Don King at 90: A legend nears the finish line
Some years ago, when he was still at or near his harrumphing, bombastic best, legendary promoter Don King chastised a fellow promoter (no, not Bob Arum) for failing to fully recognize who and what was really important in the sometimes shadowy world of professional boxing.
“Your mistake is falling in love with these fighters,” King supposedly told the promoter, a usually reliable source that passed the story along to me on the condition I not reveal his name. “They ain’t boxing. We’re boxing. We’re still here after they’re finished.”
King, who turns 90 today, was correct when comparing the longevity of promoters such as himself and arch-rival Arum to the finest fighters in their respective promotional stables, all of whom had or have careers limited by the relative brevity of athletic excellence. If promoters with enough verve, wit and tenacity remain facilely sharp and are committed to staying the course well into senior citizenship, they can slide seamlessly from being sexagenarians to septuagenarians to octogenarians and then nonagenarians, which in case you didn’t know is the term for ancient geezers aged 90 to 99. Example A of just such a frisky impending nonagenarian is Arum, who turns 90 himself on Dec. 8 and whose company, Top Rank, remains a major player in the third decade of 21st century boxing.
Example B would be … well, nobody. King, whose company, Don King Productions, has dramatically scaled back its operation over the past decade or so as its founder and chief energy source has become a virtual recluse. Oh, “His Hairness” still turns up here and there, but being in the house to see his most recognizable current fighter, Trevor Bryant, capture the vacant WBA “regular” heavyweight belt on an 11th-round stoppage of the shopworn Bermane Stiverne on Jan. 29 of this year in Hollywood, Fla., was a far cry from the glory days when King staged megafights involving, among others, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Julio Cesar Chavez, Roberto Duran, Evander Holyfield, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins. In 1994 DKP was the lead promoter for a record 47 world title bouts.
For many years, dating back to the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975 when they first went head-to-head in the promotional arena, King and Arum were ensconced as the sport’s two principal power brokers, mismatched as their backgrounds were. For four decades they were 1 and 1A at the top of the heap, staring down one another just as their pugilistic headliners occasionally were obliged to do in the ring.
A few months prior to the April 8, 2006, showdown of King’s Zab Judah and Arum’s Floyd Mayweather Jr., the two old guys with plenty of fire still in their bellies shared a stage in Atlantic City to discuss that fight and their divergent paths to the lofty plateau from which they kept trying to bump the other guy down a notch.
“If you were making a chart from zero to 100, Bob Arum – Harvard graduate, Kennedy raider, Jewish ethnic, got the complexion for the connection – would be the most likely to succeed,” King said. “Don King – African-American, ex-convict, served time in jail – on a scale of zero to 100, it would be 100 to zero for Bob Arum. But in reality, it hasn’t been that way because I’ve been extraordinary at what I do. Us playing off each other has been a blessing more than anything. At the end of the day, only the two of us are left standing. Collectively, the rest can’t tie our shoestrings.”
Even before King ceased his efforts to stay neck-and-neck in his race with Arum for promotional domination (a number of younger candidates have filled that void), all evidence pointed to the man King had once derided as the “master of trickeration” and the “prince of eviality.” A miffed Arum retorted that King “could steal the gold from your teeth.”
But that was then, and this is now. Arum has other deep-pocketed and ambitious promoters to fend off, and the malaprop-spewing guy with the electrified coiffure no longer is a threat in the here and now. Now that he’s won the fight that was as exasperating and entertaining as anything their pugilistic representatives could whip up inside the ropes, Arum can afford to be gracious, or at least as gracious as someone so protective of his own turf is capable of being.
“Don King is a promoter,” Arum allowed a few years ago. “He knows how to sell a fight and he knows how to sell an event. Nobody sells tickets like Don can.
“Some (of King’s name-calling), at the time, hurt. But I never took it personally. I’ve never hated Don. I’ve always had great respect for him. I worked my tail off as a promoter because I had such a measuring stick, a bar to reach. Don made me a lot better promoter than I would have been.”
Grudging respect and no small amount of fervent rancor are the opposite sides of the Don King coin, each called flip that comes up at various intervals contributing to the legend of the larger-than-life figure whose rallying cry long has been “Only in America!”
Only in America? Indeed, the saga of Don King, to the casual observer, might seem the invention of some demented scriptwriter who crafted one of the most wildly improbable stories ever to emerge from a sport where improbability often is the rule rather than the exception. Born in poverty in Cleveland, Ohio, King meandered through the sort of trouble-filled early life that hinted more at prison time (which did occur) than being the invited guest of three U.S. presidents in the White House and having his life, or a fictional version thereof, portrayed in film by such actors as James Earl Jones, Paul Winfield, Ving Rhames, Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Gant.
