Don King: Monarch of mayhem is loud and proud as lord of the rings
The razzmatazz of fight game's greatest showman is still keenly felt after 35 years and 400 world title fights. Alan Hubbard speaks to Don King
Sunday 08 March 2009
Don King's coiffure has always been his crowning glory. It quivers above his head as if, as someone once said, he had escaped from the electric chair just as they pulled the switch. King declares it "an aura of God – I feel it is indicative of my being ordained and anointed by Him". Another, perhaps more plausible, theory is that it is a result of 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 lodging in his scalp and permanently damaging the follicles.
King likes to say he is "the living attestation of the American Dream. I am the extolment of this great nation. Only in America could a Don King happen."
Only in America. The phrase he coined, one of many. Here is the master of the malapropism, unashamedly mixing metaphors like cocktails and loudly quoting, or more often misquoting, everyone from Virgil to Churchill, Shakespeare to Solzhenitsyn, whose volumes, together with Hitler's speeches, he says he studied while doing time for manslaughter, finding himself – and God.
This week the black Barnum will be turning up his own volume full blast when he arrives to beat the drum for Marco Antonio Barrera, the legendary Mexican and one of King's men, who fights Amir Khan in Manchester on Saturday. By fight night you can guarantee it won't only be King's hair that is standing on end.
It was back in the early Seventies that King, now in his 77th year, broke the stranglehold of white promoters. He has staged over 400 world- title fights, including the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila, as well as taking the sport to Russia and China. "As long as I am still breathing I want to be opening up new doors," he says. "I want to give boxing back to the people and recall the glory of yesteryear. I am a promoter of the people, for the people. My magic lies in the people ties.
"As long as God is willing to keep me on earth – and he's never failed me yet – I want to be opening up a legacy, opening doors, and the way forward is for the best to fight the best. Now people don't know who the champions are in the divisions. We need heroes to quantify and glorify the sport."
We first encountered him in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1974, a day before George Foreman blasted out Ken Norton in two rounds. We were summoned to a press conference where a bejewelled King, loud of mouth and suit, blithely announced that Foreman's next fight would be against Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, and that financial backing had been extracted from the African country's president, Mobutu.
Hackles rose among the US media. "Who is this comedian?" It transpired that King was no joker. He had a pair of aces up his sleeve, which he produced again when he sweet-talked President Marcos of the Philippines into coughing up the cash for Ali-Frazier III, memorably held at breakfast time in a sweltering arena outside the country's capital, Manila.
He still has connections in very high places, from the Kremlin to Castro, and was prominently placed at the Obama inauguration wearing accred-itation supplied by the US Navy. Yet, as with boxing, he likes to keep his political options open. Four years ago he campaigned for George Bush's re-election, while contributing to both party funds and terming himself a Republicrat. But he doesn't stick around long with losers. When Joe Frazier fought Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, King had come into the ring with Frazier, the champion, but left with the victor, Foreman.
He doesn't drink and has never been known as a womaniser. He gets his kicks from wheeling and dealing and there is no one better in the thick-ear trade, as Frank Warren, who lost a £7 million lawsuit to King in a contractual dispute, will testify. They are working together on several promotions here and in the United States; Saturday's is the latest. "Despite what happened between us, we still do business and I'm one of the few people who's got a bit of affection for him, because I see the positives of what he does," says Warren. "He's a visionary and he's got big balls. His downside is that you can't get the street out of him."
What is hard to get out of King is a straight answer. He will navigate the lexicon and revamp history, a man of many words, some of them invented. He is hard to pin down, as the taxman has discovered. He has survived heart surgery, his home being bombed – reportedly by the Mob – the deaths of all six brothers, three years and 11 months in prison and several governmental investigations.
Since his original conviction for kicking a man to death, there have been allegations of financial impropriety but nothing has stuck. After being cleared of tax evasion – it was his female secretary who went to jail – he took one jury on an all-expenses-paid trip to London and another deep-sea fishing in the Bahamas. "The judge said it was OK."
Of his violent past he says: "I recognised my sins, brother! I am confessed. But God didn't come to save the righteous. He came to save the sinners." The sins are well-documented. In a raid on a gambling house on East 123rd Street in Cleveland on 2 December 1954, King, known as "Donald the Kid", shot Hillary Brown dead with a Russian revolver. King said it was self-defence. The court called it justifiable homicide.
Twelve years later, King, then a numbers runner, pistol-whipped and kicked Sam Garrett to death on the pavement outside the Manhattan Tap Room in Cleveland. Garrett owed him $600. His dying words were: "I'll give you the money, Don". The judge agreed to reduce the charges from second-degree murder to manslaughter. "God has tried and tested me and the Ohio governor gave me a complete and unconditional pardon," says King.
Now he reckons to have made over 100 fighters millionaires. "No one comes to me without his being 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 entire history of mankind. I raise them from the muck and the mire, I make them distinguish themselves in the field of honour and valour.
"I can find money anywhere, I will get blood from a turnip. I'd sooner be the screwer than the screwee. 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. Man, I got a PhD in Caucasianism. I taught them white folks some Niggerology." When King promoted in Russia he said he gave them a lesson in capitalism, laughing: "That guy Leningrad must be turning in his grave."
Whatever they throw at him – the cops, the courts, the mobsters, his rivals – King never seems to feel the punches. He leaves that to the fighters.
King is believed to be worth over £2 billion, and while some disaffected fighters have sued him – not always successfully – many have kept faith. He has promoted all the top modern heavyweights – Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes, Tyson, Lewis and Holyfield – but now describes the division as "a joke, a mess", probably because he no longer possesses a big man of note.
His current great hope is a lightweight, Angel Santana, a Cuban emigré. He once coveted Khan but, switching to ticket-selling mode, he reckons Barrera will beat him. "As Winston said, we shall fight you on the beaches. We shall never, never surrender. Victory is ours. We're declaring war and it will be a return to glory for Barrera, one of the world's great warriors. Khan can always come back, he's young. But Barrera's a fighter's fighter. He'll be calling on all the experience of yester-year. He's going in there to kick Amir's ass. When it's over we'll dust your kid off and put him back in the game again."
There has always been an abundance of bullshit in boxing, and for 35 years the monarch of mayhem has poured bucketloads into our ears. When he is in full thrall, his voice rises like the whine of a jet engine above the jangling of his jewellery. But boxing's Godfather is still being heard loud and clear. Not only in America.
Life and times
Name: Donald King.
Born: 9 December 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Early doors: Sold his mother's home-made pies and roasted peanuts to make ends meet after his father died in 1941 in a factory accident. Dropped out of Kent State University, ran illegal betting syndicates and owned gaming houses. Convicted of manslaughter for kicking a man to death in 1966.
In the house: Lives in a palatial $27.5m (£19.5m) home in Palm Beach, Florida, with eight-foot stone replica of Statue of Liberty outside overlooking ocean. Owns two Rolls Royces, priceless antique and ivory collection and one of Elvis Presley's guitars.
Family fortunes: Long-term marriage to Henrietta; three children and five grandchildren.
Packing a punch: Entered fight game by persuading Muhammad Ali to box a charity exhibition bout in Cleveland. Went on to become world's leading promoter, staging over 400 world title fights, starting with the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974. Also promoted Michael Jackson tours, securing the singer the highest fee ever paid for a commercial for his Pepsi TV ad.
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