When They Let Them Bleed: Ten Years After
It took me a long time to write “When They Let Them Bleed” – both in the practical sense, in that I recall writing it in very short bursts because it was frankly too upsetting to immerse myself in it for very long (which you see manifested in the kind of mosaic-style I employed, which in 2012 was not something you saw very often, but which is now de rigueur for nonfiction) and the literal sense, in that I’d been battling the demons in this essay since I was a child. I’d come at the emotions in this essay in fiction over the years, though never in a direct way, and even now, I don’t know if I could point to a story or a novel of mine that achieved what this essay does.
I remember I gave the essay to my wife Wendy to read and about thirty minutes later, she found me in our bedroom, playing with our dog Scout. She looked horribly sad. This is the best thing you’ve ever written, she told me, and I’m so sad for you. I’m better now, I told her. I know, she said. She’d been there with me when my mother died, sat right beside me, and had no idea what was in my head, what had been in my head for all those years, because even when you know someone intimately, you don’t always know what images flash before their eyes the moment their mother dies. But I wish I could have hugged you then, she said.
In the years since the essay came out in Hobart, it’s found a different kind of life in the hands of freshman composition students, the essay routinely taught in classrooms around the country, likely owing to the vast good luck of it being selected for Best American Essays in 2013 by Cheryl Strayed. I always know when the essay is on someone’s syllabus because I start to get emails from .edu addresses that tend to say things like, “I am a big fan of your work and have always wondered: What would you say the main motif is in ‘When They Let Them Bleed?’”
But I also get at least one email, every week, from someone who has had a similar kind of trauma and who has found some kind of solace in knowing I share with them this peculiar grief. I find that extremely gratifying and as these last ten years have gone on, talking about the essay has helped me in a fundamental way, dividing my own grief into manageable parts, so that writing about one of the worst days of my life has become a small gift, a thing I’m able to share with strangers who need to know they are not alone.
When They Let Them Bleed
I was eleven the first time I saw someone killed. A real someone, that is. Prior to that point, I’m certain I’d seen hundreds, probably thousands, maybe tens of thousands of fake people die on television or in the movies and usually in fairly grotesque fashion. This was the autumn of 1982, what I thought of for many years as the worst time of my life, though later on I’d change that assessment. What happens is that you stop making absolutes about such things as the best and worst days, weeks, months or years of your life and you’re able to view things a bit more dispassionately, once you understand that most things that seem horrible in the moment can morph into something like experience or blind chance.
This is particularly true now that I think about how the person I saw killed wasn’t even someone I knew, that I was one of millions who saw him killed, that what haunts me still about his death is probably more about my own fears, about how the ultimate good fortune about that year is that I am still here, still remembering, still trying to make things right in my mind.
His name was Duk Koo Kim. He was a South Korean boxer, fighting Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini for the WBA lightweight title the old school way: outdoors, under a blistering sun, behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Kim was the most unlikely contender for the title – no one had really heard of him, but here he was fighting America’s real life Rocky, an Italian kid from an industrial town, the son of a failed prize-fighter. Two men who found great luck and that great luck brought them to a roped off square in the middle of the desert to fight for a world title. Except, of course, just like all things you realize after a certain age, they weren’t really men. They were boys. Ray Mancini was twenty-one. Duk Kook Kim was twenty-three.
This was when boxing was still shown on television for free, back when fights went fifteen rounds, back when boxing was ruled by the likes of Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Wilfred Benitez, back when even eleven year old boys knew who all the contenders were for the major weight classes, back when they still let them bleed.
What I know is true: the heartbreak of one person’s bad childhood is not equal to the tragic death of a young man in a boxing ring. The danger of drawing parallels is that some things are always inequalities. And yet, I can’t think of Duk Koo Kim without thinking about that year, about how I carried a pocket knife with me wherever I went, about how I used to press the point of it into my stomach until a bubble of blood appeared, how I ingested Afrin hourly, because I liked the rush it gave me, about how the vision of Duk Koo Kim being carried out of that parking lot behind Caesers Palace on a stretcher, his body limp, stayed with me for years as the face of a real dead person, even when he was only in a coma and wouldn’t die for a few days. I can’t think of Duk Koo Kim, who weighed 135 pounds and was 5’6 and was fighting for the lightweight championship of the world without thinking about how, at the same time, I was eleven years old and stood just 4’8 and weighed 135 pounds, about how I would squeeze the layers of fat on my stomach against the frame of my shower and imagine slamming the door hard enough to just cleave the skin off, how it would solve so many problems, how lucky it would be to just melt into the crowd of students at my school, to be an invisible boy.
