Boxing promoters have seldom been easy on the eyes or the ears. There has always been a flaccid, pulpy quality to their presence, and often it seemed that if one tried to reach out and grab whatever it is they represent there would only be air, or at best a gummy substance. They viewed words like loyalty, character and honor as cave animals might look upon sunlight; such things always surprised them. There have been various species (none of them black): fat and rumpled, thin and dandyish, even a woman who could stare a manager into marble. They have all shared a common ground: a sincere belief in the fathomless ignorance of humankind.
The state of the ring being what it is, the old independent promoters are not too visible anymore. Their robes have been passed on to men more compatible with a technological age and its uses in boxing. The newcomers wear Cardin suits, keep the French sauces off their ties and talk of millions in metallic voices. They know the law, taxes and politics and generally thrive in this land of the fee and home of the crave. They rarely use the first person—it is always "we"—and nothing can erase their plastic smiles, unless, perhaps, Switzerland should vanish like Atlantis. Most of all, they think in terms of the gigantic, look to seize the event that defies ordinary words and descriptions: Ali vs. Frazier, Ali vs. Foreman. They play a deadly game.
The thought of a black man in this sophisticated company is naive. Even in less complicated times, when promoters did not have to contend with the complexities of closed-circuit television, black meant only one thing: sweat. Blacks carried the buckets, cleaned the cuts and scrounged for work whenever a fight camp was setting up. That is changing. Blacks make decisions now, they even close deals, but none had cracked through to the center of power, to those plush offices where the packages are deftly pieced together. And then suddenly came a long, dark wind out of Ohio, and when everyone next looked, the landscape in boxing was not the same.
The man is Don King, big, black and hardly beautiful, a 50-carat setting of sparkling vulgarity and raw energy, a man who wants to swallow mountains, walk on oceans and sleep on clouds. He has no tenure as a maker of the spectacular in boxing; indeed he may never acquire any considering the seismographic needle that records the ring's power shifts. But for now he is the main man, the principal character behind the scenes of the Ali-Foreman fight in Za√Øre. It could be the richest prize in the history of the ring, and Don King snatched it right out from under the smirks of those who never have anything taken from them—especially by a black man without a club in his hand.
The whole ticket for Ali-Foreman comes to $11.5 million. Each fighter gets $5 million. The promotional funds come from two sources: Hemdale Leisure and Investment Ltd. of London and the government of Za√Øre. John Daly, a young Englishman, is president of Hemdale. King represents Video Techniques, the closed-circuit company hired by Hemdale and Za√Øre, and King's associates are two New York citizens named Barry Burnstein and Henry Schwartz. Hemdale is responsible for $1.5 million of the promotional nut. The balance is Za√Øre's through a Swiss firm called Risnelia, which has interests in Za√Øre. That is the official breakdown, but it is not official enough to satisfy rumors that range from insinuations of mob influence to some bankrolling from Robert Vesco or Bernie Cornfeld.
Even without those last two it is hard to think of a promotion that has turned up a more disparate group of characters. First there is Daly, a neat little man from the south of London who worked as a ship steward before helping to build Hemdale's name in movies and rock music. He is a careful man, full of the latest public-relations jargon and he fits his office quite well. Asked if he is relaxed, he says, "Yes—but alert, too." Then there are Burnstein and Schwartz, who remind one of a burlesque comedy act. Burnstein weighs more than 300 pounds and is capable of eating several loaves of Italian bread before the main course arrives. Schwartz is a bland, forever-smiling middle-aged engineer out of Brooklyn; both Schwartz and Burnstein could be boffo on television selling hairpieces. Throw in the black power in Za√Øre, and after the fight the group could suddenly be strangers to each other in a strange town.
