Boxer's legend still intrigues

Duk Koo Kim: From movies to Web sites, interest in the mysterious South Korean, who died 20 years ago after a rough fight in Las Vegas, is growing.

July 08, 2002|By Toby Smith | Toby Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANAMRI, South Korea - Twenty years after his death following a brutal boxing match, Duk Koo Kim is becoming a figure of national interest. Web sites are dedicated to him. And this summer, Champion, a second movie about his life, is being released.

Yet huge portions of his life - his motivations and his fears - remain a mystery. For many Koreans, that is part of the attraction.

"I didn't know him," says his former manager, Hyun Chi Kim, who is no relation. "Oh, I knew him for about seven years, but didn't really know him. I loved him, but he was secretive."

Kim was born in this seaside village in 1959, according to his grave. Others say he was born in 1957. School records show him being born in 1955 and in another county. His father died when Kim was a year old, leaving him to be raised by a parade of stepfathers, none of whom stayed long. His was a hard life. He did not get along with his stepbrothers. His mother, Sun Yo Yang, scraped seaweed from the shoreline rocks and sold it to passers-by.

"Having problems at home, being so poor, it embarrassed him," says a childhood friend, Mun Sik Kim. "So he learned to hide things."

When he was a teen-ager, Duk Koo Kim fled for Seoul, five hours away. There he shined shoes and sold chewing gum on the streets. Reportedly, he saw a prizefight on a television in an appliance store window and decided to try boxing.

At a gym run by Hyun Chi Kim, Duk Koo Kim said he was a goa, an orphan. Skinny, wearing ragged clothes, he fit the image. One weekend he returned to Banamri and ran into Mun Sik Kim at a bus station.

"He had a purple bruise over his eye," remembers Kim's boyhood friend. "I had no idea he was a boxer, and he didn't mention it. He told me he worked in a factory in Seoul."

At the Dong-A gym, Kim said little and trained furiously. In 1980, he became Korea's lightweight champion. Two years later, he won Asia's lightweight crown.

He started going with a girl who worked in an office a floor above the gym. He should have been happy then, but Kim had a dark side. Not long before he fought for the Asian title, he spent the night in a hotel with two prostitutes. When he showed up late for training the next day, Hyun Chi Kim fired him. Devastated, the young boxer went back to his apartment and swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, though not enough to die.

Eventually, he patched things up with his manager. Late that summer of 1982, he signed a contract for a Las Vegas fight against Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, a flat-footed Ohio brawler who was then the World Boxing Association lightweight champion. Mancini's manager thought Kim would make a good opponent because he had a 17-1-1 record as a pro and eight knockouts. U.S. boxing experts were baffled: Kim had never been to the United States or fought outside Asia, and no one had heard of him.

The mystery surrounding the challenger carried over to Kim's training methods. He would pound a tire 200 times with a sledgehammer and ingest large amounts of garlic. What's more, he seemed obsessed. On a lampshade in his Las Vegas hotel room Kim scrawled in Korean, "Kill or be killed."

The fight took place Nov. 13, 1982, at Caesars Palace. Gyeon Taek Gwak, now an admired film director, was 17 that day. He watched the bout on television at his home in Seoul. The event - particularly its incomprehensibility - is burned into his mind. "I couldn't figure out why Kim didn't quit," Gwak says. "He kept getting pounded, but he wouldn't stop. It was almost like he wanted to die in the ring. So strange."

The fight was a battle. Halfway through, Kim's jaw appeared broken and Mancini's right eye puffed shut, his left ear ripped open. Some now say the bout should have been stopped. Others believe Kim had been injured by a punch months earlier but had told no one.

In the 14th round, Mancini connected two vicious rights to Kim's head. The second blow lifted the Korean's feet off the canvas. He struggled to his feet, then collapsed. At a hospital, a brain scan showed that Kim had suffered a blood clot the size of a cellular phone. Doctors operated, then put the boxer on life support.

"Better call his family," a neurosurgeon told Hyun Chi Kim.

"He doesn't have any family," the manager said.

In Korea, Duk Koo Kim's mother did not know the whereabouts of her son until someone in Banamri told her he had been on TV and had been hurt. The Korean Boxing Association called Las Vegas. "We have Duk Koo Kim's family on the phone," a hospital official told Hyun Chi Kim. Shock whitened the manager's face.

Kim's mother was flown to Las Vegas. At her son's bedside, she pleaded, "Please open your eyes!" But he never did. He died four days after the fight, though his grave marker says five days.

A young woman, Young Mi Lee, attended the funeral in Banamri, saying she was carrying the boxer's child.

"Everything was crazy," says Hwan Ji Kim, a boxer who had known Duk Koo Kim in the gym. "People were showing up out of nowhere wanting money."

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