Duk Koo Kim wasn’t famous. He became famous for a few years after he died. Warren Zevon did a song about the fight. Several years later, a song by Sun Kil Moon called “Duk Koo Kim” came out. It was nearly fifteen minutes long. That’s approximately five rounds.
Whenever Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini fought after Kim died, someone on the television would say how he wasn’t the same fighter since that tragic day, and then they’d talk about Duk Koo Kim’s heart or how he’d supposedly left a message scrawled on a lampshade in his Las Vegas hotel room that said “Kill or be Killed” and how prophetic that turned out to be...before getting back to the carnage they were there to report on, hoping for an exciting fight, hopefully a ferocious brawl, hopefully a knockout. Because if there was one thing everyone said about Mancini after Duk Koo Kim died, it was that he lacked that killer instinct, that desire to really knock someone out. He was still a very fine boxer, he just didn’t have that drive to destroy someone, to put them on their back, to make them lay motionless on the canvas. Maybe, they’d say, this would be the fight where he showed that aggression again. Before the fight with Duk Koo Kim, Mancini was in twenty-five bouts. He went 24-1, with eighteen knockouts or technical knockouts. Afterward, he went 4-4 and found himself TKO’d twice.
What’s a knockout? Technically, it’s a stroke. A very small stroke, but a stroke no less. What happens is this: when you get hit with a left or right hook, like the 39 straight punches Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini landed on Duk Koo Kim late in their fight, your head swivels at such a high rate of speed that it actually compresses and constricts your carotid arteries. This is not a good thing if you like having cardiac function or the ability to speak. An uppercut does just about the same thing, though instead of affecting your carotid, the whiplash from the blow compresses the circulation to the back of your brain.
Duk Koo Kim died from a blood clot on the brain caused by a right subdural hematoma. Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, the neurosurgeon who operated on Duk Koo Kim directly after the fight’s aftermath said, in the November 22, 1982 issue of Sports Illustrated that the trauma was caused by “one punch.”
My bedroom back then was covered in pictures from Sports Illustrated. I don’t remember when I began meticulously removing the covers of the magazines and pinning them to the wall, only that at some point I also began to frame entire issues on my wall, my sense being that one day the magazines would be valuable and that I’d want to keep them in better condition (I can only imagine that this belief stemmed from the start of the baseball card craze that took hold around then, since that’s also when I began to not touch my cards anymore, the result being that I have plenty of mint copies of Rusty Kuntz rookie card).
I received my subscription to Sports Illustrated as a gift from my father on my tenth birthday. At that point, I hadn’t seen him in five years, hadn’t even heard from him – via post, phone or messages sent over the Ouija board, where I sometimes tried to contact him, even though he wasn’t dead – in at least three. Yet, a month or so after my birthday in January of 1981, my first issue arrived along with a notice saying it was a gift subscription from my father. At first, my mother refused to let me have the magazine, as if somehow the mere fact that my father had paid for it made it part of him. I can still see her, standing in my bedroom, trying to rip the magazine in half. It was the annual “Year In Sports” issue, so it was extra thick, and thus she only managed to rip through the cover and the first few pages before she became frustrated and opted to just throw it away.
Later that night, my sister Karen smuggled it back into my bedroom. “Keep this somewhere mom won’t be able to find it,” she said. Karen was seventeen and her main job then was to serve as a buffer between my sister Linda and me and our mother, who was insane. I don’t mean “insane” in a flip way. I mean, eventually, we’d have her institutionalized against her will. Though that wouldn’t happen for another twenty-five years and by that point it was too late.
The magazine was damp and covered with bits of coffee grounds and cigarette ash, but Karen had taped the torn pages for me. I kept it, and for the next few weeks, every single other issue of the magazine that arrived, underneath my bed during the day and only read it at night, after my mother went to sleep. And then one day I came home from soccer practice and all of the issues were neatly stacked on top of my bed. My mother never said a word about it, which was unusual since she tended to have a word about most things.
I can still see the boxing covers in my mind – the ones I remember best are those that prophesized greatness: Thomas Hearns glaring into the middle distance beside a headline that said, BETTER PRAY, SUGAR RAY; Joe Frazier and his son Marvis, years before Marvis would be destroyed by Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, the words A CHIP OFF THE OLD CHAMP? stretched across their rippled chests; an ebullient Gerry Cooney being carried out of the ring, the banner an understated THE CONTENDER. And then, in August of 1982, there was the cover of Ray Mancini smacking the shit out of Ernesto Espana beneath a canopy of impossibly blue sky and the words BOOM BOOM BOOMS! Three months later, Mancini would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the last time. It’s a photo of him smacking the shit out of Duk Koo Kim, a photo eerily similar to the one from August, except this time the headline said TRAGEDY IN THE RING.
I went and looked at the old covers online, to make sure I was remembering them correctly. I was. Five things stood out for me afterward:
1. That there’s an exclamation point at the end of BOOM BOOM BOOMS! but not TRAGEDY IN THE RING.
2. In the last decade, there’s been exactly one cover of Sports Illustrated featuring boxers.
3. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini had two fights within just three months of each other.
4. After realizing that Mancini fought two huge fights in just three months’ time, I went and looked to see when his other fights were in 1982, because I recalled him fighting constantly that year. Between December 26th, 1981 and November 13, 1982, the day of the Kim fight, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini fought five times. Take it back further, and between March 1981 and that day in 1982, he fought a total of ten times.
5. The last active boxer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Floyd Mayweather Jr., has fought ten times since 2005.
Five things I remember about the days before Duk Koo Kim was killed:
1. This was the period of my life when my classmates began calling me by the names of Columbus’s ships.
2. A man named Don Olsen moved into our house. My mother met him when she was in the hospital after her hysterectomy and he came to visit the woman my mother was sharing a room with. I don’t know the exact algebra that led to this, but at some point during those visits to see his friend, somehow Don Olsen convinced my mother he should rent the room my brother vacated when he went to college. For the first month that Don lived in our house he mostly kept to himself, which meant he sat in his bedroom smoking cigarettes, eating TV dinners and drinking beer. It wasn't until the second month that Don Olsen finally decided I needed a male role model in my life. He would watch sports with me in the family room – by this point, he decided that our faux leather recliner was his – and when we watched boxing, he’d tell me how he learned to fight when he was in the service and how I could lose some of “that shit around your belt” if I learned to spar, maybe even kids at school would think I was less of a “fat pussy.”
“You got any man questions, you come ask me,” he said.
I told him I didn’t have any man questions.
“What about ones about the war? You could ask me about that. I know you ain’t got a father in your life, so fire away.”
I thought for a moment and realized I had absolutely no desire to hear anything Don might have to say about anything. I'd have been much happier to hear about his experiences getting up off his ass to change the TV channel, a chore he liked me to do. The only thing I truthfully ever wondered about Don was what had occurred to his tongue – a chunk was missing from the tip and it made his words sounds mushy, but then so did the six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best that he kept in a cooler next to the recliner.
“You know what the best part of war was?” Don volunteered. “The poontang. I never got more poon than I did in the service. Get you a nice pair of shoes and a haircut, and whoa, boy, you could get some poon, too. Come here," he said. “I'll show you my wife.” Don reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wallet filled with receipts, scraps of paper, a few bucks and a sleeve filled with photos. I came and stood beside him and looked down as he flipped through the pictures. Stuffed between a photo of the White House and the Golden Gate Bridge was one of an Asian woman. “That's her. Met her in Taiwan, married her and then everything fell to shit and I left her there.”
“Oh,” I said.
He dug around in his wallet some more and came out with a condom. “Here,” he said. “Take it. Show it off at school and the other kids will think you're cool. I'm sure they think you're a sissy right now, right?”
“What happened to your tongue?” I said, because, well, that's what I said.
“Some poon got drunk and bit it,” he said.
“Did it hurt?”
“No more, no less,” Don said.
Don stayed with us another three weeks and each afternoon he tried to engage me in another conversation about sex or about war or about my mother, who, he confided, was a “foxy lady.” When he came home drunk one evening and tried to have the same conversation with my mother, his term in our home came to an abrupt end, which was fine by me, since I was due to have my tonsils removed and the only bedroom in the house with a TV hook up was my brother’s, which meant I’d get to convalesce in there, eating ice cream and watching TV. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was scheduled to fight Duk Koo Kim a few days after the operation. The timing was perfect; a lucky break for me.
3. I began using the Ouija board by myself. It moved. It answered my questions. It put me in contact with a spirit that said every girl in school had a crush on me. It pointed to “yes” when I asked it if I should keep living. It told me, in painstaking detail, that it was okay if I ate frosting every day. It told me I would one day be President of the United State of America. I swear to God, it moved on its own.