In the middle of this, at the epicenter of the promotion, is Don King. He is about 6'4", with a Falstaffian belly and hair that seems to stand straight up as if electrified. There are usually several books on his coffee table that seem to have been read into tatters: the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare (he loves The Merchant of Venice), the Bible and a work by Gibran. Open the Gibran book, and it tells you where he has been. Up at the top in his own hand, it reads: "Donald King...No. 6178." The number was his only identification for four years, when he was a guest in Ohio's biggest house. The rap was manslaughter. The way King tells it the victim was a friend who worked for him as a lay-off man in his numbers domain. "When he got out of prison," says King, "I bought him new clothes, teeth, but then he turned around and bit me. He ran off with some money, and then I wouldn't let him work till he made good. He jumped me from behind, and we went outside. His head hit the concrete...." King pauses. "He expired," he adds. "I have suffered great contrition since." He seems to like the sound of that sentence, for he is conscious of words, of lines that he can add to his repertoire.
A second-degree murder charge was knocked down to manslaughter by the judge, and King got 1-to-20 years. King did not appeal. He was scared of the legal system, afraid that if he lost he'd get 10 to 20. "So I went up, figuring I'd be paroled in 11 months," he says. The parole board thought otherwise. Influenced by King's reputation as the Lord of Numbers in Cleveland, the board let him stay for four years. They let him go in late 1971, and when he came outside he was barely intact, mentally and physically.
The refuge of the prison library saved him, he says. He was suddenly an explorer of a geography that he had never, known before. His world had been one of Cadillacs, a fat wallet with never less than a grand in it, little slips of paper that were his lifeblood, and always danger. When the white mobs tried to move in on his territory, his life hung by a thread; once they tried to take him out with a shotgun, and then they blew up his house. All that is behind him now as he looks toward a life within the law. "Where the real villains are," he smiles.
King was soon in boxing, as the manager of three fighters: Earnie Shavers, Jeff Merritt and Ray Anderson. Nothing was too good for them. He bought one of them a new car, and he was a dramatic force (often sitting with him until dawn) in Merritt's defeat of his drug problem. But King could be tough, too. Once he thought that Anderson had hinted of violence during a contract talk. "Ray, we from the same gutter," said King. "Let's not jive each other. You could pick up that phone and make me dead in a half hour. I can pick it up and have you dead in five minutes." Taking the pen from King, Anderson docilely signed.
Soon Shavers and Merritt were ranked heavyweights, and King was saying, "I ain't been in this business more than six or seven months and I'm the manager of the year already. My fighters will fight anybody. They're going to be like Ali and Joe Louis." Then, sounding like Cyrano, he added, "Don't bring us mortal men. Bring us giants!" Shavers and Merritt soon proved to be ever so mortal. Jerry Quarry knocked out Shavers last December, and Merritt flopped badly soon after. But it was the loss by Shavers that struck the first spark for the Ali-Foreman fight. King had dropped by to see matchmaker Teddy Brenner at Madison Square Garden. He wanted to know if he could bring Shavers back to New York. Brenner turned to King coldly and said, "Earnie who?" King recoiled, but not nearly as much as when Robert Arum took a slice out of his pride.
Arum is still at the top as a mover and shaker in boxing, but several months ago his power was absolute. The name of Arum evokes rage from some in the business, silence from others. King was neutral on the subject of Arum, that is until Arum garnisheed the purse from Shavers-Quarry in an effort to make sure he got his money from the closed-circuit rights in Ohio, which came to about $4,000. "I felt emasculated," says King. "The man did not even give me a chance to pay him." Add to this the whole business of King dealing with Arum for the TV rights to the second Ali-Frazier fight. King wanted the state of Ohio, and he put in a bid for $50,000. Arum termed it unrealistic, and King gave him another one for $75,000. King says that Arum assured him that Ohio was his. Several weeks passed and no contract arrived. King called Mike Malitz, Arum's associate. Malitz asserted that he knew nothing of any contract.
