Don King at 80: A wild ride

Don King may not be the towering figure he once was in boxing, but he's dominated the sport for nearly four decades. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, a look at a life story that could not have been dreamed up by all the fiction writers in America.

It's a weird bit of coincidence that three of boxing's biggest power brokers over the last four decades were all born mere months apart in 1931.

It is unquestionable that the influence of World Boxing Council boss Jose Sulaiman and promoter Bob Arum remain undiminished as of this writing.

Don King, who turns 80 on Saturday, is no longer the towering figure he once was. While he has a decent stable of fighters, the most charitable view would see him as the fourth most powerful promotional entity in the sport, and possibly no higher than sixth.

It was telling that immediately after King's Joseph Abgeko was shafted last week by some of the most biased officiating seen in a major fight in years, it was left to the promoter's rep, Alan Hooper, to lobby from the fight site in Las Vegas. King was at his Florida home, unable to make the trip due to a bad back.

In the court of the King

A partial, but representative, list of the people or entities that King has sued over the years:

ABC, ESPN, Steve Wynn, Chris Byrd, Julio Cesar Chavez, Buster Douglas, Razor Ruddock, Mike Tyson, Bert Cooper.

This is a partial list of fighters (or their managers), as well as organizations and entities, who have gone after King in court over the years:

Mike Tyson, Chris Byrd, Hasim Rahman, Earnie Shavers, Terry Norris, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, Bert Cooper, Larry Middleton, John Ruiz, Tim Witherspoon, Keith Holmes, Tony Tubbs, Bill Cayton, Teddy Brenner, Felix Trinidad Sr., Caesar's Palace, New York A.G. office, Internal Revenue Service.

King used to own Las Vegas, and he controlled most of the fighters in the heavyweight division from the mid-1970s to just a few years ago. Lennox Lewis made a dent in that grip, but it was the shifting of the power base in the division to Europe and the Klitschko brothers that ended the fiefdom.

Outrageous, entertaining, contemptuous, overbearing, creative, criminal, a workaholic, Machiavellian, loquacious, blatant, shameless, shameful ... King hogs more adjectives than most public figures.

King's ability to hustle and convince two of the biggest sports stars, as well as representatives from an impoverished African nation, to come together for the Ali-Foreman fight is one of the legendary feats in sports promotion; and in the King vernacular, done using OPM — Other People's Money.

In 1986, he introduced a heavyweight unification tournament for the division he helped divide. He was clearly thinking six moves ahead, as it just so happened to come into fruition as Mike Tyson was coming into view as the next big thing.

A decade later, he helped convince about a million suckers to order Tyson's out-of-prison farce against Peter McNeeley.

As you'll see from the timeline below, though, King's accomplishments are fairly front loaded in his career.

He is also a central figure in the sport's ills. The charges levelled at King include: Blurring the lines between promoter and manager, using blank contracts, two versions of contracts, charging boxers for expenses, playing the race card to gain the confidence of black fighters, and working in cahoots with the sport's nefarious and self-serving sanctioning bodies.

Attempts to pin down the Teflon Don in court have proven mostly unsuccessful, however.

While he's not to blame for their individual foibles, an alarming percentage of King's heavyweight charges in the 1980s turned to drugs or crime. It's telling that many of Tyson's best moments came before King got his hooks fully into "Iron Mike."

Meanwhile, when you think of all the great welterweight and middleweight fights of the 1980s, King's involvement was very limited. He co-promoted the first two Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran bouts with Arum in 1980, but didn't have a role in subsequent superfights involving those fighters and Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns.

To draw a link from King to boxing's decline in popularity in the U.S., and the rise of mixed martial arts is very simplistic, however. There have been greater forces at play, including a drop in the relative number of North American fighters.

Men of a certain age have no problems talking wistfully about the Friday Night Fights era, arguably when boxing was at its most corrupt, as the mob often controlled fighters, and sometimes, outcomes. Today, fans of MMA don't seem to mind much that the fighters there make a fraction of what the best in boxing do, despite very healthy pay-per-view revenues.

