taxi had yet to come to a full stop under the canopy of Busan's Paradise Hotel
when Ray "No Relation But Thanks for Asking" Mancini touched down. Some twenty-four
hours had trickled by since he'd boarded his first flight in Toronto and now
here he was, ten o'clock at night in the heart of what his Vegas contact had
pitched to him with a straight face as "The Korean Riviera".
But Ray didn't look happy. I watched him lean into the night scenery in his characteristic pose, feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, the weight of him shifting rhythmically from foot to foot. His eyes were dancing around, and I had a pretty good idea what he was thinking. No one had bothered to fill him in, it's safe to say, on the four pillars of Korean architecture,
I. a shade of pastel that was never in fashion can't go out of it;
II. a line is either straight or out of whack;
III. if it's not a right angle it must be a wrong angle;
and IV. where three buildings would fit, put up ten.
Now I had no intention of going out to greet Ray, but all the same it felt good to see the old guy again. He was decked out to the nines, as per usual--in a well-cut slate-gray suit he'd probably never worn before and probably never would again, and handmade wingtips whose price tag, if I knew him at all, must have rivaled his return airfare--but none of that did a thing to his face. He still had that same fierce bug-eyed look on him (one of my buddies had once described it as "Al Pacino with his face shoved into a windowpane"); and the cramped, boxy urban landscape was obviously doing nothing to soften him up.
"That is your father, yes?" This from my occasional business partner, one (that's Saw Oo Chic to you). Oo Chic is a dapper, frighteningly well-connected Korean dude with the best poker face I've ever seen--and in this country I've seen a few.
"Oh, yeah, " I said, "that's him. Go ahead before he sees me."
* * *
It was on a Saturday--June 22, 2002, to be precise about it--that Ulganov got the idea for the fight. We had just finished watching the Korea-Spain World Cup soccer game in his dive when the Russky, suddenly up a small fortune from the outcome, got going on the topic of referees.
"Those guys perrr-feck!" he began. "Those guys perrr-feck!" he ended.
Ulganov had two things going for him: unlimited drive and a gift for minimalist speech. You could never get anything on him by taping what he said, and yet everybody got his point. Other than that he was a fat, smelly, stubble-headed pig of a guy who looked like he was crowding sixty, although he could have been forty for all anyone knew (some of those guys age awfully quick). He loved his woodka and he loved his coven, and he ritually pushed both on his friends the way most people might push a book or a movie--with the exception that most people don't usually insist on watching you read or take in the flick.
And it was a movie that got the ball rolling. Ulganov himself had never seen the (a?) movie; but I had, and even if all the particulars of a given idea came from other heads (that never failed) Ulganov could always be nudged towards the belief that the idea was his own. What you did was, you lined up the details as dots on an imaginary straight line and kept stuffing the line with more and more details until the Russky clicked. This was tedious but necessary work, as Ulganov never invested in other people's schemes.
"Look at those crowds," Oo Chic was cooing. "Just look at those crowds. Korea has never been this proud of itself."
The soccer game over, we were now treated to televised studies in red. Mobs of mind-warping proportions had flooded the streets of Seoul, every man, woman and child clad in the thematic crimson T-shirt, and the effect of watching all that partying was exhilarating enough to stimulate the beginnings of a thought, even after way too much of Ulganov's dubious woodka.
"Did you see that new movie by what's-his-name," I said to Oo Chic, "the one about Kim Deuk-Gu?"
Oo Chic had. "Now there was a true Korean hero," he gushed. "A great boxer."
"Cut down in his prime," I said.
"He should be avenged," Oo Chic grumbled.
"Redeemed," I said.
"Killed by an ugly American," Oo Chic raged.
"Ray 'Boom Boom' Mancini," I said.
"Boom Boom," Oo Chic sneered. "What kind of a name is Boom Boom?"
"Ray Mancini," I said. "You know, that's actually my father's name, believe it or not. And he used to be a fighter, too."
"Really?" Oo Chic hiccupped. "Was he also a great boxer?"
"They say he was pretty good. He never lost, if that means anything."
"But he walked away after only seven fights. He's a referee, these days."
"Sure. World class, too."
