Don King promoted his first boxing show 50 years ago this year, became the most notorious man in boxing – even above his former fighter Mike Tyson – and at 90 years old is still finding himself center stage.
Getting up to speak at the press conference to promote Daniel Dubois vs Trevor Bryan in Miami, King spent more than 30 minutes in front of his best friend – the microphone.
The most recognizable and quotable promoter on the planet, with hair as tall as the tales he’d spin, put on his first ever boxing event in 1972. With a twist. King talked Muhammad Ali into take part in an exhibition to raise money for Forest City Hospital in King’s hometown of Cleveland. Except that while the event made a reported $85,000 in ticket sales, the hospital allegedly only ever received $1,500 of it.
By this stage of his life, King – who’d go on to promote more than 500 world title fights and counting – had already killed two people. He spent three years and 11 months in prison after being convicted of second degree murder for stomping a man to death outside a bar. The victim was Sam Garrett, who owed King $600 for a gambling debt. His last words were: “Don, I’ll pay you the money.”
King, who outweighed Garrett by more than 100lb and had him with a loaded, unregistered Mangum, was known as ‘Donald the Kid’ by the 1960s. He ran an illegal bookmaking operation and controlled a numbers racket in Cleveland’s East Side ghetto.
In 1954, he had shot and killed a man trying to rob one of his gambling houses, but this was ruled a justifiable homicide. The Garrett case ended in jail time, although – as King later said – rather than doing time, he made time work for him.
According to Don, he became a reformed character while inside, devouring books in the prison library, reading everything from Machiavelli to Shakespeare.
He certainly inhaled a lot of quotes, which he would liberally sprinkle into his remarkable rhetoric. Listening to the first Ali vs Joe Frazier fight on the radio in jail gave him the boxing bug, but King’s first visible presence at a heavyweight title fight came in 1973 and the ‘Sunshine Showdown’ in Kingston, Jamaica, between Frazier and George Foreman.
While King arrived at the fight venue in a limousine with the champion Frazier, he’d been spending time with the unbeaten challenger Foreman in the lead-up. After ‘Big George’ violently blasted Frazier to his first defeat – scoring six knockdowns in two rounds – King strode across the ring to ingratiate himself with Foreman. “I came into the ring with the champion, and I left with the champion,” King recalled.
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However, the fight where he shot to global fame came in 1974 when King put together the most iconic fight of the 20th century: Foreman vs Ali. King beat his rival promoters to the punch by promising each man a then unheard of minimum of $5million each. What King had had two signatures on a piece of paper. What he did not have was $10million.
A minor inconvenience. King sold the fight to Zaire (now DR Congo) as a way for the country’s ruling dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, to put his nation on the map. Aided by the rhetoric of Ali and King – and the narrative of ‘The Greatest’ challenging for the world title once more – the event was a gigantic hit, grossing $100million worldwide.
‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ helped King begin his control of the heavyweight division. He would often play the race card, pointing out – with justification – that boxing was a sport where a large number of black boxers fought blood and guts to make white promoters even richer. Though as Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion King promoted, once said: “Don King looks black, lives white and thinks green.”
Mike Tyson, rather than Holmes, was the heavyweight champ who would become King’s greatest meal ticket, however. King was involved in the promotion of Tyson fights as early as 1986. By 1988, King had prized ‘Iron Mike’ away from his management and was all but exclusively looking after the fighter’s interests as he unified the division.
From the outside, it was a perfect match: the explosive, glowering ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ was thrilling fight fans, while the grinning, flag-waving, King did all the talking. Even Tyson’s shock stoppage loss to Buster Douglas – a result King, ever the brazen hustler, tried to get overturned by virtue of a supposed long count earlier in the contest – did not slow things down. Tyson’s box-office appeal was undented.
His post-prison comeback in 1995, against hapless Peter McNeeley – billed simply as ‘He’s Back’ – did a then record 1.6 million US pay-per-view buys. King matched that record for Tyson’s showdown with Evander Holyfield a year later, then surpasses it for the rematch (the ‘bite fight’) which sold close to two million buys. But behind the scenes, the Tyson-King dynamic was rotten.
Stories followed King that he allegedly underpaid and ripped-off fighters. Ali was short-changed to the tune of $1.1m for his comeback fight against Holmes. Larry later claimed King cheated him out of $10m throughout his boxing career. But Tyson reportedly only began to realise the extent of King’s hold over him when he signed a contract with the then WWF to appear at WrestleMania 14. Tyson was informed that Don King owned his image rights and may be entitled to part of his $3.5million fee .
Tyson ended up suing King for $100million in 1998, although he eventually settled out of court for $14million. “I found out that someone I believed was my surrogate father, my brother, my blood figure turns out to be the true Uncle Tom, the true n,, the true sellout,” Tyson said later. “He did more bad to black fighters than any white promoter ever in the history of boxing,”
King’s career was at its peak during Tyson’s second stint as world champion. In 1994 alone, he promoted 47 world title fights involving legends such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Felix Trinidiad. But by the late 1990s, some boxers were suspicious of working with King. Lennox Lewis fought on King co-promotions but never signed with him, despite Don’s best efforts.
Gradually, his influence waned, though he still retained an interest even in semi-retirement, as he called it – promoting Bermane Stiverne, who Deontay Wilder beat to become a world champion in 2015.
Yet last November, King’s influence suddenly, surprisingly reared its head once again. After rumors spread that the world’s no.1 pound-for-pound fighter, Canelo Alvarez, was going to leap to cruiserweight and challenge Ilunga Makabu, it was revealed that King – who represents the Congolese world champion – had arranged a fight with Thabiso Mchunu For early 2022, scuppering Alvarez’s plans.
Canelo later denied he had ever planned to challenge Makabu. Though that didn’t stop fight fans laughing at the fact that King was still involved once more in the ‘politricks’ of boxing at the highest level, while the promoter spokeswoman of wanting to hold a ‘Rumble in the Jungle 2’ and bring Alvarez to Africa to fight Makabu.
That now seems unlikely, and the 90-year-old King will probably not add to his record of having promoted or co-promoted seven of the top 10 biggest-selling boxing PPVs of all time.
His detractors and ex-fighters left bitter will point to the settlements, the lawsuits, the decline that often set in when King began looking after a fighter. (And it does seem odd, considering the undoubted sharpness of King’s mind, that he was always so quick to install his puppets as cornermen for his boxers despite the harm it did to their performances and subsequent earning power.)
Others will say that almost every boxing promoter has taken advantage of boxers in the past and what actually makes King unique is his background: from under-privilege and poverty to the pinnacle of his profession.
“Only in America!” King would bark relentlessly. “I’m a promoter of the people for the people and by the people, and my magic lies in my people ties.”
He’s certainly held some spell over the fight game for much of the last five decades.
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