The legendary Don King has always known what time it is and, at 77, he knows his time is nearly up.
King's reign is not over yet
Don King has always known what time it is and, at 77, he knows his time is nearly up. He remains boxing's biggest attraction, a man who made himself, through the force of his outsized personality and a gift for numbers, into someone bigger than every fighter he ever promoted, apart from Muhammad Ali, who helped make him. Once a numbers runner in Cleveland who served time in prison for manslaughter and has been held legally responsible for the death of two men.
Four times he's been indicted by the Federal government on various tax and fraud charges. Four times he was found not guilty. He is no longer the sport's leading promoter, a role taken over by Oscar De La Hoya and his alliance with HBO, yet King refuses to stop. In his massive, European-style mansion in Palm Beach that sits overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, smack in the middle of his backyard sits a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Q. How did you get into the numbers racket and illegal gambling? A. I didn't go into the number business right at first. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be Clarence Darrow. But in dealing with the racism of the day I was derailed because my brother had a work ethic for me. He said he wouldn't give me no money to go to college but he'd give me an opportunity to earn it. So he gave me US$100 (Dh367) of his numbers business to work through the summer before I went off to college at Kent State University. So I did that. I always been a good numbers man and I tripled the business. I had a people personality. I done made enough money to go to college that fall but late August I left a lady's number under a flower pot. That changed my life.
Q. How? A. They used to hide their number under a flower pot. The last three numbers of the daily stock market sale would be the number. They'd write their number down. Their dream book, we called it. Then I'd come and pick it up and that night we'd see if it matched. But in watering the plants the water came out and the book, the lady's number, stuck to the bottom of the planter and I didn't see it. She was a good customer. Always played the same number - 014. I never will forget it. And it hit!
We go through the book and we don't have her number. She's saying she won and we don't have the number so I got to go back and retrace and I looked under the pot and there was nothing and then I looked at the bottom of the pot and, damn, there it is. My brother gave me a good lesson. It was $600 I owed her. He asked me if I got that much and I said 'Yeah.' I told him I had to go tell her I made a mistake. He told me, 'Don't tell her that. Pay the lady. Nobody is going to be sympathetic to you. Pay the lady and don't say nothing.'
I went and paid the lady but I told her what happened. She was gathering $75 to $100 a day for us then. She had her own little drop. People in the neighborhood who wanted to play the number with me would leave their number with her. After I paid the lady I went back the next day and she had like one little book. About $7 or $8 dollars. I asked her what happened. She said 'They ain't playing with you no more.'
Mistrust and the perception of?being unreliable that was the end. I done the right thing by paying her but by telling her the story I put the burden on me. 'If he making these mistakes what do he do with a dollar or two dollars here?' In other words, I lost my credibility. That was fate. So I gave my brother his book back and I went out and started working for myself and within a year's time my brother and the bookie were working for me.
Then I made an irrational rationalisation that I wasn't going to go to school?so instead I kept going until the hammer fell on me and I got in trouble. Q. That trouble involved killing a man. Stomping on a man who owed you $600? A. That was the frustrations of the ghetto manifesting themselves. So I went to the penitentiary and I came with that avid desire for reading. I stopped reading when I was making money. When I had to go to jail that desire to read was rekindled. Books gave me the opportunity to escape the dark dreary world of confinement.
Q. You were there how long? A. Four years. Q. How soon after you get out do you get involved in boxing? A. There was a hospital in the black neighborhood that was in trouble. Only black hospital we had at the time in the state of Ohio. I called Ali and said because of discrimination and bigotry the black people are getting slam dunked. Since you in exile and I'm just getting out of prison you need to come here and help me out and he did. By my being good to him when I was rolling and he was in exile he said 'Okay.' He came and boxed four or five guys. That's how I got started in boxing.
Q. Let me ask you about Mike Tyson. What was it like to promote the guy? Did you wake up some days and say my head is killing me and I hate this guy? A. I love Tyson. I think Tyson was great for the sport and great for the business. He was an iconoclastic individual. That's what makes him what he is. I got more money for Tyson while he was in the penitentiary because then I could use my imagination to paint him to what I wanted him to be and he wasn't there to **** it up. If he was there he was going to kill it. You ain't got no chance. He usurps it. You got to speak for him in his absence and then you can do whatever you want because he can't answer back. You painting this picture like Michelangelo and he's going to come in and turn the paint bucket over on it.
I got close to $100 million in deals for Tyson before he got out of the penitentiary. I made the best business deal of my career then. I think it should be used in Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cambridge as a textbook situation. I borrowed $15 million from Kirk Krekorian and turned around and re-invested it in a put for the stock of the MGM (casino) and got $30 million. I was the largest stock holder in the MGM other than him.