"No!" Oo Chic looked properly astonished. At least I think he did; he meant to, in any case. "That's incredible!" he crooned.
We went at it like this for some time, Oo Chic and I. It took some doing, as always, but, in time, we heard the click.
* * *
It was close to thirty years since Ray “No Relation” Mancini had last sprung from his ring-corner stool: in the first round, on his way to greeting Danny "Golden Boy" Frechette with two sharp exploratory jabs, a punishing combination and an unforgiving left hook. The fight had taken up some 14 seconds of Ray's time and he'd jogged home with two thousand bucks in the back pocket of his jeans. Just like that. He was nineteen-years old at the time, he had a 7-0 record, all of them by k.o., and he never fought again.
He would have liked to fight again. But then there was a problem with a girl, and pretty soon there was bigger problem with the girl’s father, and in time there was this really heated problem with a half dozen expertly swung baseball bats, and Ray had an epiphany: Why not marry the girl, settle down and sell insurance instead?
In the intervening thirty years, Ray had waded through a lot of bullshit; too much by half, he would have been the first to say. But because there was money in it on one side, and a quick-fingered and very greasy father-in-law on the other, he somehow made it work.
The lowlifes helped--not the insurance lowlifes, but the real ones. Ray somehow surreptitiously wormed his way back into the boxing game, first by getting a one-time gig as a ref, and then by getting another, and eventually by getting a lot more, until he was a WB* staple for their championship fights. He would tell you that that's what kept him sane.
Until now. Here he was, fresh off the plane in South fuckin Korea, to referee his first non-title bout in twelve years. He was kicking himself.
"Mista Ray Mancini?" he heard. The words were fighting their way to him through a brisk November wind that whistled, it seemed, right through Ray's head. "Mista Ray Mancini the boxing referee?"
Groggy as hell but trained all the same to act quick on his feet, Ray wheeled about, registered a smiling, dapper, tow-headed Korean, maybe a welterweight, looked around some more, and with a measure of reluctance admitted, "Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That's me."
"I'm very happy to meet you sir. This boxing event is very important in my country. Mista Ulganov would have come to meet you himself but--"
"Never heard of him. What is he, Russian? Is he the guy that's paying me?" Ray took a deep quizzical breath, closed his eyes and frowned. "Smells like shit around here," he said. He shook his head. "So who's paying me? You?"
"Fantastic. Any time's good. What'd you say your name was?"
But Ray wasn't listening. He did manage a short nod, but the nod was for himself. Look as he might he couldn't really see anything that he hadn't already seen too much of on the cab ride from the airport. The streets around the hotel were lined with the same concrete boxes and the concrete boxes themselves flecked with the same lit-up plastic boxes. And there was something like a godzillion Koreans milling around everywhere. Riviera my ass.
Ray gave up on the scenery and looked at the hotel. The dapper Korean dude was jabbering away and Ray felt tired and dizzy. He couldn't have made much sense of the words that were coming at him now if he'd tried, and he wasn't trying. His body wanted to get drunk but his head didn't--or maybe it was the other way around. "So," he said, filling a pause in the Korean dude's gobblygook, "why do I want to see that, Whatshisname, that Russian guy?
The hotel had come highly recommended. Ray had his doubts, but looking at the structure he quickly understood that by limiting his field of vision to it he might be able to convince himself that he was at least in Hartford, or at the very least in Edmonton.
"Well," he declared, looking straight ahead and springing for the hotel's revolving doors, "it ain't Italy."
* * *
The Ray I knew growing up never cared for bullshit or for talking just to hear the sound of his own voice. Also, he was nothing if not ethnically aware. To wit: he never insured a souvlaki place without giving it the Greek endorsement (no hold-up coverage); he always gave "Pakkis" and "Chinks" calling for auto insurance the highest available quote, plus a 100% broker's fee (effectively sending them across the street to some other agency); he never, ever sold life insurance to blacks; and he always insisted, before agreeing to service a fellow greaseball wop's insurance needs, on giving said greaseball a brief and altogether to-the-point sit-down talk in his office. And, as Ray liked to remind any would-be liberal critic, "I got the best loss ratio in town."