4. At night, after everyone was asleep, I’d microwave pieces of Italian salami and eat them, then lick the grease from the plate.
5. I asked the doctor if anyone had ever died while getting their tonsils removed.
“Of course,” he said. “Any time you go under anesthetic, there’s a chance you won’t come back out.”
“What are the odds I’m that person?”
“Not good,” he said. He was standing in front of me, listening to me through his stethoscope. He smelled like cigarettes and mint gum. His name is lost to me now, but it was something foreign sounding and he had a thick accent that was actually rather pleasant. I think he might have been French. “Do you want to talk to me about these marks on your stomach?”
I was seventeen the first time I went to Las Vegas. My mother was there to cover an event – she was a society columnist, so her job was to go to parties for a living – and we stayed at the Sands. This was 1988. I was the only one left at home now and my mother spent the majority of her time dating guys who owned men’s suit stores and who sang or played piano in Italian restaurants and who showed up at our house in cars driven by guys with names like Fat Tommy or Billy the Lip. We’d moved from Northern California to Palm Springs, which was like moving from Mayberry to Hollywood, except Hollywood in 1958.
We drove by Caesars Palace and I remember thinking how strange it was that all of these people were streaming in and out of it, none of them disturbed by the fact that Duk Koo Kim had been beaten to death where they were hoping to win their fortunes.
I’ve visited Las Vegas maybe fifty times in my life, not including the two years I lived there in the late 1990s. I’ve stepped foot inside Caesars Palace maybe ten or fifteen times. I’ve never won a single cent there.
I lived through getting my tonsils removed. I was in the hospital for two days, however, because they also removed my adenoids and then I had a reaction to something – I never knew what – that had me vomiting every few hours. I finally got home on Friday night and got to sleep in my brother Lee’s old room. Don had moved out a few weeks earlier, but the room still smelled of his cigarette smoke, sweat and something that, at the time, I thought smelled like vinegar. Now, I think that I don’t want to know what the fuck that smell was.
My mother put a bucket next to the bed and told me that if I got sick, well, I should tell Karen, because she needed to get some rest, she had a party to cover on Saturday. If I was in pain, I should wake Karen up and tell her, too. If I needed anything, pretty much I was instructed to let Karen know. The problem was that Karen had left for college two months earlier. My sister Linda, who is two years older than me, sat in the room with me for the next several hours and we ate ice cream and read magazines and then, in the middle of the night, I threw up mint chip ice cream all over the wall.
Duk Koo Kim didn’t actually write “Kill or be Killed” on the lampshade in his room. Whatever he wrote was in Korean. Royce Feour, a former writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said in an interview in the paper twenty-five years after the fight that the actual translation was roughly “Live or Die.” Either way you cut it, it’s a strange thing to write on a lampshade.
What I remember about the fight is that it was extraordinarily entertaining. A brawl from the first bell. I sat on the floor of Lee’s room, the smell of mint chip ice cream vomit now mixing with the remnants of Don Olsen, and watched the fight. Unlike fights today, this one took place in the afternoon. Can you imagine? Watching a championship fight in the middle of a Saturday afternoon on CBS? Today, it would cost you at least $50 for pay-per-view and you’d need to wade through three terrible undercards just to get to the big fight.
But I didn’t know any of that yet. The Ouija didn’t give me any information regarding how things would change in the boxing world. So I sat there and watched and ate more ice cream. What I recall is that the two fighters never stopped punching each other. Unlike heavyweight fights, for instance, where there’s a lot of stalking around the ring and clinching, the lighter weight classes have always been more electrifying affairs and in this case, with two fighters of about the same size and weight, it was an unceasing barrage of head and body blows. Mancini looked better – he was more muscular and thick, whereas Kim seemed skinny, owing perhaps to his two-inch height advantage – but once you step into the ring, it doesn’t really matter how you look.
The pre-fight buzz was that Kim was going to be seriously overmatched, that his #1 ranking was a joke, that he was lucky to even be in the conversation, much less in contention, but the fight proved his ranking was earned. I recall Linda coming in to sit with me and then getting up and leaving because she thought it was disgusting the way these men were trying to kill each other. I tried to explain to her that they really weren’t trying to kill each other, that it was a sport of respect, the sweet science – these were the sorts of things I learned reading Sports Illustrated, I imagine – and that they’d hug in the end. Linda said it was gross.
Duk Koo Kim’s name was not Duk Koo Kim. His real name was Kim Deuk-gu. His real name was also 김득구.
