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Boxer's death forced reappraisal of sport
This is the day – November 17th – that changed the face of boxing. It was 30 years ago in Las Vegas, a city in the Nevada desert that smacked of money and vice and things that weren’t always very nice, that the South Korean boxer Kim Duk-Koo went into the ring with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in search of the world lightweight crown. The fight took place on November 13th, 1982, but the pugilist’s death took place four days later when Kim’s life-support machine was turned off. It was to be a watershed moment in the sport.
Thereafter, boxing authorities reduced championship bouts from 15 to 12 rounds, introduced the standing eight count and – critically – imposed more stringent medical examinations on fighters before bouts.
The impact of Kim’s death was universal. Mancini was a national hero in the US and the fight had been broadcast live on CBS and also back in Korea.
“Something bad’s going to happen,” one of the TV commentators remarked in between rounds, such was the intensity and brutality of the fight. The following week, Sports Illustrated magazine used a photograph on its front cover under the heading “Tragedy in the Ring”.
Now, the fight, the death and its impact have spawned a book, The Good Son, by Mark Kriegel. It is the story of Mancini and, by association, that of Kim.
Mancini is the focal point of the book, but Kim provides the fascination which explains why it took death to bring him to national prominence in his homeland.
In his opening, Kriegel describes how Kim “had hit the Korean exacta at birth: dirt-poor and dark-skinned”.
Indeed, the young Kim was bullied at school by fellow pupils and teachers. His mother married four times and Kim had an ever-expanding family of new step- brothers. His childhood memories were later recalled in his journal: “One new brother used to drag me around [the town of Banam] forcing me to fight with other village kids. The older kids enjoyed watching our fights and I despise them even today for it.”
In his teenage years, Kim found his way to Seoul where he lived for a time under a bridge. He sold chestnuts and pogo sticks for a living and it was only when he walked into the Dong-ah boxing gym – run by a former boxer called Kim Yoon-Gu – that his future took a different path.
Kim was 23 when he arrived in the Nevada desert and given little chance of beating Mancini, the perceived “golden boy” of American boxing, who was making his second defence of the WBA lightweight title. But, for 13 rounds, the two slugged it out toe-to-toe and, as they emerged for the 14th round, both fighters struggled to see through bruised, puffed-up eyes.