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Boxing's new Barnum: 'There ain't no others' like Don King

Up from the gutter and reaching for stars comes ex-convict Don King, cast in the flamboyant mold of P. T. Barnum and Tex Rickard.

This story originally appeared in the September 15, 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Space is not space between the earth and the sun to one who looks down from the windows of the Milky Way." He pulls on a Montecruz Supreme, releasing a smoke ring that flutters above his head like a broken halo. "It was but yesterday I thought myself a fragment quivering without rhythm in the sphere of life. Now I know that I am the sphere, and all life in rhythmic fragments moves within me." Having rid himself of these thoughts, the big man, the main man, the "impresario of the Third World" (name him, and you can have him, say his critics) turns and booms, his voice ripping across the skyline of Manhattan, "Yes, I do have an ego! I am an ego! I am!" Then, humbly, he adds, "But no man is an island, ya deeg?"

One could swear he hears the world sigh with relief, so glad it is that the orator admits to being human. "I am quintessential!" he begins again. He does not say of what he is quintessential, and it does not matter, his eyes seem to say; the word fits his mood. Words are always hovering above anyone who happens to be within ocean's distance of Don King, words fluttering in the air like crazed bats. But nobody waits for the next word, his next sentence of impeccable incoherence. They wait for his next move, that next gale of a gamble that knocks reason senseless and has powered him in a few short years from a busted-out life to the summit of his business—which you can also have if you can name it.

Call him a boxing promoter, but that does not explain what he does; it only gives him a label. Nobody knows exactly what he does or how he does it, and his adversaries, who underestimated him so badly, now flinch at the sound of his impact. The clattering telex in his office tells much more: Baby Doc Duvalier, the president for life, hopes that King can visit Haiti to discuss a situation of mutual interest; a spokesman for President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre has shown much interest in King's idea for a future project. King does not deal much with private capital, he works with governments, Third World countries whose rulers find King to be a useful catalyst. He says, "Henry Kissinger can't get in the places I can."

The power of the world, says King, "is slowly shifting, and you don't have to be no prophet like...who was that old dude? Yeah, Nostradeemusss. It's right in front of your nose, if you wanna look. But I don't care about politics. Just call me a promoter. Not the first black one. Not the first green one. But theeee promoter, Jack. There ain't no others, 'cause they've only had three in the history of the world: P. T. Barnum, Mike Todd, and you are lookin' at the third. Nobody kin deny it. They mock me at their peril."

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Some do, though—with passion. They look upon him as a blowhard, a mountebank—and look at the way he dresses, like an M.C. in a cheap nightclub. "Just an uppity nigger, right?" says King. But the facts bite back in his defense: he has raised $35 million in less than a year for his boxing spectaculars; he has made more money for Muhammad Ali "than AH done in all his previous fights in his whole career." With the Ali-Foreman fight—and for only $14 million ("most of which they got back")—he brought "dignity and recognition and solidarity" to Zaïre, a place "where people thought it was ridden with .savages." And in a few weeks King will bring to the universe Ali vs. Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in Manila. How's that for quintessential, his long pause seems to ask.

What he did not do and what he might do in the future are equally dramatic, according to King. With oil money from Saudi Arabia, he was on the brink of buying Madison Square Garden before deciding it was a bad investment. "It's become a turkey of a building," he says. He is now thinking of purchasing a major movie company. But more immediate is his sudden thrust into big team sports and music as a packager and manager of careers. He says that he has already signed 85 black pro football players, with more to follow in basketball and baseball. Overnight, it appears, he could become one of the most powerful men in all of sports.

"I won't be creatin' any wars," he says. "We just wants in on the middle of all that high cotton."

But for now, right this minute in Tokyo, or Zaïre, or Cairo, or London, or in the back streets of Cleveland, whether among the rich and polished sportsmen, or those who leg the numbers up dark alleys, Don King is boxing, the man with the show, the man with the fistful of dollars and the imagination to match. Quickly, with a lot of street genius, enough brass for a firehouse and the messianic support of Herbert Muhammad (Ali's manager, who has an inscrutable genius of his own), King has managed to reduce the ring's power structure to rubble, and he is left all alone in his cavernous office atop Rockefeller Center to commune with the gods and play with his own ideas as if they were toys.

