IN THE DARKBANAM-RI, Gangwon - On a gentle slope above a coastal road here, five hours east of Seoul, a stately, pillar-like tombstone stands at the edge of a pine clearing. Though the marker offers several details about the life of a celebrated South Korean, much of the information, including the dates of the deceased's birth and death, and even his name, contradicts what the public knows.
Few people visit the grave because few know where it is, also odd since the marker honors a man who has become a folk hero in Korea, the subject of a new movie later this spring, the second film about his life.
The boxer Kim Duk-koo, who rests in this fishing village with a population of 240, was barely known in Korea until he died in the desert of the United States two decades ago. Years later, and after a good deal of speculation, few seem to know much about Kim.
This much is certain: On Nov. 17, 1982, Kim Duk-koo died from a blood clot in his brain the size of a cell phone. Four days before his death he had spent 40 savage minutes in a Las Vegas, Nevada, prizefight with Ray Mancini, battling for the World Boxing Association's lightweight championship. Millions of viewers saw Kim go down in the 14th round of that fight, struggle to get up, then fall back into eternal blackness. Kim's tombstone says he was 23 when he died, but other documents show he was 26. School records indicate he was 27. His marker identifies him as Lee Deuk-gu. Many in this impoverished hamlet, his hometown, had no idea what Kim did for a living until his final fight. His mother, buried nearby, had only learned her son had gone abroad to box as he lay on his deathbed.
Who was Kim Duk-koo and why all the mystery?
Banam-ri holds few answers; just his remains. Kim's half brother runs a motel here but he isn't talking. Other relatives have scattered and refuse to speak of the boxer.
In Goseong, just down the road, a childhood friend, Kim Mun-sik, says, "Kim Duk-koo was so poor. He was always hungry. Most of the time he came to elementary school without breakfast."
His mother pried seaweed off the coastal rocks and sold the stuff in the street as a means of supporting Kim and an extended family. As hard as those times were, Kim Mun-sik remembers that his friend used to carry a blind classmate on his back to school and home every day, four kilometers each way. The recollection causes Kim Mun-sik to frown in a search for answers. "Kim was good-hearted, but being poor, having problems at home, I think it all embarrassed him. He had trouble expressing his feelings."
In the early 1970s,when he was 14 or 15, Kim disappeared. Five years later, Kim Mun-sik ran into his friend at the bus terminal in Goseong. "He had a purple bruise over his eye. I had no idea he was a boxer and he didn't mention it. He told me he worked in a factory in Seoul."
He had gone to Seoul to find a better life, to forget. Skinny but ambitious, in the capital he shined shoes, sold chewing gum, served as a baker's assistant. One night in 1974 he passed by the window of an appliance store. A television was showing one of the first boxing matches to be aired in Korea, a title fight in the Philippines. The Korean boxer was a junior lightweight named Kim Hyun-chi. Kim Duk-koo had fought kids back in Banam-ri, had taken on anyone who made fun of his blind friend, or teased Kim about the tattered clothes he wore or the three husbands his mother had had. Though smaller than others, Kim could hold his own. Something immediately clicked: People earned money boxing. A year or so later he heard that Kim Hyun-chi, the guy on TV, ran a gym, Dong-a gym, in Noryangjin-dong. He went there and said he wanted to learn to box. Kim Hyun-chi was trying to keep his own fading career alive. Besides, there were a lot of boxers in the gym, many who seemed more promising. This kid from the country, a lefthander and so very raw, didn't get the gym owner's attention.
To compensate, Kim worked harder than anyone. He had a small room in Noryangjin, but he hung out in the gym for hours, slept there some nights.
Doesn't that kid have a home? Kim Hyun-chi asked a trainer.
No, he was told, he's a goa, an orphan.
Kim's youth, a childhood chum thinks, was so miserable that he later pretended it didn't exist. His father, Lee Dong-seok, died when Kim was 1 and the parade of stepfathers, one of whom gave him the name Kim, the squabbles with his new half brothers, the penniless existence and an increasing detachment by his mother brought bad memories.
