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Don King at 92: Highlights and lowlights of a life in the limelight

Don King, the rambunctious, garrulous, uniquely-coiffed, malapropism-spewing, money-making machine, controversy magnet and boxing promoter, turned 92 last weekend.
 
Here we look back on some of the key moments in a unique life lived largely in the public eye.
 

The Numbers Runner

 
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1931, King dropped out of college and ran an illegal betting operation out of the basement of a record store.
 
In 1954, he shot a man, Hillary Brown, in the back and killed him while Brown and accomplices allegedly attempted to rob one of King’s gambling houses; the killing was ruled justifiable homicide.
 
In 1967, King stomped an associate, Sam Garrett, to death over $600 Garrett owed him. Garrett’s reported last words were, “Don, I’ll get you the money.”
 
King could have faced life imprisonment. Instead, he went to jail for three years and 11 months.
 
In 1983, Ohio governor James Rhodes pardoned King for his crimes. In 2016, Cleveland City Council considered renaming the portion of Cedar Avenue where King killed Garrett as “Don King Way” before abandoning the proposal on the grounds that it was an objectively terrible idea.
 

Meeting Muhammad Ali and becoming a boxing promoter

 
King used his incarceration as a means to improve himself and upon release displayed an almost obsessive drive for riches and success.
 
Through a long-standing friend, musician and producer Lloyd Price, in 1972 he met Muhammad Ali and convinced him to box an exhibition to raise funds for a hospital that treated mostly black patients and was in danger of going into bankruptcy.
 
Despite having no idea how to put on a boxing card, King persuaded veteran promoter Don Elbaum to come on board and pulled off the event. (Elbaum would later claim that King pocketed most of the proceeds.)
 
Within a year, he had become promoter, with Elbaum, of heavyweight contender Earnie Shavers.
 
By that fall, King had cut out Elbaum; after Shavers lost by KO to Jerry Quarry in December 1973, King abandoned him, reportedly without paying him for the Quarry fight.
 
And yet, within just two more years, King’s unique combination of bombast, charisma, cunning, and an ability to produce improbable sums of money enabled him to visualize and execute two of the biggest boxing promotions in history, both involving Ali: the “Rumble in the Jungle” versus George Foreman, and the conclusive act of his trilogy with Joe Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manila.”
 
King had not only arrived as a boxing promoter, he had burst through the doors and seized control of the building.
 

The “look”

 
As King became as much a celebrity as the boxers he promoted, Price suggested he needed a distinctive look. It was at his suggestion that King began combing his hair straight up, Price saying that it created the effect of the King wearing a crown.
 
King himself would attribute the development to divine intervention: “It’s really an aura from God … One night, I went to bed with my wife, Henrietta, and she
shook me because my head was rumbling and moving, and my hair was just popping up – ping, ping, ping. Each hair.”
 

Developing a reputation for stiffing fighters

 
It was not long before King became a byword for dishonesty and deceit, a walking, bellowing exemplar of everything that was wrong with boxing.
 
He signed many a boxer with a lure of greater riches than other (white) promoters could offer – and often, he delivered.
 
But boxer after boxer began to accuse him of delivering far less than he was contractually obligated to do.
 
Larry Holmes claimed King shortchanged him by $300,000 for his 1980 title defense against Gerry Cooney (which King promoted by trying – and failing – to create as much racial animus between the black champion and white challenger as possible).
 
Tim Witherspoon accused King of paying him $100,000 instead of a promised $2 million for beating Frank Bruno.
 
In perhaps the most disgraceful episode of all, after promoting Ali’s failed comeback against Holmes – even though Ali was demonstrably in no condition to fight – he gave the hospitalized Ali $50,000 in cash in lieu of the $1.2 million Ali said he owed him.
 

Rigging the rankings

 
In 1976, playing off the patriotic fervor of the Bicentennial, King approached ABC with a proposal for the “United States Boxing Championships”: a tournament to crown the top American in the eight original weight classes.
 
He paid Ring Magazine to provide rankings of U.S. fighters to ensure that participants
were appropriately qualified.
 
It soon transpired that a precondition of participation was signing an exclusive deal with King and his hand-picked managers; because this inevitably meant lower-quality fighters were involved (Marvin Hagler, for example, refused to play along), King had The Ring fabricate records and elevate undeserving boxers in its rankings.
 
When ABC learned of the fraud, it terminated the tournament in April 1977.
 
One by-product of the scandal was that US TV networks began to lean on sanctioning body rankings, inflating the alphabet groups’ importance in the sport and leading to their proliferation.
 
Amazingly, nobody was prosecuted or punished for the deception.
 

Mike Tyson

 
As Mike Tyson blasted his way through the heavyweight division in the mid-1980s, King looked on enviously and resolved to hitch himself to the Tyson Train.
 
He succeeded, with inevitable consequences: in 1998, Tyson sued King for $100 million that he said King had stolen from him. (They eventually settled for $14 million.)
 
Prior to pursuing a legal avenue, Tyson took matters into his own ... feet. While riding in a car with the promoter, Tyson kicked him in the back of the head and began beating on him.
 
The beatdown spilled out of the car, until King was able to escape and drive away.
 
When one of King’s bodyguards appeared, unaware of the commotion, Tyson knocked him out with one punch.
 
The bad blood endured: when King patted Tyson on the shoulder at an International Boxing Hall of Fame event in 2018, Tyson threw a glass of water over him.
 
In the 2008 documentary about his life, Tyson called King a “wretched, slimy reptile,” adding that: “He’s ruthless, he’s deplorable, he doesn’t know how to love anybody. That’s just the way he is.”
 

Bob Arum

 
For three decades, Arum and King bestrode the world of boxing like two warring colossi, and their professional rivalry spilled over at times into personal pettiness.
 
In 1974, during the buildup to the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, King persuaded Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko to ban Arum from entering the country.
 
In 1987, when King tried to climb into the ring after Sugar Ray Leonard’s victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler (despite having had nothing to do with the promotion), Arum grabbed King’s jacket, heaving him back to the floor – ripping one of the jacket’s pockets in the process – until security guards intervened.
 
In 1999, while King bloviated at the post-fight press conference following his fighter Felix Trinidad’s controversial win over Arum’s fighter Oscar De La Hoya, Arum found a way to cut his mic.
 
But, with both men in their dotage and King no longer a significant factor in the sport, Arum can afford to be magnanimous.
 
“When you reach a certain age, you’ve got to be an idiot to continue the fights you had when you were much younger,” he has said.
 
Don showed by example what it means to be a promoter.”

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