describing how he would beat Mancini: “Either he dies, or I die.”
We know how the fight that November 13th in Las Vegas turned out. After 14 punishing rounds, both men were exhausted. Then Mancini landed a stiff one-two, left-right combination that crumpled Kim. The way Kim fell, striking his head on the mat, it was clear he was out before he hit the canvas. Fighters tell you that’s the most dangerous moment—unconscious, with no way to brace yourself.
Whether that killed Kim or the plethora of punches that preceded it, we’ll never know. Mancini only learned later that Kim was in the hospital that night with a subdural hematoma, a blood-clot on the brain, the classic ring accident.
And that might have been that — except for what it did to Mancini. I know a little bit about that, and having worked with Ray over the years, I learned a few things that might shed light on what happened that tragic evening.
Back up for a moment: Until the ‘90s, I’d never met Mancini. But I knew who he was—in the early ‘80s you couldn’t help it. As Kriegel, who has a new book on Ray coming out, puts it, Mancini was boxing’s last great “White Ethnic (Hope).”
A young sportswriter, I spent time covering boxing, then one of the four “major” sports along with baseball, football and basketball. (Those were the days!) Coming out of Youngstown, Ohio, Mancini, son of the original “Boom Boom,” Lenny, a promising, prewar Italian-American fighter, represented what was left of the fading middle class. Lenny lost his “shot” when a German mortar hit him in France. Returning to Ohio, he brought himself up the hardscrabble American way—his son as well. By ‘82, Mancini was a rising star, lightweight champion of the world.
Kim was his second defense of the title. CBS pulled out all the stops; Caesar’s Palace constructed a 10,000-seat arena. Everyone including Sinatra was there. By that time, I’d joined Newsweek’s fledgling ’84 Los Angeles Olympics’ team, so I was out of boxing. I never actually saw the fight, but I remember being excited when Mancini won; and then saddened to learn Kim died five days later. That was it for 14 years.
Finally, in 1996, I met the legendary boxer. Someone—maybe screenwriter George Francisco—introduced us at a Hollywood party. Hearing I was now a producer, Ray shared his desire to get into movies. We met for lunch the next day. Ray brought his friend, ex-Seinfeld writer Sam Kass, who had just directed his first film, “The Search for One-Eye Jimmy” starring John and Nick Turturro, Steve Buscemi. And Mancini.
Mancini realized that no one was going to give him a shot at a lead in a movie, so commissioned Kass to update John Garfield’s classic ’47 boxing tale “Body and Soul” for him. Did I want to produce?
For production reasons, we couldn’t afford Las Vegas. Ray drew on his fight background: After Kim died, Mancini fought a series of increasingly lackluster bouts—he was never the same. He defended his title three times against relative unknowns before losing it to Livingston Bramble in another brawl. He never won another fight, retiring in the early ‘90s.
Nevertheless, Ray retained one important fan, Donald “Don” Carano (a name Ray reverently pronounced as an honorific in best “Godfather” tradition.) Carano was, in many ways, the capo dei capi of Reno, Nevada. He’d built the first modern casino “across the tracks,” as they said there, the El Dorado, and spurred a real-estate boom. He’d taken a liking to Mancini, who’d stayed in Reno for his rematch with Bramble. Kass and I switched locations and he rewrote it around the El Dorado. When we were done, the press was great—“succeeds admirably, and then some” said The Hollywood Reporter. We were even invited to open the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
In September 1999, the remake of “Body and Soul” starring Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Academy-winner Rod Steiger and Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis debuted on Showtime. It opened for another fight movie I’d produced with Francisco, “Champions,” the world’s first Mixed Martial Arts movie. Ironically, Don Carano’s granddaughter turned out to be a well-known MMA fighter, model and actress (Steve Soderbergh’s “Haywire”), Gina Carano.
But that’s not the story. No, I promised I some insight into Ray’s mind that fateful night in 1982, a story that, to my knowledge, Ray had never told before and I haven’t heard since—as Kriegel points out, Ray never talked about the fight. But one night, after a long day shooting, I asked Ray and he opened up. In those days, the temporary, open-air stadiums had no dressing rooms, just hospital-like curtains surrounding a training table and a few free-standing metal lockers—you could hear everything going on in the adjoining “locker room.” Ray’d heard Kim’s “win or die” philosophy, but chalked it up to hype. As he lay on the table trying to get some prefight rest, however, he was shocked to hear Kim, next door, without gloves on, wailing away at the lockers! At that point, Ray told me, he realized someone was going to die. And resolved it wasn’t going to be him.
I saw the brighter side of Mancini—promoting the movie he’d parry questions about whether he was as good an actor as Garfield, quipping “no, but Garfield wasn’t as good a fighter!” Still, I knew that, deep down, he sometimes wished it wasn’t so.