Regular contributor Ken Irons regales Kureen readers with the amazing story of charismatic, wild-haired boxing promoter Don King.
Don King was born in 1931 in Cleveland, Ohio. From a young age he realised that, due to his colour and lack of social status, he would have to fight hard to achieve his ambitions. The first of these ambitions was to become a lawyer and to this end he went to Kent State University.
Ever the pragmatist however, he was persuaded by his elder sibling to drop out and to join him in illegal bookmaking and the numbers racket, then a way of life in the city.
King’s aptitude for numbers and his phenomenal memory proved highly beneficial in this new, if shady, enterprise and he soon ran his own operation. Something, however, that Don had assimilated, both from his upbringing and this work on Cleveland’s mean streets, had instilled in him a ruthless mindset that would almost bring about his downfall.
He had learned that: you have to grab what you want before the other guy gets it; no one is going to give you something for nothing; and, if someone does you down and you show them mercy, then they’ll do it again and again. Thus it happened that on two occasions, in 1954 and 1966, King ended the lives of two human beings.
When the cases came to trial in 1966 it was established that the first man had been shot in the back by King as he attempted to rob one of the latter’s gambling houses. This case was pronounced justifiable homicide.
In the second case, in 1966, King was convicted of 2nd degree murder for stomping to death an employee who owed him $600. The employee, an unfit and weedy man, stood no chance when confronted by the 6 foot plus, heavily built King, who stomped and mercilessly kicked him to death. A police officer, who had witnessed part of the slaughter, was wholly mortified by it and later described the horror of seeing the victims head flapping from side to side, propelled by the bigger man’s boots.
The conviction was subsequently reduced by the judge to non-negligent murder and King served just under 4 years. He was later pardoned for the crime in 1983 by Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes and there were letters of support from Jesse Jackson and other influential parties.
In the meantime Don used his incarceration to good effect and read extensively (notably on Philosophy), thus helping to mould the intelligent yet verbose speaker the public would soon marvel at. He was particularly prone to classic quotations, an idiosyncrasy that would remain with him.
Alas, these were interspersed with regular malapropisms that, despite a fierce intelligence, he seemed blissfully unaware of. However, his mode of communication, an important part of which seemed to involve never answering a direct question when he could instead divert the questioner’s attention by rambling on to his heart’s content, served him very well in the practice of negotiation that his career ultimately demanded.
On his release from prison King moved into boxing. After working with an experienced local promoter, Don Elbaum, he made a crucial move when he persuaded Muhammed Ali to box in a charity exhibition, staged to help a local hospital for black people.
There followed, in 1974, King’s golden hour. All he had learned to date: the determination, the bargaining skills, the ruthless business ethic, were used to negotiate with Ali, Foreman, their managements, the boxing authorities and heads of foreign government alike, to produce one of the biggest and most famous fights ever – the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ – Ali v Foreman in Zaire. Vitally, a special arrangement was brokered with the Zaire Government to secure the (then record) $10 million purse.
King maintained his position as a major promoter throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, promoting the likes of Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez, Bernard Hopkins and many others.
Always interested in music he also promoted The Jacksons ’84 ‘victory tour’. His other abiding interest – the cause of his fellow blacks – was served by his acquisition of an African American community weekly paper in Cleveland.
It would have been nice to think that King’s career was free of further problems involving the law. After all, his omnipresent towering figure, complete with spiky hair, standing in the ring flanked by the world’s best fighters as he beamed happily into the camera, was now a familiar sight the world over.
Nor did he confine himself to posturing only at his own promotions – on one famous occasion rival promoter Bob Arum was forced to clamber up the steps and bravely restrain King from entering the ring at Arum’s own promotion.
Outside of the ring, he had successfully integrated into society: he held an Honorary Doctorate of Humane letters degree from Central State University and had publicly backed presidential candidates.
It therefore shocked many people when King’s business methods came under serious scrutiny. He was sued by practically every one of the big name fighters he promoted for defrauding them: by Ali for $1.1million, Holmes for $10 million, Tim Witherspoon for $25 million, Tyson for $100million ad nauseam. Terry Norris alleged that King had conspired with his manager to underpay him. King settled out of court for $7.5 million, and conceded to Norris’s wish that the settlement be made public.
King’s normal practice was to settle out of court and thus Tyson was eventually paid $14 million, Witherspoon $1 million, Holmes $150,000 and so on. A particularly chilling example of King’s ruthlessness came with the Ali settlement; In 1982 Ali – who, it should be remembered, had kick-started King’s career by agreeing to box at the latter’s charity exhibition – had sued King for short changing him in the brutal Larry Holmes fight, during which Ali took a severe beating.
King’s response was to approach one of Ali’s old friends, a man called Jeremiah Shabazz, give him a suitcase containing $50,000 in cash, a letter ending Ali’s lawsuit against King, and instructions to deliver them to Ali. The letter even gave King the rights to promote any future Ali fights.
Ali was in hospital at the time showing the early symptoms of the cruel illness that has now taken hold of him. He was, according to his old friend, ‘mumbling’ a lot, however, he signed the letter. Shabazz later regretted helping King and it was reported that Ali’s lawyer was reduced to tears on hearing that his client had ended the lawsuit without telling him.
In a 1992 senate investigation into organised crime, King invoked the 5th amendment when questioned about his connections to ‘Godfather’ John Gotti. He subsequently deemed any such allegations as “racist”. The man who no less a writer than Norman Mailer had hailed as a “genius”, was characterised by Mike Tyson as “a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker, who would kill his own mother for a dollar”.
King launched a $2.5 billion defamation suit against ESPN after a documentary claimed that he had “killed not once, but twice”, had threatened to break Larry Holmes’s legs, and cheated Meldrick Taylor out of $1 million then threatened to have him killed. The case was dismissed.
Don King’s wife died in 2010 at age 87. He has a daughter, 2 sons and 5 grandchildren. Although he has inevitably lost some of his strength and menace at 83, his ambition persists and he has made it clear that he will never retire.
Rather, he still plans and dreams of his next possible promotion and, of course, the resultant payday.