Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini held his swollen left hand in front of him like a jewel while shading his battered brow with his right. The bright lights were harsh and unwelcome. There were questions in Mancini's heart about what had just happened in the ring, though he didn't yet know the full horror of what had occurred. Was the WBA lightweight title he had just defended successfully against South Korea's Duk Koo Kim worth this? Was anything? "Why do I do it?" Mancini asked himself. "Why do I do this? I'm the one who has to wake up tomorrow and look at myself." He fingered the purple, misshapen area around his left eye. "A badge of honor," he said in a morbid tone. Minutes earlier, a less reflective Mancini had scored a technical knockout of Kim 19 seconds into the 14th round, and Kim had been carried from the outdoor ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on a stretcher. This was to have been an epilogue to the Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello WBA junior welterweight title fight the night before. Tragically, it became a nightmare.
The 23-year-old Kim, who rained an incredible number of blows on Mancini and in return was pounded by even more, was injured by two right hands his head could not bear. Kim was taking just four breaths per minute when he was transported from the ring to an ambulance that was destined for Desert Springs Hospital.
Kim then underwent 2½ hours of brain surgery, performed by Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, a local neurosurgeon, who removed a 100-cc. blood clot from the right side of Kim's brain. The clot, Dr. Hammargren said, was the result of a broken blood vessel and "due, in all probability, to one tremendous punch to the head." Had the punch been part of the 39-blow bombardment Mancini had delivered in the opening 50 seconds of the 13th round? Was it the first of the final two rights in the 14th? Or the second? Or could the damage have been done not by Mancini's fists but by Kim's head hitting the canvas after the final blow? Could Kim's brain have been damaged before the fight? "The hemorrhage was quite fresh," the neurosurgeon said on Saturday night. "The trauma was caused by one punch."
Dr. Hammargren had previously performed two similar operations, one on a Japanese kick boxer, the other on another fighter. "Both men wound up normal, but this outcome will be much worse. Mr. Kim had a right subdural hematoma," said Dr. Hammargren two hours after the surgery was completed. "He's very critical, with terminal brain damage. There is severe brain swelling. The pressure will go up and up, and that will be it. He'll die. His pupils have been fixed since he arrived. We have him on the respirator now. His body responds slightly to painful stimulus, and that is the only real sign of life we've had. They tell me he fought like a lion in the 13th round. Well, nobody could fight like that with a blood clot on his brain."
As SI went to press Monday evening, Kim, who had almost no remaining brain function, was being maintained by a life-support system.
Kim had indeed fought like a lion. Through the 39 minutes of the previous rounds and those final 19 seconds, the crowd of 6,500 at Caesars was sated with action, as was a CBS television audience. And everyone, especially co-promoter Bob Arum, seemed pleased when the fight was over. But later, at the hospital, Arum was somber. "Suspend boxing for a few months," he suggested, and he called for headgear for boxers and more heavily padded gloves. "Get a blue-chip medical panel to investigate this thing first, and then suspend boxing," Arum said. "It is the height of irresponsibility to allow this to happen, and the old excuses are not working."
Back at Caesars, Mancini learned of the severity of Kim's injuries and left his suite in the company of his parents and Father Tim O'Neill, the family priest, to seek refuge elsewhere.
Before the fight; Kim's training methods, which included hammering a tire with a sledgehammer 200 times daily and ingesting large amounts of ginseng and garlic, and his style had not impressed the boxing cognoscenti. His anonymity seemed to diminish his 17-1-1, eight-KO record and his No. 1 ranking by the WBA. But he was to become a haunting foe for Mancini, who now finds, eerily, that he may fight Kim forever, and in doing so, fight himself.
Mancini is 5'6" tall, the same as Kim. Mancini fought low. Kim fought lower. Mancini is righthanded, Kim lefthanded. There was a quarter-inch difference in reach, a half-pound in weight, little difference in power and absolutely none in approach. "It was murderous," said Mancini's manager, Dave Wolf, immediately after the bout, unaware at the time that the comment would soon take on a macabre ring. "It was like Ray was fighting a mirror. I hope the people who said Kim was nothing are impressed now."
Mancini was left with several impressions by the 14th round. In the third, an infrequent Kim right lead—or perhaps it was a clash of heads—ripped open Mancini's left ear. Blood spouted, and only ice and pressure by cornerman Paul Percifield kept the wound closed. In that same round, one of Mancini's left hooks caught Kim's head too high and at a bad angle. The hand, badly bruised by the blow, began to swell, eventually to twice normal size. In the eighth, Mancini's left eye began to puff and color.
