Boxing: Danger to King without a crown

Harry Mullan fears that complexities could hold off the Lewis- Holyfield match
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The Independent Online
BACK in the old days, the world of heavyweight boxing was all so simple and uncomplicated. Don King controlled everything: the champions, the contenders, the administrators, and probably a referee or two as well. But times have changed. The World Boxing Council championship, once King's personal fiefdom, is now held with increasing authority by Lennox Lewis, whose promotional allegiances are to King's sworn enemies, the British- based Panix Promotions and their American associates Main Events. Frank Warren has Herbie Hide and the World Boxing Organisation title, and the man who matters most, the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation champion Evander Holyfield, is tied to King only by a handshake.

Holyfield retained his WBA title and recaptured Michael Moorer's IBF belt in dazzling style in Las Vegas in the bleary hours of Sunday morning, British time, last week. Lewis was at ringside to add his comments for Channel 5's boxing debut, and professed himself unimpressed by Holyfield's five-knockdown performance. He must have been the only person watching who felt that way, for the 35-year-old champion continues to reverse the ageing process by looking better with every fight. Holyfield versus Lewis is the hottest match in the division, but making it happen will require consummate negotiating skills.

Each of the three organisations has its own mandatory challenger, and can be expected to support their candidate (and protect their sanctioning fees) by insisting that the rival champions defend against their No 1 before fighting each other. That is not such a problem for Lewis, who would probably welcome another outing before facing Holyfield, but Evander is already under pressure to face Vaughn Bean (IBF) and Orlin Norris (WBA), which pushes a Lewis fight at least nine months down the road.

They could, of course, toss their belts in the dustbin and go ahead with their fight anyway, secure in the knowledge that everyone with even a passing interest in the sport will acknowledge the winner as the true world champion. The fight's financial appeal would not be in the least diminished by the absence of a front row of administrators in tuxedos: Mike Spinks profitably side-stepped the IBF in 1987 and proclaimed himself the People's Champion, a mythical honour which he defended in big-money matches against Gerry Cooney and Mike Tyson.

But whichever course they follow, there remains the stumbling block of Don King, who would be extremely reluctant to allow his last interest in the heavyweight title to sign for a high-risk defence against Lewis without requiring the Englishman to sign over options on future defences - and having steered a resolutely independent course with Lewis so far, Lewis's managers Frank Maloney and Panos Eliades are unlikely to surrender control at this crucial stage.

Holyfield, it seems, has fulfilled his contractual obligations to King but is happy to continue working with him on the grounds that, as his attorney, Jim Thomas, put it: "Don has delivered everything he said he would, and we've had no problems with him." American lawyers do not become successful by being naive, but it is possible that Thomas believes that his client's celebrity and status is its own protection, and that King would never dare screw the game's most prominent and best-loved champion. If so, I recommend he studies Chapter Eight, "The Betrayal Of Muhammad Ali", in Jack Newfield's withering biography The Life and Crimes of Don King.

King is never more dangerous than when he is desperate, and these are desperate times for the man who once boasted of having all the heavyweight champions and their entire top 10 contenders in promotional handcuffs. His alliance with Frank Warren ended this week in a flurry of flying skin and hair, with each alleging betrayal and worse by the other. King claims Warren accepted $1m to sign an extension to their 1994 agreement, but Warren insists that the contract was fraudulently altered. This is a recurring theme in King's business dealings, as Newfield's book recounts, and he is at present being sued by the South African Frans Botha, who lost his IBF title to Moorer. Botha claims that King and his son Carl, who frequently surfaces as the nominal manager of boxers under his father's promotion, fraudulently conspired to alter a contract.

King is also due in court early in the New Year for the second hearing of the case in which he is accused of defrauding Lloyd's of London by falsifying insurance claims in respect of a cancelled championship promotion. Warren's surprise alliance with the mega-rich basketball star and boxing promotional wannabe Magic Johnson will marginalise King even further. Warren is already planning to start at the top with a show featuring Naseem Hamed's American debut in Madison Square Garden on 19 December, and Johnson's millions, and his status as an American sporting icon, could bring fighters flocking to the new partnership.

King's empire is crumbling, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks.