The 1980s were the last time boxing was close to being a mainstream sport in America, and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, from Youngstown, Ohio, was one of the reasons why. A lightweight with a blockbuster left hook to go along with his blue-collar bona fides, Mancini, like Thomas Hearns in sputtering Detroit, was a symbol of hope to withering Rust Belt cities throughout the Midwest before the trickle-down theory finished what it started.
Unlike today, when fighters earn reputations by acting as crass as possible, Mancini attracted attention with his boyish good looks, a squeaky clean image, and a smile as quick as his fists were in the ring. In addition, a dramatic backstory made Mancini as popular on network television as Dallas or Knots Landing. The son of former lightweight contender Lenny Mancini, whose championship dreams were shattered by war injuries, Mancini promised his father that he, Raymond, would one day win a world title for him. For a while, Mancini was a walking Afterschool Special, but there was nothing manufactured about his bonhomie. And, until he grew tetchy with writers who eventually came to view him as an overprotected hype job, Mancini was a media favorite for years. Articulate, sensitive, and unusually loquacious for a prizefighter, Mancini belied his affable personality with a ferocious ringstyle calculated to fray nerves in living rooms across the Heartland.
On November 13, 1982, Mancini punished unheralded Duk-Koo Kim in a harrowing title fight that ended with Kim slipping into a coma. Millions of horrified Americans tuned into CBS watched as a battered Kim was carried from the ring on a stretcher in Las Vegas. Four days later, Kim was declared dead and was removed from life support. That the dream of the young, polite, All-American (the Irish-Italian kind, not Main Line, of course, but good enough) “Boom Boom,” whose pursuit of the championship was driven by reverence for his father, could include violent, sudden death shocked the country.
The Good Son: The life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, directed by Jesse James Miller and based on the book of the same name written by former New York Daily News columnist Mark Kriegel, traces the life and career of Mancini from his childhood in hardscrabble Youngstown to the tragic fight against Kim and its fateful aftermath. At the core of the film is a cathartic meeting between Mancini and Jiwan Kim, whose father Mancini killed.
Miller, whose devastating expository documentary Uganda Rising (co-directed by Pete McCormack) won a handful of awards at the 2007 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, goes for a stylish look in The Good Son, using moodily-lit chapterlets for the American portion of the documentary. He also films much of the archival footage emanating from a wood-paneled television. This visual motif recalls the medium with which Mancini first mesmerized America and, with its anachronistic connotations, serves to underscore the theme of time as well: its passing and, in the case of a man burdened by guilt, its permanence. There are also a few scenes featuring Mancini, still trim over 20 years since his last fight, alone in a ring, with gloves on, reenacting some of his biggest fights while describing the blow-by-blow. Now in his early fifties, Mancini, onscreen, remains the same thoughtful everyman that so endeared him to America three decades ago.
Although a poignant tale, the tragedy of the Mancini-Kim fight is not exactly an overdue subject. In fact, in 2007 ESPN aired a documentary for the 25th anniversary of the fight, Triumph and Tragedy: The Story of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. In some ways, The Good Son lags in comparison to the ESPN film, which offers a complete overview of Mancini’s life and career.
At just under 90 minutes, The Good Son also suffers from a certain amount of veneration. With the exception, perhaps, of promoter Bob Arum, every American interviewee in The Good Son—including Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill—is a personal friend of Mancini, which makes a critical assessment of his achievements impossible, and, along with the fact that Mancini is listed as one of the executive producers, is likely responsible for some glaring omissions.
Perhaps the most baffling oversight of all is the fact that not a millisecond is spent on Mancini’s first title shot, a 14th-round TKO loss at the hands of Alexis Argüello in 1981. Indeed, Mancini does not lose in The Good Son, the blood he shed in the ring—and there was plenty of it—is nowhere to be seen, the sad but obligatory comeback he made in the late 80s and early 90s goes unmentioned. Mancini was not a great fighter—he was an accomplished professional and one of the most popular boxers of his era—but that fact hardly makes him a less sympathetic figure and it only adds to the engrossing story of his career. By whitewashing his record, the filmmakers do a disservice to Mancini, who comes off looking like a prizefighting nonpareil. By contrast, the Korean interviewees show an honest critical grasp of Duk Koo Kim: he was nearly artless, agreed his trainer and gym mate, but he compensated for his lack of craft with feverish desire.
