When Mike Tyson fights Frank Bruno for the world heavyweight boxing championship next weekend, everyone knows who the winner will be: Don King, the ruthless and flamboyant promoter who has had the world's most lucrative sporting market cornered for the past 20 years. How has such power accrued to one so, er, eccentric?
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A WALKIE TALKIE, stranded on a sofa in the hotel lobby, coughed out the latest news: "DK on his way from Florida. Will arrive Richmond 10pm." On the wall, a banner with a corporate logo hinted at the owner of the mysterious initials. The word DON supported a coronet. Don King, the boxing promoter who specialises in promoting himself, has - among other deft and slippery conjuring feats - engineered his own coronation.

The hotel, on a highway outside Richmond, the state capital of Virginia, braced itself for his arrival, as for that of a hurricane. In the lobby his minions confabulated in blobs: roly-poly men like waddling molecules, their bangles jangling, their pinky rings glinting, walkie-talkies jutting from their polyester rumps. The fighters they managed, due to brutalise each other for the benefit of Don King Productions in a local stadium over the weekend, prowled the halls muttering mantras. I heard a voice behind me say, "Gonna whip your ass, man. Gonna show you what I got. You gonna see, I execute good. You is dead meat, feller." When I nervously turned back, I saw a young black man - shaved head like a boxing glove, a jagged gold toothpick parked behind his ear, wearing cowboy boots for which tribes of lizards had laid down their lives - smiling with mystical abstraction as he poked and pummelled the empty air.

I waited until he had knocked out his imaginary opponent, and asked how he had come to join this travelling circus. "Don King," he said, "signed me up fresh out of prison. They had me in there for selling a whole mess of cocaine. Leastways they said I did. But I was snitched on, it was entrapment. Now I just want someone to know who I am, and Don King puts on the best shows."

The show always stars King himself, as I discovered when he arrived, a day late, at the hotel. Since he operates in conditions of chaos - moving in a fog of bluff, pretence and misinformation which outwits rivals and befuddles legal investigators - no one knew for sure when he would appear. I staked out the lobby, and recognised him when I saw his hair get out of the limo, followed by a loose, baggy monster in a purple jumpsuit. Don King's hair is famous. It is the glory which crowns him, literally his aureole. It quivers above his head like a petrified forest. His barber, as he fondly acknowledges, stepped down from on high to tease it upright: "It's an aura of God; He did it to me. I feel it's indicative of my being ordained and anointed by Him."

Diana Ross, referring to the frizzed jungle from which her tiny face peeps out, once remarked: "When you have hair like mine, it's a great responsibility." King's coiffure might be called a great irresponsibility: the visible sign, not of divine favour, but of his skill at evading all laws, including that of gravity. Legends breed about those locks. One story has it that they're a souvenir of the electric chair: King calmly strolled away when they turned off the voltage, but his hair still thrills to the memory of the current. Another anecdote, perhaps more trustworthy, dates the standing shanks to an occasion when a Cleveland gangster, to prevent King from testifying in a court case, peppered him in the back of the head with a shotgun. The pellets lodged in his scalp and continue to affright his follicles.

In the hotel, the news travelled fast, relayed through walkie-talkies: "The King is in the house!" Soon he was surrounded by fixers, fawners and would-be contenders. He disappeared into the crowd, only his crest, like the surf of a breaking wave, visible above it. His voice occasionally yelped, "Goddam!" as he was told of croneys who had dropped dead at the race track or broadcast rights which had been bartered; I heard a volcanic chuckle which travelled up his body and jolted through his quiff. Babies were passed into the scrum to be dandled. Don King, marked out as a Messiah by his hair, suffered the little children to come unto him. Waitresses pushed paper napkins between the heaving bodies. Sometimes they were returned with King's signature; once or twice they came back in a soggy knot, having been used to wipe off the intimidated infants.

I asked one of the waitresses, just arrived from Vietnam, why she wanted King's autograph. She smiled with sweet vacuity: "He famous, right?"

Yes, he is - but for what? For beating raps? For cheating boxers? For killing people? King, who acquired his business expertise in illegal gambling, first achieved celebrity in the Seventies, after serving a prison term for homicide. With subsidies from Third World despots - Mobutu in Zaire, Marcos in the Philippines - he matched Muhammad Ali against George Foreman and Joe Frazier, pocketing his first fistful of millions from the sale of television rights around the world. Now, despite trials for insurance fraud, allegations of unpaid taxes, and law suits from aggrieved fighters whose winnings he withheld, King is himself a despot with dynastic pretensions. If you want to be a boxing champion - and violence, for the American underclass, is one of the few career options available - you more or less have to have a contract with King; and that contract will be written to his advantage, with his son demanding an extra percentage for managerial services. With his extended family, King now personally controls this richest and shadiest of sports, which used to be a fiefdom of white mobsters.