After an amateur record of 29-4, Kim turned professional in 1978, and Kim Hyun-chi agreed to manage him. The kid had grown by now, gained some expertise and was beginning to establish himself as a scrappy fighter. Kim Hyun-chi didn't think he could be a champion, though. Oh, maybe champion of Korea, but not more. Even so, the manager noticed that Kim had something few fighters had: an absolutely fierce - at times frightening - determination. He was like one of those small wind-up toys, only someone had thrown away the key.
Kim Hwan-jin, Kim Duk-koo's pal at Dong-a gym, also recognized this internal drive. If other boxers ran around Dongdaemun Stadium 10 times in training, Kim Duk-koo would run 20 times. Kim set dead aim at being Korean champion, says Kim Hwan-jin, and in 1980, he won that crown. Two years later, completely focused, he became Asian lightweight champion, a title he successfully defended three times.
In 1982, the Dong-a gym moved to Toegye-ro, to the third floor of an office building. In a business on the floor above, a pretty young girl named Lee Mi-young worked as an assistant. "He used to go back and forth to the fourth floor," remembers Kim Hwan-jin. "Next thing I knew, the girl was pregnant."
Happiness finally seemed to find Kim. He talked of marriage and a future. On his own he took classes at a vocational high school in Seoul. He read books, not comics, but books without pictures. He's bright, people said with surprise. But unlike many folk heroes, Kim had a dark side. He was no saint: Not long before he fought for the Asian championship, Kim spent a night with two prostitutes in a Seoul hotel. The next day, when he arrived late at the gym, Kim Hyun-chi fired the young boxer. Devastated, Kim went home and swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, though not enough to die. The two men later patched up their differences.
By the late summer of '82, the WBA lightweight champion, Ray Mancini, was looking for someone to defend his title against. From Youngstown, Ohio, Mancini was a flat-footed brawler, a Rocky Marciano throwback nicknamed "Boom Boom." At 21, Mancini was not technically blessed, but he hit extremely hard and had great charisma in and out of the ring. When Mancini's manager received film of Kim Duk-koo, he thought "Boom Boom" and the South Korean would make a good match: power versus quickness.
Boxing observers were skeptical. Though Kim was the No. 1 lightweight contender in the WBA ranks, he had never fought outside Asia. He had a 17-1-1 record as a pro, and 8 knockouts, but he was an unknown.
Even so, a deal was made. The scheduled 15-round fight would be held at the new outdoor ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. CBS-TV would telecast the bout nationally and Mancini was guaranteed $250,000 for the fight, Kim, $20,000. The money seemed enormous to Kim, who even as Asian champion lived hand-to-mouth.
Before he left for the United States, Kim told his friend Kim Hwan-jin, "Next time you see me, I'll be holding a championship belt."
Kim carried that determination to the United States. On a lampshade in his Caesars Palace hotel room he scribbled in Korean "Kill or be killed." American sportswriters duly reported this resolve, while also noting with some puzzlement Kim's unusual training methods, such as pounding a tire with a sledgehammer 200 times a day and ingesting large amounts of ginseng and garlic.
Kim Hyun-chi thought Kim Duk-koo's speed and being a southpaw would help him. The two boxers each weighed 61 kilograms (134 pounds), stood 1.70 meters (5-foot-6) and had a similar reach. In some eyes, the men mirrored each other: a righthanded-lefthanded reflection. But Kim's manager didn't buy the mirror hype. "I knew," he says today, "how hard Mancini could punch." The strategy would be for Kim to escape those punches.
