Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: The Good Son (2012)

By Mark Kriegel

Author Mark Kriegel achieved plenty of success with his first two sports biographies on Joe Namath and Pete Maravich. They not only sold well, but they were almost universally acclaimed. In other words, go read them if you haven't already.

Namath and Maravich were both icons of the 1960's, subjects that were close to mythical. His next subject, Ray Mancini comes from a slightly different era, and the name isn't quite as magical.

But that doesn't mean Mancini isn't a good subject for an autobiography. Kriegel delivers another outstanding piece of work with "The Good Son."

There are all sorts of themes running through this particular effort. The starting point, and the reason Kriegel said he picked Mancini, was all about fathers and sons. Ray's father was a boxer, and he was close to getting a title shot when World War II and an injury got in Lenny's way.

Papa Mancini's window therefore had closed, but son Ray was willing to take a look at opening it again. There's a telling portion of the book in which Kriegel asks the question, "How does a kid fight if he's not hungry?" The author comes right back for the answer, "Oh, but he was. For his father's love." Ray was determined to get a world title for the Mancini name.

Somewhat improbably, it worked. Ray Mancini came out of Youngstown, Ohio, and won a lightweight title. The early Eighties were a great time for boxing, with several charismatic fighters. Television, of course, couldn't resist the Mancini story, with the proud papa in the corner while sonny picked up another victory. Kriegel packs the story with great little details, particularly with frank comments by promoter Bob Arum on the state of the sport at the time.

Mancini would have had an interesting but somewhat typical life had he not gotten into the ring with Duk Koo Kim. These were two fighters who didn't know how to take a step back. Duk Koo said before the bout, "Either he dies or I die." He was prophetic; Duk Koo was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and soon after that died of a head injury.

From there, the story goes into uncharted territory. How does someone react after his fists led to the death of another person? Boxing is a dangerous sport, but death is not supposed to be part of the equation. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but interest by the American over-the-air television networks dropped considerably after the Mancini-Kim fight. They weren't in the business of televising executions, and lost the stomach for boxing.

Indeed, one of the main attractions here is to find out what happened to Mancini. He opened up with Kriegel about the process, and it's not a pretty picture. Mancini first lost that little edge he needed to be a fearless fighter. That eventually led to the loss of his championship. Mancini missed the glory of the business, but didn't have the drive any more - a discovery he made the hard way through a couple of comebacks. From there he goes through marriage and divorce, and something of an acting career. But it sounds as if Mancini wasn't completely at peace until he met Duk Koo's son, although time still has to write more of that story.

Mancini deserves plenty of credit here. He obviously opened up to Kriegel, even though there was no financial incentive to do so (in other words, he didn't get paid) and it must have been painful. Family members contributed much to the story as well. It's almost as if the Duk Koo fight was a huge rock that was thrown into the ocean, and the waves go out from the originating spot forever and affected all they touched.

No matter how good the source material is, though, someone had to put it together. The story was in good hands when Kriegel sat down to write it. He had a full notebook, as writers like to say, and used it well. Kriegel also supplies that little bit of grit that should be in every boxing book. The sport always has lent itself to black-and-white images told in a noir sort of way.

It's easy to root for Mancini after reading "The Good Son," just as it was during his career. The story about how his life took a huge unexpected turn ought to fascinate even those who find boxing less than attractive. In other words, it's an excellent read.

Five stars

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