REMEMBERING DUK KOO KIM

A young boxer achieved in death the fame he wanted in life
April 26, 1987

The boy, Chi Wan Kim, sleeps in his mother's arms. He had not been able to sit still all afternoon, and he and his grandfather had shot at each other with plastic guns. The boy has a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle and his mother. His father, Duk Koo Kim, a Korean boxer more famous in death than in life, is dead. He died seven months before the boy was born. Chi Wan Kim has his father's round face. He often asks, "Where is my father?" and his mother tells him, "He got on a plane and went to the States." There is truth in her tale. The father did go to America, five years ago, and that is where he died.

The mother, Young Mee Lee, was 21 and engaged to marry Duk Koo Kim when he went to Las Vegas in November 1982 to fight Ray Mancini for the WBA lightweight championship of the world. In the 14th round of the fight, Mancini hit Kim twice on the head. At the second blow, Kim collapsed, tried to get up and fell down again. After a blood clot was removed from his brain at the Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, the doctor said Kim would not live long.

Kim was attached to a respirator, and his mother flew in from Seoul with his half brother, Jong Ho Lee. The half brother brought herbal medicine, and the mother brought acupuncturists. Kim lived on the respirator for four days before one of the acupuncture specialists finally said, "He belongs to the dead." The mother allowed the machine to be turned off.

Three months later, Kim's mother was dead. She had drunk a bottle of pesticide. Neighbors speculated that she killed herself because of all the fighting over the money the family would receive from her son's insurance. Four months after the mother's death, Kim's son was born. A memorial service was held on the first anniversary of Kim's death, and in time those who cared most about him went on with their lives.

Though he had won the Orient and Pacific Boxing Federation lightweight title at the time of his death, people do not speak of Duk Koo Kim as one of his country's great boxers. They remember him best for all but dying before a national television audience. His picture holds no prominence in his manager's gymnasium in Seoul, and the only poster billing one of Kim's fights is tucked in a corner, above a rusting bicycle.

Kim was 23 years old when he died. For most of his life he was poor. His father had died when he was two years old, and his mother married four times. Kim's first home of his own was a shabby room in a Seoul boardinghouse. When he started making money as a fighter, he dreamed of buying that house and of one day walking from it with his wife and child to the Olympic Stadium to see the 1988 Games. His legacy became the 14-round championship fight and a name that joined those of Benny (Kid) Paret, Willie Classen and Johnny Owen—other boxers whose deaths made people ponder the wisdom of the sport.

Kim was buried on a hill overlooking the fishing village of Kojin, in Kangwon Province, where he grew up and which he left at 16 to seek his fortune. He earned $20,000 for his last fight, but his fiancèe's portion of his insurance policy was worth far more, $60,000. In the month after Kim's death, Young Mee Lee was especially upset. On the mistaken assumption that she was a Buddhist, there were reports that she was going to marry Kim posthumously so his soul might rest easily. But Lee is a Christian.

After Chi Wan was born, she used her inheritance to help buy a new house for herself, her parents, her brother and her son. Describing the early days of her romance with Kim, Lee says, "It was love at first sight for him, so he used to chase after me. At first he asked me for a cup of tea, and after that he called for dates. That was in the fall of 1981, so the memory is not so clear. In the beginning I didn't like him too much because he was a boxer. He was serious, but I wasn't ready for a relationship. He kept on calling, but I turned him down. Finally he wrote me a letter."

She finds the letter and says, "It begins, 'When a man cries because his heart aches, the whole world cries.' Eventually I began to like his personality. He was very strong, very brave, manly and well-mannered. I visited where he lived—it was a poor area." He lived with a friend, the boxer Bong Sang Lee, in a room where Kim hung framed pictures of his fights on the wall and kept a scrapbook, his most valued possession. He also wrote slogans and pinned them up. One of them read, POVERTY IS MY TEACHER. It was written in blood. Lee says, "He showed me his journal."

The journal, which he was keeping at the time of his death in 1982, began with an apology. "With a mixed feeling of fear and excitement, I am afraid that, hardly knowing how to spell, I may become a laughingstock for writing this story.... On my second birthday my father passed away. Soon after, I suffered a disease which almost killed me.... My mother, Yang Sun Nyo, was a woman of great misfortune; she married four times.... Leaving me in her sister's care in Seoul when I was only an infant, she took all sorts of jobs, including a housemaid, but without much success. Come to think of it, she was only 25. No one can blame her for trying to seek happiness by remarrying. My childhood dream was having a bowl of hot rice."

Lee read how Kim's mother left her third husband, a bean curd peddler, because his grown son was cruel to her. Taking her two young sons, she walked a great distance and finally arrived in a fishing village, where she begged for food for her boys. There she met and married her fourth husband. He had three sons, who became Kim's brothers. Kim wrote, "One new brother used to drag me around, forcing me to fight with other village kids. The older kids enjoyed watching our fights, and I despise them even today for it. At the age of six I was learning to fight.... In those childhood days I could see the red sun rising from the ocean's horizon. I planned my future while watching the sunrise and the bright sunlight. I always repeated to myself that I shall live to make it big.... I used to catch and eat scallop and fish and swim out far, far away.... When autumn came, we used to catch locust to fry and eat.... In winter we'd go wild-rabbit hunting. With a stick in our hands, we'd climb a snow-covered hill where there were so many wild rabbits. Or we'd go sledding on frozen rice paddies. But there were more days of hardship than fun."