Finally it came down to Arum telling King that Malitz had accepted a bid for $80,000 and that he felt quite bad about it all. "He knew about the bid all the while," says King, "and he never had any intention of honoring mine. He gave the tight to a white man who'd never done boxing before." King was stung. He felt that he had been stripped of his dignity and he vowed to himself that he would have his day against Arum. King then decided he would make the Ali-Foreman fight, fly right into the teeth of Arum, who was Ali's lawyer as well as closed-circuit promoter.
King first went after Ali and Herbert Muhammad, who acts as Ali's manager. They listened to him, laughing all the way. King told Herbert what Arum had done to him, how a black man once more had been victimized by a white, how Arum couldn't care less about human beings, and he pulled out a then-recent magazine article to show how Arum had no feeling for Ali. Herbert scoffed, tried to defend Arum, but King pressed on. He summoned up the preachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Herbert's father. "You got to help the black man, that's what he teaches. You find a black man who can do the job, you got to let him do it before a white man, that's what he says." Herbert weakened. King then went with him to see Ali beat Frazier. Ali and Herbert drew closer to King, but they were still skeptical.
In New York, King intensified his pursuit. Herbert was afraid to make a move without Arum. King insisted that Arum could have no part of the promotion. Ali did not believe Foreman would fight him. "He's gonna wait till I'm too old," he said. King made steady progress, and Herbert finally relented. He and King shook hands. Herbert gave his word, which counts for everything in the black world. "I am ecstatic with delight!" King said. He then called partner Schwartz and told him he had Ali. Did Schwartz have Foreman, as he had indicated earlier? "Don," said Schwartz, "we don't have Foreman." King could not believe what he was hearing. He feared he was being measured for a fool's hat once more, and, according to his arrangement with Herbert, he had only one day to deliver Foreman's word to him.
King flew to California, where Foreman was training to fight Ken Norton in Venezuela. Foreman was in a bad mood. He was in the middle of a divorce. He felt that he had been taking a lot of bad advice and he knew for certain that his financial condition was chaotic. No, George Foreman would see nobody. King was in California only a few hours before he cornered Foreman in the parking lot outside of his hotel. The two of them walked around for two hours, and the mesmerizer King did not stop talking as he gave George a lecture on black history. Then he said, "George, I know people been screwin' you. But I tell you this. I'm going to give you a chance to make $5 million. Don't lose this chance." Foreman shot back, "Ali don't want to fight me." King said, "I can deliver him. I have his word."
King then stopped walking, pointed to the skin on his arm, and said, "This is my promotion. And I'm black. Here is a chance, a big chance to show all blacks that black men together can succeed like no one has ever believed we could." Foreman then turned to King, looked at him steadily for a long moment, and said, "I'm gonna give you an agreement. This is with me. I've never done this before, but I'm givin' you my trust. You got the fight." King had just made it under the wire.
Now King had the word of Ali and Foreman—but no signed contracts. "To the white way of thinking," says King, "you don't have a commitment without a written contract. But their word was better than a contract." The negotiations began. King went to Ali and Herbert and they signed; so did Foreman. The fighters were guaranteed $100,000 apiece right off, to be followed several days later with another hundred grand to each. It was here that the financial noose tightened around King. Promoter Jack Solomons of London reversed an earlier promise to deliver backing. Then Ladbroke, the gambling club, jumped at the proposition, only to back out at the last moment. It was John Daly of Hemdale, approached by Schwartz, who put up the first $200,000. Daly said he was seduced by the historic nature of the event.
King tried to round out the circle of financing. Paths were beaten from Wall Street to London to Dallas. Mike Burke of the Garden declined. Jerry Perenchio, who did the first Ali-Frazier fight, sent his lawyer over. He examined the contracts (which had then been signed) with a magnifying glass. But Perenchio backed off. "His ego was crushed," says King. "That's all it was. A black man had beaten him."
