In November 1982, Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim died of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered during a clobbering at the hands of fellow lightweight Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini. This was a shattering moment in the life of boxing and, one might assume, in the life of Mancini. But it is neither dramatized nor mentioned tonight in a heedlessly deceitful CBS movie, "Heart of a Champion: The Ray Mancini Story," at 9 on Channel 9.
Proof that specious fiction can be counterfeited from virtually any helpless germ of truth, "Champion" presents fighter Mancini as a hale brave scout who becomes a boxer so he can win the title his father coveted but was denied by the intervention of World War II. Neither Jesus Christ nor Moses has been portrayed in movies with any more loving reverence than that lavished on Mancini in this morally indefensible CBS travesty.
Original plans called for Mancini to play himself, but this ego gratification at least was denied him; instead he is played by Doug McKeon, who in "On Golden Pond" had a chip on the shoulder turned miraculously into a halo before the film was over. The halo still hangs high; in "Champion," scrawny McKeon tries to project sweetly wholesome ingenuousness even as he is beating people to pulps in poorly staged fight scenes. One graceless sequence cuts from Mancini learning that his brother has died to a shot of him putting away an opponent with one powerful blow and then repairing to his corner, where he whimperingly confides to his father, "It just ain't the same without Lenny, Dad."
Dad is played by Robert Blake, brooding and simmering about in what seems to be his impression of Madame Tussaud's impression of Marlon Brando. Blake has so much putty on his nose that you wonder he can stand up without falling on his face, although, metaphorically at least, he does that in every ridiculous scene. Other characters include a lovable trainer (Dick Bakalyan), a lovable Irish priest (James Callaghan) and a lovable if terminally cliche'-ridden mother (Mariclare Costello), whose advice to her son when he contemplates a professional boxing career is, "You go to New York and you give it your best shot."
The blood-curdling triteness has a particularly familiar noxiousness; and yes, there is the name of Sylvester (Rocky) Stallone in the credits, as executive producer and choreographer of the laughably fakey boxing matches. Stallone believes not only in beating a dead horse, but also in dragging its carcass through the streets. And back again. If we can't get a punch-drunk Congress to ban professional boxing, as Howard Cosell among others has urged, maybe we can get someone to ban lousy boxing movies -- at least those in which Stallone, that tirelessly talentless lug, has a hand.
Nearly every virtue but virginity is ascribed to the Ray Mancini character in the film and, come to think of it, the screenplay makes him implicitly celibate at that (an earthily pretty girl's advances have to be spurned because Ray is so dedicated to his training, his part-time broom-pushing job and the completion of a term paper). He has no interest in money, it is stated early on. "Your family's very special to you, aren't they, Ray?" he is asked. "They're my strength," he replies. "Whenever I fight, I want to see their faces."
Just as in "Rockys" I through III, there's a training montage accompanied by a slicko rock tune, in this case one that brandishes the blinding inspiration "If you believe in yourself, you can make it."
I wonder if Duk Koo Kim believed in himself.
All the old boxing movie routines are trotted out again, and there is some heavy meditation about the price of fame and superstardom. Also, as a high school athlete, our idealistic young Boom Boom suffers the heartbreak of dehydration; is there a rock video about that yet? But there are no words in the film, even token ones, about violence as entertainment, about the dubiousness of glorifying animalistic spectacle staged in front of roaring mobs so that fighters and their managerial entourages can make millions.
"Heart of a Champion," miserably written by Dennis Nemec and absent-mindedly directed by Richard Michaels, is something beyond the usual terrible TV movie; it's shameful as well as terrible.