All The King's Men: The Don King Feature
Boxing insiders share their personal memories and lasting images of one of boxing history's most important figures, the Hall of Fame promoter Don King:
Lloyd Carroll, Journalist: "I remember Don King being here at Gallagher's for a press conference shortly after Jack Newfield had died. He wrote the book 'Only In America.' And of course that book was a very unflattering portrait of Don King. So I asked him his memories of it and you got to see a different Don King. He stopped being Don King the character at the press conference to being the real Don King. And you could see how upset he was. It actually seemed like these guys were friends. Like they were kind of playing roles with each other, Newfield figuring the more villainous he made Don King look, the better it is for Don King. And Don King also knew the worse he looked, the more books that Newfield could sell. So it was kind of a symbiotic relationship. But you had a feeling based on that it seemed these guys were closer than the public were led to believe. You could see Don King was genuinely touched by Newfield's passing. It was not crocodile tears by any stretch of the imagination. King said, When I go to the next world I look forward to talking to Jack and resolving some of our differences. But you could see he was very upset."
LeRoy Neiman (Artist): "He took me up to Montreal to watch Duran and Ray Leonard. We sat together. He was so excited when Duran got that decision. He was really, really happy. He took me to Zaire. He took me along to all those fights. He took care of all my expenses, he was very generous. He kept his word. I like Don King a lot. And I've had my problems with him. Don King is a unique creation. He created himself. He built up that vocabulary he has in the prison library. He's amazing. When I see him now, he says, 'You have to do my portrait...before it's too late!'"
Eric Bottjer: "I worked (as matchmaker) for Don King for two years and I'd be lying if I say I knew him. I don't. But I can say that he runs his business very professionally. He is more corporate than any boss I've worked for. He wants everything in writing and he is one of the few promoters who adheres to the Muhammad Ali law. Behind the scenes he is very calm and his work ethic and intelligence are unmatched. He was a good boss. As a man, I think he is the epitome of this country - all that is bad and good. He has committed terrible acts in the past and can be overbearing, greedy and bombastic. But he also has created tremendous opportunities and wealth for many people. He donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities and organizations every year. He cares about his legacy and I think it bothers him that his critics don't balance their attacks with pointing out the good he has done."
Melvin "Doc" Stanley, Journalist: "I have two. I remember the first time I ever saw Don King, he was managing Ernie Shavers, as well as Jeff Merritt and Ray Paterson. Shavers and Merritt were heavyweights, 'Candy Slim' was Merritt's nickname. Paterson was a light heavy. Well I remember vividly King standing in the locker room door way as you entered the dressing room of Shavers who had just knocked out former WBA heavyweight champ and Muhammad Ali's former sparring partner Jimmy Ellis in the very first round at the Garden. King was saying, as the media entered the dressing room, 'We will be a fighting champion liken to Muhammad Ali.' I remembered too, he had on one of those old green and white PAL colored sweaters, towel over his shoulder. I was also the first person to ever interview DK on radio, a fact the great African-American sportscaster, Larry Hardesty told me that King had told him, 'He gave me my first radio interview.' Number two - I was covering a college basketball game and sitting in the Garden's press room with Sid Gatling Jr., a friend and graduate with me from NYSAS. Gatling had landed a job at WMCA as John Sterling's producer. Well, we're sitting there and in walks DK. Both Sid and I both now knew Don well. Don greeted us and I said, 'Hey Don I didn't know you liked college basketball?' Don then told us he wasn't there for the game, he was merely passing through. I'll never forget what he said to us. 'Mel, Sid my man, I have a piece of paper here that will guarantee Muhammad Ali and George Foreman $5 million dollars to fight in Africa.' He added that he was on his way to a meeting with the people that would make that happen. That was the fight that made Don King, Don King. I've often said that when he walked out that door with that paperwork he became the legendary Don King, greatest promoter that ever lived." Bert Sugar (Boxing Historian): "The first time I ever saw Don King was at the Joe Frazier-George Foreman fight in Jamaica. I didn't know who in the hell he was. He had come down to handle the closed-circuit rights for Dean Chance in Ohio. And he was strutting around as if he owned everything. And I remember I was once talking to Pearl Bailey, who was doing the color commentary. And this guy I didn't know who in the hell he was, slammed me on the back, 'YOU TELL HIM WHITE GUY!' And I'm going, Who the hell is that?! That's my first introduction to Don King!"
Bob Arum (Rival promoter): "I was going to Panama with Mike Trainer. And we were going to meet with Carlos Eleta - to make the Duran Leonard fight. And King had no contact with Duran. And how he knew or what, but I'm in the first class lounge at Kennedy Airport, he walked in. We couldn't get rid of him. And he stayed with us the whole time. And he ended up as co-promoter of the fight [laughter]."