Boxing promoters have seldom been so singular; most of the big ones have been nearly invisible as personalities. The color, it seems, was left to the scufflers who kept their offices under their hats, would step on a nickel if a kid dropped it and would smoke a cigar down to its last gritty and defiant end. In one sense, the big ones weren't promoters, not in the way of a Tex Rickard, his mind as sharp as his familiar diamond stickpin, or a Mike Jacobs, with his clacking false teeth and pawnbroker's shrewdness—they were names who worked up front. In the last decade or so, all those who have come along have been moneymen who happened to be in control of the heavyweight champion. The list is long: Roy Cohn, the Bolan brothers, the Nilon brothers, Bill Fugazy and that most resilient of night creatures, Bob Arum.

Limousines, hot dogs, the law, these were their businesses, and they drifted like clouds across a big moon. The ring was an amusing subsidiary, a playground in which to exercise their already fully developed roguishness; they left nothing behind, and if they were not completely anonymous, they were as dull as their gray suits. Now there is Don King, who used to stick out like a single hatchling turtle trying to make the sea in full view of sly crabs and deadly frigate birds. That image has been smashed, replaced by something close to King Kong skipping across the jagged teeth of Manhattan's skyline. He will be heard. He will be seen. He thinks a low profile is something you get in a barber shop.

"Nobody wanted to be up front before me," says King. "They all wanted to sit back, collect their money and play their dirty tricks on each other and even the ones who worked for them. But I'm out there, Jack. You can see me, and if you don't, then you're color-blind. My name's on everything. This ain't no No-Name Productions. It's Don King Productions. I perform. And when I don't perform, then I gotta go, too."

All right, let's look at the record over the 1½ years King has been a front-rank promoter. First, there was Foreman vs. Ken Norton in Venezuela; give it a rating of two garbage cans. Norton was timid, King's partners behaved like sharks, and Foreman was his usual self; that is to say, his presence did not radiate. It was pure chaos. Next, Ali vs. Foreman in Zaïre. Give it three stars. It was a brilliant victory for Ali, cerebrum over inept strength; it was genuinely exciting, and if the figures did not excite accountants, they did not disappoint them, either. On the negative side was government censorship, and again the attitude of some of King's associates, who tried (and in some cases managed) to cheat the press out of a charter-plane refund. King went on his own with Chuck Wepner vs. Ali, Foreman vs. the Infirm Five up in Toronto, Ron Lyle and Ali in Las Vegas, and Ali against the catatonic Joe Bugner in Malaysia.

The artistic merit of these four productions is dubious. "How did I know Foreman would go berserk in Toronto?" says King. "But I'll take the blame. It was a good idea, but I didn't think George would make a farce of it." The business aspect is brighter. Wepner took a loss, but television picked up the tab for the Toronto show and Lyle; Toronto held its own against Connors vs. Newcombe in the TV ratings, and the Lyle fight had an enormous pull in numbers. Bugner in Malaysia lost a few dollars, too. "What can you do?" says King. "Here's a big strong dude with the chance of a lifetime, and he stands in the ring like a 1,000-year-old mummy."

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Essentially, King works for Muhammad Ali, the hottest property in the world, and for Herbert Muhammad, a hard realist who could not care if King's skin was Technicolor; when Herbert looks at a promoter, he sees only green. Herbert gave King his chance, but he would not stay with him if King didn't produce. Herbert never really believed King would deliver, yet he could not deny a black brother a chance to fail. But King did not fold, and as Herbert watched, King produced the figures, the action, the credibility, the continuity that Herbert demanded. "He's a hard taskmaster," says King, "but he's taught me much." King has survived.

The trio gets along well. Ali introduces King as "a businessman—and former gangster." Often bemused, Herbert looks on quietly from the background. He is sensitive to any nuance suggesting that King is the brains behind Ali. Recently, when Ali conned the press into thinking he was retiring, King said he was going to Malaysia to intercede, to use his influence on him. "What's this?" asked Herbert. "You got everybody thinkin' you're the manager of Ali. I'm paranoid 'bout that, Donald." Herbert tries to tone down the excessive side of King, and that is like trying to rein a runaway team of Clydesdales. The excesses, the props, have become King's style.