Kim's left hooks and slashing rights had exacted a toll, but Kim had been punished too, though he showed it less. When the fighters began the 14th, the mirror's image was still there. Mancini broke the pattern by stepping to the right as Kim's left whistled by. Mancini hooked his own wounded left ineffectually, but now Kim was off-center, exhausted and facing Mancini's corner. Mancini drove off his right foot and delivered the first of the final pair of rights on the point of the Korean's chin.
A glancing left hook followed, then a crushing right which sent Kim to the canvas. Kim landed heavily on his back and head, rolled over in slow motion, grabbed a middle strand of the ropes and stared blankly at the timekeeper. Kim's eyes dilated while the outdoor stadium rocked in celebration. "He was desperate, and I was hoping. My left hand was killing me," Mancini said. "But I felt that first right all the way up my arm." Twice Kim failed to regain his footing, but somehow he beat the count. Referee Richard Green looked at Kim's unfocused eyes and buckling legs and stopped the fight. "He was not there, and I wasn't going to let him go any further," said Green, who has officiated half a dozen world title fights, including Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali. Green was absolved of any blame for failing to stop the fight sooner by the attending ringside physician, Dr. Donald Romeo, who worked to revive Kim. Kim's cornermen had offered no protest when the fight ended. "He just wouldn't go down," one of them said. "He had great pride."
Perhaps Kim's pride had been too great. Wolf returned from the hospital eight hours after the fight, at 11 p.m., sobered. "Pol Tiglao [Kim's American representative and translator and agent for a number of Oriental fighters] told me that a couple of days before the fight, Kim had written 'Kill or be killed' in Korean on a lampshade in his room," Wolf said. "He was a warrior going to war. Apparently he viewed this as a death match." Wolf then discounted Arum's suggestions. "I don't know what a blue-ribbon panel could do," he said. "It was not a case of defective equipment, or a fighter being allowed to go too far, or any impropriety. It was one or two unfortunate punches. And those rights at the end were not nearly the best punches Ray had thrown during the fight."
The youngest of five children born to the H.Y. Kims, rice and ginseng farmers, Kim came from Kang Won-Do province in Korea, 100 kilometers east of Seoul. "He was the strongest of the family's three sons," said H.R. Lee, a Korean journalist with the Hankook Ilbo, who traveled to Las Vegas with Kim's small entourage and a larger group of Korean partisans. "He was not injured before the fight. He was in the best condition of his life."
Kim had been a shoeshine boy, tour guide and baker's assistant before starting an amateur boxing career in 1976. His only hobby, according to Lee, was "music listening," but Tiglao said he also enjoyed reading. After a 29-4 amateur record, he turned professional in 1978, working with 100 other fighters in Seoul's Tong-a Gymnasium. He was the best of the lot and won the Orient and Pacific Boxing Federation lightweight title last February. He received $20,000 to fight Mancini.
Mancini studied film of Kim and other southpaw fighters for weeks. "We figured he'd come out kamikaze" Mancini said. "After looking at the film, I didn't care what anyone said," Mancini's trainer. Murphy Griffith, declared. "I had Ray train as if it was the fight of his life."
So it was. Mancini started the first round with a booming left hook to the jaw, but Kim answered with two of his own, and the barrages from both sides continued for the first nine rounds, the only variation being target. When Mancini went to the liver or rib cage, Kim answered. Mancini hooked with the hooker and found the tactic somewhat lacking. Kim seemed to land the harder punches. At the end of the ninth, a left rocked Mancini back on his heels, and Kim extended his arms upward in exultation. "He was getting lower than me," Mancini said. "I was supposed to be off him, but a lot of times when a guy is sitting in front of you like that, you want to move in and shoot. But he was getting his punches off first." Said Griffith, "Ray had to adjust. We didn't know Kim would be that tough. He was skillful, smart. Ray couldn't get below him, where he likes to be. But Ray's physical conditioning determined the fight. By the 13th round, the guy was looking for the hook. I told Ray to go with the right."
In fact, that decision had been made some 10 rounds earlier, when Mancini hurt his hand. "Every time I hit him in the head, it killed me," Mancini said shortly after the battle, unaware of the terrible irony. The constant pounding from Mancini began to tell on Kim in the 10th, when Green took a point from Kim for hitting-and-holding. Green was berated by Mancini's corner throughout the fight about that tactic, borderline low blows, hitting after the bell and Kim's headfirst rushes. "He wasn't dirty," insisted Mancini, who appeared to win every round from the 10th on. "Rough and tough, not dirty. We both hit heads. We both hit low. He was just the worst type of guy to fight." Said Wolf, "Already I can look back and see that [Green] did an excellent job."
By the 11th, though his left eye was purple and hideously swollen, Mancini had taken control of the fight. He fired a left hook that buckled Kim's knees, and now he began to land three punches to Kim's one. At one point Kim went to one knee, but Green correctly ruled it a push. Mancini ended the 12th scoring from a distance. He gave himself a clap and made an exaggerated nod at the end of the round. In the 13th, Mancini swarmed over Kim, starting the unanswered 39-punch sequence with a straight right hand. The right side of Kim's jaw ballooned and appeared to be broken, but he weathered that storm and even managed to punch out a weak combination. Then came the 14th, the sidestep and Mancini's initial right, apparently unseen by Kim. He reeled back, defenseless, and the second right landed point blank on his jaw.
"Let all these guys who are screaming for a piece of Ray settle with Kim first. A temporary champion would have lost to Kim today," Wolf said at the conclusion of the bout. Later, after spending four hours at the hospital and being told that Kim didn't have long to live, Wolf said, "Ray is taking this hard, and his parents are pretty shook up also. I haven't given a single thought to how this may affect Ray as a fighter, and maybe that sounds silly, but that's the last concern right now. How it affects him as a person is what concerns me. I do think he's a very strong kid and sometime in the future he will be able to look at this, in the context of great pain, and see that once he stepped into that ring with Kim there was nothing he could have done."
On Sunday morning, one hour before attending a mass conducted by Father O'Neill at the Tropicana Hotel, Mancini issued a statement on CBS, which had televised the fight. Dark glasses covering his closed left eye, his damaged hand resting on the arm of the couch in his suite, Mancini said, "I'm very saddened. I'm sorry it had to happen, and it hurts me bad that I was part of it. I hope they realize I didn't intentionally hurt him. I don't blame myself, but I can't alienate myself.
"I'm a Christian, and I've been praying that I'll get some answers to questions that have been popping through my mind," Mancini said softly. "I have to rely on my faith to get me through this. It could easily have been me, and who is to say that it won't be me next time? I'm not saying I'll retire, but right now I'm not thinking of future fights. I have to see what happens to Mr. Kim. I need time to heal."
This was to be one of the last of Mancini's modest purses—his career earnings were pushed over $1 million by a $250,000 guarantee against 45% of the gross revenue from this fight. Howard Davis was a likely springtime opponent. And then, of course, there was Pryor. Arguello, the only man to beat Mancini, is still the WBC lightweight champion. "I had always pictured myself coming back and doing that to Alexis," Mancini had said while viewing Pryor's destruction of Arguello Friday night. "We'd be interested in Pryor," Wolf said at the time.
Emile Griffith fought 80 times after Benny (Kid) Paret died following their fight on March 24, 1962. Griffith was 24 at the time of the Paret bout, a career fighter comfortably lost in his craft. Is Mancini, still impressionable at 21 and a young man for whom "money is no god," different? "They are both sensitive individuals," said Gil Clancy, CBS boxing analyst and former manager of Griffith, who happens to be the nephew of Mancini's trainer. "It took something out of Emile Griffith," said Clancy. "Griffith got hate mail, but he got encouragement, too. Ray will have to deal with the same things." Murphy Griffith said, "For a while it was doubtful that Emile would ever come back. He was a sensitive man. But time heals. He had to realize that what happened wasn't his will. People say it affected him until the end of his career. I think it did. Man, you don't forget. Some can handle it, some can't. How it will happen in Ray's case, only time will tell. He's got a good head, but a human is a human."
Former heavyweight champion Max Baer never approached a fight with the same intensity following the death of Frankie Campbell soon after their fight in San Francisco on Aug. 24, 1930. Jimmy Doyle died 17 hours after fighting Sugar Ray Robinson for the welterweight crown in Cleveland on June 24, 1947. At a subsequent hearing Robinson was asked whether he knew he had Doyle in serious trouble. "They pay me to get them in trouble," said Robinson.
Mancini's box-office appeal had had nearly everyone who could make the weight calling him to try to get a fight. Despite his 24-1, 19-KO record, Mancini inspired confidence in contenders. Their pre-Las Vegas feelings can be summed up in the words of Hector Camacho, an undefeated junior lightweight from New York's Spanish Harlem. "You can't play Mancini cheap, he's the man right now," Camacho had said the night before the Mancini-Kim fight. "He's strong, he'll beat on you, but when the time comes he won't knock me out. He's the guy that will make me. He will make me. He's good, but he don't have that, you know, that greatness."
"Look, I know people either think I'm a bum or a superstar," Mancini had said. "I don't care what they think. I know where I am. Somewhere in between." Later, just before he'd heard the news of Kim's condition, Mancini decided something. "This badge of honor," he said, studying his face in the mirror. "Well, ugly as it is, I'm proud of it." Then the nightmare came. Now there are only questions with no simple answers.