Fight promoter Don King says if he were still in the numbers game in Cleveland, he would be betting heavily on 962 these days. In the numbers, 962 means trouble, deep trouble, and that's what King was in right up to the tippy-tip tips of his electrified hair last week. ABC had just suspended the telecasts of his United States Championship boxing tournament, and King, in turn, had "suspended" boxing consultants Al Braverman and Paddy Flood, an odd couple of cornerwise managers, and PR man Gordon Peterson from his staff.
The reasons for all the suspensions were charges that fighters had to pay kickbacks to get into King's ballyhooed tournament, which ABC had underwritten to the tune of $1.5 million; that the records of at least 11 of the 60-odd boxers had been phonied in the 1977 Ring Record Book (the so-called Bible of boxing); and that ratings supplied by Associate Editor John Ort of The Ring magazine had been rigged. One boxer, Ike Fluellen of Houston, who has not fought in more than a year, was credited with two 1976 wins in Mexico by the Record Book and rated 10th, then third in the U.S. junior middleweight class in recent issues of Ring. In the March issue of Ring, Ort even gave idle Ike an honorable mention for the 1976 Progress Award of the Year. If he had had help like this, Harold Stassen would have become President in a landslide.
And if those problems were not enough to make King lay all his stash on 962, a federal grand jury in Baltimore was checking into the tournament, which at its inception had been praised as a way to create American champions, to build names and continuity. There were also persistent reports of FBI and IRS investigations into the affairs of boxing figures. Meanwhile in New York, Governor Hugh Carey had put the heat on James A. Farley Jr., his $35,000-a-year State Athletic Commission chairman, for being either a dupe or a dope in working with King on the tournament. Speculation even had it that Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, had muffed his chances of becoming president of ABC News because of the brouhaha. This was later denied by Frederick S. Pierce, the network president. And ABC announced that it had retained the services of Michael Armstrong, the highly regarded New York lawyer who broke open the Serpico case, to conduct an independent investigation. It will take months, for there are all sorts of intertwining connections for Armstrong and the other investigators to probe, ranging from the sudden elevation of tomato-can fighters to the status of U.S. title contenders to the role of the press. There have been allegations that King had two prominent New York newspapermen and a staff member of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED "on the take." SI is investigating the allegations against its staffer.
Amid all the turmoil last week, King maintained he was on the up-and-up ("I'm a nut on the truth bit," he says) and took solace in his eastside Manhattan townhouse by reciting passages from Demosthenes, Thoreau and Shakespeare ("Sweet are the uses of adversity,/Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,/Wears yet a precious jewel in his head"). King did not deny that some shenanigans might have occurred: "With all these rumors, there's smoke, and where there's smoke there's usually fire," he said. But he saw the contretemps as an attempt "to fry this coon." Muhammad Ali agreed. "There's only one thing wrong," said the heavyweight champ. "They got a spook running the tournament."
Matters are not so black and white. Soon after King made his tournament deal with ABC last year, Malcolm (Flash) Gordon, a 27-year-old boxing freak—"freak is very accurate," he says—who publishes a newsletter for boxing cognoscenti, wrote about insiders feasting on the money ABC was putting up. Though Gordon has a reputation for accuracy, his style can be extremely abrasive—he has referred to Ort of Ring as "Johnny Bought"—and he was, in turn, attacked in a recent photocopied sheet called Boxing Beat True Facts, which described him as a "sewer mongrel" and "beatnik pothead with body odor to boot."
Whatever the merits of Gordon's allegations, King's contract with ABC called for Don King Productions to stage the tournament from January through June of 1977. King himself was to get nothing but production costs, because, as he says, "It was a thing to me that I was contributing to me." Indeed it was. Had the tournament reached an unsullied conclusion, King would have wound up in complete control, thanks to ABC's naive largess, of all 11 U.S. champions, in addition to at least three fighters, including fourth-ranked Heavyweight Larry Holmes and No. 1-ranked Lightweight Esteban DeJesus, whom he and his son Carl already have in their pockets. For a promoter to control—or be in a position to gain control of—fighters in his own tournament is at best unethical. In some jurisdictions, it would be illegal.
