By Thomas Gerbasi
A born and bred New Yorker, Mark Kriegel may not have been living in the Big Apple when he approached former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini about writing his biography, but sunny California hadn’t dulled his no nonsense pitch in the slightest.
“You have no control over the manuscript, I can’t pay you, you’re not going to get rich unless they make your life into a movie, and I promise you that I will go to all the places that you least want to talk about: (Duk Koo) Kim, the divorce, and the death of your brother,” said Kriegel. “But if you want a book about fathers and sons, I’m the guy to write this.”
Mancini paused to think the offer over. It wasn’t the first time he had been approached about doing a book. When he was fighting there were inquiries, and they picked up when he walked away from the sport for the first time at the age of 24. He had no interest at either juncture, simply because he didn’t feel that there was anything worth saying that hadn’t already been said.
But when Kriegel, who had already written best-selling biographies of NFL great Joe Namath and basketball legend Pete Maravich, talked about fathers and sons, Mancini knew this wasn’t going to be a typical book.
“Okay,” said Mancini. “I’m in.”
It was the relationship between the Youngstown native and his father that captivated a nation back in the early-80s. Lenny Mancini was a lightweight who earned the number one contender’s spot in 1941, but before he got his shot at Sammy Angott, he was called to serve in World War II, where he was wounded in battle in 1944. There would be no title shot when he returned.
Ray Mancini wanted nothing more than to fight for and win that world championship for his father, and he followed his father into the ring. A crowd-pleasing, all-action fighter, Mancini soared up the lightweight ranks after turning pro in 1979, and two years later he earned a shot at Alexis Arguello’s WBC title. Mancini would lose that bout via 14th round TKO, but in the process, he secured his place in the hearts of fans everywhere. Three fights later, he won the title for his father, halting Arturo Frias in a single round for the WBA belt.
This was in the era where networks showcased boxing on a regular basis, making household names out of fighters like Mancini. And when Sugar Ray Leonard announced his first retirement, the stage was set for Mancini to become boxing’s most bankable star. But a 14th round knockout of Korea’s Duk-Koo Kim that resulted in Kim’s death from injuries suffered in the bout not just kept him from becoming that star, but it took the love of the game out of the equation for Mancini, becoming a topic of focus whenever his name was mentioned.
“It’s hard for Ray, because in one sense he’s seen as Boom Boom Mancini, and then in the next breath, it’s ‘hey, he’s the guy who killed the Korean guy,’” said Kriegel. “And he’s always fought that and he always will. And this book won’t help that.”
Kriegel’s book, The Good Son, is in bookstores now, and calling it a riveting read doesn’t do it justice. Not just one of the best sports books of 2012, but one of the best books of the year of any genre, it tells the stories of various fathers and sons, from Lenny and Ray, to Ray and his children, to Kim and the son he never met, and it ties them all together in a way that makes it accessible and compelling not just to diehard boxing fans, but to demographics far and wide.
“Ray is an Italian fighter from Youngstown and I’m a Jew who grew up in Manhattan,” said Kriegel. “But I felt more in common with Ray at a certain level than anyone I’ve ever wrote about because both of our fathers had been wounded. Ray’s father took his wounds in the war in 1944 and my father got his wounds in 1944 too. My father had polio in ’44 and basically lost the use of his legs. I felt great kinship in Ray in that we were both trying to make wounded fathers proud of us.”
In 1999, Kriegel, then writing for the NY Daily News, interviewed Mancini for a story on the 17th anniversary of the Kim fight. Years later, he had moved out to California, where Mancini was living as well. When told that ESPN was doing a documentary on Mancini’s life, he asked what the former champion was doing out there.
“He’s a divorced dad like you,” Kriegel was told. Soon after, the two met up, with Mancini’s fellow Youngstown native Ed O’Neill (of Married with Children and Modern Family fame) at the restaurant Il Forno.