Ray "No Relation" Mancini was bringing this--his plain speech, his ethnic awareness--to bear on the task of making sense of his current assignment. He was in Korea, ostensibly, to referee a commemorative fight held on the twentieth anniversary of a contest in which his namesake had pummeled a popular Korean folk-hero right into a coma, and by way of that coma unto death itself.
"Pretty fuckin morbid, if you ask me," Ray told his host. "And I don't make the cut as hero here, either, you'll notice."
Ray and the dapper Korean were no longer in the safe haven of the Paradise Hotel but in some weird girly bar-cum-brothel off a seedy alley called, of all things, "Texas street". Ray'd barely had time for a shower before being whisked away, and now, after the walk up this alley, this Texas street that smelled of raw sewage and was thronged with an unsuspected number of foreigners (sailors and whores was Ray's guess), he had to admit he felt a hankering for more Koreans.
A hankering for one more Korean, anyway. Back at the hotel Ray had shared an elevator ride up to the seventh floor with a comely Korean angel who, without breathing a word to him, without even deigning to look in his direction or otherwise acknowledge his very real presence in a very real confined space, had completely redefined Ray's notion of how perfect a creature a woman could be. By some buried reflex he never would have guessed at he'd closed his eyes and breathed her in, right there in the elevator, every last molecule of her scent. Then he heard a Ding!, opened his eyes and followed the girl out of the elevator. But he'd forgotten where he was going. He stood there in the middle of the long corridor, staring dumbly at his room-keycard and listening to the slushing of blood in his ears. It took some time before he could ascertain that he was on the right floor. This was very uncharacteristic behavior on Ray's part.
"Nonsense, nonsense," burped Ray's Texas street host. He was a burly, stinky, stubble-headed Russian who called himself Anton Something, and he was very, very drunk. "It's perrr-feck! Ray Mancini! It's perrr-feck!"
Ray turned to the dapper Korean, whose name for some reason Ray's brain simply refused to record (he'd asked about five times thus far and felt that to keep asking would work against politeness, not to mention his cherished economy of speech). "What do you think, my friend? Precisely how is this perfect?"
Ray'd come to think that this dapper Korean dude might be good for critical information in a pinch, mostly on the evidence of his entirely volunteered statement earlier regarding the woman who'd ridden in the elevator with Ray. The Korean had given the mortifying explanation that the woman in question existed in the real world beyond Ray's imagination as the wife of the Korean fighter now being billed as Kim Deuk Gu's avenger. The “redeemer," the dapper Korean dude had said, if Ray's memory served.
The dapper, impossibly-named Korean presently gave Ray a flat smile and nothing but. Or maybe there had been a flicker and it had eluded Ray. It was dark as hell in that place, for one thing, and beyond the self-evident truth that he would never have sold the guy any car insurance, Ray had no idea how far he might be able to trust this dapper dude. Ditto for the Russian: Russians Ray knew tended to self-insure or, worse still, operate insurance scams of their own.
"Right. Next question." Ray took his time, staring down in turn both the big Russian and the dapper Korean. Ray had an intense set of large brown eyes that was particularly well-suited to this sort of thing. "And no bullshit, now, boys," Ray said. He sighed for effect, then plunged on: "Is the fix in here?"
Anton let rip a big laugh and threw up his hands. "Of course!" he bellowed. "Of course! I tell you! It's perrr-feck!" Anton roared, coughed and wheezed, paused, roared, coughed and wheezed. In the throes of these convulsions, under Ray's watchful eye, a stubby sausage of a forefinger made its bouncy way from Anton's lap to a call-button on the wall. "And now you meet my girrr-lz! I got Russky, I got Korean, I got Filipina! Anything you want!" Laugh, cough, wheeze. "Ray Mancini! Perrr-feck!"
* * *
the room at Charlie's, the Paradise Hotel's cozy downstairs bar, my girlfriend
and I sat watching Ray "No Relation". Ray was by himself at the far end of
the bar, nursing a drink I knew to be a double scotch and (based on Oo Chic's
detailed info) pondering his earlier failure to perform. Silly pop music and
the multilingual buzz of surrounding conversations washed over him; you could
almost see the poor guy's chest filling with cold dread.