It was in February when the first breeze from Arum's bullwhip was felt. The money picture was still unstable, to say the least, and even Daly and his backers were nervous, if not wavering. The slightest hint of trouble might send Daly & Co. sprinting toward an exit. In Herbert Muhammad's Manhattan hotel room, trouble walked through the door in the form of Arum and Brenner. Present were Herbert, Ali and Ali's sidekick Bundini Brown. King also was there, but when he found out who was coming he slipped into the bedroom. With the door cracked, King listened to Arum and Brenner's pitch to get Ali to fight Quarry in May. If Ali fought Quarry before Foreman, it might mean the end of King's grand plans. Sweating, King listened to an $850,000 offer for Ali.
"They actually told Ali," says King, "that Jerry truly loved him and deserved another chance. Arum, who didn't know the solid deal I had with Foreman and Muhammad, said a Foreman fight would never develop for Ali."
Ali came into the bedroom to join King. He was ready to sign for Quarry. But King prevailed, invoking heaven and black history: "This isn't just another fight. Freedom. Justice. That's what you'll be gainin' for your people by gettin' back the title."
"I hear ya, I hear ya," Ali said. He went back out and shouted to Arum and Brenner, "I ain't fightin'."
The scene now shifts to Paris, where King has a lead on one Fred Weymar, adviser to the Za√Øre government. Za√Øre was looking for something with which to project itself into a favorable light. In Paris, King, Schwartz and Daly meet with Weymar and Mandungu Bula, coordinator for the Za√Øre government. Weymar and Schwartz, their personalities clashing, do not like each other. King smooths things over and then goes one-on-one with Bula. The two leave for dinner, and King recalls that they talked amiably until suddenly Bula said:
"Hey, brudder, what's the situation?"
"The situation is that you're about to get the biggest event in the history of the world!"
"But brudder...you're with Jews. Can you trust them, brudder?"
"You can trust this one," said King. "Let me tell you something. I find this man Hank Schwartz to be very credible. He's a brilliant man."
"Well, I'll see, brudder."
The next day, after one more meeting, Bula sent a wire to Za√Øre, saying, "I recommend this fight. I have found a very strong black man."
Letters of credit were then drawn up. Daly calls them works of art. They were so artful, in fact, that one bank declined responsibility. The bank finally came into line, and King sighed deeply. It was premature, for just ahead there was one more round of problems with Foreman. They began when he fought Norton in Caracas; the government went back on its word and taxed Foreman and Norton—and held Foreman under house arrest for five days. The Video Techniques people, including King, had long since left the country. Foreman was angry and humiliated. "There ain't gonna be a fight with Ali," he snapped. His confidence in Video Techniques was at a low ebb; his Venezuelan taxes had come to $247,000.
"You can't give me back those five days," said Foreman, "but I want my money back."
"You'll have $150,000 tomorrow," said King. "You gotta give me some time for the rest. You got my word." The $150,000 came the next day, the rest arrived 10 days later. And King finally emphasized: "I've dealt straight with you, George. Sure I'm a black promoter who needs the white money. But now we've got this fight in a black nation. And I'm out at the head of the parade, George. I'm nobody's nigger." Foreman was appeased once more.
Brush fires are still turning up, but as soon as they do King throws his whole being on them. Watching him at work, it is hard to resist the conclusion that he is the remarkable man that he says he is. He has done what no one ever thought he could do, or even attempt. Were it not for him, there would be no Foreman-Ali fight. And he did it with pure brass, and with an energy that was dammed up for four years of awful loneliness. Because of a crummy $5,000 (which was nothing to Arum) and because his manhood was insulted, he went after Bob Arum and came away with a grand slam in promotion.
There are criticisms: King is loud and uncouth; he is polarizing the promotion with his hard black line; he is an unprincipled braggart who disposes of people, once used, as if they were confetti. If true, then the future will see to him.
"Sure," King says, "I'll tell people anything they want to hear. But I don't cross anybody, like promoters have always done. My word is my soul. The Africans know this. They believe in me."
Even so, Za√Øre President Joseph Mobutu advised:
"Be careful, Donald King."
"I will," said King.
"And so, brudder," the president added, his voice barely a whisper, "may you catch a great animal and ride it across the heavens."