Nor is the death of Lenny Mancini mentioned, which, considering how important he was to the life and career of his son, is a strange lapse. Could The Good Son have done more with less screen time for Mickey Rourke and Ed O’Neill? Probably. But documentaries are hard to fund and even harder to distribute, so star power here takes precedence over the story itself. Still, trimming a few friendly testimonies from childhood friends may have worked to the benefit of the overall narrative.
Ultimately, what is missing in The Good Son—the documentary—is Mark Kriegel, which sounds strange given that he is on camera often and serves as executive producer as well. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, boxing in New York City was covered by several talented writers: Vic Ziegel, Michael Katz, Phil Berger, and Dave Anderson. Later, as a general sports columnist, Kriegel also wrote about the sweet science occasionally. Kriegel has an eye for the telling detail and understands the mad cosmos that is boxing. He also has more range than most sportswriters. Not only could Kriegel be found on the sports pages of the Daily News, but he could also be found in other sections of the paper writing about Marshall Applewhite, for example, or the Y2K sex trade. By limiting the scope of his vision, The Good Son—the documentary—dispenses with the moving tale of fatherhood reflected symbolically from generation to generation among a cast thrown together by the whims of fate. Lenny Mancini, Duk-Koo Kim, and Jiwan Kim were all fatherless at one point in their lives. When Jiwan and Mancini meet for the first time at the end of the film, it creates a kind of sad, surreal poetic symmetry, one fully realized in the book but given short shrift in the film.
But what separates The Good Son from any number of middling boxing documentaries, however, are the scenes that focus on the Korean half of the tragedy. Whereas sketchy wire services in the 1980s allowed only brief glimpses of the collateral damage done to the Kim family, The Good Son gives the first full accounting of the far-reaching aftershocks of a sporting tragedy. To think that a single sporting event could generate in its aftermath death, guilt, suicide, congressional hearings, and a moral outcry for reform remains astonishing, even now, thirty years later.
The story of Duk-Koo Kim, in particular, is striking in its melancholy. His was a short life lived almost perpetually in extremis. Raised under dire circumstances, Kim was determined to use his limited fighting skills as a means to self-actualization. Excerpts from his diary, reproduced in the book, reveal the mindset of one of the many fighters whose involvement in a blood sport seems less utilitarian than pathological. In the end, the man who commissioned a carpenter to build a miniature coffin for Mancini (and who wrote “Kill or be Killed” on his lampshade before he made the ringwalk to his own death) was the very heart of the boxing heart of darkness.
Another striking figure onscreen is Young Mee Lee, who was engaged to Duk-Koo Kim despite his background and despite his déclassé profession. Young Mee was already pregnant when Kim died. Driven by the kind of despair that produces dream logic, Young Mee lied to her son, Jiwan, about the tragic fate of his father. He was overseas, she told her son, and years would pass before Jiwan discovered the truth about his father and about the lies that love and loss can produce.
For years, Mancini, like Emile Griffith, was haunted by dreams of the man he had killed in the ring, and you can almost sense that buried remorse in him by how often he refers to Kim in the present tense. And when Mancini finally meets Jiwan, it is a wrenching moment despite the fact that the meeting is, after all, contrived (as well as inspired by Ring of Fire, where Emile Griffith meets the son of Benny Paret). Mancini shows clear trepidation before Jiwan and Young Mee arrive. When they do, Mancini, the raconteur, finds himself nearly at a loss for words.
Although Mancini is the rare post-fight success story, The Good Son reminds us that boxing is a pursuit that produces casualty after casualty outside the ring as well as inside it, and that pain, the lingua franca of prizefighting, can echo on long after the arena lights have dimmed.
“The Good Son: The Life of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini” is available now on cable-on-demand and iTunes. It will be released theatrically on August 9. For more information, visit thegoodsondocumentary.com.