Don King is Boxing
(Originally Published: August, 2020 @ FightHype.com)
On the occasion of Don King’s 89th birthday, today, August 20th.
To not understand Don King is to not understand boxing. Don King IS boxing. He is the flesh and blood manifestation of the sport. If boxing somehow came to life and claimed a body, it would be King’s.
King is a killer, gangster, racketeer, hustler, con man. He’s also, perhaps, the world’s premier expert on boxing culture and the only real promoter boxing has had in this modern era. He gave the fans some of the biggest events the sport has ever seen, but kept the sport from ever becoming mainstream again. He made a lot of fighters a lot of money, but also left behind a multitude of broken men who were scammed, used up, exploited, and flat-out cheated.
In 1982, King hustled a mumbling, ailing, and hospital-ridden Muhammad Ali into signing away a lawsuit filed to recoup $1.2 million owed to him by King after his one-sided beating at the hands of Larry Holmes. King sent over a trusted friend of Ali’s with a suitcase full of $50,000 cash and a letter to sign, dismissing the lawsuit. A cash-desperate Ali would sign away the right to pursue his money. Buried deep in the text of the letter was a guarantee that King would have exclusive rights to promote Ali’s next fight…just in case.
The stories of King’s crimes against boxing humanity are voluminous and well-documented. When King had his eyes on a fighter, he would swoop down and claim his prey with promises of wealth and fortune and, more often than not, bundles of cash to flash. Once in his grasp, fighters would be coerced into signing blank contracts and forced to take on King’s stepson, Carl, as their manager. Sometimes fifty percent of the fighters’ pay would go to their compromised new manager. In states where a manager was prohibited from taking such a large chunk of a boxer’s earning, two separate contracts were allegedly drawn up—one that complied with the state commission’s regulations and another that enforced the actual manager’s take. Purses were reduced for no apparent reason, sometimes in the dressing room right before the fight, and, to make matters worse, fighters were charged ridiculous fees for training at King’s facilities—the same facilities King forced upon his fighters as a prerequisite for getting bouts. And if anyone balked at all the flat-out robbery and forced shady dealings, they were threatened with an industry blackballing.
This was King’s world and he could do as he pleased with little fear of repercussion. The FBI tried to bring him down, so did then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo. King could never really be brought to justice for his transgressions because in a world without laws how can one be a law breaker?
“There was no criminality,” New York State Inspector General Joseph Spinelli once said of a King transgression, “because there are no laws that govern this industry. The problem is that there is no regulatory body setting the rules. Don King is playing by the rules– you have to look at how the boxing industry is run. Who is governing it…It’s just a mess, and Don King is smart enough to know how to exploit that mess.”
The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, enacted by vote of Congress well after King’s “golden era,” was put into place, ostensibly, to stop guys like Don King and, in principle, it’s a good bunch of laws that pretty much covers all the black trade that ruins fighters’ lives and livelihoods. But boxing is a dark alley and the Ali Act is just a bunch of words on paper if it’s never enforced. Does a fighter want to sacrifice years of his career to take a promoter to task, just out of principle? And, more importantly, does society even care what happens in the dark alley of boxing?
King knew that he could do what he did precisely because boxing was so lawless and because people in polite society just didn’t give a damn about this mess of a sport or the poor minority kids who sacrifice their well-being for a chance at a better life.
“Society didn’t want to get in on it,” King said during a 1988 Playboy interview. “They looked at boxing and decided that it was infiltrated with racketeers. So because it’s unorganized, it allowed a guy like me to come in.”
What was true then is still true now. Even with the Ali Act in place, boxing’s shadiest dealers do their business with impunity. Nobody cares for the fighters and the fighters are not in a position to care for themselves.
King also did his best to ensure that the sport never became of interest to legitimate businessmen who may look to run things like a real sport. An example of this was when businessman and entrepreneur Wayne Huizinga expressed interest in the boxing business. Fight manager/writer Charles Farrell, who was in on the initial meeting between the promoter and the businessman’s team, wrote this in The Daily Beast about the first and last meeting between King and Huizinga:
“King was ushered into the room, introduced to Huizinga and his staff, and began pacing and yelling.
'You white motherfuckers,’ he started. ‘You think you gonna take over boxing from Don King, try to tell me how to run this business. Bunch of college boy white assholes. Don’t nobody tell Don King about boxing.’
He went on in the vein for another ten minutes, shouting and waving his arms, then stormed out, never to return.
The New York guys, the Boca Raton guys, and Huizinga’s guys were left with their mouths hanging open. Nobody had said a word.
It took me a little time to figure out what King had done, but eventually I got it. King didn’t want a partner, and he wanted to make sure that someone far more capitalized and connected than himself didn’t remain interested in a business where, once he got a foot in the door, he could cut loose a black felon who would be seen as a public relations problem in the eyes of mainstream sponsors.
King’s hundred-megaton assault nipped in the bud any notion that Wayne Huizinga might have had about entering the world of professional boxing. It was years before he even dipped a toe back into the water.”
Again, what was true then is still true now. Newcomers to the industry with plans to expand and legitimize the sport are attacked and chased away by the old school powerbrokers.
King may have been the best at navigating the murky waters of the sport, but he was hardly the only shark in the sea. A big voice and even bigger ambition made his crimes more noticeable, more audacious to the untrained eye, but not one single sin committed under his order was a Don King invention. The hustles and cons were old favorites in the industry long before King came along and remain industry favorites to this day. He was not a monster whose malevolence was created in a vacuum.
Some boxing writers and fans find crooks and charlatans like King quaint, almost kitschy in a fake-noir Mickey Spillane-style vein, but there was nothing cutesy about the nastiest of King’s business dealings. He was no ghetto hero, either, rising above oppression to milk the American Dream for all it was worth.
Don King WAS boxing. Don King IS boxing. Take that however you like.