Inside The Vault | The death that changed boxing forever

On this day in 1982, Duk-koo Kim died at the age of 23.

In this edition of ‘Inside The Vault‘, David Smith revisits the repercussions of the South Korean boxer’s tragic death after his fight against Ray Mancini in Las Vegas. 



“When a man cries because his heart aches, the whole world cries”

A line from Duk-koo Kim’s journal.

Las Vegas, November 14th, 1982.

A fight that changed the world, but for tragic reasons.

Duk-koo Kim arrived in Nevada for his first fight on American soil to challenge Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini for the Italian-American’s World Boxing Association lightweight title.

Two years Mancini’s senior, Kim had already won the Korean lightweight championship in December 1980 and the Orient and Pacific title in February 1982 by the time he touched down in the United States.

After a stopover in Los Angeles, Kim arrived in Vegas on November 6th.

“This is like heaven,” he said.

It was no surprise that the bright lights of Vegas dazzled the South Korean, who had come up the hard way.

Kim’s father died from a virus when Kim was two, with the infant surviving after picking up the same illness. 

His mother – who Kim described as “a woman of great misfortune” – married four times, and left Kim in his sister’s care at a young age.

After being sacked from his job as a welder in a steel mill, Kim was temporarily homeless before he sourced a job selling palm-reading books.

As an amateur, Kim won 29 of his 33 fights, and he made his professional debut in 1978 in Seoul.

By the time he made his way to the ring to challenge Mancini, his pro record stood at 17 wins, one draw and one defeat from 19 bouts.

The loss had come in his third fight against Jong-Sil Lee in December 1978, with Kim then drawing his seventh outing against Jong-Pyo Kim in Busan in January 1980.

However, the South Korean went on to win his next 12 fights in a row, winning two belts on the way to his showdown with Mancini in Vegas.

However, just one of his 17 career victories had come via knockout.

Kim was a massive underdog, but arrived at Caesar’s Palace in confident form.

“Either he dies, or I die.”  

Duk-koo Kim

In a cruel, twisted foreshadowing of what was to come, the 23-year-old even commissioned a carpenter to make a coffin for Kim to bring Mancini back to Korea after the fight.

Ohio native Mancini had won 24 of his 25 fights before sharing a ring with Kim, and unlike his challenger, was accustomed to 15-round fights.

It was a sunny afternoon in Vegas when the fighters made their way to the outdoor ring for a fight which was to be televised.

Duk-koo made his intent clear from the opening bell; charging across the ring and catching Mancini with a left hand.

The fighters went toe-to-toe from the outset, and by the end of the third, Mancini sported a bleeding ear and a badly swollen left hand.

However, Mancini was the superior boxer, and the Youngstown native began to take control of the world title fight.

Both fighters had swollen faces and eyes as the slug-fest wore on.

Kim exhibited remarkable durability and resilience as the fight entered the closing rounds, and managed to retain his footing after a bruising uppercut from Mancini in the 12th.

Mancini registered a reported 45 shots to the head in the 13th round alone.

According to the New York Times, it took Duk-koo 79 seconds of the 13th round to throw a punch.

Duk-koo – who was clearly fatigued – withstood the onslaught, and even peppered Mancini with a barrage of punches before the end of the round.

CBS analyst Tim Ryan, who was providing commentary on the fight, couldn’t believe his eyes:


“This is the challenger, Duk-koo Kim.You may not have heard of him before. You will remember him today.”

CBS commentator Tim Ryan

The challenger was given words of encouragement by his trainer Kim Yoon-Gu in his corner before the 14th round, who told his fighter that Mancini was exhausted, and that now was the time to finish him.

“He clenched his teeth, nodded and said ‘Yes, I’ll do that’. And that was it. That was the last thing he ever said,” Yoon-Gu said.

Tragedy struck in that 14th and penultimate round, which lasted just 19 seconds.

Mancini hurt his opponent with a body shot, and followed it up with a right hand which landed on Duk-koo’s nose.

‘Boom Boom’ pressed forward with another combination, and sent Duk-koo to the canvas with a powerful right hand.

Referee Richard Green intervened to bring a halt to the fight as Kim struggled to get up. Kim had somehow managed to pull himself up against the ropes, but Green had seen enough.

Mancini was declared the victor.

Kim collapsed in his corner soon after the stoppage, and had to be carried from the ring on a stretcher.

He was taken to Desert Springs Hospital, where CT scans revealed a blood clot on the fighter’s brain. 

The 23-year-old underwent a lengthy operation on his brain, but he could not be saved.

On November 18th, four days after the fight, Duk-koo Kim died at Desert Springs Hospital.

Kim was survived by his pregnant fiancee Lee Young-mi, who gave birth to his son seven months later.

His tragic death would change many lives, and alter the sport of boxing forever.
Kim’s mother Sun-nyo Yang committed suicide four months after her son’s death, drinking a bottle of pesticide.

Richard Green, who had refereed the fight, also committed suicide within months of Kim’s death.

Mancini fought on, but those closest to him claimed he was never the same after Kim’s death, and fought just eight more times. He won four fights in a row after that fight in Vegas, but lost his last four bouts, retiring with a record of 29-5.

“It took all the honour, it took all the love… it took everything away from me that night.”

Ray Mancini

“He was never the same,” promoter Bob Arum said, in quotes reported by ESPN. “He didn’t have the same zip, the same enthusiasm. He didn’t have the same zest for fighting.”

It was not just the people in Kim’s radius who were affected.

The WBC responded to the boxer’s death immediately, cutting the length of world title fights from the traditional 15 rounds to 12.

This reduction was reinforced by a study which claimed that fighters were most susceptible to serious injuries during those final three rounds.

The WBA and WBO followed suit in 1988, with the IBF also making the change in 1989.

Kim’s death was a horrible tragedy.

At 23, he had so much to offer boxing and life.

His death serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of boxing, and the reduction of rounds following his death has no doubt saved many other fighters from a similar fate.