In the hotel - and in America generally - such details hardly matter. What's important is to be a celebrity, even if you're celebrated for your criminality, or your absurd, erectile hair.

King, of course, explains the fuss differently. "I am," he likes to say, "the living attestation of the American dream. I am the extolment of this great nation."

HIS THROAT irrigated by draughts of Diet Coke, King treated me - in the hotel coffee shop, kept open after hours for his exclusive use - to one of his world-encircling, lexicon-exhausting, syntax-confounding monologues. He combines rap with rodomontade, jazzy riffs with pious evangelism. The wild-eyed ecstasy is that of the revivalist preacher, intermixed with the autodidact's earnest footnotes. King, whose malapropisms have their own inadvertent poetry, spent his time in jail reading up on sages like St Thomas Aquinine and George Stuart Mills; his literary allusions clang as portentously as the bells which terminate boxing rounds. Words spill and sputter from him, as if he were creating language on the spot and, like an illogical Logos, speaking a skewed, nonsensical world into existence. "Energy, man, energy, that's where I'm at." He is indeed a tornado in human form. "The people feel the vibrations coming off me 'cos I'm a people person. When I go from the airports to the hills and valleys, I do not go with trepidation. America the beautiful, man! You hear me talking to you? You understand what I'm saying? Sure, I have walked with kings. But I'd rather be with the masses than the classes, I keep my common touch. Most times a celebrity's got 15 bodyguards, but Abe Lincoln weren't saved by no security men. I look on this nation with joy and light. You know man, I am a former felon."

I knew it. In 1966 King booted to death a consumptive addict with a missing kidney who owed him $600. (His victim's last words were: "Don, I'll pay you the money.") The incident elicits all his verbal legerdemain. He likes to say that the unfortunate debtor "expired", or that "a fatality" occurred.

"But,'' he went on, "I am confessed. I am God's child. He has tried and tested me, and the Ohio governor gave me a complete and unconditional pardon." (King the king-maker had contributed to his pardoner's campaign funds.) "I believe in the matchless lamb which is Jesus Christ. That's why you don't see me with no congregation of bodyguards. I have Jesus Christ with me. He prepares a table for me in his mansion, and makes my enemies my footstool." Here King, to illustrate the parable, stretched out those once lethal feet on a chair in the coffee shop, as if trampling Gog and Magog. He then told me about the miracles he is adept at performing - magicking water into Coca-Cola, effortlessly making bread multiply. "I take the dregs. No one comes to me without he's been fucked first. Black fighters all want white managers, they only come to Don King after the white man fucks them. I take these guys out of the jails and the gutters, and I give them more money than anyone ever had in the en-tire history of man-kind. You get my meaning? I raise them from the muck and mire, I make them distinguish themselves in the field of honour and valour. I can snatch the possible from the jaws of the impossible. I can find money anywhere. I will get blood from a turnip, you give me a stone and I will cook rock sauce." The stew of metaphors boiled over. "When I get a hot property, I gonna swallow the sword for him. That's how you prove the pudding, man. But I don't finagle. I'd sooner be the screwer than the screwee. Every deal's a individual. Some is bonsai, some is kamikaze. I don't have to have it all. I ain't no greedy man choked with indigestion."

At this point King, belying himself, cavernously belched. I remembered reports of his extortionate contracts: fighters, deprived of all but a small fraction of their earnings, are made to pay for the protective cups with which they fortify their privates. If you have a quarter, one of his graduates once wailed, DK will take 26 cents of it. King gulped some more soda, to help all those hot swords garnished with bleeding turnips and rock sauce through his ample alimentary canal. He then proceeded to feast upon his latest creation, a female boxer called Christy Martin, who is a castration complex in pink tights.

"Cain't no one call me no male shavingist. I dare to be great. The man without imagination stands on earth and hath no wings. This is my credo, this is my forte. I rise up into the light of day, I extend the olive branch. Christy Martin is a minority, but she will prevail. She is of the quality and the ilk to fulfil the good word. I'm marriaging sports and entertainment. When people see her stuff, there will be a con-ta-gion. She sells the tickets, and when there ain't no more room at the inn, the news goes round the world. You hear me, Jack? She's no sissy, man, she won't embarrass me with no flailing femininity. And with me, that little lady is gonna make a new life. I want to get her to be a Revlon girl. Those Revlon folks have this new non-smear lipstick that can withstand the inclemency of the weather. Well, this girl gets pounded, and her lipstick don't come off! She's gonna be one great endorsement."

