February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

As a boy, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini idolized his father. He would walk down the street with the limping, half-blind little man and would be amazed at the way people in steel-girded Youngstown, Ohio worshiped him. “The uncrowned champ,” they called him. Sitting amid the memorabilia in the family attic, Ray would read the yellowed clips from the New York papers. He discovered that Lenny Mancini, the original “Boom Boom,” had been about to fight for the world lightweight championship in 1942 when he was drafted and deprived of the chance. Fate determined he would not have another. Badly wounded at Metz in 1944, he was never again the same fighter.

Young Ray drank all this in and, through the years, nursed an idea. In 1976, at 15, he announced he would train for the AAU Junior Olympics. Three years later he turned pro, and in 1982, in his second shot at the title, won the championship his father had not. Yet almost as soon as the dream was realized, it suddenly lost much of its luster. Last November, in Las Vegas, in his second defense of the World Boxing Association lightweight championship, Ray punched a courageous South Korean named Duk Koo Kim into an irreversible coma that ended in death. After painful self-examination, Ray Mancini has made up his mind to fight again. This Sunday, in St. Vincent, Italy, he will meet the British lightweight champion, George Feeney, in a 10-round nontitle bout to be televised by NBC. A few days before leaving for Italy, Mancini spoke to PEOPLE writer William Plummer about the Kim fight and his decision to return to the ring.

I knew it would be a physical fight. I seen a tape of Mr. Kim winning the Oriental championship. It was brutal. First thing I noticed was how strong he was, but what got me was his intensity. I thought I could box him, hit him with the jab easy. But I found that whenever I jabbed, he countered with the left hand. My strategy was to keep a pace on him he wasn’t used to. I knew I’d get hit with that left hand, but, damn, I didn’t think I’d have to eat so many.

You can see in the films that I did a lot of things wrong. I’d get hit, and I’d stand still and try to take off on him with my right. After a while I’d start catching him with the uppercut to the heart. I also started breaking the hook off on him. Every time he came with the left, I would break off the hook. I must have hit him a thousand times with it.

In the third round he cut my ear. My hand blew up in the fourth, and it hurt every time I hit him from then on. I figured the worst it could be was broke. I said, “I ain’t worrying about it now. After the fight it will heal.” The fight was close, but there was no doubt in my mind I was ahead. I felt things going my way in the fifth or sixth round when he started groaning at the body shots.

Going into the later rounds I felt great. In the ninth round he raised up his arms, you know, in a champion’s gesture. He was a champion. He had the heart to be one. I just waved at him. “C’mon,” I said. He was just showing me he was going to be there, and I was acknowledging him.

I went out in the 12th and boxed him. At the end of the round I clapped my hands and winked at Bill Cosby and the people ringside. That’s how good I felt. They started cheering me.

The 13th round, I came out and I seen him getting off the stool slow. That’s when instinct took over. I went out and hit him with a straight right hand and kamikazed him. Forty unanswered punches. When I didn’t take him out, I said, “Wooo! What’s this guy made of!” Then came the 14th. The punch that hurt him was a left hook. You can see on the tape that he shuddered back. Then, bang, a straight right hand. Boy, I hit him square with that…

I didn’t know they carried him out on a stretcher until I was back in my hotel room after the fight. Griff [Murphy Griffith], my trainer, come in. My mom’s sitting on one side of me, my sister on the other. They’re holding ice packs on my hands. Mom’s crying the whole time. She’s relieved and happy. But my hands, you had to see them. They were like balloons. My one eye was closed. And my ear. Who wants to see their baby looking like that? Griff says to me, “They took Kim to the hospital.” I say, “What for?” At first I thought he just had a broken jaw. Griff points at his head. I didn’t know what to think. All the elation rushed right out of me.

I’m not the type to expect the worst. I just waited to see what happened. Dave Wolf [Mancini’s manager] called from the hospital. I said, “What’s it look like?” He said, “Bad. It looks like he’s going to die.” I stayed mostly in my room for two days, just waiting to hear, reading the newspapers, watching TV. Father [Tim] O’Neill from Youngstown was with me. He said a special Mass on Sunday. Just before the Mass I made a statement on CBS. I said I hoped nobody thought I intentionally tried to hurt Mr. Kim. I said I didn’t blame myself, but I didn’t alienate myself from what happened either. People were saying, “Oh, don’t worry, Ray. It’s not your fault.” But you can’t say that. I was a part of it. When I was alone I kept looking at my hands, just looking at them, hard.