* * *
It was midnight Korean time. By the reckoning of Ray's gold ballpoint on the complimentary napkin he'd been up for 33 hours. No wonder, then.
He shook his head. Physical fatigue had nothing to do with that and he knew it. He knew it. "Christ," he muttered, standing up from his barstool with the vague intention of going up to his room. "Christ."
When he turned on his heels he came face to face with the angel. That should have surprised him but it didn't, not exactly, and as he basked in the flush that spread through his chest and limbs he knew it even more, that physical fatigue had had nothing to do with whatever had happened, or had not happened, on Texas street.
The angel spoke. In English. "You're the referee," she said.
"Right." His temples echoed like banged gongs inside his head, but he felt pretty calm. So: here she was, of her own free will, and she spoke English, and she knew who he was. All good.
The angel spoke again. "Ray Mancini," she said. "Is that your real name?"
"Sure." Looking at her he tried to separate her component parts; he found it hard work. She looked very Asian, was his first insight: a doll's face, all in delicately chiseled features, which until now, until being this dangerously exposed to one, his body had never manifested the slightest interest in. But now manifestations were occurring for sure and he thought it prudent to sit back down. He gestured (awkwardly, it seemed to him, although he was pretty sure he felt no nervousness) in the direction of the next stool. "Would you like to join me?"
By way of answer she graced the proffered stool, the smell of her as she descended wafting once again right into Ray's flat receptive nose. "Thank you," she said.
To believe that this woman had no awareness of the effect she was having on him lay somewhere, probably quite far, beyond the reach of Ray's powers. And yet, taken simply on the strength of her expression and body language, she obviously had no clue that this flat-faced, pug-nosed, middle-aged foreigner was going out of his woppy mind for her.
Hey, but obvious was not what Ray was looking for here. He was just busy telling himself, while subterraneously working out what to say next, that he must have felt this foolish at some point before in his life, although he could not have sworn to the fact, let alone say when; and telling himself also that this woman not only knew how he felt but by some miracle actually felt the same way.
"And you're the redeemer's wife," he said. He offered her a drink.
Which, brazenly, she accepted. She gave him an honest-to-God smile, and said, "That's right. I'm the redeemer's wife. I married the redeemer."
"And so? Did he redeem you?"
She laughed, her pale skin rather aglow in the contrast with those jet-black brows, lashes, that perfectly straight, waist-length hair. "Oh-my-God, no," she said. She had a mouth on her like a ripe fruit. "Oh, no. No, no."
That mouth bespoke possibilities from which Ray now forced his mind to recoil. But she was tall, thin, leggy, and she smelled--divine.
* * *
hours later they were heading into the eighth round and things were going
from bad to worse for the redeemer. His combinations were not working, his
jab missed its target more often than not, and he was taking some serious
licks. Simply put, he'd already gotten knocked down six times.
But he was hanging in there, the redeemer was, and Ray was letting them fight. They were lightweights, after all, and Ray had his own ideas about the way those little monkeys flailed about at each other.
For one thing, he seriously doubted the ability of two 135-pound men with padded gloves to inflict serious harm on each other. In his educated judgment when those guys went down they dropped from exhaustion--not from being properly clocked the way, say, Ray himself had once clocked his opponents.
Of course exhaustion could be a killer in the ring. Twenty years earlier to the day, in the opening seconds of the fourteenth round, Ray had watched exhaustion sneak up on Kim Deuk Gu, cold-cock him and leave him for dead.
"Don't worry," Ray had told the angelic So Young (that was actually her name, and she had a sister called Sue Me!) across his pillow two nights before. "I won't let it get that far with your husband if it comes to that. And it won't come to that."
"But you don't understand," she said, suddenly sitting bolt upright on the bed. "I don't want you to stop the fight. I know him. He got knocked down eight times in one fight and then he came back and he knocked the other boxer out. Please, don't stop it. Please. Promise me."
She was persuasive, he was smitten within an inch of his life, and he promised all the things she asked him to promise and several more (too many more!) that she never asked him to promise at all.
Pop! and down again went the redeemer. Ray was all over it. "Count fast," Anton had instructed; "Count slowly," So Young had pleaded. Ray counted in what seemed to him his normal fashion, although, maybe, it could have been a tad slow. The redeemer pushed himself on his feet, on Nine, weathered more punishment and finally reached the shore as the bell rang to signal the end of the eighth. Ray had to (discreetly) point the guy in the direction of his corner.
To even begin to compare this bout with that other one is just plain stupid, Ray kept telling himself. Helping him to his corner he'd noticed the narrow slits that were now the redeemer's eyes, and he'd caught himself thinking about the doctor. But then there was So Young, he could just make her out through the glare of the lights, and he decided that he couldn't remember how narrow those slits had been to begin with.
Then came the ninth-round bell. Oscar "Bonecrusher" Haynes (hahaha, thought Ray) jumped out of his stool and, in a felicitous moment, showed Ray that he at least still had some wit, if not wits, about him. Haynes, a wiry and battle-scarred wrong-side-of-the-tracks Philly black dude, 12-7 going in, danced his way quickly over to the other corner, from which the redeemer was now slowly extricating himself, removed his mouthpiece, and shouted, "Ask not for who that bell tolls, motherfucker!"
What happened next is still a matter of some debate--the bout was not televised or filmed in any way--but suffice it to say that it happened very quickly and that the upshot of it was not at all good for Haynes. Not good for his teeth, anyway, several of which lay on the mat next to his head. But Haynes didn't die: there was that. And the redeemer had redeemed. There was certainly that, too.
When Ray held up the redeemer's glove and the p.a. system announced the winner the crowd erupted, with So Young front and center. Ray had to fight an urge to keep pulling up the redeemer's gloved hand, way up until those tiny feet of his had cleared the mat for all to see. Well, maybe not for all to see, but that's how it would have happened, if it had.
* * *
"I'm not sure things can ever be the same between us," I said to So Young the night before the fight.
"I'm all for improvement," was what she said.
"'I'm all for improvement.' Where'd you learn to talk like that? And to do these things? Have you no shame?"
"You're joking, right?"
"What if I'm not?"
"What about you?" she said. "Your own father."
"My own father's pretty happy right now, I would think. Not that I'd want him to be, the bastard, but that's neither here nor there. This is about you and me. I mean, how could you? The guy's like, a million years old."
"He's in pretty good shape."
"I don't believe this."
"Look, you asked me to do it," she said.
"Yes," I said, "but you were supposed to say no."
"No shit. This was a test, So Young, and I'm sorry to say it, you failed miserably."
"You know," So Young said, "somehow I don't think this is about you and me at all. I think this is totally about you and your father."
"Me and my father?" I said.
Twenty years earlier, minus a week or so, I had answered the phone and found myself speaking with Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's longtime coach and arguably the best ever, a legend to anyone who knew anything about boxing. Because Ray had seen the Kim-Mancini fight ringside the great man was calling to get his take on what had happened. "Fuckin thing was a mismatch from the get-go," I heard Ray say to Angelo Dundee. I'd seen the bout myself, on tv, and I'd been dying to pepper Ray with questions as soon as he came home--but as usual he had nothing to say to me.
"I mean, there's Boom Boom, right?" Ray said the next day, on the phone this time with Jake LaMotta. "Steps up with a no-bullshit 19-1 record, and then there's that Duck Gook, and what the fuck's he ever done? Christ, what is he, anyway? King of the universe in Shittown, Korea?" There came a pause, then Ray charged on. "Whaddya mean!" he thundered. "Look at Boom Boom! Fourteen knockouts, eight of 'em in the first round, for Chrissake, and the other six in the second! A lightweight, for Chrissake!"
The fact that my own father could talk this way to Jake LaMotta blunted the edge of every cutting remark he'd thrown at me since I was born. LaMotta's star, never very bright before (he was a lowlife's lowlife), had risen incalculably in the wake of a movie about his life that was on everyone's A-list just then. The flick starred Robert De Niro--De Niro's performance easily netted him an Oscar the following spring--and LaMotta, digging the attention for sure, now found himself in the new and enviable position of being able to hand-pick his friends. And he had hand-picked my dad!
