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The Good Son: a Good Book?

Ray Mancini was not born to fight, though he certainly felt placed on this earth to carry on a championship quest denied his father by fate. That is the overwhelming impression I had reading Mark Kriegel’s admirable biography of Ray Mancini, The Good Son. Readers will be impressed by the scope Kriegel packs into an easily readable 336-page book. It provides incisive overviews of a blue-collar upbringing in a rustbelt city, the nature of an immigrant family structure, the role of hangers-on, boxing in the 1980s and how it all combined to shape Mancini’s mentally in and out of the ring. In doing so, Kriegel tells a larger story about America – like the subject, not always positive and shiny - through the many sides of a volatile Mancini prism.
Mancini will be remembered by many as an ideal, made-for-TV boxing performer. He sported handsome Italian-American looks and was at ease talking to the camera with an obvious charm and charisma. He was a Rocky Balboa with a large vocabulary or Tony Danza if only Danza had world-class boxing ability. Sylvester Stallone produced a movie of Ray’s then-short life story as a television movie of the week and Frank Sinatra attended Mancini’s fights. He was a visible sportsman on the national scale, as recognizable and sought after as professional football and basketball players today. Mancini was a marquee player in fights aired Saturday afternoons on CBS, whose viewership dwarfed today’s numbers at HBO. Boxing brought Mancini glory though Kriegel’s writing implies in spots that Mancini preferred fame came via another vehicle. Perhaps it did not have to be a sporting one, which Mancini’s foray into television and behind-the-scenes work in Hollywood suggest as well.

The overriding figure in the first third of the book, almost as if he were narrating the prose to focus on him, is Mancini’s father, Lenny. A very good boxer in his own right, whom some thought had the potential to become the first Mancini champion. World War II and injuries suffered while serving dashed those dreams, relegating Lenny to club fighter status. Making a brief and memorable appearance is Ray’s older brother, a local hellion who died from a shot to the head that may or may not have been ordered by the mob. The father theme is a vehicle Kriegel rode in previous sports books about Joe Namath and Pete Maravich, something he obviously has an affinity and knack for sculpting. However, at no point does Kriegel beatify the father or give the story an altered feel by avoiding facts or glossing over faults within the Mancini family structure.
Those who witnessed Ray Mancini’s rise (or read about his accomplishments later) know he took up his father’s fight to win a world championship. It was an overpowering ambition that will be in the first paragraph of both father and son’s obituary. Kriegel went the extra mile in terms of research and collecting facts (many firsthand accounts and interviews) which clearly went beyond reading old boxing magazines or viewing fluff bio features from the archives of television networks. Mancini’s beginnings, athletic grooming, hard work, rise, guidance and ultimate achievement of his goal are chronicled with a reporter’s sense of duty. For me though, it lacked passionate storytelling and failed to emphasize Mancini’s inner conflicts. Until, ill-fated Duk-Koo Kim makes a somber entrance on the page.
Sadly but appropriately, the name “Duk-Koo Kim” is synonymous with that of Ray Mancini, forever linked by the tragedy their fight entailed and produced. Thankfully, and to Krieger’s credit, Kim is never marginalized as boxer or man in this book. I was both surprised and glad as Kriegel took the time to create a mini biography of Kim and his family. An entire chapter is devoted to developing the real Kim instead of an ominous shadow, a man who left behind a pregnant wife and a grieving mother who committed suicide, joining her son in death three months after the fight. Krieger paints a powerful conclusionary scene of Mancini’s face-to-face meeting with Kim’s son, 30 years later. Ironically, Ray Mancini is brought to life on the pages by Krieger after the Kim fight, the opposite of what happened in real life when everything began to fall apart for Mancini.
The Kim fight is representative of the downfall of Ray Mancini as a boxer (a former champion at age 23), person, and brand with lucrative endorsement deals that made him one of the highest paid athletes of the early ‘80s. Mancini became tainted by death itself through no real fault of his own though he took on the burden willingly. It led to drug use, extramarital affairs and other ways of attempting to buy physical comfort he could not find mentally. Mancini entered the ring eight more times, suffering losses in half those battles. He and his brand were tarnished and broken - as was the entire sport - ultimately leading to the changing of the championship distance from 15 rounds to 12. Not only was the Kim fight a pivotal point of the book but for boxing as a whole, which Kriegel could have emphasized or gone into more detail about, especially given his meticulous look at the culture that shaped Mancini’s early life.
While Mancini is never overly glorified or not held accountable for his actions, Kriegel does paint a picture of boxing as the seedy back alley of sports. Mancini is portrayed as the good guy in the white hat while managers, trainers, promoters and people who helped Mancini achieve his dream have “Come to the Dark Side” wordplay associated with them that plays on boxing stereotypes. Bob Arum, if nothing else, is honest, giving exact figures on bribes he doled out to sanctioning body officials to get Mancini in the title picture. Kriegel intimates this might not be anything out of the norm to a Mancini who grew up in the mob-rich environment of Youngstown, Ohio. Kriegel even suggests referee Richard Greene (who officiated the tragic Duk-Koo Kim fight) might have been murdered instead of committing suicide, as officially ruled by the police.
As an avid reader of boxing books, I look for and am reassured of a book’s quality by the inclusion of footnotes and an expansive index. Thankfully, this book was given these assets for boxing historians and researchers to enjoy. There are 16 chapters, along with a prologue (titled “Dementia”), epilogue and acknowledgements. I did find it a bit thin on candid or revealing photos outside of boxing. I do like the black and white cover photo very much, showing Mancini in a bit of a Che Guevara-style pose, looking off into the distance with an intense focus and depicted with dramatic flair.
Ray Mancini was not an all-time great boxer and this book – while entertaining and worth having in your pugilistic library – like its subject, falls short of being an all-time great in boxing literary circles. It has the same appeal and sparkle as its subject; you want to read and root for it but you also need to understand the author may lack a certain intuitive depth about the sport of boxing. Perhaps this is because the best parts of this book deal with Mancini, post-boxing, and how well he has done without the sport. In fact, Ray Mancini might have been better off had he been the son of a screenwriter instead of a boxer. The irony of that is it would have deprived us of this great story.
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