Dennis Rappaport (Manager): "Don is extraordinary. When I was insisting on parity (for Holmes vs. Cooney) he wasn't sure why he wasn't able to get to me. So first he thought I might've been a bigot. Then he found out I was almost lynched by the Klu Klux Klan. So at his hotel suite in Chicago he brought Jesse Jackson who tried to convince me that if I allowed Cooney to get parity, I'd be retarding the civil rights movement. And I said, Reverend Jackson, with all due respect, the history of boxing reflected that the biggest attractions were Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard and Joe Louis - they weren't Ingemar Johansson and Gerrie Coetzee. So it's not the complexion, it's the charisma. I said, Cooney has the charisma and Holmes has the title. That's why it's parity. He put his hand on my head, looked at Don King, said, 'God bless this crazy man. Don it's no use [smiles].' Don is just an unusual personality that doesn't come along very often. We've had our bitter feuds. But you have to respect his accomplishments and his energy. (Did you get parity?) Yes [smiles]."
Larry Hazzard (Former N.J. Commissioner): "Don King is one of my favorite people in the world. And please print every word. It's very difficult to think of any one particular anecdote because when you mention the name Don King, that mentions it all, okay? He is the greatest boxing promoter in the history of the sport. And in addition to that, in my opinion, he is one of the greatest human beings who God ever placed on this earth. And I don't want to hear any of that shit about what other people said and all of that, you understand? Because people love to beat him up. Okay? But in my opinion Don King is a great man. He's a great man. And, really, if you want to have some extra time, we could just sit down and you could just fire away question after question. Because I want the world to know this. And, see, one thing that you have to understand, that Don King, when you look at his history and being a black man in America, he represents, in almost every aspect, what this country is all about. Because for him to come the way that he came, and he where he is today, says it all for America. And when he says that America is the greatest country in the world - a lot of people think that he's bullshitting about that. Well, if he is, he's a prophet. Because absolutely what he is saying is he's a prime, living example that America is the greatest country in the world. Because no where else in the universe could a Don King exist. But in America."
Tim Smith (New York Daily News Columnist): "When I started covering boxing in my second incarnation with The New York Times, somebody told me, Just be prepared because Don is going to call you up and MF you one day. And he does this to all the new writers that get on the beat. And he does this to soften you up and then get you to come on his side. So it happened to me on Christmas Eve in 1998. I'd gone away on vacation. And this was the first attempt to try and make Holyfield-Lewis at The Garden. Seth Abraham told me the fight fell apart because Don King wanted $5 million off the top of the promotion. So I couldn't get a hold of Don, I was new on the beat. I didn't have all of Don's numbers, so I left messages. And I wrote the story based on what Seth had told me. So, Christmas Eve we were on vacation in Hilton Head. After a walk on the beach I got back late in the afternoon and had like five messages on my phone. It was my boss, frantically calling me, 'You gotta call in. Don King is going nuts over something you wrote this morning. Call Don right away.' So I called Don like right away to find out what was going on. Don gets me on the phone and proceeds to MF me for like an hour and a half! It was so bad - I was on the phone for so long - my wife kept coming in saying, 'We need to go out to dinner, what's going on? You're still on the phone?' I said, I can't get away. The lull would stop and then he would MF me some more. I mean, it was some of the worst stuff I ever heard. So at the end of it - I didn't take it seriously because somebody had told me this was gonna happen - if I didn't have a forewarning I would have been shattered or whatever. So at the end of it Don goes into his, 'Oh, we gotta stick together brother, I'm gonna give you all the news, I'm gonna make you big in the boxing business, you just had a mistake right here but that's okay, I'm gonna forgive you. So next time I'm gonna give you all the news and next time we gonna rule this thing brother! So anything you need, here's all my numbers. You call me any time of day you need anything call me.' So that's my Don King story [laughter]."
George Kalinsky (Photographer): "In 1986 I chaired a charity dinner at the Carlyle Hotel. I got many entertainers and sports stars to attend the affair. I thought that by having Don King appear and to be the keynote speaker would be a good idea. Don said that because he was going to be on the Johnny Carson show the night before in California, he might not be able to make it but that he would try. Not only does Don show up for the dinner, but in his speech he pledged $20,000 in medical equipment for the children. I view Don King as a great negotiator and businessman. He’s the world’s best promoter and showman, and, with his unique vocabulary, he always has a kind word for me. How can you not love the guy?"
Cedric Kushner (Rival Promoter): "Lou DiBella and I had just come off two bad experiences with Don. I had my situation with Rahman (lost control of the newly crowned undisputed Heavyweight champ to King), DiBella had his situation with Bernard Hopkins. We both resolved things and then about a month later we had dinner with Don. And we spend two and a half hours at the eastside Palm and had a wonderful time. And I couldn't wait to get home to phone Lou, and Lou couldn't wait to get home to phone me - to say, 'Are we both nuts?! He fucked us both but we had such a great time with him [smiles]. And that kind of sums of Don King. He's most certainly brilliant, shrewd, Machiavellian...the good side of him is he's a fun guy. I enjoyed that evening very much. And I would continue to do business with him. I don't know what all of that says but you can have fun with Don."