"'Boom Boom' lost to Alexis Arguello," I had the temerity to say to Ray at the dinner table about a week later. At the time I was maybe the staunchest nine-year-old boxing fan in the world. "And Alexis Arguello knocked 'Boom Boom' out in the fourteenth round, too," I said, as if the symmetry somehow proved something--although, in the way of a nine-year old, I wasn't too sure what.
Ray didn't think I was so smart. "Oh yeah?" he said, "and what the fuck do you know about Alexis Arguello? Nothing, that's what."
"Ray?" my mother (meekly) said. "Please?"
"Yeah, yeah. All right. Listen to me, kid, and listen good. Everybody loses to Arguello. You got that? Everybody. I've refereed a couple of his fights and I can tell you for free. Arguello, he's a fuckin surgeon in that ring."
I knew--and, improbably, Ray didn’t--that two days before the Kim-Mancini bout, in the fourteenth round for good measure, Aaron Pryor had knocked out Alexis Arguello. Pryor would now forever be my favorite fighter.
"I don't want to talk about my father any more," I said to So Young. "Let's talk about you and me. About the future."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"I'm already married," she said.
"'I'm already married,' she says. So Young, your husband likes guys, for Christ's sake."
"That always worked in your favor before. And mine too, probably."
"I swear, I'll never understand this country."
"You mean me. You'll never understand me."
"You, Korea, all of it."
"Look, I like you. I really like you. But you're an English teacher, you know what I mean? And you're a foreigner. My parents would kill me."
Slowly she slid one graceful forefinger across her milky, fragrant throat, and that killed any hope for further debate.
* * *
just outside the Paradise Hotel's revolving doors listening to the dapper
Korean's goodbyes. The weather had turned cold in the last couple of days,
but the sun was coming up now and for the first time since he'd spent a week
any place far away from home Ray felt in no rush to get back to the office.
He looked out at the boxy buildings. The rising sun shone pinkly on them and
Ray guessed that one could get used to them, if one had to. Ray said, "Why
didn't Anton buy the redeemer?"
The dapper Korean gave him his flat smile. He had a nice overcoat on and he looked pleasantly warm. "I think somebody went and pissed off the redeemer. What do you think?"
Ray smiled. "I’m guessing Anton took a bath," he said.
"One man's bath is another man's watershed." The dapper Korean looked up into the sky's changing color. "You know," he said, "it's been a good year for Korea. For Busan. First the World Cup, then the Asian Games, and now this."
"Yeah," Ray mused. "And now this."
"I'll say goodbye to So Young for you, okay?"
"Sure thing. See you around." He watched the departing dapper dude's overcoat disappear into the Paradise Hotel's revolving doors, and just then, from out those same doors, there popped a blimp that Ray knew well. "Gino Dellapina!" he said. "You dirty greaseball wop, I'd recognize that waddle anywhere. What the fuck you doing here?"
Gino was wheezing away. "Whaddaya mean?" he said. "I was a fuckin judge on dat fight. Whaddayou, stoopid and blind?"
"I must be if I didn't see you. You're a fuckin elephant. So, you get your money from Anton or what?"
"Fuckin Russians, don't get me started." He paused and wheezed. Steam was coming out of his mouth and out of his coat. "But hey, it was a week away from da wife, right? Da hotel was so-so, da broads was nasty, but hey, it was a week away from da wife."
"Gotta count your blessings," Ray said.
"Fuckin A." His wheezing gave no sign of being brought under control and Gino started looking around for a place to sit. "Hey," he said, "you goin out to da airport now? Wanna share a cab?"
From a second-floor window I watched the two men walk up to a waiting taxi. The driver hurried out to help with the bags and open the door for them.
Ray opened the front door instead. Then he took in the puzzled look on Gino's face. "What?” he said. “I ain't ridin in the back witchoo, you fat fuck."
"Yeah, yeah," Gino wheezed. "Ya know," he said, "I ain't gonna miss dis place. Dis whole country smells like shit."
"Sure," Ray said, trying to make his mind up once and for all about the boxy buildings. "But the women smell great. Come to think of it it is kind of like Italy. Except in reverse."
They were in the taxi maybe fifteen seconds before the windows were completely fogged over. “Naturally it’s in reverse,” Gino said. “It’s on da odder side a da fuckin world!”
* * *