To put things more starkly: Joe Gans and Jack Johnson were the first black boxing champions, in the early 1900s. The first successful black promoter over a period of time was King, who came to prominence around 1973. During his time in the sport, corporate titans like Donald Trump and Steve Wynn tried to become forces in boxing, but were fairly quickly outfoxed or outlasted by King.

So, on the occasion of King's birthday, a look at the wild ride of a one-of-kind impresario.


Aug 20, 1931: Born in Cleveland, one of six children to Hattie and Clarence King.

Dec. 7, 1941: King's father is killed in an industrial accident.

Dec. 2, 1954: Shoots and kills a man who is allegedly robbing a residence he owns (purportedly a gambling den). The killing is ruled justifiable homicide by authorities.

April 20, 1966: In view of several witnesses, King beats and stomps Amos Garrett to death on a Cleveland sidewalk. Claims it was self-defence despite the fact the unarmed Garrett weighs about 100 pounds less. 

Feb 23, 1967: Found guilty of second degree murder, which carries the possibility of life in prison. King is sent to Marion Correctional Institute, where he immerses himself in books. Over the years he would go on to quote, and misquote, writers and philosophers such as Shakespeare, Nietschze, Marx, etc.

March-July 1967: In a decision that would change sports history, the judge mysteriously and unilaterally changes the conviction to manslaughter.

March 1971: Famously listens to the Fight of the Century, Ali-Frazier I, in prison. Less than five years later, he would promote the third fight of the series, The Thrilla in Manila.

Sept. 30, 1971: Leaves prison.

1972-73: Starts to learn the fight game through local promoter Don Elbaum.

Aug. 28, 1972: Through mutual Ali friend, singer Lloyd Price, arranges to have Ali come to Cleveland for an exhibition to benefit a struggling black hospital.

Jan. 22, 1973: Through connections he’s made in the fight game, King ends up in Kingston, Jamaica, for George Foreman’s shocking second round KO of Joe Frazier. He arrives with the current champ and leaves with the new champ, working his way into the frame for Howard Cosell’s post-fight interview with Foreman.

June 1973: Registers in New York as the manager of heavyweight Jeff Merritt, his first official boxer.

June to Sept. 1973: Elbows out the existing management of both Earnie Shavers and Larry Holmes. 

Feb.-March 1974: Meets with Muhammad Ali and Foreman separately, guaranteeing them each several million dollars — which he does not possess — for a proposed fight. Through a series of meetings with European financiers, is introduced to a representative of Zaire dictator Joseph Mobutu. 

March 26, 1974: The fight that would become known as The Rumble in the Jungle is announced after Foreman drubs Ken Norton in Caracas.

Sometime in 1974: Begins to comb his hair up, insisting to anyone who'll listen that it occurred one night through divine intervention.

Oct 30, 1974: Despite a fight postponement, a lack of existing infrastructure and a myriad of crazy happenings in Zaire, the fight comes off, with Ali's upset of Foreman turning out to be one of the epochal boxing matches of all time.

1975-1976: While Ali is technically a free agent, King's feat in Zaire is a springboard to promote a number of the champ's bouts, including the epic with Frazier and an easy defence against journeyman Chuck Wepner (who was a partial influence for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa).

Dec. 1976: King announces a tournament involving U.S. fighters in conjunction with The Ring magazine, to be televised by ABC.

April 1977: The tournament is suspended after a series of outrageous decisions and manipulated rankings and fighter records. An investigation finds ethical breaches, but no criminal acts, on King's part.

Oct. 1977: In a strange event lost to the winds of history, is involved with Ali and a consortium of local businessmen in a bid to bring an North American Soccer League franchise to Montreal. 

Feb. 78: Frequent partner-in-crime Jose Sulaiman strips Leon Spinks of the title he just won, ostenbily for the crime of giving the legend Ali a rematch. The vacant title is eventually contested by King-controlled fighters Ken Norton and Larry Holmes.

1978-1990: From Holmes-Norton until the Buster Douglas upset of Mike Tyson, King absolutely dominates the heavyweight picture.

