Boxing: 'Misfit' who would be King

The little man behind Lennox Lewis who stood up to boxing's biggest player; Harry Mullan hears Frank Maloney praise the promoter who called him 'midget'
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The Independent Online
IT IS typical of Frank Maloney's mischievous humour that his house in Chiselhurst is called Tara, after the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. As he is only 5ft 3in the adjective is spectacularly inappropriate, while the nearest the boyish 44-year-old has come to royalty is his turbulent relationship with Don King, who devoted years of effort and several million dollars to prising the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, away from Maloney's management.

This past week, Maloney and Lewis were forced to accept that not even King's involvement could secure a unification match with the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation champion, Evander Holyfield, and the Englishman signed instead to defend against Shannon Briggs in Atlantic City on 28 March for a quarter of what the Holyfield fight would have brought him.

"After all that hard work and negotiating, and for the first time going against everything we had set out to do in boxing, like not giving Don King options, the fight just didn't happen," Maloney said. "We even dropped our purse demand from $15m [pounds 9.5m] to $10m, but basically Holyfield didn't want to know."

Given their very public rows, the most surprising thing about the week- long negotiation with King was not that it failed, but that it happened at all. Maloney's explanation is pragmatic. "I've learnt two things about this business: one, you don't have to be in love with the people you work with, and two, if two people need each other then it's time to make the marriage.

"Was King negotiating to stop the fight happening? Did he have a hidden agenda to keep Holyfield on ice for a third fight with Mike Tyson? I honestly don't think so, because whoever won, King would have still been involved - and Lewis has more of a future than either Tyson or Holyfield. King was much easier to deal with this time. He was willing to give a lot more, concede a lot more, leave a lot more control in our camp. I'm convinced he wanted the fight."

Watching King at close range over an extended period has softened Maloney's view of his old adversary. "You've got this guy who's paying millions to lawyers to keep him out of jail, but he has plaques honouring him for services to humanity and charity, and when you go in a restaurant with him, people stand up to applaud.

"I saw a photo in his house of his wife with President Clinton, and he said, 'Funny enough, the President phoned me up and invited me out to dinner this weekend, but I told him, Bill, I can't have dinner with you because I'm entertaining my little friend from England, Frank Maloney.' I looked at him a bit doubtful, and he said, 'I'm telling you the truth, my brother,' and when he left the room his aide said, 'He is actually telling you the truth,' but you never know with King whether he is just trying to boost your ego."

Maloney has been an amused and reluctantly admiring observer of King's negotiating tactics since their first brush in 1992. "Lennox was going to fight Razor Ruddock, and I got a call from King. 'We're both from oppressed minorities,' he said, 'you're Irish and I'm a nigger. They're trying to hold us down, but we can rule the world if we team together. We've got to make Lewis and Ruddock.' The fight was made, but through Murad Muhammad rather than King, and Don was livid.

"Then the Tony Tucker defence came up for purse bids, and Don put in an unbelievable bid which gave us something over $9m before he eventually realised that even with all this money he couldn't break up the Lennox Lewis team. I met him a few times after that and he tried the hard intimidating tactics on me, but I just smiled at him like he was a big loveable teddy bear. He kept staring at me, and even when I wasn't looking at him I could feel his eyes glaring on me. Next thing, we're in Las Vegas for the fight and King puts out this newsletter headed The Indiscretions of Frank Maloney - Vicious, Stupid or Both???

"It went on about how I was 'a mental midget, a pugilistic pygmy'. At that time very few people knew me in the business so Don King did more PR for me than anyone in boxing. Suddenly everyone was asking 'Who's this Frank Maloney?' and nobody was talking about the fight. Don defeated his own object in trying to promote the fight and sabotage me.

"At the last press conference, I presented him with a T-shirt I'd had made of him waving the American flag and the message Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. He said, 'I love this little midget - he even gives me presents when I say bad things about him.' Just then my mother walked by, and I said 'Mr King', I always called him Mr King, 'I'd like you to meet my mother.' He said, 'How could a beautiful woman like you produce such a horrible little misfit child?' 'Excuse me', she said, 'there's nothing wrong with my little Frankie.' But that's my mum, she'd stand up for me if I'd done a murder.

"But for all our problems, I've always had respect for King as a promoter because what's on your contract is what you'll get. I was never really at war with him. It was just that I was working with rival people [Main Events]. I'd like to work with King at least once, because it would be an experience and an education that no schoolteacher could give you.

"When I was at school I was told 'you'll finish up in jail' or 'you'll be driving a milk float all your life' and look at me now - on top of the boxing world and socialising with Don King. That's the beauty of this sport: you don't have to be a rocket scientist or a university graduate to get ahead, although it doesn't half help if you've got a good fighter."

On Wednesday, Maloney faces a Board of Control disciplinary hearing in connection with the lurid "sex 'n' violence" marketing of his Wembley show last month when Herol Graham beat Vinny Pazienza. The image of the naughty schoolboy waiting outside the headmaster's study is irresistible, but he is unlikely to accept his caning with good grace.

"I can't believe 20 guys want to sit around a table to talk about me running a show where the ring card girls didn't wear too much and the programme had a nipple count of 14. What have I done, other than bring in a bit of light-hearted fun, a bit of entertainment? Aren't there more serious issues for the board to be concerning themselves about?

"My case is going to be heard by people who've never once had to put their hand in their pocket for boxing. I was once pounds 80,000 in debt because I wanted to be a boxing promoter. My first marriage split up over it, my pub started losing money because it was subsidising the boxing, I lost my house over it, but I still kept going and thankfully now I'm reaping some rewards.

"I'm going to carry on promoting boxing the way I think it ought to be promoted. What rules am I breaking? You might say the rules of good taste. Good taste, in boxing? We're talking about a sport whose biggest attraction is a psychopathic convicted rapist who bit a man's ear off. We're living in the real world, not the one the board inhabits. We need the board, but let them do their job properly and leave me in peace to do mine."