At 16, Kim left home and got a job in a bakery in the city of Sokcho, about 120 miles west of Seoul. After two years he moved on to the capital, where he worked as a welder in a steel mill. He left this job after he got into a fight with his boss. "When I was ignored or humiliated," he wrote, "I felt an unbearable anger. Even these days, I simply cannot stand being looked down on. Back then, I was not thinking about the consequences of my action. I never had a happy home, and I was deeply unsatisfied. And every now and then, I would become uncontrollably angry."

He left the mill with no money and had to beg a bus driver to let him on a bus. The bus took him to a neighborhood by a stream, where he found wood and made a fire. He slept under a bridge, ate crackers and drank water for two days and looked for work. Then, when his life was at its lowest point, he found a job selling palm-reading books in coffee shops. Although he considered it demeaning work and made less than a penny on each book he sold, Kim was no longer hungry. He wrote, "I know I cannot afford to be lazy.... I must create 'something' in order to realize my great dream.... I never liked my mother very much as a kid. I had wanted her to raise me on her own. I guess I was too young to know.... But now I understand my mother and feel sorry for her. That's why I want to be a good son and bring her happiness. In order to do that, I must reach the top.... A country boy named Kim Duk Koo [the correct order of his name in Korean] will show the world something.... I shall run and fight until I am covered with blood and sweat."

Young Mee Lee says, "I couldn't help but cry. He cried. I thought, 'Although he may not be rich or successful, he needs me.' "

By the time they were engaged in June 1982, however, Kim had begun to make a modest name for himself in boxing. He won the Korean lightweight championship in December 1980 and the Orient and Pacific title in February 1982. Lee never saw him box, but he did take her to see a fight so that, before they were married, she would have some idea of a boxer's life.

They celebrated their engagement with parties at her parents' home, in Seoul and in his mother's village of Kojin, a four-hour drive from the capital.

With only one loss in 19 professional fights, Kim had exceeded the expectations of his manager, who had not thought much of his talent when he first arrived and announced he was going to be a champion. Hyun Chi Kim agreed to train him but not to take him into his stable of fighters, who lived in the gymnasium dormitory and did not have to hold jobs. Kim worked and trained and still did not impress his manager. Among the new friends he made was Bong Sang Lee, who became his roommate. Once, when their manager told Kim that he did not think he was giving enough of himself to be a good boxer, Kim confided to Lee that he wanted to kill himself.

Still he won 29 of his 33 amateur fights, and when he became a professional the first present he bought himself was a pair of sneakers. He trained hard. He ran to the gymnasium rather than take the bus. He strengthened his neck by tying cord to a barbell and holding the weight with his teeth. In time he was invited into the boxing stable. Many of the other boxers were young men who also had come from the provinces without money but with lofty plans.

His manager sent him to a commercial high school, and on his graduation day Kim stood in his black, high-collared school uniform with a garland of flowers around his neck. He fought in boxing halls of Seoul like the Munwha, a dark, dusty gym filled with folding chairs. Boxers were once great heroes in South Korea, then a poor country that lacked the sports and games of richer lands. Fights were the leading diversion. But by the last year of Kim's life, baseball and television had come to the country, and people didn't go to the fights as often.

People watched boxing on television, however, and it was on television that South Korea saw Kim's final bout. He and his manager left Seoul two weeks before the Las Vegas fight, stopping first in Los Angeles for preparation. Kim had never been to the U.S., but he devoted himself to little other than his training. He called his fiancèe a week before the fight to say that he had bought her a watch and some cosmetics.

At Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the bout would be held, Kim posed for a snapshot in front of a fight poster by placing a fist on Ray Mancini's face. He was confident he could win the match.

Four days after the fight, Kim's body lay in an open coffin in Paradise Valley, a Las Vegas suburb, dressed in a brown checked sport coat. His head was wrapped in a bandage. When the body was shipped to South Korea, 500 people came to his funeral at the Munwha Gymnasium in Seoul. His coffin, with one of his trophies placed inside, was wrapped in a South Korean flag. A movie of his life, The Tiger Who Does Not Cry, played in Seoul for 15 days.

The gymnasium where he trained no longer exists. Hyun Chi Kim now prepares his fighters in another gym. The manager has lined his office with pictures of his fighters, and in the corner is the photo of Duk Koo Kim standing in the middle of the ring, holding a trophy, a curious smile on his face, as if he is not letting himself smile too broadly. On a glass-top coffee table, there are three pictures of Ray Mancini.

The people who knew Kim hold no animosity toward Mancini, because, they say, he did not intend to kill anyone. Still, those who knew Kim best have distanced themselves from the sport. Bong Sang Lee, Kim's friend and roommate, gave up fighting and moved to a farming town. Young Mee Lee has decided her son will be an educated man, a politician perhaps, and will not become a professional athlete.

Lee has her fiancè's photograph albums, his newspaper clippings and the diary he wrote in pencil. She has no plans to marry. She lives in her new home with her family, and sometimes she feels as though Kim were living there with them. Although she did not know him very long, 14 months, she believes she learned the sort of man he was. She says, "He always wanted to be loved more."

THREE ILLUSTRATIONSMATT MAHURIN

Michael Shapiro is an American who is writing a book about Japan, where he now lives.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)