King's non sequiturs and tonal lunges, veering from prophecy to profiteering, from biblical gobbets to the corporate jargon of Madison Avenue, leap nimbly across the Grand Canyons of contradiction in American life. Religion, capitalism and showbiz interweave, with no seams on view. "We are all clothed," as King orotundly expressed it, "in the single garment of destiny. I subscribe to that. I work and I sing and I pray, and I make great deals. Never before in history, man, in the history of man-kind. Believe it or not, Ripley. That's why I love this country. Glory be!" He stifled another burp of fervour: the man is full of wind.

Of course there have been travails along the way, but King solemnly professes gratitude for the scrutiny of his contractual trickery and financial sleight- of-hand by - at various points in the past 20 years - the IRS, the CIA, the FBI and Interpol. All those court cases, from which he slickly unhooked himself, have served to embellish his virtue. "My enemies have come together in the aggravate to destroy me, to vilify my name. They are voiciferous against me. But I have extirpated all themes of that outta me. I preach friendship, unanimity and zeal, and restrict negativism. No lie can live for ever: Thomas Carlyle said that. I refuse to be slothful, which is the precis of the Afro-American. Sure, like my man William Shakespeare said, if you prick me, I will bleed. So I put my pants on one leg at a time. On each plateau, you elevate yourself some more. That's my panacea. I know all about persecution. I've toured all the concentration camps - Dakkar, Birchgarden, Auschenwitz, I've been there. And I know that no man is an island, I've heard that bell toll. One man can make a difference in the world. You know Winston Churchill, he visited all the army bases on all the beaches all over the world, and he brought upliftment. That's what I'm about, Jack. Hey, I got a PhD in Caucasianism. Now I gotta teach them white folks some Niggerology!"

He scratched his belly, noisily sucked some more Diet Coke through his straw, and flashed a double row of dangerous teeth, as white as tombstones.

LATER, Don King gave me a tutorial in Niggerology. He was explaining his presence in Richmond, the headquarters of nostalgia for a feudal society of swanning planters and obsequious darkies, rendered obsolete by the urban, industrial, egalitarian United States in the decades after the Civil War. The secessionist Confederacy had its own White House here, and the defeated generals rear on horseback along Monument Avenue, as if they had won their battles. The town suffers from shabby gentility: I passed an establishment called The Little Mending Shop, devoted to repairing burns and moth-holes. I recalled Scarlett O'Hara recycling those velvet curtains to make herself a new green gown, and betraying the imposture by her work-spoiled hands.

The South has never recovered from the deluding fantasy of Gone With the Wind, and Richmond prizes its own share of that hierarchical fiction. Muncipal lore claims that the staircase in the Jefferson Hotel, which ceremonially extends through several floors of this baronial folly towards a sunset heaven of stained glass, was a model for the one in Rhett Butler's house. Clark Gable carried Vivien Leigh up that carpeted cliff to rape her; she threw herself back down it to abort the child which would ruin her figure. Beribboned debutantes still mince down those tiers on the arms of brilliantined beaux. Around the corner near the lavatories, an ancient shoe-shiner crouched in a broken-backed posture of permanent deference. His gleaming skin looked as if he spent the hours when he had no other customers polishing himself. Richmond was an inauspicious location, surely, for Don King and his battalions of bruisers?

"This here," King concurred, "is the cradle of the Confederacy. And I have come to Richmond to give the due to those who with honour, dignity and a misconcept of the human personality made a divide in this great nation."

He had come, in other words, to pay homage to the enslavers?

"They got a rich heritage here, my man. This is where Patrick Henry said: 'Give me liberty or give me death.' The pendulum or arc of history - it's always gonna swing that way. That comes from France and fraternity. You hear what I'm saying?"

But, I feebly pointed out, it was the North which wanted to liberate the slaves. The Civil War was hardly, for Southern partisans, about freedom.