The last three rounds of the fight – the 12th, 13th and 14th – were absolutely vicious. That’s what I remember. Had I ever even seen the fight since that day? I couldn’t recall. I must have, right? No, it turns out, I hadn’t. Because no clips were released for twenty-five years, until Bob Arum got Mancini’s permission and released the film for the use in a documentary. I watched them on YouTube the other day. Duk Koo Kim looks horrible in the 12th, like he can barely stand, his face is swollen, he’s staggering around, it looks like just one punch will do him in. At one point he nearly stumbles and falls, it’s over, it’s over, but no, it just keeps going. Then the 13th comes and Mancini hits him 39 straight times. As a kid, I loved this, I’m sure. As an adult, it sickens me. Why didn’t they stop the fight? How can you let someone take 39 straight punches? How can someone survive that?
It turns out they can’t.
Three people died because of that fight, actually. There was Duk Koo Kim, obviously. And then, three months later, Duk Koo Kim’s mother committed suicide. Eight months later, Richard Green, the referee who let the fight go on even after those 39 punches, also committed suicide.
The 14th round started with Mancini storming off of his stool. He gets to the center of the ring and, seconds later, Duk Koo Kim is flat on his back, and then he tries to climb the ropes, stumbles back, and it’s over. Mancini is jumping in the air. Kim is pulled into this corner, loses consciousness and that’s it. Except as a kid, I didn’t know that. The camera was on Mancini. CBS interviewed him, he talked about what a fierce competitor Kim was, about wanting to fight Aaron Pryor, there was a commercial and then, when they returned, Duk Koo Kim was being taken out of the arena on a stretcher. The announcer called him “very game.” His mouth was open slightly. He was covered in sweat. One arm hung off the side of the stretcher, the other was across his chest. His eyes were closed, his face swollen. He was completely limp.
Jews have closed casket funerals, so I didn’t see an actual dead body again until college, when two of my friends killed themselves and I attended their funerals. Standing over their open caskets, staring at their painted faces, I thought that they didn’t look dead at all. They looked like mannequins. There was no part of them that seemed to have ever been alive. They’d both died alone, one by overdosing, the other by shooting himself in the head, so millions of strangers never saw their final living moments. For many years I have wondered why their deaths don’t haunt me as much as this stranger’s death, this boy who died by the calculated risk of becoming a boxer, and I can only conclude that it’s all about distance. I didn’t see either of my friends die – though, in some respect, I should have at least seen the signs, but I was a boy, too, and they were boys, and you can’t expect boys to see things like pain and depression as clearly as retrospect would like us to believe – I just stood there in the aftermath and wondered why I was thinking of a dead boxer.
I took down all the pictures.
The last time I saw a person die, it was my mother. I felt lucky to be there, even though I’d spent the previous 39 years of my life wishing her gone. She wasn’t a good person, I’m not afraid to say anymore. She was at times cruel, malicious, mentally abusive. At other times she was simply mad. And at other times, still, she was the darkness that kept me awake at night as an adult, wondering if I was becoming her.
My sister Linda called and said that the doctors were only giving our mother four hours to live, that she’d fallen, that if I wanted to see her before she died, I needed to get to the hospital right away. The hospital was four hours away, with no traffic, but we would be leaving our house right in the middle of rush hour traffic. We would be lucky to make it there in seven hours.
My wife and I made it there in four hours.
My mother, who’d been dying of cancer for a very long time, was in the hospital bed, her eyes barely open, her face was swollen and black and blue from her fall, her mouth agape, one arm was slung across her chest, the other was falling to the side of the bed. She was limp and unconscious.
I sat down beside her and told her it was okay to go. And thirty seconds later she was gone.
I stopped hurting myself after Duk Koo Kim died. I don’t know why. I still have the pocket knife, however. It’s in an old tackle box that’s out in my garage. It’s strange: I have a tendency to hold onto things that are relics of bad memories, as if by knowing where they are I’ll somehow be able to avoid the unlucky occurrence of running into them and being overwhelmed.
The problem is you can’t mitigate chance. That’s what makes this life so pitiless, so unnerving. Duk Koo Kim died at twenty-three, killed in a boxing ring, and by chance I sat and watched it happen when I was eleven. Twenty-eight years later, almost to the day, I sat beside my mother as she died and he came back to me, the vision of him on that stretcher, the congruence of their bodies, their faces, and I wonder if now those last moments of hers will finally replace his in my mind and who, eventually, will replace her.