“We drink wine all night and close the joint,” Kriegel recalled. “And for the first time since I was in Los Angeles, I felt like I was home. I felt good. We started going out regularly, and I started thinking ‘this is the book.’”
At the time, Kriegel owed his publisher one more book after the Namath and Maravich bios, and he knew that Mancini might be a hard sell.
“Maravich was dead, Namath wouldn’t cooperate and now all of a sudden I want to write about a guy who’s become a close friend – it was a strange thing,” said Kriegel. “Plus, he (Mancini) doesn’t have the name recognition of Broadway Joe or Pistol Pete, and I had to convince the publisher, but it was important to me, and I kept coming back to this story,” he said. “(Novelist) Richard Price (Clockers, Freedomland) once told me that you don’t choose the writing, the writing chooses you. And as far as subject matter is concerned, I think that was the case here.”
Readers should be glad that he pulled the trigger on it, but they should also appreciate Mancini’s willingness to revisit not just the glory days, but the dark days as well.
“It was not only triumphant for him, but a lot of stuff was really, really painful – family stuff, the divorce, the death of his brother, and of course Kim,” said Kriegel. “But he revealed himself, I think, with a great deal of candor and a great deal of courage.”
When it was over, Kriegel presented Mancini with the manuscript, making it clear that the only changes he would make would be if there were factual errors.
“I laughed because it was very funny at times, it was very nostalgic at times, but it was hard to read at times because you have to read about all your screwups as a man, as a husband, and as a person,” said Mancini. “But that’s part of the deal. If you’re arrogant enough to think your life is worth a book, and if you’re arrogant enough to allow it to be written, then you’ve got to be arrogant enough to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Yet while everyone’s life story has a little of all three, unlike some celebrity biographies, you didn’t walk away from the book thinking less of Ray Mancini. In fact, you may like him even more knowing what he overcame to make it to the top in boxing and in life. As far as Mancini is concerned, what he used to succeed in both was also something that played a role in some of his tougher hours.
“My biggest asset has been my biggest roadblock, and that’s my ego,” he said. “I tell everybody you have to have ego to succeed in life. If you ain’t got ego, then you ain’t gonna succeed. People with ego think they can do more than what others think they can. My ego made me successful because I wouldn’t listen to nobody and I knew what I had. But it also became the biggest part of my failure.”
“It (ego) is this guy’s greatest strength,” adds Kriegel. “By rights, he’s not supposed to be a world champion. Is he talented? Yes. Was he world champion-talented when it was still a serious fight game in the 80s? I don’t know. But he got there on ego and desire.”
These days, Mancini is one of the few happy endings in the fight game. He’s got his health, his children, money in the bank, and he sounds happy. That’s more than many of his peers can say. Now he even has a book that does his life and career justice. And he’s satisfied with that.
“I wanted to have a legacy for my kids and my future grandkids,” he said. “I just want them to know who I am and what I am.”
“You know how dark it gets and how light it gets and believe me, I can live with it, and he should be able to too,” adds Kriegel. “He’s taken his shots, he’s still standing, he’s still going to his kid’s basketball games, and he’s avoided the fate of so many guys. That’s the real blessing.”
One of the most fascinating parts of The Good Son is Kriegel’s telling of Duk-Koo Kim’s story, from his humble beginnings until his last fight in Las Vegas in 1982. Taking it even further are the first interviews with Kim’s fiancée Young-mi Lee and her and Kim’s son Jiwan, who was born seven months after his father’s death.
“It’s the first time that Kim’s fiancée Young-mi has ever spoken (about this) in Korea or America, and no one’s ever identified Kim’s son before,” said Kriegel. “And I had a great guy helping me in Korea who was the assistant director for the feature film Champion. I’m over there saying to the interpreter, ‘call her up please. I’m begging her to speak.’ We meet her the day before my last day and I tell her what it’s about. I’m begging this lady to talk to me, and then I’m begging her to talk to her son because this is a book about fathers and sons. And I finally get the kid on the way to the airport. And he talks, and at the end of the interview he says, ‘do you think that I can come to America and meet Mr. Mancini?’”
