By Joe Scalzo
In 2007, a recently-divorced columnist named Mark Kriegel had just moved from New York to Los Angeles when ESPN asked if he would be willing to be part of a documentary about Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.
Kriegel, who had written about Mancini in 1999 for the New York Daily News, agreed and soon afterward met with Mancini, actor (and fellow Youngstowner) Ed O’Neill and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet at Il Forno Trattoria, an Italian restaurant located inside a Santa Monica strip mall.
“It was the first night [since I had moved to L.A.] that I felt like I was home,” Kriegel said. “I guess from that night on, I wanted to write Ray’s book.”
Kriegel already had written two bestsellers, one on Joe Namath, the other on Pete Maravich. At the time, he was mulling a book on Raiders owner Al Davis. Or maybe a Michael Jordan book. But he couldn’t help thinking, “What is there left to say about Michael Jordan?”
Mancini, meanwhile, had been getting book offers for 30 years. When he was younger, he’d tell them, “I’m 20-some years old! Who gives a s---? What life have I lived?”
As he got older, he’d say, “It’s been 30 years! Who’s going to give a s--- now? And what can you say that hasn’t already been said a million times before?”
But Kriegel was different. He didn’t see it as a book about Mancini killing Duk Koo Kim in the ring.
He saw it as a book about fathers and sons. About Mancini and his sons. About Mancini and his father, Lenny, the original “Boom Boom.” About Lenny’s father, Nick. About Lenny’s firstborn son, Lenny, who was killed just before his brother won the lightweight title. And, yes, about Duk Koo Kim, whose father died when he was 2 and whose mother married three more times and whose son, Jiwan, was conceived just before his death.
“I started to think that the story of this guy in the restaurant was populated by all sorts of ghosts,” Kriegel said. “Including his father, his brother and Kim.”
The result was “The Good Son: The Life of Ray of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,” which will be released Tuesday. The 267-page book — Kriegel’s shortest — begins with a brief prologue about the Kim fight, jumps to Il Forno, then charts Mancini’s life, starting with his father and ending with an American reunion with Jiwan and Kim’s widow, Young Mee.
“That was hard,” Mancini said. “But I’m so happy I had the chance to do that.”
Truth be told, the father-son angle was appealing for another reason: Kriegel felt a kinship with Mancini. Both were divorced dads, both were ethnic sons of wounded fathers — Mancini’s dad earned a Purple Heart in World War II, while Kriegel’s father had polio — and both were formed by their hometowns.
“I told Ray I was going to go through all the stuff he didn’t want to go through,” said Kriegel, a Jew who grew up a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. “I said, ‘I’m going to go through the Kim fight and the death of your brother Lenny, so if you don’t want to do it, no problem. If you do it, it’s gonna hurt a lot.’
“But I told him if you want to see a book about fathers and sons, I think I’m the best guy to do that.”
Kriegel didn’t offer Mancini any money. He wouldn’t give him any editorial control. (Kriegel did send chapter proofs to O’Neill, who made sure the author was capturing Mancini’s story, and hometown, correctly.) He wouldn’t gloss over Mancini’s failures any more than his successes.
“He just said, ‘If you believe I’m the guy, you gotta trust me,’” Mancini said. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m arrogant enough to think my life is worth a book, I should be arrogant enough to go with all of it. The good, the bad and the ugly.’”
Kriegel spent hours interviewing Mancini and dozens of others involved his career, from Top Rank chairman Bob Arum to his cornermen, Chuck Fagan and Tank DiCioccio (Mancini: “Tank said, ‘This is it, right? How much more can we talk about you?’”), to his priest and everyone in between.
Kriegel pored through newspaper stories and government records (he found the wedding certificate of Mancini’s grandparents and the deed to his parents’ first house). He wrote about Mancini’s highs (his championship, his popularity, his fame) and his lows (the Kim fight, his brother’s death, his marital issues, his struggling film career) and spent untold hours illuminating the story of someone whose prime — and whose sport’s prime — occurred decades ago.
“I used to make jokes that I don’t have skeletons in my closet; I have bodies falling out,” Mancini said. “The bodies are buried now.
“I can assure you: There are no more Mancini stories. My s--- is out there.”
Like his books about Namath (who grew up in Beaver Falls, Pa.) and Maravich (Aliquippa, Pa.), Kriegel uses Mancini’s steeltown roots to help tell the story. Even though Mancini moved to New York at 18 and has spent much of his life in Los Angeles, Kriegel doesn’t think Mancini has ever really left Youngstown.
“Not a day in his life,” Kriegel said. “Even when he’s here [in California], he’s there.
“And it’s not just Youngstown itself. It’s the idea of Youngstown that he can’t or won’t step away from. He doesn’t want to.”
Mancini admits it was difficult to read the book at times — “I realized how full of s--- I was back then,” he said, chuckling — but his only demand was that the book not include anything that might embarrass his children or his family.
“It’s a note to my children,” said Mancini, who has three kids. “I just wanted to make sure it’s something they can be proud of. They know I’m a flawed person, but I hope they see me as a good man with flaws.”
As for Kriegel? He said he hopes readers love Mancini as much as he does.
“I hope they think I was honest about him and his city,” he said. “I hope my affection and my respect comes through. I hope Ray comes through and the city comes through as something real and authentic, whether they agree with the portrayals or not.”