“The Good Son” by Mark Kriegel

By Peter Weston Wood on September 17, 2013
“The Good Son” by Mark Kriegel
It all came apart on the night of November 13, 1982 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“For all its shortcomings and danger, the ring is a perfect kind of sanctuary, a precious counter-world to the chaotic world that exists outside of it…”

Boxing is the best friend a writer ever had. Despite its squalid reputation and moral haziness, it has continued to inspire memorable prose from many gifted writers—George Plimpton, Budd Schulberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Lipsyte, A.J. Liebling, David Remnick and Wilfrid Sheed. That’s because boxing is a sport which allows an angry young man to rise out of his own smoldering personal slum to become victorious.

Prizefighters are a colorful tribe. Above—or below—all other athletes, prizefighters are a driven lot.

But the boxing world has never known anything quite like Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. His charisma went far beyond the boxing ring and the media reveled not only in the thrill of his success but in the exciting personality of a champion whose appeal transcended the public abhorrence of such a violent sport.

Until it all came crashing down in heartbreak and tragedy.

The Good Son, by Mark Kriegel, tells the story of young Ray who grew up idolizing his father, a lightweight boxer in the 1940s who was on the cusp of winning a world championship when duty called him to World War II. While his father continued his boxing career after the war, the shrapnel implanted into his body by a German mortar shell ensured that he would never reach his championship dream.

The idea of his father’s thwarted boxing career always burned red hot in Ray’s mind. A grisly black-and-white photo of his father following a fight, eye swollen shut, mouth bloodied and bruised, exhausted in victory, would epitomize heroism, pride and honor. 

“That picture was beautiful, it’s all I ever wanted to be,” Kriegel recounts how winning the championship became his raison d’etre. Devoted to his father’s thwarted dream, Ray became a professional boxer and lived the same bare-knuckle life on the rough streets of Youngstown, Ohio. The battered and beaten city carved his personality as much as his battered and beaten father had. But his will to win was stronger than any geographical location or physical disability. Ray turned his back on Youngstown’s world of mafia-influenced crime, where over a 10-year period 82 car bombings occurred. Fueled by staggering levels of unemployment as the local mills failed, Youngstown earned nicknames in the national press such as “Murdertown” and “Crimetown USA.”

Whereas Lenny had fought out of hunger and poverty, Ray fought out of love and devotion—to his dad.

A young Mancini followed his older brother, also named Lenny, to the Youngstown Navy Reserve gymnasium, walked up to trainer Eddie Sullivan and told him plainly, “Mr. Sullivan, one day I’m going to be the best fighter you ever had.”

Kriegel juxtaposes Ray’s life with that of his brother who succumbed to a life of crime. The circumstances remain murky decades later, but ultimately crime is what led to Lenny’s death, shot in the back of the head in a hotel room. It would be the first, but not only, death which impacted Ray’s burgeoning professional career.

At the age of 20, after 20 pro fights, Mancini challenged the legendary Alexis Arguello for his WBC Lightweight crown. Mancini fought bravely, too bravely, and lost a brutal and bloody 14-round war.

But Ray, handsome and articulate, remained a star in the making. He possessed all of the virtues needed and admired. It wasn’t long before he was being featured on nationally televised fight cards. He was The All American Kid from the forgotten steel city of Youngstown, the insatiable brawler and battler. He had it all.

Ray soon got his second title shot, and he wouldn’t let this one pass him by. He KO’d WBA titleholder Arturo Frias at 2:54 of Round 1 to become the champion he was destined to be.

After making one title defense, Ray was on top of the world. But he never could have imagined the way his life would change following his next title defense against an obscure South Korean opponent named Duk Koo Kim.

Kriegel explains how it all came apart on November 13, 1982 in their brutal battle at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Duk Koo Kim went down in the 14th round after absorbing 44 unanswered punches and never regained consciousness. Three months later, Kim’s despondent mother took her own life. The deaths would haunt Ray and ruin his carefully-crafted image, suddenly transforming boxing’s All-American Boy into a pariah.

Surprisingly, Mancini was back in the ring just three months later in a non-title fight. However, he fought without his signature aggression and power. He won a decision, then stopped undefeated challenger Orlando Romero; he fought another non-title contest, and then kayoed Bobby Chacon in January 1984, stopping him in three rounds. It would be the last win of Ray’s career.

Kriegel describes how Mancini ultimately lost his title to Livingstone Bramble in his next fight, the fateful moment again proving to be the 14th round.

Mancini would later put on a brave, but futile, effort to retain his title against Bramble in Buffalo, New York. The immediate result of that bout was an overnight stay at a hospital and 71 stitches around his eye.

In 1992, after being knocked out by Greg Haugen, Mancini retired leaving a record of 29-5, with 23 knockouts. But the emptiness of retirement for a 24-year-old ex-athlete is problematic.