I came home to Youngstown on Monday, and on Tuesday we had a press conference. I told everybody, “I’m not making any decision now. I’m not talking about retiring, but I’m not talking about my next fight either. I need time to heal, to think. Please, let me and my family alone for a while.” And they did. The town showed true class, I think. Usually, after a fight, there are all these banners and signs all over town. “Congratulations, Boom Boom.” This time there wasn’t a one. But people didn’t know how to act toward me. Nobody knew what to say. They’d start to say, “Boom Boom, I’m really sorry.” And I’d try to help them out. I’d say, “Hey, everything’s going to be all right. Ray’s doing okay.” It was something I had to work out myself.

Father O’Neill was a big help. He spoke to me as a friend. You see, he’s a great fight fan and a friend since I was in high school. I told him what was in my heart, and he said, “Ray, you just pray for the man’s soul. Leave it in the hands of the Maker. You can’t blame yourself. All this is happening for reasons we don’t understand. We just got to accept it, and deal with it as best we can.” Then Mr. Kim died.

After a couple of weeks I knew, intellectually, that I wanted to fight again. Father O’Neill and me, we talked about it. I told him I wanted to fight and asked him what he thought. He said, “Ray, you and me are special. I feel if I should run away to get married, which I’ve no intention of doing, I’d be denying people my gift of consolation. If you don’t fight again, I feel you’ll be denying people your gift. People look up to you. You give strength to the community. You’re a good Christian example for the kids.” That helped me a lot. You see, a lot of people live through me. It’s hard to say, but it’s true. I must have got 500 letters. Ninety-nine percent were encouraging me to keep fighting. The other percent were saying, “Boom Boom, we like you. We don’t want you to get hurt. Maybe it’s best you get out.”

The big thing is I went to the Gonzalo Montellano-Kenny Bogner fight in Atlantic City on Nov. 27. I wanted to see how I would react at a fight. There I was, and the main event come on. All of a sudden I found myself bobbing and weaving in my seat. I was wishing I was in there. I knew then I had to fight again. I made my announcement the next day, just two weeks after the tragedy. I didn’t want to turn it into a Ray Leonard type of thing, where everybody was in suspense.

What shook me about Mr. Kim was he was the type of guy who fights to his last breath. You heard what he wrote on his lampshade: “Kill or be killed.” I said to myself after the fight, “Excuse me, but I’m the same type of fighter.” That made me wonder. But I don’t live worried. I just go in there to do my job. Who’s to say in another tough fight it couldn’t be me? I pray for protection. But my mind’s been nothing but confident. You see, I been through adversity before. I feel I’m a stronger person for what I’ve been through. I’m no superman, but I won’t wilt.

I’ve always thought about how long I want to fight. Right now the big money fights are in front of me, and I think I’m entitled to the paydays a champion deserves. After my accountants and lawyers tell me I’m comfortable, I’ll get out. I’m not interested in making $10 million. A couple of million might not be bad. I want to go to college. I want a family. I’m not going to wait until I’m 30 to get married. I want to raise kids. I’d be a damn good father, although I’m not sure I’d be a good husband.

Right now I’m not even thinking about the Kim fight. It’s completely out of my mind. People say, “What if you get this guy Feeney on the ropes?” And I say, “I will fire.” You see, I’m blessed with mental strength. I’ve learned to block out the tragedy. God rest his soul, the man is buried. Every bad feeling I’ve felt, any guilt, is buried with him. It’s funny. Even before the fight with Mr. Kim I was asking myself why I fight. I don’t know why myself sometimes. I don’t come from poverty. If it weren’t for my father I would never be a fighter.

Boxing has helped me to develop my character. It’s made me more responsible. It’s given me pride. It’s given me goals. It’s taught me self-sacrifice. See, I’m the type of guy who’s trying to be the best person I can be. Same thing in the ring. I’m trying to be the best fighter I can be. The truth is, I do it because it’s what I do best. Because I love it.

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