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Michael Shapiro
April 27, 1987
A young boxer achieved in death the fame he wanted in life
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April 27, 1987

Remembering Duk Koo Kim

A young boxer achieved in death the fame he wanted in life

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The boy, Chi Wan Kim, sleeps in his mother's arms. He had not been able to sit still all afternoon, and he and his grandfather had shot at each other with plastic guns. The boy has a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle and his mother. His father, Duk Koo Kim, a Korean boxer more famous in death than in life, is dead. He died seven months before the boy was born. Chi Wan Kim has his father's round face. He often asks, "Where is my father?" and his mother tells him, "He got on a plane and went to the States." There is truth in her tale. The father did go to America, five years ago, and that is where he died.

The mother, Young Mee Lee, was 21 and engaged to marry Duk Koo Kim when he went to Las Vegas in November 1982 to fight Ray Mancini for the WBA lightweight championship of the world. In the 14th round of the fight, Mancini hit Kim twice on the head. At the second blow, Kim collapsed, tried to get up and fell down again. After a blood clot was removed from his brain at the Desert Springs Hospital in Las Vegas, the doctor said Kim would not live long.

Kim was attached to a respirator, and his mother flew in from Seoul with his half brother, Jong Ho Lee. The half brother brought herbal medicine, and the mother brought acupuncturists. Kim lived on the respirator for four days before one of the acupuncture specialists finally said, "He belongs to the dead." The mother allowed the machine to be turned off.

Three months later, Kim's mother was dead. She had drunk a bottle of pesticide. Neighbors speculated that she killed herself because of all the fighting over the money the family would receive from her son's insurance. Four months after the mother's death, Kim's son was born. A memorial service was held on the first anniversary of Kim's death, and in time those who cared most about him went on with their lives.

Though he had won the Orient and Pacific Boxing Federation lightweight title at the time of his death, people do not speak of Duk Koo Kim as one of his country's great boxers. They remember him best for all but dying before a national television audience. His picture holds no prominence in his manager's gymnasium in Seoul, and the only poster billing one of Kim's fights is tucked in a corner, above a rusting bicycle.

Kim was 23 years old when he died. For most of his life he was poor. His father had died when he was two years old, and his mother married four times. Kim's first home of his own was a shabby room in a Seoul boardinghouse. When he started making money as a fighter, he dreamed of buying that house and of one day walking from it with his wife and child to the Olympic Stadium to see the 1988 Games. His legacy became the 14-round championship fight and a name that joined those of Benny (Kid) Paret, Willie Classen and Johnny Owen—other boxers whose deaths made people ponder the wisdom of the sport.

Kim was buried on a hill overlooking the fishing village of Kojin, in Kangwon Province, where he grew up and which he left at 16 to seek his fortune. He earned $20,000 for his last fight, but his fianc�e's portion of his insurance policy was worth far more, $60,000. In the month after Kim's death, Young Mee Lee was especially upset. On the mistaken assumption that she was a Buddhist, there were reports that she was going to marry Kim posthumously so his soul might rest easily. But Lee is a Christian.

After Chi Wan was born, she used her inheritance to help buy a new house for herself, her parents, her brother and her son. Describing the early days of her romance with Kim, Lee says, "It was love at first sight for him, so he used to chase after me. At first he asked me for a cup of tea, and after that he called for dates. That was in the fall of 1981, so the memory is not so clear. In the beginning I didn't like him too much because he was a boxer. He was serious, but I wasn't ready for a relationship. He kept on calling, but I turned him down. Finally he wrote me a letter."

She finds the letter and says, "It begins, 'When a man cries because his heart aches, the whole world cries.' Eventually I began to like his personality. He was very strong, very brave, manly and well-mannered. I visited where he lived—it was a poor area." He lived with a friend, the boxer Bong Sang Lee, in a room where Kim hung framed pictures of his fights on the wall and kept a scrapbook, his most valued possession. He also wrote slogans and pinned them up. One of them read, POVERTY IS MY TEACHER. It was written in blood. Lee says, "He showed me his journal."

The journal, which he was keeping at the time of his death in 1982, began with an apology. "With a mixed feeling of fear and excitement, I am afraid that, hardly knowing how to spell, I may become a laughingstock for writing this story.... On my second birthday my father passed away. Soon after, I suffered a disease which almost killed me.... My mother, Yang Sun Nyo, was a woman of great misfortune; she married four times.... Leaving me in her sister's care in Seoul when I was only an infant, she took all sorts of jobs, including a housemaid, but without much success. Come to think of it, she was only 25. No one can blame her for trying to seek happiness by remarrying. My childhood dream was having a bowl of hot rice."

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