Father O’Neill, Ray’s long-time confidant throughout his career understood Ray’s new dilemma: the shelf-life of a professional boxer is extremely short. “This wasn’t the normal sense of loss brought on by an athlete’s retirement. Rather, it was an acknowledgement, at only twenty-four years old, that he had already played out the role of a lifetime. It was an existential dilemma, a question of mortality. Father O’Neill was brutally honest, telling Ray, ‘You accomplished your lifelong dream at a very young age. Everything else from here on will be anticlimactic.’ It was something Ray would have to live with. ‘Nothing ever will give me that same feeling,’ he said of boxing.

While Kriegel’s book continues through the end of Ray’s career, the culmination of the story is the touching meeting between Mancini and Jiwan Kim, Duk Koo’s son, who was born after his father’s death.

Ray carried an unbearable load of guilt for Kim’s death, and for the effect it had on his family. But by meeting each other, both Mancini and Jiwan were able to find much needed closure and healing.

There is an undeniable jolt to watching violence in the ring, an almost electrical charge composed of equal parts beauty and savagery, and it can stir the poet in a talented writer such as Mark Kriegel.

The history of boxing is wonderfully artful and woefully gruesome. Mark Kriegel brings beautiful prose to this ugly sport. Poetry meets pugilism, eloquence meets brutality and brains meet brawn.

Joyce Carol Oates once said, “For all its shortcomings and danger, the ring is a perfect kind of sanctuary, a precious counter-world to the chaotic world that exists outside of it. The ring is less verbally brutal, less economically unfair and less politically abusive.”

“The Good Son” tells the story of tragedy and triumph; heartbreak and inspiration; fathers and sons. It’s the unforgettable story of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

Peter Wood is a graduate of Fordham University and former NYC Golden Glove Finalist. He is the author of Confessions of a Fighter—Battling Through the Golden Gloves and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, two memoirs published by Ringside Books. His first book, To Swallow a Toad, an adult novel published by Donald I. Fine, Inc. in 1987, was later optioned for film by Steve Nicoleides.

Wood’s writing credits also include a guest column in The New York Times, and articles in Commonweal, Ring, Boxing Illustrated, Westchester Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Proof, Boxing.com, and TheSweetScience.com. In addition, his feature article in Sporting Classics has been anthologized in its 25th Anniversary leather-bound edition featuring their 40 finest pieces of writing.

As an actor, Wood made his Off-Broadway debut in Kid Shamrock at The TADA Theater in 2012. He has been interviewed on national television, ESPN and ABC and in New York, The Aaron Braunstein Show; public radio, The Sally Jessie Raphael Show, WOR—The Joey Reynolds Show, and WFUV.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Ted 07:33pm, 09/18/2013

    And an outstanding and soulful review by Peter.

  2. kid vegas 01:06pm, 09/17/2013

    Very good read here

  3. Mike Casey 12:30pm, 09/17/2013

    Put it that way, Clarence, and my simple answer is yes!

  4. Ted 11:08am, 09/17/2013

    Mark Kriegel writes about interesting people. His “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich,” was a great read about a most interesting person.

  5. Mike Silver 11:00am, 09/17/2013

    Beautifully written piece Pete. I purchased the book somewhat reluctantly at a book signing by Ray.  I thought I’ve already heard and read all the cliches etc. But I began the book and realized what an outstanding writer can do with the material.  Surprisingly—or not surprisingly—Kriegel’s superb writing hooked me in.

  6. Ted 10:52am, 09/17/2013

    Kenny G would be worse torture than watching the Molina -Smith fight 10 times in a row. Someone once said, “If I cold play like Kenny G, I wouldn’t.”

    There are aspects to Ray’s life that I never knew. Like the fact his brother was murdered. The more you peel the onion, the more interesting it gets. Ray is a pretty complex guy and sharp as well. Was very impressed by him. He was low key and thoughtful—I expected a more frenetic type. Not at all. He thinks before he talks and he is a good listener. I think some of his acting has helped his commination and social skills quite a bit.

  7. Clarence George 10:42am, 09/17/2013

    But, Mike, don’t you breathe a sigh of relief reading about any boxer not named Floyd Mayweather Jr., aka the Sweet Science’s answer to Kenny G?

  8. Mike Casey 06:50am, 09/17/2013

    We seem to be overdosing on the good son lately, or is just my impression? I do admire Mancini for all he did, but even at the time I found the Waltons-like sentimentality that came with him a bit too rich.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:47am, 09/17/2013

    The line up of writers here at Boxing.Com is like a dadgummed “Murderers’ Row”....no easy outs and each one capable of hitting it out of the park.

  10. Ted 04:57am, 09/17/2013

    Met Ray at the Ring 10 event last Sunday in NYC and he looks and sounds great.

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