To obtain credibility for his tournament, King took two unusual steps. First, he agreed to pay Ring for rating the fighters to be used in the tournament and for allowing the use of Ring's good name as the sanctioning body. As of last week King had paid Ring $30,000 of the $70,000 promised. No one had ever paid Ring for anything like this before, but as King says, "This was the heart of the tournament. I needed their reputation and their ratings and their sanction to give validity and authority to the tournament." King also brought in Farley, whom he describes as having an "impeccable reputation," but who is regarded as merely a political hack by many others in boxing. Farley was named chairman of the tournament committee, where, says King, "There can't be no hanky-panky." Besides Farley, who accepted expenses from King without checking with Governor Carey, the committee members were Kenneth Sherwood and Manuel A. Gonzales, both former New York boxing commissioners; Nat Loubet, the editor and publisher of Ring; and the omnipresent Ort.
Farley's committee technically had control over the selection of referees and judges, but it was hardly the independent body such a committee should be. It was formed by the promoter and had no legal standing whatever. Indeed, no boxing commission anywhere had jurisdiction over the tournament, because King and his associates had seen fit to stage the bouts in such unusual venues as the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Lexington anchored off Pensacola, Fla., the U.S. Naval Academy and the Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institution, often referred to as King's alma mater because he once served four years there for manslaughter.
Despite all the window dressing, ABC began to get twitchy even before the first round of bouts was shown from the Lexington on Jan. 16. The network's 32-year-old associate producer for the tournament telecasts, Alex Wallau, who is a knowledgeable boxing man, had meticulously researched the tournament field that King and Ring had lined up and figured that at least a dozen of the entrants were bums who had no business fighting for a championship of the United States. Concerned about what Wallau had uncovered, ABC invited King, Ort and Farley to an area near the davits of the carrier and took the most unusual step of getting affidavits from each of them. In their statements, they said that the tournament was on the level and that the ratings needed to determine who qualified for it were dead honest.
Thereafter all went well—at least on the surface—until the Annapolis program on Feb. 13, when Heavyweight Johnny Boudreaux of Houston won an atrocious decision over Scott LeDoux of Minneapolis. LeDoux and his manager, Joe Daszkiewicz, shouted, "Don King, Paddy Flood of New York and Al Braverman, also of New York, control all the fighters in this tournament. We're the only outsiders." LeDoux then jumped from the ring and tried to mix it up with Boudreaux, who was being interviewed by ABC's Howard Cosell. In the melee, Cosell's toupee was knocked askew. Later Cosell interviewed LeDoux, who apologized for his behavior but repeated his charge that most of the fighters were controlled by King. LeDoux and his manager were angry in part because Flood, who worked Boudreaux's corner, gets 10% of Boudreaux's purses as a "booking agent." The fact is that for more than a year LeDoux has been paying Braverman 10% of his winnings to act as a booker, and if Boudreaux was controlled by one of King's entourage, then so was LeDoux.
By happenstance a CBS camera crew, assigned to film a segment or. King for that network's Who's Who program, was on hand and took in the fracas. That footage became part of a scathing report on King, the tournament and TV's involvement with boxing by Dan Rather on the April 12 Who's Who. Along with criticizing the ABC tournament, Rather also attacked his own network for controlling fighters, and last week CBS' Saturday afternoon bouts were suspended.
The next development involved Houston Featherweight Kenny Weldon, who says he was offered $7,500 to fight at the Ohio prison. The figure of $7,500 does not jibe with the $5,000 tendered to featherweights and lightweights by ABC, but that is the figure Weldon uses. He says, "I made an agreement with Harlan Haas [a Houston fight publicist and local correspondent for Ring] to get 10% booking for me, and I told him to see if he could get Jerry Kornele in the tournament, too. My wife owns Kornele's contract. Harlan came back after contacting George Kanter [a New York booking agent] and said the only way I could get Kornele into the tournament was in a package deal in which each of us would get $5,000 for our tournament fight." Thus, Weldon thought, Kanter was planning to skim $5,000 of his and Kornele's purses.
"I had gotten a loan from the bank a few months earlier and wanted it extended," Weldon continues. "The bank requested a letter confirming the fight. Kanter sent them the letter of confirmation. Remember, this wasn't ABC or King answering. It was Kanter.
"When I got to Ohio, I still didn't have a contract. On the day of the fight, Kanter wanted to give me a $5,000 personal check. I said there was no way I would take a personal check from a guy I'd never met till then. I asked how others got paid and found out it was through ABC. I still hadn't signed a contract, and it was less than an hour before the fight. An ABC guy [so Weldon remembers—ABC claims it never directly signed any fighters] said they needed my signature and Kanter's on the contract. When I signed the contract...I noticed that Kanter was listed on it as my manager. As soon as it was over, Kanter wanted his money. I mailed it to him when I got home to Houston."
