One afternoon in Kingston, Jamaica, Don King performed a magic trick by arriving at a heavyweight title fight in a limousine with the champ and, when he was knocked out, left in the limo with the new champ; King switched camps and nobody noticed or cared.
That fight, which was known as “The Sunshine Showdown”, was between the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Frazier, and his No 1 challenger, George Foreman. “People have tried to claim that I stepped over Joe’s body when George knocked him down,” King said, “people have claimed I was desperate to get to George – well, that’s not true: I didn’t step over Joe, I stepped round him.”
The story of that fight in 1973, and King’s swift switch of allegiance, is just one of thousands from an often damning dossier of the veteran promoter’s exploits during over 43 years in the boxing business. King has had his hand on the lapel – some claim that hand was usually closer to the pocket – of hundreds of world champions and dozens of his heavyweights have held or fought for sport’s richest prize.
Last Saturday at a fight inside a gym at a university in Los Angeles, watched by just over 1,000 curious people, two relatively unknown boxers had a glorious slugfest for the vacant WBC heavyweight title. It really was a good fight, the pair split a paltry $325,000 (£195,000), and King, the heavyweight promoter, again had his beefy hand wrapped round the raised arm of the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Bermane Stiverne is not Foreman or Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson, all former clients of King, but he can fight, he can punch and he has a deal with King that means there is every chance that the moribund heavyweight division will get a lift. “Let me say this and say it clearly,” King said after Stiverne had knocked out Chris Arreola in round six on Saturday. “Tell people that at this time, from this place, let the word go forth that the heavyweight division is back in business.” The division is certainly back in King’s business and with a marketable fighter like Stiverne that will mean some thrills.
King, now 82, has never really gone away but he has not had a solid hold on a world heavyweight champion in over a decade; during the last few years his fading hopefuls have lost in meaningful fights or simply slipped away into boxing’s hinterland of oblivion. His empire of the ring has dwindled to just a few loyal employees, men and women from his glory years in the Eighties and Nineties when Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez helped make King the sport’s greatest promoter. It is a title that King will never lose to any of the slick but saccharine lightweights and their anonymous sidemen who run the sport at the moment. King was, at times, a dirty promoter, but the modern millionaires who pull the strings to put on big fights now are often equally as tricky but do their best to come across as benevolent souls. It also needs to be recalled that nearly 20 years ago King was paying Tyson and Evander Holyfield the same amount of money that Floyd Mayweather, boxing’s biggest earner in this day and age, is making for his fights.
“The business right now for me is to make the heavyweight championship great again,” said King. “This young man [Stiverne] will fight anybody and it is my job to make it happen.” Stiverne has a mandatory challenger in American Deontay Wilder, who has won all of his 31 fights by knockout, but that is a fight King would prefer to build and not bury through lack of promotion. There is also Wladimir Klitschko, who holds the other three world heavyweight titles. “Wladimir is a friend of mine and a great guy, with great heart and a soft chin,” said King. It sounds like a warning.
A fight for Stiverne against Klitschko would certainly generate instant cash but during the last decade over 20 American fighters (Stiverne was born in Haiti but has been based in Las Vegas for a decade) have tried and failed miserably to dent either of the Klitschko brothers in world-title contests. King is a marvel at resurrection, working miracles with Ali and Tyson at times, and he now has the heavyweight division in his grips once again. As we say in boxing, it’s down but not out.
“I’m one of the world’s greatest survivors,” King told me one night in Mexico City in 1993. “I’ve got the right combination of wit, grit and bull****. I broke all the rules when I arrived and I’m so good that even my friends think I’m doing something wrong.” The following night King was resplendent in the ring, watching over the 143,000 people that paid to see their idol Chavez fight at the Azteca; it is a paid-attendance boxing record that still stands, another King landmark.
He is boxing’s history man, having brokered deals with despots like the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, dined with kings, held hands with the greatest of fighters, killed a couple of hoodlums and still he remains a fixture, waving flags and making deals. In his ninth decade there is just a chance that he could make the heavyweights king again.