You may be familiar with the fact that boxing matches used to go 15 rounds. In fact, boxing used to have no time limit at all. But why did this end? Today, championship boxing matches can only go to 12 rounds. So why did they stop 15 round boxing matches?
15-round boxing matches ended due to the death of South Korean boxer Kim Duk-koo in the 14th round of his WBA Title fight against Ray Mancini in 1982. Kim Duk-koo’s death prompted the WBC to limit its championship fights to a maximum of twelve rounds, a move followed by the WBA and IBF in 1987.
Let’s take a look at how this unfortunate event shaped the world of boxing as we know it today.
On May 8, 1982, Ray Mancini beat Arturo Frias to win the WBA lightweight championship. Ray Mancini then defended his belt with a 6th round knockout over Ernesto España. For his second title defense, Ray Mancini was set to face the WBA’s number one contender, Kim Duk-koo.
Kim Duk-koo was a South Korean boxer, who turned professional in 1978. He compiled a record of 12-1-1, before challenging fellow South Korean Kwang-Min Kim for the Orient and Pacific Boxing Federation (OPBF) lightweight title on February 28, 1982.
After 12 rounds, Kim Duk-koo won the OPBF title via unanimous decision, making him the WBA’s number one contender. After fighting four more times after winning the OPBF title, before being matched up against Ray Mancini for a shot at the WBA lightweight title.
The bout was set to be held in an arena outside of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on November 13, 1982. Kim made news prior to the fight when he ominously stated, “Either he dies, or I die”. Journalist Royce Feour noticed Korean writing on Kim Duk-koo’s lampshade while he was conducting an interview with Kim. He was told it said ‘Live, or die’.
Kim Duk-koo had a very straightforward fighting style. He was not athletic when he started boxing, and even after years of training, he was not regarded as a highly technical fighter.
Despite his lack of technical skill, Kim became noticed for his ability to take punishment, which Kim himself attributed to the hard life he had growing up. This was noticed by Kim’s training partners, such as welterweight boxer Yoon-gu Kim, who said that Kim Duk-koo was “more strong-willed and ruthless than others”.
Against popular belief, Ray Mancini expected a hard, grueling fight against Kim Duk-koo, something which remained true up until the very end of the fight.
The fight was a close one throughout, with both competitors willing to withstand punishment to dish out some of their own. The result was a fight with several injuries, starting with Ray Mancini breaking his left hand in the 3rd round.
By the 11th round, both fighters had taken an extraordinary amount of damage, which was clear from their facial laceration and bruising. The heavy toll they had taken prompted them to clinch several times, both bleeding and tired, which prompted Mancini to later say, “I knew him better than his own mother”.
At the start of the 14th round, Mancini quickly came forward, first throwing a left hook, followed by a straight right. The straight punch knocked Kim Duk-koo back, landing by the edge of the ring.
In an amazing feat of strength and perseverance, Kim Duk-koo managed to get up before the end of the ten count, using the ropes to lift himself. Commentator Ralph Wiley called it “one of the greatest physical feats I had ever witnessed”. Despite this, referee Richard Green knew that Kim was not able to continue, and called the fight off nineteen seconds into the 14th round.
Ray Mancini emerged victorious, with Kim Duk-koo being carried out of the arena on a stretcher and taken to the nearby Desert Springs Hospital.
At the hospital, a CT scan on Kim’s brain revealed a subdural hematoma, a life-threatening injury caused by tears in bridging veins of the brain. About 100 cubic centimeters of blood had filled up within Kim’s brain, enough to fill two shot glasses.
Despite the removal of the blood clot after two and a half hours of operation, Dr. Lonnie Hammargren concluded that there was no way to save Kim’s life.
Kim remained on life support until four days after the fight, so that his mother and half-brother could see him before his death. With them they brought herbal medicine and acupuncturists, in a final attempt to save his life, until Kim’s mother allowed the life-support to be turned off.
Kim Duk-koo died on November 18, 1982, at the young age of 23.
The morning after Kim Duk-koo’s death, Ray Mancini was interviewed by the New York Times. In the interview he said, “It was a terrific fight and I saved my title, but what am I, a hero? Who’s to say it couldn’t be me? And yet, how can I say, ‘It was better him than me?’”.
The death of Kim would plague Mancini for most of his life, commonly known as ‘the fighter that killed a man in the ring’.
Three months after the death of Kim, his mother took her own life by drinking a bottle of pesticide. Kim was also engaged prior to his death, leaving behind his fiancée, Lee Young-Mi. She was pregnant at the time of his death, with a boy who would be named Kim Chi-Wan, born in July of 1983.
The death of Kim was a very infamous event, especially because it was nationally televised by CBS. Because of this, CBS did not televise Mancini’s next fight, as Kim’s death had started conversations on Boxing regulation, as well as its abolition.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) was the first organization to impose rule changes. Just a month after Kim’s death, the NSAC introduced the standing eight count, which allows the referee to call a knockdown if they see a fighter not defending themselves. The commission also imposed a 45-day suspension for fighters who lose via knockout.
The World Boxing Council (WBC) announced their limit for championship boxing matches to 12 rounds three months after Kim’s death. The sanctioning body for the Mancini vs Kim fight, the World Boxing Association (WBA), did not follow suit until 1987. The International Boxing Federation (IBF) also limited fights to 12 rounds starting in 1987. The lessening of rounds would obviously impact how long matches lasted, as noted in What Is The Length Of An Average Boxing Match?
Pre-fight check-ups also became more stringent for the fighters. In the years following Kim’s death, fighters were required to submit brain scans, electrocardiograms, and lung testing prior to fighting.
To sum it up, 15-round boxing matches ended due to the unfortunate passing of Kim Duk-koo after being knocked out in the 14th round of a 15-round fight. The boxer’s death received widespread attention due to it being nationally televised, attention that prompted sanctioning bodies to limit championship boxing matches to 12 rounds.
If you want to learn more about the historical events in combat sports such as the one described here, check out the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading.