Through the years, professional prize fights have been held in some odd places—brothels, barges, carnival grounds, open fields. So why not an aircraft carrier? "Get me the admiral!" boomed Don King, who comes off the rail like a cue ball with English on it—sometimes too much. "What admiral?" asked an aide. "You know how many admirals there are in the U.S. Navy?" Thus several weeks ago the scramble began for a stupendous venue, one to match the scope of what King calls the grand renaissance of boxing.
For a long time the fight game has been hanging by its fingernails on Muhammad Ali's presence. He keeps the sport in the public eye, but that is all. He is boxing to a point, much as Churchill was England when it fought alone in World War II. But, Ali aside, boxing is in a parlous state: no work for fighters, small purses when they do fight, empty gyms and fewer licensed fighters than ever before; only two American world champions (Ali and featherweight Danny Lopez)—a long fall from a time when U.S. fighters held most of the world titles. It is an arid land, boxing, populated by only the most resolute, the addicted or the crazed.
The pathology of this collapse is obvious: the politics of the ring, which are based on petty feuds and revenge: the failure of Madison Square Garden to put money back into the sport that did so much to make its reputation; the lack of a commanding figure to lead the game out of the wilderness, to bring a semblance of organization and thought to it, in brief to revive public interest. Until now, no one has really ever tried, but on Jan. 16, on the aircraft carrier Lexington off Pensacola, Fla., the first of a series of positive steps will be taken.
Called the U.S. Boxing Championship and presenting 60 fighters from featherweight to heavyweight, the series will run from January to June and is designed to create American champions, to build names and continuity. It is a massive effort, backed by the power and money of ABC-TV and Roone Arledge, the authority of Ring magazine and the promotional flair of Don King. For ABC Sports it is a bold venture involving $1.5 million and about 23 hours of programming. For King it is a rare chance to back up his grandiloquent posture, his large and lyrical mouth, with hard action.
January 3, 1977
The genesis of the tournament was helped along by adversity. King had been riding high with Ali, having promoted seven of his title fights. Correctly, he had figured that the only place to be in the ring business was next to Ali. That was where the money was, as well as the recognition, which often seemed more important. He also believed that Ali was not earning as much as he should. Always a sucker for trick phrases and slogans, having invented so many himself, Ali became a believer as King hammered away: "Figger, figger, figger, everything for the white man, nothin' for the nigger." The two of them, plus Herbert Muhammad, sacked the world.
Then, suddenly. King was blown out of the Ali picture as Ali and Herbert moved to another promoter, Bob Arum, with whom King had been—and still is—locked in a bitter promotional struggle. The usually buoyant King became morose, and the winds that whipped about his aerie on the 67th floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center seemed to have a mocking whine. His office door never seemed to open anymore. He would sit at his big desk for long hours, seeing nobody, at times looking as if he were mummified, or at best deep into some transcendental problem known only to him. He even had his hair cut, which only made him look more pathetic. That bizarre hair, shooting out in all directions, appeared ridiculous at first, but it grew on you, symbolizing strength and wild imagination.
Neither was in evidence now. "Look Don," said Paddy Flood, his right-hand man, "this may be the best thing to happen to you. You've always had Ali on your mind. Now this is a great chance to build a new center of balance." Long ago, the two had talked about a tournament. Flood can ferret out a dollar in the fight game better than most, but he has always thought of boxing on a large scale rather than just as an area for personal scheming. He had been a fighter from a fighting family in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. He is still a manager. He knows the sad gauntlet that a fighter has to run—work during the day, lonely hours in the gym at night, short purses, the dead-end frustration of it all. If there are such things as character and trustworthiness in a manager, Flood has them. He got King moving. "If you're going to be remembered at all," said Flood, "you'll be remembered because of this tournament, not because of Ali."
Soon King's hair was back to all its scruffy magnificence, and so was he. With King busy on two fronts—the comeback of George Foreman and the tournament—there was no longer much evidence of Ali in King's office. The huge painting of the champ that hung behind his desk was removed and replaced by a photograph of Foreman and lightweight champion Roberto Duran, King's other major interest. By now the tournament had begun to appeal to ABC. Before the Olympics, ABC had bought the tournament from King but had moved slowly. After the enthusiasm for Olympic boxing, the network worked swiftly. The Olympics may have foreshadowed the next evolutionary cycle of the ring: nationalism in an international arena, a professional Olympiad.
First, there are American champions to be made—honestly. That last word is so important; the champions here cannot be made in the back room, they must be made in the ring. "This is no connection tournament," says Flood, who along with Al Braverman is coordinating the event. "Look at the fighter I have in the light-heavyweight quarterfinals, Bobby Cassidy. You think I'd put him with Willie Taylor? I'd rather see him up against a water buffalo. But we can't pick and choose. You take who you're given." Seeing to that last point is Johnny Ort of Ring magazine. The publication is the bible of boxing, and it brings to the tournament a substance and respect that game-playing groups like the WBC and WBA could never claim.
"It's a tremendous breakthrough," says Ort. "The first hint of any organized pattern in boxing. It's going to bring fresh air to the game."
The tournament, says King, will change the face of boxing and remodel an image that has long been unfair. "We will show that boxing belongs," says King, "that the undesirable elements long associated with it are no more. Some things die hard. People don't know what they're talking about when they talk of fixes and gangsterism inside boxing. That's a holdover from years and years ago. What about baseball and basketball and football and horse racing? The scandals in these sports have been outrageous and on a larger scale. Yet they come back bigger than ever. Why? Because of television, of the concerted efforts and promotion behind them. That's what we intend to do with boxing: unify it and point it in a new direction."
