Mark Kriegel, a columnist for FoxSports.com, is one of the best sports biographers. His previous books chronicling the lives of Joe Namath (2005) and Pete Maravich (2008) were definitive.
Both men were legends in their respective sports, football and basketball. With "The Good Son: The Life of Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini," Kriegel plays a long shot and wins a unanimous decision.
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Ray Mancini was a boxing champion, specifically the lightweight champion of the world in the early 1980s, but he never reached the status of legend. He was, as Kriegel shrewdly observes, "The Last White Ethnic" in his sport, unless one counts heavyweight Gerry Cooney, who was a contender at roughly the same time.
Mancini held the lightweight title from 1982 to 1984 but made his real impact on the American public only with his second title defense, which was also the last great fight of his career. He fought 13 thrilling rounds with South Korean challenger Duk Koo Kim before stopping Kim in the 14th round. Kim died of head injuries just four days later.
Wisely, Kriegel does not focus so much on boxing as the forces that shaped Boom Boom's life before the Kim fight and the ways in which Kim's death changed not only Mancini's but other lives as well. Kim's mother committed suicide after her son's death, as did the fight's referee, Richard Green, who was plagued with guilt for not stopping the fight sooner.
It also changed boxing. The tragedy, according to one commentator, "'was the end of boxing, certainly on network television. The ratings dropped like a rock after that. After a few years, boxing was no longer on the networks.'"
Mancini was born in 1961 in Youngstown, Ohio, a steel mill town that, by the time Ray was a young man, was known as "steel's sick city" as well as "Murder Town" and "Crime Town USA." His father, Lenny, had been a top lightweight before World War II; shrapnel from a German mortar shell went a long way toward ending his boxing career. Young Ray, whose straight ahead, unrelenting style earned him his father's old nickname, Boom Boom, made it his life's mission to win the title his father never had.
He finally succeeded on May 8, 1982, when he stopped Art Frias and won the World Boxing Association lightweight crown.
Mancini's epic fight with Kim takes place roughly halfway through the book. In boxing terms, Kriegel knows how to set up a good emotional punch, and he plays on the major themes of Mancini's life like a master novelist. Everywhere he went, Ray was known as "the man who killed Duk Koo Kim." And if they didn't know, there was Warren Zevon's song, "Boom Boom Mancini," to remind them ("The name of the game is be hit and hit back").
Mancini was never the same fighter, either. In June 1984, he lost his title to Livingstone Bramble, and from there his career was a series of starts and stops. He gave up the ring for good in 1992.
In defeat, Mancini became a more complex, interesting person. He moved to California, for years maintaining friendships with, among others, Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, Ed O'Neill and David Mamet, who gave him a small part in his fight film "Redbelt." He connected with his Italian roots by opening a wine shop in his native Youngstown. In 2010, he produced a superb documentary about his rust-ravaged hometown. It was called "Youngstown: Still Standing." The same might be said of its most famous son.
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
"The Good Son"