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Peter WoodDecember 10, 2013
The Good Son by Mark Kriegel

Simon & Schuster. 336p $15.99

Boxing is the best friend a writer ever had. Despite its squalid reputation and moral haziness, it has continued to inspire memorable prose by 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 that 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, Lenny, 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 Lenny continued his boxing career after the war, the shrapnel implanted in 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 for him heroism, pride and honor.

“That picture was beautiful, it’s all I ever wanted to be,” Kriegel quotes Mancini as he 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 as his father 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 like “ Murdertown” and “ Crimetown USA.”

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

The 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. He was shot in the back of the head in a hotel room. It would be the first death, but not the only one, that affected Ray’s burgeoning professional career.

At the age of 20, after 20 pro fights, Ray challenged the legendary Alexis Argüello for the World Boxing Council lightweight crown. He 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.

Ray soon got his second title shot, and he wouldn’t let this one pass him by. He KO’d World Boxing Association titleholder Arturo Frias at 2:54 of the first round 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 Nov. 13, 1982, in their brutal battle at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Duk Koo Kim went down in the 14th round after absorbing 44 unanswered punches, never regained consciousness and died four days later. 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, but 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 KO’d 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 mount a brave but futile effort to regain his title against Bramble in Buffalo, N.Y. 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 retirement for a 24-year-old ex-athlete is problematic. The Rev. Tim O’Neill, Ray’s confidant throughout his career, understood his 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 24 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 its effect 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 like Mark Kriegel.

The history of boxing is wonderfully artful and woefully gruesome. 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 an unforgettable story of tragedy and triumph, heartbreak and inspiration, fathers and sons.

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