The meeting between the three was everything you would have expected it to be.
“It was nerve-racking,” said Kriegel. “Between the language barrier and all the obvious emotionally fraught stuff, the stuff that can’t be said, the stuff that people don’t know how to say, and the stuff that people are scared to say, it’s all there.”
BOOM BOOM, THE FIGHTER
One of the highlights of talking to Mancini about his biography was getting his two cents on the current state of boxing, and he had some very pointed opinions on the topic.
“First, go back to 15 round fights, and weigh in the morning of the fight,” he said. “I tell people that in the era of 12 rounds, it’s very difficult to talk about greatness. Yeah, there are some great fighters out there, but very few of those guys would have been able to go 15. A few of them could: (Manny) Pacquiao, (Floyd) Mayweather, they could have fought in any era. But there are very few of them.”
As for Ray’s own legacy, he said, “Once in a while when I watch the youtube videos, I say ‘man, I forgot how good I was.’ (Laughs) I could fight a little bit. But I didn’t become the fighter I wanted to become until the end of my career. I had lost the love for it after the Kim fight, and I was looking for an end. I just wanted enough to get my security and better my life before I moved on. But I didn’t become the fighter I wanted to be until the end.”
MANCINI VS. PRYOR
It was the fight so many wanted to see back in the early 80s, but it never happened. And contrary to popular belief, I always thought Mancini would have a shot against junior welterweight great Aaron Pryor simply because you could catch the often defensively reckless “Hawk” sleeping early in a fight. And Mancini had enough pop that if he sent Pryor down he might have stayed there, and if he got up and was still buzzed, “Boom Boom” could have gotten him out of there.
So how could I pass up the opportunity to ask Mancini how he thought he would do against Pryor?
“I wanted that fight badly,” he said. “People say ‘ah, you would never beat him,’ but they don’t get it. Styles make fights, and Alexis (Arguello) was a bad style for me at that time, and in retrospect I probably showed him a little too much respect. And I always wanted a rematch, but he moved up. So then they talked about Pryor, and Pryor beats Arguello and I said ‘yeah.’ If you watch Pryor, Pryor’s chin was always in the air, and ordinary guys were dropping him. Dujuan Johnson dropped him, the Japanese guy (Akio Kameda) dropped him, and he’d get up and knock them out, but I said if he puts his chin up, I’ll be underneath him. I’ll bang that body and he won’t have a chance. He used to throw punches on top and he liked to go to the head a lot. I’ll be underneath him and I’ll catch him and I’ll drop him. He liked to come forward. If he does that, then we’re gonna be standing in the middle of the ring doing business, but that’s so I can back him up. I know he’s strong, but he’s not gonna be stronger than me. I felt very confident.”
MORE GOOD READS FOR THE FALL
The Good Son is a must read for any boxing fan, but once you’re done with it, there are plenty of other solid boxing books that have hit the streets this year that are worth your time.
The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion
By William Gildea
Former Washington Post writer William Gildea tells the remarkable story of Gans, boxing, and society in a time that may seem foreign to many today, making it not just entertaining, but extremely important in terms of education.
Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion
By W.K. Stratton
One of the sport’s most complex figures, Floyd Patterson was gold for any writer. Stratton digs beyond the surface and shows us why.
Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Arguello
By Christian Giudice
If you loved Giudice’s previous bio of Roberto Duran, you will feel the same way about this tome, covering the life of one of boxing’s most beloved champions.
And the New . . .: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing
By Thomas Hauser
You want to know what happened in boxing (in and out of the ring) over the last year, this is the book to read, and no one does it better than Hauser.
Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs & Reflections on the World of Sports
By Bob Latham
This is not a boxing book, and there are only a few tidbits on the sweet science in here, but what Latham does here is remind you why you watch sports in the first place, and I don’t know about you, but with all the negatives in all sports, it’s nice to get reminders like that sometimes.