Harold Lloyd had his lensless glasses, W.C. Fields his voice and Clark Gable those ears. Several distinctions—familiar things that have become a part of his character—mark Don King. His hair looks like a bale of cotton candy just retrieved from a coal bin. He must hold the record for time spent in a tuxedo; he easily beats out Tony Martin, the recognized champion. Then, there is his jewelry. To look at King is to look into the sun or to gaze at a mobile Cartier's. On one finger is a meat block of a diamond ring that cost $30,000, on his pinky is a $3,000 number and on his wrist is a $9,000 watch. Add to all of this his voice and language, a thunderous roll that blends black slang with newspeak words like infrastructure, interface and input, a grandiloquent soliloquy that he will suddenly interrupt to summon up the ghosts of the Apostle Paul, François Villon, the moonstruck Khalil Gibran and King's favorite, Shakespeare.

Now King, at age 44, has found a headquarters, an address to match the man. The suite of offices, including two boardrooms, is located on the 67th floor of the prestigious RCA Building, just two floors up from the famous Rainbow Room and close enough to the sky to grab a star. The rent is $60,000 a year, and the furniture cost him $40,000. The move by King shook those who follow such things, not to mention the fight mob, which was used to dealing in the back rooms of bars, or in five-story walk-ups. "I'm not walkin' up to the top of that place," said one manager. Clearly, the offices have done what King hoped they would do.

"They're all out there wonderin'," he says. "They're wonderin' what's that crazy nigger doin' up there. He must be doin' somethin'. The place has become a magnet."

King has made people pay attention, so much so that his reception room looks like the last lifeboat leaving the Titanic, and his messages run to 200 a day. He tries to see everyone, from inventors who have machines with strange powers or a solution to the aging process of the body, to the lowliest fight managers who look up and around the place as if they were in a spaceship—all of the schemers and dreamers looking for that peg to hang the world on. King spends an average of 15 hours a day in his office, some of it in the effort of staying atop office intrigue. And well he should, for he has made himself vulnerable.

King's high command is a good example of how things work in boxing promotion. For instance, one never lets a grudge get in the way of making money. Working with him are Henry Schwartz, Mike Malitz and, of all people, Bob Arum, once King's avowed enemy. Schwartz was King's former boss at Video Techniques. He first brought King on the scene, made him a vice-president and thought of him as "my black interface." Which, as King says now, was another way of saying "chump." But King could not be held on a leash, and soon he went on his own, leaving behind such disgraceful practices as extra charges for equipment; closed-circuit exhibitors were badly mauled by Video on the Zaïre fight. "Schwartz has got nothin' to do with the business end now," says King, "but he's valuable when it comes to technical stuff like satellites."

Malitz is a familiar face; he was long the right arm of Bob Arum. Malitz is a pro. He has no equal as an orchestrator of closed-circuit television. He knows where the money is, and he knows how to collect. King needs Malitz, but why Arum? "He has a brilliant legal mind," King says unconvincingly. The fact is that King has no choice but to cut Arum in on the promotion. The Manila connection, a personage named Thomas Oh, had dealt with Arum first, having been led to believe that Arum could deliver Ali. King had been trying to put the fight on in New York. Failing, he went to his sources in Manila, who did not have the clout of Thomas Oh. Finally, learning that Arum did not have Ali, Oh had to deal with King. Now Arum's only chance was to bring Thomas Oh and King together. They sat down, but King held out as long as possible, looking for money elsewhere, mainly because of Arum's presence in the deal. Herbert Muhammad was impatient. He wanted a contract from King, or else he was going with still another rival promoter, Jerry Perenchio.

King saved promotional face by hooking up with Thomas Oh at the last minute, so Arum, the man who used to "control" Ali in a promotional sense is once more in the thick of things. King fought long and hard to break Arum's grip, and here Arum is, back in the middle of the money, right in the middle of King's own operation, sitting on his shoulder like a wise and patient owl observing a field mouse who has gotten too big.

