Graham: King perseveres, still flourishing
By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com
Don King called me his brother last weekend, and I didn't know whether to feel flattered or creeped out.
He had a smile on his face, but his eyes were locked on mine, perhaps looking for a tell. Why was Howdy Doody asking him so many questions about racial stereotypes, his tarnished legacy and professional regrets?
He was there primarily to talk about his obnoxiously loaded pay-per-view event this Saturday night in Atlantic City. It could be one of the best he has ever produced. Bernard Hopkins, Ricardo Mayorga, Hasim Rahman, Zab Judah. The card's so bloated with significant matchups that three world title fights will take place before the broadcast begins.
He's 72 and -- love him, hate him or tolerate him -- he's still the best promoter in the business.
But whenever King is in the mood to talk -- generally any time Monday through Sunday between midnight and 11:59 p.m. -- he'll discuss any topic you wish, and probably a few you don't.
King hadn't snapped the napkin across his lap before he was extolling George W. Bush for going into Iraq and staying. "Pro or con, the man has the testicles to go out there and do what needs to be done," he said, not caring one bit that his booming voice elicited craned necks and furrowed brows from patrons at faraway tables.
King never approaches an intimate media setting with the bombast most fans see on TV. He was animated, to be sure, but also very much at ease. Even his hair laid down a little.
He didn't make us verbal subordinates go scurrying for our dictionaries, as he has been known to do when the cameras get him lathered up.
But King, whether amped up or casual, never ceases to be gracious, charismatic, hilarious and seductive. He could charm the habit off a nun. He enjoys telling stories. He loves to laugh. He thumps the table with his open hand, subconsciously chiming the silverware to keep time with the rhythmic patter of his voice.
King is showing nary a sign of slowing down. For 35 years he has been boxing's most dynamic promoter, a position he'll probably retain until his death. No one can dispute the fact King still is a tireless worker, and his upcoming card is proof positive.
"In the 17th, 18th century," he said of being black, "we were stereotyped as lazy, lethargic, can't rise to the occasion. All of us lie, cheat and steal.
"Now I have put a lot of dubiousness and doubt to that lazy, lethargic and can't rise to the occasion. But I'm catching hell with that lying, cheating and stealing."
Having killed two men a long, long time ago will do that. So will being indicted on four occasions. It doesn't help that he has been sued so often "it would be an injustice to hypothesize" the number of times.
King is involved in litigation right now. He's promoting his big pay-per-view show while at the same time being sued by Terry Norris. The former junior middleweight champ claims King and former manager Joe Sayatovich conspired to limit his purses.
"Every time I'm on a promotion, somebody's got me in the courtroom," King said. "They wait right until the time I'm on a promotion and then here they come."
For every person enraptured by King, there's another who's repulsed. He has raised or donated millions of dollars to charity, while a steady succession of his fighters sue for money owed.
"In the world of perversion, I'm second to none," King said, playfully adopting the viewpoints of his harshest critics. "Dr. Moriarity has nothing on me. All those evil cats, man, I surpassed all of them because they give me credit for [expletive] that ain't never existed.
"If you [in the media] give me fair play you catch hell. You don't have to lionize me, but if you just give me fair play you catch hell. Guys make livings off King bashing."
I wanted to probe King a little more on that. There was no way I was going to solve the mystery of Don King during a 90-minute luncheon. Jack Newfield needed five years of research and 350 pages in his fine 1995 endeavor, "Only in America." The only problem with the book was that King refused to be interviewed for it.
King mostly sidestepped my queries about how much he thinks his notorious reputation has permanently soiled his Hall of Fame boxing legacy and about whether he has resigned himself to the fact many people will have smiles on their faces the day he goes to his grave.
"I understand you, my brother," he finally said, killing my line of questioning with an eerie kindness. "That's why I embrace you with love and understanding and have you beside me."
King was a product of the Cleveland ghetto. He's proud of the fact he used to be a numbers runner. He bragged about surviving multiple assassination attempts.
"It was open season on me then, too," said King, picking at his omelet. "I was like the rabbit. Everybody was shooting at me because I was the same defiant individual that I am today. My life was on the line every minute. They didn't sue you. They went out to get you themselves.
"For me to survive, it's gotta be God."
The over-under on his life expectancy in those days couldn't have been more than 40.
"I tell you it would have been under," King said. "You get shot at with darts and arrows in the business world, but they were shooting bullets and bombs where I came from, brother. Going to Iraq ain't nothing but a skirmish for me.
"I came from the wars, the combat zones. Now you see it, now you don't, and that means your house. Your house is sitting there, nice, painted, shrubberies around it. You look around the house is gone! They done blew it up!"
King shot a man dead in 1954. The victim was one of three assailants who tried to rob one of King's cheat spots. The ruling was that King fired in self-defense and was never charged.
In 1966, however, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He stomped a man to death in broad daylight over a $600 gambling debt. The judge, however, suspiciously reduced the charge to manslaughter. King served less than four years.
"In spite of insurmountable odds, no matter what it is," King said, "I persevere."
King's life and the boxing landscape changed in 1974, when he put together "The Rumble in the Jungle" with nothing more than his own street smarts. Despite not having any money lined up, King convinced Muhammad Ali and George Foreman each to sign a $5 million contract. King eventually procured enough cash from the Zaire government to produce what would become a classic boxing match.
"I had no money. I had nothing," King said. "I went out there and got in this game and everything has fallen together."
He has promoted more than 500 world title bouts. Known for his deep undercards, he once promoted 47 championship fights in one year. Nearly 100 fighters have earned $1 million apiece on King-promoted events.
In King's mind, every one of his shows has been a success.
"I'm going to say something, and this might sound funny to you, but I ain't never lost," he said. "If I put in more than I get out, that's an investment. If I take out more than I put in, it's a profit."
Saturday's card at Boardwalk Hall will be the first to feature eight world title fights. Only five will be shown on the $44.95 pay-per-view telecast: heavyweights Rahman and John Ruiz; middleweights Hopkins and William Joppy; welterweights Mayorga and Cory Spinks; welterweights Alejandro Garcia and Travis Simms; junior welterweights Judah and Jaime Rangel.
"This is a phenomenal card," King said. "It's about champions in the game that come together and it's like nitroglycerine. This is as good as it gets."
The hype surrounding these fights is thick enough that King could remain silent at the news conferences. Mayorga, Hopkins and Rahman are three of the best trash talkers in the sport.
"I got fights that were so competitive from a mental-attitude point," King said. "I got anger. I got hostility. I bottled it and I'm selling it."
As the luncheon began to break up two schoolteachers from Texas finally summoned up the courage to come over and ask King if they could have their pictures taken with him. They had been eating with their students, watching from afar and mesmerized by the large man holding court.
King flashed that 1,000-watt smile as the ladies leaned in, but his voice box didn't skip a beat while the flashes went off.
"I'm God's child, and I believe my faith sees me through," King said. "I've been No. 1 for over three decades. That's the most phenomenal thing you could ever say. With champions like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and without them. That's the key. You lose the champion, you lose faith? No, not me.
"My champions have had their day and ridden off into the hinterlands, but I remain."
Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.