This is how King’s crooked path to glory started out: with the deaths of two men spread 13 years apart. In 1954, he shot Hilary Brown in the back when Brown attempted to rob one of DK’s gambling houses, an incident that was ruled justifiable homicide. The outcome wasn’t so fortunate for King in 1967 when he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for stomping to death Sam Garrett, a King employee who owed him $600. He did hard time for three years and 11 months.
But wealth and fame doth have their privileges, and when King overcame the blight of past misdeeds to become an internationally renowned boxing promoter, he received a pardon from Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, a favorable turn of events helped by letters of support on his behalf sent in by Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and Cleveland Indians president Gabe Paul, among others. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in the Non-Participant category, in 1997 and a street in Newark, N.J., was renamed “Don King Way” during a ceremony on Dec. 21, 2015.
But there was no pardon from the deluge of lawsuits filed against King by disgruntled fighters who charged that they had been swindled out of significant chunks of their purses. Among those who took King to court were Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon, Terry Norris, Lennox Lewis, Chris Byrd and, perhaps most significantly, Tyson, who socked him with a $100 million suit in 1998 and in turn was countersued for $110 million. Tyson eventually settled out of court for $14 million, with most of the other cases against King similarly disposed, a raft of nickels-on-the-dollar agreements that led to King being dubbed the “Teflon Don.” The FBI also went after him for tax evasion, among other things, but he beat the rap that landed Al Capone in Alcatraz and also beat a nine-count indictment on insurance fraud.
“Every time I’m on a promotion, somebody’s got me in a courtroom,” King said of his frequent legal skirmishes. “They wait right until the time I’m on a promotion and then here they come.
“They went down the list of every known charge conceivable to man (after the tax evasion beef). Racketeering, skimming, kickbacks, ticket-scalping, fixing fights, preordaining fights, corrupting judges, all the way down to laundering money. Everything but the Lindbergh baby. Instead of using me as the true attestation of the American dream, they threw the book at me, or tried to. But these guys can’t lay a glove on me. Never have, never will.”
Technically, that is not the case. Although his record for settling with fighter-plaintiffs is notable, a few years ago his legal fees amounted to $30 million, a figure that no doubt has increased a bit in the interim. That might or might not be the reason why he moved his headquarters in the late 1980s from the tony Upper East Side of Manhattan to Deerfield, Fla. It isn’t exactly Mayberry, but might just as well have been in comparison to the glitz and glitter of the Big Apple. King’s staff, which once was a bustling 50-persons-plus, including such valuable lieutenants as senior vice president of operations Dana Jamison and public-relations whiz Alan Hopper, over time was whittled down to 10 or so diehards. For the purposes of this story, my calls to King’s office and home revealed that the numbers were no longer in service and the one to his cell phone resulted in my leaving a voicemail that wasn’t returned.
Perhaps it was King’s impulsive management style, as much or more as the encroachment of old age, that doomed his empire to the sort of regression that the buttoned-down, highly organized Arum has been able to avoid. Although DK’s stepson, Carl King, ostensibly was the manager of several of the older man’s higher-profile fighters, he was widely seen as a figurehead with all the major decisions resting with Don and, to some degree, the multi-talented Jamison. Hopper has spoken at length of 3 a.m. phone calls from his boss, ordering him to pack quickly and jet off to attend to some matter on short notice.
It is a lifestyle not everyone in King’s employ was able to adjust to, and when the boss lost some pep in his step it stood to reason that it had to filter down through the ranks. But when King the human dynamo was firing on all cylinders it was a thrill ride comparable to anything you’d find at Walt Disney World. And now it has come to this, Arum’s slower but rock-steady tortoise staying the course and crossing the finish line ahead of the wild hare (and wild hair) posed by King.
Maybe there will be another like him. Then again, it’s remotely possible King at 90 can reach deep within himself to find a last hurrah. Even his enemies, and they are legion, wouldn’t put it past him to somehow defy the laws of diminishing returns.
“Never underestimate Don King,” Judd Burstein, the attorney who represented Norris and got him not only a $7.5 million out-of-court settlement but, in a first for King, public disclosure of the amount, said in 1983. “I tell people he’s the single smartest person I know. He just happens to be evil.”
The many shades of Don King can be subdivided into good, bad or somewhere in between, but the cold fact is that boxing has seemed just a bit less interesting without him in cackling top form. What’s a boxing buff to do but shrug and congratulate him on 90 years of life, nearly half of that time spent shaking up the fight game as few ever have.
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