Dec 5, 1981: King is beaten up while in Bahamas for Ali-Trevor Berbick fight. He alleges that the fight promoter James Cornelius and a group of Black Muslims did the damage. 

June 9, 1982: Ali sues King for nearly $2 million US in alleged unpaid earnings.

July 1982: Ali, hurting for cash after some bad investments, is persuaded to take a cash settlement for far less than $2 million in order to drop the suit.

June 9, 1982: Larry Holmes defeats so-called "Great White Hope" Gerry Cooney in a heavyweight superfight promoted by King. Holmes complains bitterly that the challenger ends up with a bigger chunk of the take.

Jan. 3, 1983: Receives a pardon for his manslaughter conviction. Among those recommending the pardon were Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and Cleveland sports figures Art Modell and Gabe Paul.

Nov. 1983: Announces the Jackson reunion tour for the following year. The tour grosses 75 million US but is not a sellout, and King is replaced months in, reportedly at the behest of Michael Jackson. King later returns to the fold to help the floundering tour regain footing.

Dec 13, 1984: U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani announces a 23-count indictment for tax fraud and against King and his assistant Constance Harper. He is accused of skimming funds from Don King Promotions, not paying taxes, not reporting income, etc.

Nov. 19, 1985: King is acquitted on all charges, Harper is found guilty, serving four months in prison.

Jan. 17, 1986: Along with Butch Lewis, announces plans for a heavyweight tournament to end with one champion. King promotes most of the fighters, and clearly has an eye on rising force Tyson.

July 19, 1986: Pays the tab for several of the jurors from his tax trial to attend the Tim Witherspoon-Frank Bruno title bout in London.

March 23, 1988: Tyson's co-manager Jim Jacobs dies. The distraught Tyson is influenced by King, with the help of wife Robin Givens and mother-in-law Ruth Roper, to pull away from his other co-manager, Bill Cayton.

Feb. 11, 1990: Tyson is stunned in one of the greatest sports upsets ever. King and Sulaiman conspire to drum up a long-count knockout controversy to taint Buster Douglas's moment in the sun, but a media outcry proves too strong.

June 22, 1990: King and Tyson are honoured guests of the recently released Nelson Mandela (a one-time boxer), as he addresses the UN.

Feb. 10, 1992: Tyson sentenced to prison in Indiana on a rape conviction. With the likes of Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer at the top of the heavyweight division, the next few years are a period of relatively little influence for King.

Sept. 10, 1993: King-promoted Julio Cesar Chavez, a friend of fellow Mexican Sulaiman, receives a gift draw decision against Pernell Whitaker, one of the worst judging displays in modern boxing history.

July 1994: Charged with filing fake insurance claims to Lloyds of London for alleged unpaid training expenses to Chavez and other fighters.

Aug. 19, 1995: Despite reports the recently-released Tyson will go another route, King is back with him to engineer a big pay-per-view event surrounding the fighter’s appalling comeback bout against McNeeley.

Nov. 1995: Mistrial is declared in King's trial because of a hung jury and allegations of juror misconduct.

June 1997: Inducted in the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.

July 15, 1997: The NAACP honours King with its President's Award, for his "quiet" philanthroy and for helping to enrich minority athletes.

Nov. 1997: Don King: Only in America, based on Jack Newfield's book, premieres on HBO, with Ving Rhames nabbing an Emmy for his portrayal of the promoter.

March 1998: Tyson claims in a lawsuit that King took advantage of him to the tune of $100M.

July 9, 1998: King faces a second trial in the Lloyds case, but is acquitted personally on nine counts of wire fraud. The jury is hung on a verdict concerning Don King Productions, voting 11-1 to acquit according to one juror. The U.S. Attorney's office in New York declines to prosecute that charge again.

March 13, 1999: Lewis and Holyfield fight to a controversial draw, a result that displeases nearly all. King happily bellows for a rematch to settle things at the post-fight presser. Lewis wins the rematch.

June 1999: King's offices in Deerfield, Fla., are raided by the FBI as part of an investigation into boxing dealings. 