Back in Texas, Doug Lord, a Dallas fight manager, asked Weldon how Kornele happened to get into the tournament. Weldon explained his package deal and told of the $2,500 payment to Kanter. Miffed because his own fighter, Johnny Copeland, had not been included in the bouts—and Copeland is only one of a number of boxers who should have been invited and were not—Lord got in touch with ABC. The network contacted Weldon and turned his charges over to Farley. Farley called in Kanter and ordered him to repay the fee. Kanter promised to do so, but he had not repaid Weldon as of this week.
In late March Jeff Ruhe, an assistant to Arledge at ABC, was surprised to get a call from Fluellen, the Houston junior middleweight, who complained that he had not been able to get an answer from King on when he was to fight in the tournament. Although Ruhe was a newcomer to boxing, he asked Fluellen if anything "funny" was going on. Fluellen said no, but after several calls he made mention of splitting his purse with Chris Cline, a Washington, D.C. manager. Ruhe asked Fluellen to submit a statement to ABC about his arrangement with Cline, but the boxer did not comply. Ten days later, on April 6, Ruhe received a message that Fluellen had phoned again. Before returning the call, Ruhe phoned King's office and was told that Fluellen had been removed from the tournament because he had not fought in a year and a half. Ruhe then called Fluellen to tell him he was out, and Fluellen said he would spill the whole story. Arledge immediately asked for an affidavit, and it was released to the press that evening. Thereafter, under Arledge's insistent direction, ABC's investigation moved briskly forward.
In his affidavit, Fluellen states that Cline, whom he had met in 1974, called him in September 1976 about appearing in the tournament. Fluellen says that Cline told him he could get him rated in Ring's Top Ten in the U.S. and that there was big money involved. Fluellen, who is a patrolman in the Houston suburb of Bellaire and has not fought since October 1975, was interested in Cline's offer. He was also skeptical. Several weeks after Cline called, Fluellen got a letter from Cline that contained an enclosure from King. It was an invitation to Fluellen to apply for entry in the tournament. "On the basis of this letter," Fluellen says, "I told Mr. Cline that he had my permission to represent me in getting into the tournament." Fluellen and Cline stayed in close contact, with Cline assuring the boxer he would fight.
When Fluellen saw that he was No. 10 among U.S. junior middleweights in the January Ring, he called the magazine. "I asked to speak to John Ort so I could introduce myself," Fluellen says. "He told me I was in good hands with Chris Cline. Mr. Ort asked me how many times I had fought in 1976, and I told him I hadn't fought because I had been unable to obtain bouts. Mr. Ort told me that Mr. Cline had brought my previous record to his attention. Not long after talking with Mr. Ort, Mr. Cline told me I would be ranked third the following month. This turned out to be the case.
"Mr. Cline called me often in January to check up on my training. I assured him that I was training hard and was getting in good physical condition. Mr. Cline informed me that the 1977 edition of The Ring Record Book would list two fights on my record which took place in 1976 in Mexico. I did not fight in 1976.
"In February I saw the March edition of Ring and noticed that I was ranked third in the U.S. and that I had also been added to the world rankings as No. 8 in Group II. That meant I was the No. 11 junior middleweight in the world. The only American listed ahead of me in the world rankings was Emile Griffith."
Cline informed Fluellen that his first tournament fight would be in late March, but then said it had been postponed until April 2. Before the tournament quartterfinals at the Randolph Air Force base in San Antonio, Weldon asked Fluellen how much he was going to get for his fight. Fluellen said he understood his purse would be $5,000. Weldon said that he had been in touch with Ruhe at ABC and felt that he was not getting all the money he should have been getting. In late March, Fluellen called Ruhe, who confirmed that the purse was $5,000 and asked the boxer, says Fluellen, whether he was having to "kick back" any of his money. Ruhe also asked how long Cline had been Fluellen's representative and whether they had a written contract. Fluellen said there was no written contract and that Cline was representing him only for the tournament.