Promoting him was unbridled passion and imagination. You would imagine things and when you announced them they would just explode. We were always there on the front page of the newspaper with some kind of idiotic situation. That is what really got me frustrated with him. He could have been a poster boy for the Klu Klux Klan. He identifies with everything they say to stereotype black people. He lived up to that. He personified that. He could have become the first billionaire black athlete. That's what I was praying for but that envy, strife, jealousy intervened. That's what came in between us.
We were doing so many phenomenal things. It looked like it was easy. Then they took him away from me and I didn't go back and get him and they found out what it was. Then he really went down. Q. When you look at Ali today do you feel sorry for him? Do you look at him as a tragic figure? A. No. I see a hero. I see a man who sacrificed at a time when he was on top of the world. That's why he and I could always relate. He was out four years, I was in (jail) for four years.
When I think about Ali I think of a great human being. He stood up against the draft and the Vietnam War. Everybody hated him. He had that love-hate thing. He stood up for black people. He stuck to his guns regardless of what all the white people say. They thought he was the worst thing in the world at that particular time but he won over the white youth. Then when the Supreme Court ruled in his behalf that changed the whole world but the key thing is his stand for human rights and dignity. He lost four years when he was a phenomenal fighter. You can't tell how great he might have been if he hadn't done that but those four years was lost and he still became Muhammad Ali, the greatest thing out there. So I don't think he's a pitiful figure.
He's someone you can look up to and respect. Q. You've been accused of a million things. Ripped off the fighters. Done this. Done that. When you're alone do those things that are said bring you down? A. If I did that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. I ain't never let that bother me. To thine own self be true. I ain't got time to feel sorry for myself and drown in my own tears. I got to keep being innovative and imaginative and being a trailblazer and a pioneer. Saying yes I can when everyone else is saying no you can't. That's why I can tie into this young man Barack Obama so easily.
They do blame me for everything and make me the bad guy but I'm still standing so they can all say what they want. Not only standing but surviving and succeeding at what I want to do. Opportunity and performance is what counts. George Plimpton interviewed me in the Congo, at the Rumble in the Jungle. He asked why the fight was in a black, third world country. Q. Why was that? A. I'd signed both guys, the two hottest properties in the world at that time, and I couldn't get nobody in America to do nothing with it.
Q. Why not? A. They kept saying it would fall apart and they would get it without me. Hank Schwartz was my partner and he had Jack Solomon with him. Solomon said you get these guys signatures on a contract we'll get you the money. He never believed we were going to get it, you understand? You got to understand the theory of negative associations to understand what I'm trying to tell you. He said to Hank 'That black guy ain't gonna do it.' He probably said the nigger ain't going to do it but it don't matter. I went along ahead.
Hank is in London and he runs into John Daly. John Daly gave us $1.5 million. He gave us the seed money to carry off my first payments to Ali and Foreman, to carry us over. I'm down there with George Plimpton in Africa and I told him, 'They stereotype individuals in America. They tell you black people are lazy, lethargic, can't rise to the occasion. They all lie, cheat and steal. They're shiftless, worthless and no account. They're the boogeyman.' Now I'm over there in Africa with my dashiki on because I'm like a chameleon. I'll be whatever it is.
When I started with the Rumble in the Jungle I was up against centuries of conditioning , indoctrination and teaching that black people were undesirable. I understood it and tried to get around it. Q. So what does Don King, George Bush supporter, think about the election of Barack Obama? A. It's the greatest thing that ever happened to this country. It's so miraculous. Not in my life time did I think you were going to see an African-American president. My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. I see the potential of this country?but I didn't believe it was going to happen. This is what motivates me. Boxing was the instrument for me because boxing is life.
Q. Putting Ali aside, of all the fighters you've promoted who were your favorites? A. Taking Ali out, I got two or three guys that would stand out. Not only were they great fighters but they were people you could get emotionally tied to. Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez and one guy who died early. A guy who said he would die with me and he did - Salvador Sanchez. It wasn't bad with Mike Tyson and George Foreman either but it was different
Q. So you've survived and prospered. What's left? What does the future hold for Don King in boxing? A. I'm going to try and get an American, if I can, to be heavyweight champion again. Q. So why do you keep doing this? You're 77 years old and worth millions of dollars. You don't need to go to China to promote a fight? Why keep going? A. I ask myself the same thing. I started in this business doing charity. I never would have been in boxing if it wasn't for that hospital in Cleveland. I was a businessman but I was in an illegitimate business - numbers running. Then I got into boxing by helping a hospital. Now here we are 45 years later and I'm going to China to visit the dispossessed people from an earthquake in Chengdu and we did a show for them. It's a continual journey of helping.
Q. Has it been fun, this life you've led? A. Oh, yes. Sure. There have been some trying times but overall it was better than sitting on a stoop. firstname.lastname@example.org