That alone seems impossible, for the politics in the ring are self-destructive. The old line goes "Don't get mad—get even!" A manager will wait for years to gain revenge on a manager who crossed him, or a promoter who bludgeoned him economically when he was helpless. The environment is one of mutual contempt. Promoters hate managers, who in turn hate promoters and fighters. The fighter despises all of them. The squabbles rage on forever. That old and pummeled cry to arms in most sports—"For the good of the game"—does not exist in the world of the ring. So it is hard to grasp how 60 managers in every part of the country stepping docilely into line could agree with the principles of the tournament.
"They came into line all right," says Braverman, also a manager of clever repute and a barnacled survivor of ring "trickeration." But not so easily. "Just getting them to return the contracts on a deadline was like mounting the invasion of Normandy," he says. "They're not used to organization. Of course, some of them held out, thinking, well, maybe there's a better deal coming up from somebody else."
In the end, though, they could not skirt the hard facts: money and titles. "Any kind of title is worth something," says Al. "An American title, well, that's clout if you have it. The money? Forget it. In New York City alone, there are only a few managers who can make a living in boxing. If it's that bad here, what about the rest of the country?"
The fighters did not need much prodding either. They saw the tournament for what it would be: a chance to pursue their trade with genuine reward ahead. It takes years for a fighter, especially one in the lower weight classes, to get exposure, to get a name. Here, within four or five months, he can become "somebody," can make his name count for money. As it is, the fighters are going to be paid more money than most of them have ever seen before. "As long as I'm around," says King, "fighters are going to get what they're worth. They say I've inflated the market, given too much to fighters. Well, I wouldn't be giving out that kind of money if it wasn't there. The money has always been there, but the fighters never got it."
King himself, it appears, will not have a financial windfall from this tournament. The expenses will be high and the purses are big. For eight-round quarterfinal matches heavyweights will receive $15,000, $30,000 in the semifinals and $135,000 ($45,000 to the loser) in the finals. The light heavyweights to middleweights will start at $10,000, go on to $15,000 and finish with a 70/30 split of $65,000. The progression of the lighter weights will be $7,500, $10,000, $40,000. King will come out of the tournament with only a first option on the services of the American champions. He then plans to put on an international tournament, country against country. That setup will be profitable.
Who are these fighters? There are no big names, no major contenders like, say, Ken Norton. The tournament is mainly a blend of seasoned fighters, many of them ranked, some on the brink. Most of them have one thing in common: they need exposure.
The heavyweight entrants are Larry Holmes, Dino Dennis, Johnny Boudreaux, Tom Prater, LeRoy Jones, Scott LeDoux and alternates Jeff Merritt and Kevin Isaacs. The lightheavies are Cassidy, Taylor, Len Hutchins, Richie Kates, Vonzell Johnson, Ray Elson, Biff Cline, Tony Greene and Tom Bethea; and the middles Mike Colbert, Tony Chiaverini, Bobby Watts, Willie Monroe, David Love, Ike Fluellen, Roy Edmonds and Johnny Baldwin. Randy Shields and Harold Weston are among the names in the welter division, while Edwin Viruet heads the lightweights. The list of featherweights is not completed.
The class of the heavies is Holmes. A native of Easton, Pa. and handled by the veteran Richie Giachetti, he has been out of action for the last eight months with a broken thumb. His last victory was over Big Roy Williams, who recently gave Earnie Shavers so much trouble in Las Vegas. Holmes (22-0) put a smooth, very careful point display on Big Roy, leaving a number of his critics in the audience complaining about his shyness, his lack of zest for exchange; no one knew that the thumb of his cracking right hand was broken. Even so, many want to see some indication of heart in Holmes. They all know what he can do when he is winging out in front, but does he have the stuff of a champion in a close, hard fight? The tournament may well show what he's made of.
The match-ups for the opening quarterfinals are: Holmes vs. Prater in the heavies; Cassidy vs. Taylor in the light heavies; the sharp Colbert against Chiaverini in the middleweights; Randy Shields vs. Juan Cantres in the welterweights; Pat Dolan vs. Johnny Sullivan in the lightweights and Walter Seeley vs. Hilbert Stevenson in the feathers. The other quarterfinals are scheduled for Feb. 13, March 6 and March 27. King hopes to put these fights on at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Marion Correctional Institution at Marion, Ohio. "Marion will be a homecoming for me," says King of the place where he did time for manslaughter.
King has made a remarkable leap from his prison days, from the days when he was the numbers king of Cleveland. He says he owes much of it to the Garden and matchmaker Teddy Brenner, to Brenner's unwillingness to change with the times. "The Garden was the palace of boxing," says King. "All over the world, when you mentioned boxing you had to mention the Garden. Kids dreamed of it. Now how could a black man from nowhere, a black nobody and ex-con on top of it, come into New York and take over boxing if the Garden had been doing its job? The answer is simple. It couldn't happen. You can't go up against power like that.
"But the Garden wasn't doing its job. They wouldn't pay anybody anything. They got great talent knocked before it matured. They alienated managers. Treated us like dirt. They just didn't give a damn. Just let boxin' die a slow death. Brenner was always sayin' it was dyin', so why bother. The result is that they've only run about four or five fights in the last three years. Well, I'm here to tell Madison Square Garden, its stockholders, Teddy Brenner—God bless him—that boxing is back, Jack. The sport of the dispossessed will be climbing the mountain. Don King doesn't need the Garden. The Garden needs Don King."