Ray Mancini vs Duk Koo Kim: The Tragic Fight That Haunted Boxing

As a grizzled, old boxing reporter shuffles his way up to the suite of yet another contender he probably thinks he's seen it all...
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As a grizzled, old boxing reporter shuffles his way up to the suite of yet another contender he probably thinks he's seen it all...

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Here on the Vegas strip the weird and the eccentric rub together like static on a wall. Especially in sportsmen. Those ambitious souls who would stare into the centre of the  sun if they thought it would give them a supernatural power. Que sera sera. The reporter laughs to himself at the image as he's ushered into the room on the second floor. He walks through the door knowing to expect anything but all he can see is an athletic looking individual who doesn't turn to acknowledge him. He stares at the back of the fighter whose muscles seem to tense in concentration. He's engrossed in something else and seems to be wiping something on a large mirror mounted on the wall. Something in red. Perhaps he's cut himself somehow the reporter thinks, but then realises he's writing something instead. As he gets closer he realises he is. In his own blood. LIVE OR DIE, the message reads. It's a piece of self inflicted graffiti that is to prove more than ominous.

Twenty hours later that same fighter is upsetting the odds in a ring in Las Vegas. His name is Duk Koo Kim,  a South Korean boxer who has been given little chance against his illustrious opponent, the champion Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini. Somehow however the underdog is managing to hold his own in a fight that's as ferocious as they come. For almost eleven rounds the boxers go toe to toe. It's a relentless battle of wills. More than once Mancini curses the Korean whirlwind through his gum shield. He even contemplates quitting as he's cut badly over his eye. Little does he know that his opponent has a pregnant fiancée back home, little money and that like his message in the hotel room: he really is willing to die in there.

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Mancini knows nothing of this but what he does know is that he's a champion and like all world class fighters he has a hidden gear. It's a switch, a subtle switch and only the best can call upon it. It doesn't take the pain or the punches away but when turned on in the latter stages of a fight it can sicken an opponent. By the twelfth round he begins to use it, even though his legs are like lead and he feels as though he's moving through thick liquid. He thuds his punches through the Koreans guard, but his opponent just keeps coming. In the thirteenth round Sugar Ray Leanord who is commentating on the fight for TV counts an astonishing 39 punches that connect with Duk Koo's head. Mancini walks back to his corner demoralised. His seconds rally around him. He pushes himself from the stool for the fourteenth round. It's much the same as every other round in this cursed fight but he's about to get lucky. Suddenly, from nowhere it happens. Duk Koo walks on to a huge crushing right. It's one of those sickening punches you can hear above the crowd at ringside, like an axe hitting wet logs. His legs crumple beneath him and he sails to the canvass. It's a culmination of punishment and blind effort and his body has finally given up on him. He still struggles to his feet though. His culture won't allow him to quit in shame on the floor but referee Richard Green has seen enough. He's a good referee. He recognises when a light has been switched off in a man and he sees something in Duk Koo's eyes that worries him. He puts his arms around the Korean fighter and gently whispers: 'No Mas Kim. No more.'

Even before Mancini has been able to celebrate however, Kim is showing worrying signs in the opposite corner. It's lost in the euphoria of the crowd but as the ring is invaded by reporters and Mancini is mobbed, the Korean fighter suddenly slumps to the floor. A stretcher is called. Kim is rushed to a local hospital in an ambulance but he lapses into a coma and for the next four days he fights an even bigger battle than the one he has had in the ring. This one horribly is for his life. Tragically however he never comes out of his corner. Four days later the brave little man from South Korea with big dreams and an even bigger heart is pronounced dead.

A great shame now descends upon the sport of boxing. Everyone is haunted by what has happened. In the aftermath, everyone questions their own part in the tragedy. Promoter Bob Arum calls for the whole sport of boxing to be suspended for four months whilst the WBC quickly announce that they will never sanction a world title fight beyond twelve rounds again. It's a decision that other organisations quickly adhere too.

No one feels it more than Mancini. Like a lot of fighters he is a warrior inside the ring but a moral individual outside of it. He questions his own role in such a sport. It begins to keep him awake  at night. He decides to fly to Korea for  Kim's funeral, not for redemption or even to show his shame but mainly because it's all he can think of to do. As he steps off the plane however the first thing someone asks him is if he's the man who killed Duk Koo Kim. That one line is said to haunt Ray Mancini for the rest of his career. He's never the same fighter again. He holds something back because everyone time he goes to throw that right hand in the ring the words ricochet around his head like a poem barking at the moon. A devil on his shoulder: hey Ray, are you the man who killed Duk Koo Kim?

In many ways though Ray gets out easy. Kim's mother Yang Sun Nyo is so despondent by her son's death that she withdraws into her grief day by day. Refusing to talk to anyone, she stays in her room and tries to to comes to terms with what has happened. It's impossible however. Her love and loss is too strong and she is spiritually broken. Four months after that fateful night at Caesar's Palace she drinks a bottle of pesticide and commits suicide. Members of her family say that following the death of Kim, she had pretty much died inside anyway.

There is one more shocking twist to come. Referee Richard Green who was the official in charge on that fateful night sinks into a deep depression too. The press coverage of the fight forces him into questioning whether he could of stopped the fight earlier and saved a mans life. Although many experts are convinced he is blameless because of the nature of the contest, it hangs heavy in his heart. In July 1983, eight months after the fight, and just four months after the death of Yang Sun Nyo, Green is found dead at his home from a single handgun wound to the head. There are no suspicious circumstances, although many are in no doubts over his motives. The same voices and demons that have got in many peoples heads in the shadow of this contest. The same dark whispers.

Some months later there are other whispers too. Amongst the maids at a certain hotel in Las Vegas. Talks of a curse and a certain room they are afraid to visit. Those that do are convinced of something. Some presence. They say if you stare into its mirror long enough you can still see the outline of a piece of graffiti a proud boxer once etched into the glass. It simply says: LIVE OR DIE..