"At least those Southerners, man, they had a po-sition, like my good friend Pat Buchanan," he said. "They had a belief, and I dig that. The field of indecisiveness be littered with bleached bones. Slavery weren't no colour bar, it weren't nothing more than economic recomp-sense. You understand me, Jack?" I think I did. King himself has a reputation as a slave-driver, working his boxers like field hands and relying on their innumeracy (or perhaps on the damaged brains behind their broken noses) to get away with his expropriations of their earnings. He once invoiced a fighter for 28 days in a training camp at $100 a day: a grand total of $28,000. What's an extra zero between soul brothers? What's wealth, indeed, but noughts exponentiated to infinity? King, who served his arithmetical apprenticeship as a boy in the Cleveland numbers racket, is allegedly worth $1.5 bn. Yet boxers show no signs of losing faith in him. When Tyson came out of jail last year, he compliantly signed up again with King, who has promoted his match with Frank Bruno in Las Vegas on 16 March. Each fighter is contractually obliged to have his next fight promoted by King (in Bruno's case via King's British partner, Frank Warren), and the next, and the next - as will anyone who subsequently wants to challenge the winner.

There was another, higher-minded reason for King's accommodation with the oppressors of his ancestors. Hegel figured on his curriculum of "philosophists" in the penitentiary, and he knows all about the dodgy manoeuvres of the dialectic. "See here, if those Confederates didn't take no position, we wouldn'ta had no Civil War. You always gotta ask, What is the sacrifices? So we had confrontation, and that brings resolvement, and outta that comes pro-gress. Ain't no pain, man, without gain." King can make even the historical dialectic speak in rhyme.

"Some times," he concluded, bludgeoning the air with his fist like the attitudinising generals on their mounts along Monument Avenue, "you gotta stand up to fight for what you believe." Could this have been what King was doing when, standing up for the $600 he believed in, he battered that tubercular wreck, down for the count in the ghetto gutter?

Others now fight on his behalf, believing in the chimerical prospect of fame. "I bin notarised on TV," swaggered one of his gladiators, having picked up his master's malapropistic style: he meant that he had become notorious. "I'm looking forward to being a household name," another told me, "some time in the next year." King allows them their dreams of manifest destiny. What he believes in is those poly-philoprogenitive zeroes.

I RAN King's vision of Southern history by some locals, who were busy that evening resurrecting their own version of the past.

The South, mesmerised by its memories, is a ramshackle haunted house. At Petersburg, near Richmond, there are regular nocturnal vigils, keeping watch for a Civil War brigade which is doomed to stay on phantasmal patrol until the South wins the war. In another part of town, costumed armies restage the campaign every spring, hoping that the result might be different this time. On the night of King's tournament in Richmond, the spectres had come out to play.

By the frothing river, near the site of a vicious Civil War prison camp, I found a group of volunteers bivouacked. "We are Living History," one of them whispered to me, speaking out of the corner of his mouth while he shouldered arms. I sympathised with his unease: I was an intruder from the future - an alienation effect, threatening to disillusion the charade. Shivering beside his tent, another recruit smoked a hickory pipe with a bamboo stem, carved according to period specifications, and swigged Drambuie from an antique flask. He admitted, very reluctantly, to being a used-car salesman - that is, when he came home to the 20th century. But he preferred to live in the 1860s. His girlfriend, on hand to cook his breakfast with properly rancid bacon grease, took me on a guided tour of her lingerie. "Under my chemise this here's my privacy petticoats in case the wind gets a little frisky with my hoop. And these are my ankle- length drawers - aren't they cute? I made my corset with my own hands. No, I don't have no Mammy to lace my stays. But I'm authentic from the skin out." She worked - when she commuted back to that other, ruder, less frilly time-zone - as a computer operator. These re-enactments fight all over again a war between amnesiac contemporary America and a past which (like Don King finessing his recollection of that homicide) it would prefer to suppress.

The soldiers in their mothy uniforms had turned out to protect the guests at a Confederate Ball, staged in an iron foundry where the cannons used in the Civil War were manufactured. Perhaps the rifles which the sloping- shouldered, uncoordinated troops handled so clumsily had ammunition in them: there had been protests against the dance - tactlessly named Bonnie Blue, after the secessionist flag - for glorifying a culture which depended on slavery. The re-enactors arrived in cars, which had to be parked out of sight since they ruined the set-dressing. Television news teams, who had also invaded from the foreign, northern, modern world, were permitted on to the premises. Reporters in jeans interviewed dancers in crinolines, the microphones reaching across an unbridgable chronological gulf. The revellers looked wan and ghostly in the television lights, but the unmannerly gate-crashers could not be debarred. History, in this society which has never reconciled itself to being gone with the wind, is a costume picture, and if it's not filmed it does not officially exist.