But a hired hand in King's office says, "There's no way King's going to get hurt. So far he's done the impossible for Herbert and Ali. If Herbert ever does sink him for a white man, he's going to look pretty bad after the way King's performed. And as far as this promotion is concerned, King won't be caught napping. The secret of closed circuit is who gets to the money first, and that's King now. King and Arum have absolutely nothing in common. King has his faults. He's too loud. His tired black line can wear you out. But he's a decent human being, generous and sensitive. One day he must have had his driver 20 hours. So he's going into his hotel, and then turns back and presses a $100 bill in the driver's hand. Another promoter would have borrowed $20 from the driver!"

The main person King must keep an eye on is himself. It is an old truth that the bigger the man, the easier the con. King's feathers must be preened, his ego stroked; grafters with larger plans usually jump at the chance, and then they become much more. Loyalty is almost nonexistent in boxing, but King has what little there is. He did not have to ask for it, or pay for it. It was given to him because he was strong and fair, and his followers saw him as a deliverer from the tyranny of Madison Square Garden. "He's made a mole out of Teddy Brenner, and he's put Mike Burke in his pocket," says Paddy Flood, a manager. "The Garden doesn't count anymore." But there are some who believe King's ego and his ambition have leaped out of hand. "He don't listen too good anymore," says another manager.

"It's all subjective," says King. "They don't understand that up here is like bein' in a war every day. I'm so tired most of the time, I goes home and falls into bed."

It is a Sunday afternoon. He sits beneath a large portrait of Ali. He has been talking about his early life, about the roaches in the tenements that he would spray furiously with bottles of white poison, and still they kept coming; about all the days he spent running to deliver squalling chickens from Hymie's Chicken Shack to the slaughterhouse knife; about his reign as the regent of the numbers in Cleveland; about Benny, one of his predecessors, who used to equip his numbers runners like an army preparing for winter invasion. "He used to buy a whole supply of galoshes and hats and overcoats and hand them out to his men," says King.

King is not wearing a shirt, and his massive chest is moist with sweat. It is a hot day in New York, and he does not like air conditioning. An angry scar crawls up his chest, a gift from his prison days when an incompetent doctor turned a simple cyst surgery into an awful mess. It is obvious, as he stretches and prowls throughout the room, that he likes the space of his office. King knows all about space, for it was only six years ago that he was put into the hole at the Ohio Penitentiary with only bread and water and a Bible and darkness; he read the Bible by light that slithered through cracks, and then he would use it as a pillow. "I had no trouble in prison, except for that one time a guy hit me in the mouth," says King. "They don't need much excuse to do anything they want to you."

King was in prison because he killed one of his runners in a fistfight, just an ordinary scrap. The memory of it haunts him and so do the four years he got, a severe sentence for the kind of charge that a lot of people have beaten over the years.

"I went up on manslaughter," says King, "and I expected to be paroled early. But they made me do four years in the joint. These parole flops cut the heart right out of me. My numbers reputation was held against me."

The details, the moments of prison life, are engraved in his mind: being led by foot chains off the bus; the 60-man floor at Marion Reformatory where nightmares came to life in sound, and King would stay awake as long as he could so he would not have to enter subconscious hell; the 6-by-12 cell, where they made you wash out of the toilet bowl, and the smell of sulphur in the water made you sick; the look on the face of his wife, who drove 400 miles every weekend to see him—and the riot.

"It was over," says King, "and we're standin' there naked, and a guy named Bradshaw was standin' there, too...just standin' there. I'll never forget how the kid from the National Guard got nervous. Bradshaw, he was doin' what he was told. But the kid got scared and he pulled the trigger, and there was Bradshaw's stomach running down to his crotch. Solitary? Perversions? You don't know the kind of depravity that stalks a prison!"

King looks over at a picture of his wife and kids taken on his big farm in Ohio. "That's the only place where the war stops," he says. His wife Henrietta runs the farm. "She don't go for no nonsense," he says, recalling how once his son's marks in school tailed off, and she personally shaved off all his hair.

King gets up and walks out onto the balcony. Down below, 67 floors, evening falls on the town like a dirty handkerchief. High up there, he is a long way from a 6-by-12 cell, he is a man with the power to raise $35 million in a year, the man who can deliver Muhammad Ali—for now. And then he shouts up to the sky, "If I do not perform, Mr. Rockefeller, I will not jump off your building!" Raising his hand as if he were Emperor Jones, his voice booms again, "But if the Milky Way were not within me, how should I have seen it or known it?"

A star winks back at him.

He says. Winking.