Dec. 1999: International Boxing Federation chief Bob Lee is indicted a result of the probe and later sentenced to prison. King is found to be one of a number of promoters who gave money to Lee in exchange for favourable fighter rankings. King is suspended in New Jersey, the IBF's base. 

Spring 2001: Successfully woos Hasim Rahman with a briefcase of cash (allegedly $500K) and a cheque for millions soon after the fighter's upset win over Lewis. The courts block the move, ruling that Rahman has a valid contract with Cedric Kushner.

June 2001: King reaches The Supreme Court. The court rules 9-0 to reinstate a racketeering lawsuit against King by Kushner. The case had been bogged down in wrangling over whether King could be individually sued as a separate entity based on the actions of his DKP company.

Sept. 29, 2001: Promotes a middleweight tournament that ends with one of the most criminally overlooked post-9/11 sports moments: American Bernard Hopkins upsets Felix Trinidad of Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden in front of hundreds of New York police and firefighters.

Dec. 2003: King is ordered to pay former charge Terry Norris $7.5M. In 1993, the fighter said: "King pays the most. He has been straight up with me so far. If he tries to screw me, he's gone."

July 2004: Tyson settles his suit with King for a reported total of $14 million.

Oct. 2005: The Don King Celebrity Roast takes place. Sample joke from Jackie Martling: "I know Mike Tyson is a little annoyed with Don King — he told me while parking my car last night." 

March 21, 2007: Through an Italian fighter he promotes, King gets a front row pew at St. Peter’s Basilica and hands Pope Benedict a letter and a gift.

Dec. 2010: King's 87-year-old wife, Henrietta, dies from complications of stomach cancer. The couple were married more than 50 years. On the way to her Cleveland funeral he is stopped for having ammo in his carry-on luggage.

The preceding timeline relied in part on the work of boxing journalists Jack Newfield, Thomas Hauser and Phil Berger, as well as contemporary accounts from The New York Times, USA Today, and The Associated Press.

King's speech

On his hair:

I went to bed one night with my wife, Henrietta, and she shook me because my head was rumbling and moving and my hair was just popping up — ping, ping, ping, ping!. Each hair. All them curls was straightening out.

On the death of Amos Garrett:

It was the frustrations of the ghetto expressing themselves. He was kicking me and I was kicking him. His head hit the pavement and seven days later he expired.

On Don King before and after prison:

I went in with a pistol and came out with an atom bomb.

On what happened after starting the Foreman-Frazier fight in Frazier's corner:

The first round, George hit Frazier with a devastating punch that sent Joe leaping into the air. Every time he'd strike Frazier, I'd move closer to the end of the row, toward George's corner. By the time the fight ended, a second-round TKO, I was on George's corner. When the fight was stopped, I'm into the ring, saying to George 'I told you.'

On the scoring and officiating of Holmes-Cooney:

I'm completely mystified … If Larry Holmes had hit Gerry Cooney in the testicles as many times as Cooney hit him in the testicles, Gerry Cooney today would be the heavyweight champion of the world and I might say justifiably so.

After being acquitted in 1998 in a second trial on fraud charges:

This is a victory for all America — not black America or white America.

Defending himself:

I pay these fighters more than anyone else in the game. All these fighters have an inflated value of their worth.

Black and white:

I've got a Ph.D. in Caucasianism, but they don't know about us. It's a shortcoming for whites not to know about us, because we do exist, and you would be proud to learn about us, my white brothers.

On the UFC:

UFC is a great contribution. It's a return to glory for people who like sophisticated barbarism.

On Las Vegas, in 2009:

Las Vegas of today is more corporate. You've lost the common touch. The Las Vegas of then was illustrated by Rudyard Kipling:  'Or walk with kings nor lose the common touch.' It's so cold and isolated [now]. Yes, people come but you don't feel it. Everybody's aloof.

On ... something:

I am like a cork in the ocean that goes down and bounces up. I am buoyant. I stay afloat. I put honey and sugar in to revitalize the tastebuds and the palate, so that you can eat with gusto.