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Lee read how Kim's mother left her third husband, a bean curd peddler, because his grown son was cruel to her. Taking her two young sons, she walked a great distance and finally arrived in a fishing village, where she begged for food for her boys. There she met and married her fourth husband. He had three sons, who became Kim's brothers. Kim wrote, "One new brother used to drag me around, forcing me to fight with other village kids. The older kids enjoyed watching our fights, and I despise them even today for it. At the age of six I was learning to fight.... In those childhood days I could see the red sun rising from the ocean's horizon. I planned my future while watching the sunrise and the bright sunlight. I always repeated to myself that I shall live to make it big.... I used to catch and eat scallop and fish and swim out far, far away.... When autumn came, we used to catch locust to fry and eat.... In winter we'd go wild-rabbit hunting. With a stick in our hands, we'd climb a snow-covered hill where there were so many wild rabbits. Or we'd go sledding on frozen rice paddies. But there were more days of hardship than fun."
At 16, Kim left home and got a job in a bakery in the city of Sokcho, about 120 miles west of Seoul. After two years he moved on to the capital, where he worked as a welder in a steel mill. He left this job after he got into a fight with his boss. "When I was ignored or humiliated," he wrote, "I felt an unbearable anger. Even these days, I simply cannot stand being looked down on. Back then, I was not thinking about the consequences of my action. I never had a happy home, and I was deeply unsatisfied. And every now and then, I would become uncontrollably angry."
He left the mill with no money and had to beg a bus driver to let him on a bus. The bus took him to a neighborhood by a stream, where he found wood and made a fire. He slept under a bridge, ate crackers and drank water for two days and looked for work. Then, when his life was at its lowest point, he found a job selling palm-reading books in coffee shops. Although he considered it demeaning work and made less than a penny on each book he sold, Kim was no longer hungry. He wrote, "I know I cannot afford to be lazy.... I must create 'something' in order to realize my great dream.... I never liked my mother very much as a kid. I had wanted her to raise me on her own. I guess I was too young to know.... But now I understand my mother and feel sorry for her. That's why I want to be a good son and bring her happiness. In order to do that, I must reach the top.... A country boy named Kim Duk Koo [the correct order of his name in Korean] will show the world something.... I shall run and fight until I am covered with blood and sweat."
Young Mee Lee says, "I couldn't help but cry. He cried. I thought, 'Although he may not be rich or successful, he needs me.' "
By the time they were engaged in June 1982, however, Kim had begun to make a modest name for himself in boxing. He won the Korean lightweight championship in December 1980 and the Orient and Pacific title in February 1982. Lee never saw him box, but he did take her to see a fight so that, before they were married, she would have some idea of a boxer's life.
They celebrated their engagement with parties at her parents' home, in Seoul and in his mother's village of Kojin, a four-hour drive from the capital.
With only one loss in 19 professional fights, Kim had exceeded the expectations of his manager, who had not thought much of his talent when he first arrived and announced he was going to be a champion. Hyun Chi Kim agreed to train him but not to take him into his stable of fighters, who lived in the gymnasium dormitory and did not have to hold jobs. Kim worked and trained and still did not impress his manager. Among the new friends he made was Bong Sang Lee, who became his roommate. Once, when their manager told Kim that he did not think he was giving enough of himself to be a good boxer, Kim confided to Lee that he wanted to kill himself.
Still he won 29 of his 33 amateur fights, and when he became a professional the first present he bought himself was a pair of sneakers. He trained hard. He ran to the gymnasium rather than take the bus. He strengthened his neck by tying cord to a barbell and holding the weight with his teeth. In time he was invited into the boxing stable. Many of the other boxers were young men who also had come from the provinces without money but with lofty plans.
His manager sent him to a commercial high school, and on his graduation day Kim stood in his black, high-collared school uniform with a garland of flowers around his neck. He fought in boxing halls of Seoul like the Munwha, a dark, dusty gym filled with folding chairs. Boxers were once great heroes in South Korea, then a poor country that lacked the sports and games of richer lands. Fights were the leading diversion. But by the last year of Kim's life, baseball and television had come to the country, and people didn't go to the fights as often.
People watched boxing on television, however, and it was on television that South Korea saw Kim's final bout. He and his manager left Seoul two weeks before the Las Vegas fight, stopping first in Los Angeles for preparation. Kim had never been to the U.S., but he devoted himself to little other than his training. He called his fianc�e a week before the fight to say that he had bought her a watch and some cosmetics.