Meet the South Korean Fighter Who Changed Boxing Forever After Dying in the Ring



This weather is so damn hot! Babe, I could die for a frappuccino right now.

We say that often, don’t we? “I’ll die for this” is such a common phrase we don’t think much of it, and we almost never follow through.

Almost.

In 1982, a young boxer from South Korea, Kim Duk-Koo, traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada to challenge the Italian-American champion, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, for the World Boxing Association lightweight title. Days before he stepped into the ring, Duk-Koo (also known as Duk Koo Kim) was quoted as saying, “Either he dies or I die.”

On the night of the fight on November 13, Duk-Koo battered Boom Boom’s face, tearing open his ear and completely closing his left eye. Duk-Koo was expected to win, but this fight was different. Each of his previous fights went a maximum of 12 rounds, but the title fight with Mancini, and all fights in North America, went for 15.

Duk-Koo had never fought 15 rounds before, and it started to show.

The bell rings on the 14th round, and Mancini leaps forward to attack the face of Duk-Koo. He wobbles and Mancini smells blood. A flurry of punches, a shot to the body, and one right hook to the chin and Duk-Koo’s body goes stiff, crashing onto the ground like a drawbridge.

The crowd erupts with excitement. The South Korean boxer is out, and Boom Boom, our “American hero,” knocked out the 27-year-old fighter, delivering him his second loss. When you watch the fight on YouTube, you can see a huge crowd of people hovering over where Duk Koo Kim’s body lies. No one knew what was going on, but Mancini punches the air with excitement.

He doesn’t know.

Between smiles and photographs, Mancini checked on Duk-Koo to see what was going on. He raises a hand and smiles, then checks on Duk-Koo. Mancini raises a hand and checks on Duk-Koo again. For three long minutes, everyone (coaches, family members, police) circled and shuffled around the ring.

Something isn’t right. Why are there so many people?

When he arrived at the hospital, doctors found a subdural hematoma with 100 cubic centimeter of blood in Duk-Koo’s skull. The emergency brain surgery didn’t go as planned and Duk-Koo was pulled off life support on November 18, four days after his fight with Mancini.

Three months later, Duk-Koo’s mother drank a bottle of pesticide.

Five months after that, the referee who oversaw the fight committed suicide.

Duk-Koo left behind a pregnant fiancé, Lee Young-Mee, even though boxers in South Korea weren’t allowed to have girlfriends. His son, Kim Chi-Wan, grew up to become a successful dentist. The World Boxing Council changed the maximum rounds from 15 to 12 for the safety of the athletes, and made sure all referees knew how to spot signs of brain damage.

When he was younger, Duk-Koo used to shine shoes for money. He grew up poor, and boxing became the only way to make a living.

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