Sixty-five hundred people, including the comedian Bill Cosby and the singer Frank Sinatra, turned out for the fight, which began at 3 p.m. time, a hazy, cool afternoon. From the opening bell, the fight was a war. Neither boxer held back, though Kim at times seemed tense. Still, his nerve and toughness startled Mancini. The fight remained close through the first 12 rounds. In the 13th, Mancini raced from his corner and landed an unanswered 39-punch bombardment that Kim couldn't escape. Somehow, the South Korean hung on. When the 14th round started, Kim still appeared game, though his swollen jaw looked to be broken and the slump of shoulders showed utter exhaustion. Though spent himself, Mancini reached down in the first 19 seconds of the 14th to connect with two vicious rights to Kim's head. The second blow floored Kim with such force that it lifted his legs into the air. Rolling over, grabbing at the ropes, he somehow pulled himself up briefly, to beat the count. But when the referee saw Kim's unfocused eyes and wobbling knees, he stopped the fight. Mancini had won on a technical knockout. Kim's corner did not protest the TKO, for Kim swiftly fell back to the canvas and collapsed. On the other side of the ring Mancini hardly resembled a victor: His left ear was ripped open, his right eye hideously puffed and nearly closed. Later, when cornermen cut off Mancini's gloves, they found his left fist had doubled in size from landing hooks against Kim's skull.
The final round caused fans to howl in appreciation, but the celebration was short-lived. Kim Duk-koo's trainer, Kim Yoon-gu, began taking off Kim's shoes in the ring, not thinking anything was wrong. As he worked, the trainer told Kim he had fought his heart out. He complimented his countryman on his great pride, his refusal to go down. But suddenly Kim Yoon-gu grew worried: Kim Duk-koo wasn't answering.
Unease filled Kim Hyun-chi as well, particularly when his boxer left the ring on a stretcher.
At Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, Kim had not regained consciousness. A brain scan showed a right subdural hematoma, and doctors performed two and a half hours of surgery. The clot had been formed by a broken blood vessel due in all probability, physicians said, to one tremendous punch to the head. The clot was removed, but Kim was put on a life support system. "Very critical," said a neurosurgeon.
Mancini huddled with his parents and a family priest, and prayed. Hospital officials asked Kim Hyun-chi whom they should call.
"He doesn't have any family," the manager said. "He's an orphan."
Late Sunday, someone at the hospital told Kim Hyun-chi that he had a telephone call - from Korea.
Who is it? The manager asked.
Kim Duk-koo's brother, he was told.
Recovering from that jolt, Kim Hyun-chi learned that Kim Duk-koo had three brothers - stepbrothers - plus a stepsister and a mother. One of those half brothers, the one on the phone, wanted to know Kim Duk-koo's condition. When the manager updated him, the brother asked if the boxer, born a Buddhist, would be cremated.
"I think he ought to be buried," Kim Hyun-chi, a Roman Catholic, answered. The brother seemed to accept that.
The broadcast of the fight had been delayed in Korea until later Sunday morning, Seoul time. MBC-TV, for reasons of its own, told audiences the fight was live. Thus, many Koreans did not know what had happened until the fight was well over. When the information did break, Kim's family in Banam-ri seemed the last people to learn it. Some family members did not realize Kim was in the United States until they heard it on television. The Ministry of Sports confirmed the seriousness of Kim Duk-koo's injury and the government flew the boxer's stepbrother and mother to Seoul to await more news.
The news did not get better. On Monday, Nov. 15, Kim's neurosurgeon said, "Mr. Kim has severe brain swelling and it's terminal. If we take him off life support, he'll die."
On Tuesday, four Korean acupuncturists from Los Angeles showed up at the Las Vegas hospital. The boxer's family had asked that the acupuncturists treat Kim, and for more than an hour they stuck 40 needles into the boxer's legs and arms in an attempt to get blood to flow to his brain. The treatments didn't work; Kim's fixed eyes remained fixed, his body as lifeless as a log. Later that day, Kim Duk-koo's stepbrother and mother arrived in Las Vegas. A tiny, weary looking woman in a white gown, Yang Sun-yo, 66, seemed terribly fragile, a composite of shock and denial. She isn't strong, thought Kim Hyun-chi. At the Las Vegas airport, reporters had asked Yang Sun-yo if she had made a decision yet.
"Decision?" she asked, still not comprehending that her son was unable to breathe on his own and wouldn't breathe at all if she decreed.
At the hospital's ICU unit, Yang Sun-yo leaned over her son's bed. "Open your eyes, see your mother," she sobbed. "Please open your eyes."