Then Fluellen placed several calls to Cline, who did not return them. Finally, on March 24, Fluellen reached Cline, who informed him that some people were saying bad things about him, that he had been making phone calls and stirring up trouble. Fluellen says Cline told him that he should remember that Cline had done nothing but good for his boxing career. On March 28 Fluellen got a 14-page contract from Don King Productions, which he signed and returned. A week later he began to hear rumors that he had been dropped from the tournament. On April 1, Fluellen called Peterson, King's PR man, and Peterson told him if he had "done nothing wrong in the last year and a half," he would still be in the tournament. "My interpretation of Mr. Peterson's remarks was that they were a suggestion not to talk to ABC or anyone else," Fluellen says.
Feeling that he was out of the tournament, Fluellen placed the call to Ruhe that resulted in his affidavit. Since then Fluellen has received a number of threats over the phone. "I'm not paranoid, but I'm almost afraid to start my car," he says. "In fact, I look under the hood every day before I do start it."
Some people in boxing look upon Fluellen as a whacko who hopes to gain attention by complaining about death threats. As King's man Braverman says, "I get death threats on the phone. I invite the yellow bastards to come on over. They never do. They just hang up. That's not very nice."
Two weeks ago, following publication of the 1977 Ring Record Book, Wallau began poring over the book and found a number of falsifications in the records of fighters who were entered in the tournament. On the morning of the day that Dan Rather delivered his blast on Who's Who, ABC confronted Ort and suspended the fighters whose records were wrong. Among the discrepancies:
Lightweight Pat Dolan was credited with four fake 1975 wins in New York and New Jersey.
Featherweight Hilbert Stevenson was listed for five phony bouts in Winston-Salem, N.C. in 1976.
Junior Middleweight Anthony House was down for four non-existent fights in 1975 and three in 1976.
Junior Middleweight Mel Dennis of Houston is credited with two phony knockouts in Valle Hermosa, Argentina in 1976.
Four fighters in the tournament—Greg Coverson, Vonzell Johnson, Floyd Mayweather and Richard Rozelle—were credited with a total of 11 fake wins in 1975 and 1976. Oddly enough, the real records of all four might have been good enough to qualify them for the tournament. They are managed by Henry Grooms of Kalamazoo, Mich., a former officer in the local sheriff's office. Why the monkey business? Grooms blames secretaries for "administrative mistakes." Grooms claims he has written a letter to Ring saying, "If I'm guilty of anything, it's of being a non-administrator and not taking the responsibility to know that in my office there are no mistakes being made."
Nat Loubet, editor and publisher of Ring and son-in-law of the magazine's founder, the late Nat Fleischer, says, "Although Grooms didn't put this in his letter, his office said that he uses several sets of records. When he goes into the hinterlands he likes to have 15 KOs instead of eight. His secretary sent us the wrong list. We were supposed to get the accurate list."
Other phony records are turning up in The Ring Record Book. The 1975 edition lists a fake Congolese heavyweight named Muhammed Wee Wee, who, among other feats, supposedly scored a knockout against Tommy Farr in London in 1974. If the real Tommy Farr were still with us, he would be 63 years old. "You're going to have mistakes," says Loubet. "There have always been mistakes. Wee Wee Muhammed, that's a simple thing. We're sitting here with galleys in front of us. Somebody who thinks he's a comic sent the damn thing in. We've had others that we caught. A guy named Bagelman, like bagel. We were getting results on this guy like he was having fights. It was a joke. If we had gotten this Wee Wee crap earlier, we'd have laughed like hell."
Loubet does not laugh about allegations concerning Associate Editor Ort, who made up the ratings for the ABC tournament. Loubet says he has warned Ort in the past that he would fire him "summarily" if he found that Ort was pieced into fighters, and Ort denies that he has ever managed or owned a percentage of anyone.
Loubet claims that King recently asked him to fire Ort. "The idea was that he could pile everything on John, use him as the scapegoat," Loubet says. "His lawyer was on the other phone. I said, I will not. You're just looking for a scapegoat.' All the things he's worried about in his own background, he's trying to keep covered by throwing all the attention on us."
Yet for all Loubet's protestations, he is embarrassed by the assaults on the veracity of Ring, one of the few things in boxing that has had, until now, an untarnished reputation. "Embarrassed?" he asks. "I could jump out the window!" Maybe Ring made a mistake in dealing with King? "We never lied down with dogs to get fleas before," he says.
Investigator Armstrong has a lot of fleas to check, and some dogs, too.