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As Good As It Gets
Only in America
By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com
"I found out that someone I believed was my surrogate father, my brother, my blood figure turns out to be the true Uncle Tom, the true nigger, the true sellout. He did more bad to black fighters than any white promoter ever in the history of boxing," Mike Tyson says on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury profile on Don King.
His electric hair and fast-talk have made him one of the world's most recognizable figures. Yet Don King is more than merely a circus clown for boxing. His promotional skills are largely responsible for having made the sport a financial giant, for better or worse.
Heavyweight champs Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson all worked under King at some point in their careers. King helped make them rich while doing the same for himself; his net worth is estimated at more than $100 million.
With his wealth have come accusations of hitting below the belt. Many fighters, most notably Tyson, have claimed King defrauded them of millions.
King has also faced indictments on tax evasion and insurance fraud, but has never been found guilty. He has also denied allegations of fixing fights and rankings (to ensure more of his fighters get title shots).
"Forget death and taxes. The only sure thing is that, win or lose, Don King is counting the money," wrote Jack Newfield, who authored King's biography, Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King.
King, who has turned at least 90 fighters into millionaires, has a different view. "When I came into boxing, when it was more out of control, no fighters got an opportunity to fight," King said. "I came in; everybody got an opportunity to make a living in America."
The promoter of more than 500 world championship fights, King was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. The New York Times listed him among the 100 African-Americans who helped shape the country's history during the 20th century.
"He has the most brilliant business mind I have ever encountered," said Seth Abraham, former president of HBO Sports. "Don King is formidable in his sleep."
The fifth of Clarence and Hattie King's six children, he was born Aug. 20, 1931 in Cleveland. When Don was 10 years old, his father died in a steel plant explosion. Hattie used the insurance money to move the family to a middle-class neighborhood. She earned a living by baking pies and selling roasted peanuts. Don and his brothers inserted a number into each bag of peanuts as a gimmick to promote sales and gambling.
After one year of classes at Case Western Reserve University, King abandoned dreams of getting a college degree and became involved in gambling, controlling a numbers racket in Cleveland's ghetto.
In 1954 he killed a man who tried to rob one of his gambling houses. The shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide, sparing King a prison sentence. He wasn't so fortunate 13 years later, when he was found guilty of second-degree murder for killing a gambling associate who owed him $600. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter and King served 3 years and 11 months in Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. He was released in September 1971.
King's career as a promoter was soon born. It started in 1972, when King convinced Ali to fight an exhibition match in Cleveland to raise funds for a local hospital in financial trouble. The match grossed more than $80,000, piquing King's interest in the business of boxing.
Two years later King founded Don King Productions and arranged for Foreman to defend his heavyweight title against Ali in Zaire, guaranteeing the fighters an unprecedented $5 million apiece. "The Rumble in the Jungle," as it became known, started King's financial empire.
The following year King promoted "The Thriller in Manila," the third of the three fights between Ali and Joe Frazier. Soon, King gained control of most of boxing's biggest names. As the first big-name black promoter in the business, King landed most of boxing's top African-American talent.
"I never got a fighter because I'm black," King said. "Every fighter, including Mike Tyson, came to me after they've been screwed by other promoters."
But loyalty has never been one of King's virtues. At least once he arrived at a fight with one boxer and left with the other. Even Ali wasn't exempt from King's tactics: Ali was reportedly shortchanged $1.2 million by King for his comeback fight against Holmes in 1980. Ali sued, but King paid him $50,000 to drop the lawsuit.
In 1981, King became the first promoter to guarantee a fighter $10 million. That went to Leonard in his first fight against Roberto Duran.
King was charged with tax evasion in 1985, but was cleared; his secretary was convicted and served four months in prison. King's reputation as a swindler swelled in the 1980s with accusations by several boxers that King ripped them off. Tim Witherspoon, who became heavyweight champion under King, reportedly received an out-of-court settlement worth more than $1 million.
Holmes was another fighter with whom King had differences over money. "[King] looks black, lives white and thinks green," Holmes said.
Outside the courtroom, King continued to make history. He promoted Julio Cesar Chavez's fight against Greg Haugen in Mexico City in 1993 that drew 132,000 fans. The next year King promoted a record 47 world championship bouts.
But King's biggest victories continued to come in court. In 1995, he beat a nine-count indictment on insurance fraud; Lloyd's of London claimed King had illegally collected $350,000 for a canceled Chavez fight. The trial ended in a hung jury. That same year, Newfield's no-holds barred biography was published. It painted an unflattering picture of the promoter.
King's image wasn't helped by the 1995 fight between Tyson and Peter McNeeley - Tyson's first fight after being released from prison for raping a beauty pageant contestant. King was accused of distorting the WBC, WBA and IBF ratings to make McNeeley a top 10 contender. Tyson flattened McNeely in 89 seconds.
King later admitted McNeeley served as a glorified punching bag for Tyson. "It was a happening, an event," King said. "It was not meant to be a championship fight."
Then came two unforgettable Tyson-Holyfield fights promoted by King. The first, in November 1996, shattered all pay-per-view records for a fight - it was seen in 1.6 million homes. Holyfield won. The rematch a year later was staged before a crowd of 16,331 in Las Vegas, which produced a record gate of $14.2 million. Tyson was disqualified for biting Holyfield's ears.
In 1998, Tyson brought a $100-million breach of trust lawsuit against King, claiming he had been ripped off by the promoter. The suit is still pending.
In June 1999, the FBI searched King's office in Florida as part of an investigation to determine if the IBF fixed fights for kickbacks and sold ratings. "I don't want to have a combat with the FBI unless I'm going to be able to promote them in Madison Square Garden," said King, who emerged unscathed.
Only fitting for a man grandiose in every way, King estimates he's spent upwards of $30 million defending himself in court over the years.
"Don King is a hip exploiter, an intelligent flesh peddler," wrote Newfield. "He knows which fighters to steal, how to exploit anyone's vice, vanity or insecurity and make a profit for himself."
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