On Wednesday morning, the acupuncturists returned, but Kim again failed to respond. Only his good, strong heart was keeping him alive. When the healers left, Yang Sun-yo turned to Kim, her only natural born child, and said, "If you don't live, how can I?" That afternoon, the older woman gave permission to have her son taken off a respirator and agreed that his heart and kidneys be donated to two young Asian-Americans.
At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 17, a day before what appears on Kim Duk-koo's tombstone, a Nevada district judge declared the boxer legally dead. He was the fourth boxer to die in 1982 from ring-related injuries and his death caused the American Medical Association to again call for a ban of boxing.
A memorial service was held at Seoul's Munwha arena, and 2,000 people showed up. A few days later, burial took place at the little pine-shaded cemetery in Banam-ri. Fifty friends, mostly members of the Korean boxing community, journeyed to the isolated village.
The Kim family reportedly received about 40 percent of the winnings from the fight and from a fund set up by the WBA and the Korean Boxing Association. Lee Mi-young received the rest. At her son's burial, Yang Sun-yo, glassy-eyed from the week's events, told Kim Hyun-chi that she didn't care about the money. "It won't bring back my son."
Through the years, speculation about supposed trouble among the Kims has been endless. Most of the stories circulating mention the family members allegedly fighting over Kim's money. By all accounts, there were bad words between the stepbrothers and Kim Duk-koo when they were younger, another probable reason why Kim Duk-koo had left home as a teenager. Later, one story had Kim's mother buying a new car with the money. But in fact Yang Sun-yo used some of the money to buy a loudspeaker for the town hall in Banam-ri, so announcements could be broadcast to residents. Such speakers are common in the countryside, and for Kim's mother, who knew so little about her son, this likely was an opportunity to keep up with the times.
If the loudspeaker comforted Yang Sun-yo, the feeling didn't last. Suffering from depression, two years after Kim Duk-koo's death, the boxer's mother reportedly took pills and never woke up. She lies 10 meters from her son, the only two plots on the gentle slope in Banam-ri. Her grave is unmarked.
Before Kim Duk-koo came along, boxing in Korea never had been wildly popular. But Kim's death gave it new life. Almost unknown in his homeland when he lived, Kim has gained far greater fame through his death. Several Web sites extol his brief life. The American troubadour Warren Zevon wrote a song about Kim's fight with Mancini. A biographical movie called "Tiger Without Tears" appeared in 1984. A new movie about Kim, titled "Champion," written and directed by Kwak Kyung-taek, is due in June.
Interest in boxing in Korea crested in 1988 when another South Korean fighter, Byeon Jeong-il, a bantamweight, lost a decision to a Bulgarian at the Seoul Olympics. When the match concluded, Korean team officials jumped into the ring and attacked the referee, who was from New Zealand. Byeon staged his own protest by sitting on a stool in his corner and refusing to budge. More than an hour later Byeon did get up, but only when someone turned off the lights in the arena.
That bizarre and embarrassing incident, televised around the world, sent boxing on a sharp decline in Korea. A final blow for the sport came in 1992 when the venerable Dong-a gym went out of business. Economics had forced Kim Hyun-chi to close the gym's doors. When Dong-a vanished, so did a large part of boxing history in Korea. Those who own a videotape of Kim's fight with Mancini, such as Kim Yoon-gu, never watch it. "I can't," the trainer says. "It hurts too much."
Kim Hyun-chi, who now has a gray beard and occasionally still promotes fights, sometimes wonders what Kim Duk-koo would be doing if he had survived the fight. It's likely Kim wouldn't be boxing, for he would be in his mid-40s, maybe close to 50. Would he be married? Lee Mi-young gave birth to Kim's son in June 1983, and she got married sometime after that. "Boom Boom" Mancini left boxing early, in his mid-20s. Though Mancini briefly returned to the ring, his career ended with the Kim fight and the burden that he knew he would have to shoulder forever. When Mancini's daughter, Nina, was in third grade, she came home one day and said, "Pappi, they said at school that you murdered someone."
These days, Mancini develops films for Hollywood. And Kim Duk-koo? Where would he be?
"I don't know," Kim Hyun-chi says, stroking his beard. "I don't know because I didn't really know him that well."
Apparently no one did.
by Toby Smith