I summarised Don King's account of American history to one of the sentinels. The response was belligerent. "He said that? He quoted Patrick Henry and Robert E Lee to you'all? But that's our heritage, that ain't his. No way neither, nosirree." He raised his bayonet, and bristled like the blade. The Civil War is still taking place, and - as with a bout in one of King's slugfests, or the statistical caprice of the numbers game - the winner is anyone's guess.

THAT NIGHT at the boxing arena, in a ring whose velvety ropes were swaddled in the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes, several American dreams bit the dust.

A Mexican who had waded across the Rio Grande in quest of glory had his temple cracked open, and fought on for a last desperate round, spattering himself with blood like an abstract expressionist using his own body as a canvas. A Russian fighter was patriotically jeered by the crowd. His Tartar features had prompted one of King's underlings to ask: "You sure you ain't no Chinaman?" Just in case, he was nicknamed The Beast from the East. He faced up to a black American known as the Atomic Bull in an action replay of the Cold War. As the raggle-taggle Confederate re- enactors found, history's battles tend to come out the same way, no matter how often you repeat them: the Atomic Bull vanquished the red menace in one minute. Tottering and cross-eyed after a reverberant blow to his skull, the Russian subsided like a statue of Lenin. I recalled Don King's remark about the rumour that Donald Trump had been invited to give Yeltsin lessons in capitalism: "That guy Leningrad must be turning in his grave."

King himself made a lolling, belated entrance, fondled by spotlights and saluted by the announcer in the ring: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Number One promoter in the world, Mr Doooooon Kiiiiing!" His standing ovation was on tape, since it was difficult for the paying customers to oblige: how can you cheer while guzzling a hot dog and swilling beer? He had changed into the regalia he wears when consorting with other crowned heads - a sleek tux with a spangled waistcoat, suede slippers. His hair performed its own coronation ceremony. He shimmied through the mob, distributing waves and foxy smiles like alms.

Then, enthroned beside the ring in a plastic chair, he took out his mobile phone and resumed business, buying and selling human flesh. Intent on his sotto voce deals, his eyes strayed nowhere near the next bout, fought by his protege Christy Martin. She materialised from an apocalyptic cloud of dry ice. Her face, sculpted by hatchets, had been scarified with rouge. Her fluffy negligee hinted at what King called "flailing femininity", but he need not have worried. Having ripped off the nightie, she cast a shrewish glance around the arena, spat contemptuously into a bucket, and got down to business. "She's a marauder," gasped the sports hack beside me. She backed her black opponent into a corner and belaboured her for 50 seconds with fists like pistons.

The other woman sank to the floor sobbing; Christy did a dance of savage glee, then strutted backstage. She reappeared at the ringside in a pin- striped suit, the arrowheads of rouge restored to her flinty cheeks, her permed mane newly stiffened by spray. King, still pursuing those numbers which he used to chase on the Cleveland streets, remained indifferent, enticing money from the phone as if squeezing blood from turnips.

He clambered into the ring for the last two bouts which were being televised live over Rupert Murdoch's network. King, haranguing me on the subject of aspiration, had spoken of growing wings and taking to the sky. By this he meant, somewhat bathetically, that he had taken to Sky.

The unexpected pole-axing of the Russian proved a crisis. The next bout was not due to begin, according to the television schedule, for an hour - how could the interim be filled up? Dead meat, in the form of those concussed boxers being carted off to some backstage abattoir, is cheap; but dead air costs money. For an hour, King's courtiers frantically improvised. A brass band oompahpahed, while black chorines in Lycra bikinis bumped and ground, mimicking a marathon of coitus. The audience was appeased with T-shirts, fired from a sling-shot. Famished for blood, some customers took to brawling among themselves.

King himself spent the hour perambulating around the empty ring, relishing the glow of the lights, unfussed by the delay. He had ignored the fights; this, for him, was what mattered - the undivided attention of the cameras. More than that, he seemed to relish the anarchy of it all: the panic of his employees, barking curses into their walkie-talkies, along with the drunken scuffling in the cheaper seats, the slide show of commercial pitches for frozen yoghurt and fax machines, and the stench of frying oil, ketchup, antiseptic and blood.

This constituted his American dream - a state of rowdy indiscipline; a condition of lawless freedom where you can scheme and swindle your way to eminence and then, by dodging and ducking, remain more or less indefinitely unaccountable for your actions. That demonic chuckle which I heard in the lobby the night before, combined with the odd eruptive belch, rumbled from deep within him. Raised above the mayhem of the arena, he trod on the bouncy floor of the ring as if on a cloud. Monarch of all he surveyed, King looked down at chaos, and found it good. !