Mike Marley (DKP VP of Public Relations 1994-99): "During the time Mike Tyson was incarcerated in Indiana on the rape charge, we were doing a Julio Cesar Chavez pay-per-view show in Vegas. So the phone rang in the media center and I picked it up. It's Mike Tyson, he says he has to speak with Don right away. Don's doing a phone interview with some radio station from Sacramento. So I wrote on a sheet, in big block letters, TYSON ON THE PHONE. And Don waved me off. Don's like, Call your local cable operators! Julio Cesar Chavez! Viva Mexico! Call your local cable operator! An affordable pleasure, a pleasure you can't afford to miss!
All the sudden I hear like furniture being smashed or thrown around in the background. I say, Mike, what the hell is going on? He says, I gotta go, these guards are getting out of line now. I'm gonna have to straighten 'em out. Crash! The phone was dead. So Don did about 15 more interviews. I said, Don, that was brother Tyson on the phone. He said, Mike Marley, I know it was brother Tyson on the phone. But he'll call back tomorrow. When the show is over. He'll call collect from the same location and he can't help us now. Cuz there ain't no pay-per-view where he is located. Well, since you put it that way, Don, I understand. I always cited that as the extreme business-related focus Don King has. Even a phone call from an emotional Mike Tyson from prison - Don didn't take his eye off the ball, which was, Call you local cable operator! $49.95! Julio Cesar Chavez."
Bobby Goodman (VP Boxing Operations & Public Relations): "I've known Don since the early 70's and from the very first time we me, and I think it was in Madison Square Garden, where he was trying to pitch one of his boxers, I knew there was something special. I could hear him, long before I could see him. The Garden Boxing offices were just off Eighth Avenue on 31st St. Us longtime 'boxing junkies' would wander in and out of there regularly to say hello. He was talking to John F.X. Condon, then the public relations director of MSG Boxing and the voice of the Knicks. John introduced us and the first thing I remember was that he was bigger than life. He stuck out his big hand, with a big diamond encrusted ring and said, "How're you doing Bobby Goodman, we'll be working together someday." It wasn't long after that when Don sought out my father, Murray Goodman, and myself to handle some promotions he was doing in conjunction with Video Techniques., who we had already done some things with. He was infectious, we were doing his promotions, publicity and he even named me his Matchmaker and Director of Boxing. There was little time for anything else but his work and he was truly amazing coming up with the great fights -- Foreman-Frazier, Foreman-Ali 'Rumble in the Jungle', and Ali-Frazier III 'Thrilla in Manila'. He was truly amazing and through it all during those many years -- he never broke his word. I left him for about 12 years when I ran Madison Square Garden Boxing and then my own company, but rejoined him about 12 years ago. He's one of the most well-known figures throughout the world, always has time for the people in the street, and is still keeping his word. Even while I was at the Garden -- he came in and did a few shows. We never really lost touch and I'm glad we didn't. Sure - there were some bumps, we were competitors for some years - but we always worked it out. He's always had very loyal people around him and I'm proud to say that I'm one of them. I've learned a great deal from him and he's been one of the most important people in my professional life. There have been many including my father, but Don and the over 30 years, I've known and worked with him, has to be right there near the top. Guess what? He still hasn't broken his word! He's 76-years-old and still going like the Energizer Bunny. It will be sad to see him leave the business, because he's been such a great promoter and legend. My life for myself and my family has been a much better one, thanks to the friendship and leadership of Don King."
Emanuel Steward (Hall of Fame trainer, manager, HBO commentator): "He is the most amazing man that I've ever met in my life, personally. I first saw him in about '73, right after he just got out of prison. He came to Detroit lookin' to try and sign up some fighters. And then the next thing I know I see him in corners working with Earnie Shavers, Jeff Merritt. Then I see him blossoming into becoming the biggest promoter, maybe of all time. And what really is amazing about Don - I know him personally - is not just how smart he is - his work ethics. The reason nobody can keep up with him is his work ethic is too much. I stayed with him one night, putting down, I just wanted to barbecue so I barbecued some ribs. 3 o'clock a.m. and we're sitting outside at his pool. Still eating and drinking and we got to bed about 4. And about an hour later I'm hearing him - and it's a big house - he's on the phone talking to the Acaries brothers (from Paris), 'Goddamn it! If he don't sign this contract...' I say, Man, don't you ever sleep?! And he was so loud. And then at 6:30 we was up eating breakfast again. I mean, he's a workaholic, always workin', workin' workin'. I never saw nothing like it. In addition to all the legal hassles - which he's always been able to come out of - But after the stuff was over he never complains. He pays and goes on with his life. But the most amazing man I've ever saw in my life.
What he did is just - it goes beyond boxing. What I don't really like - nobody every gives him credit for the money he donates and gives out to charity. The man gives more money - and I've been with him - to people. And the fighters come up to him - and I've been with him - Don, I need $40,000, I want to get a home for my mother. I saw him give out the money to these guys - some of them don't eve fight. He loses, he don't complain about it. Some of the guys end up having to pay some of the money back, then they go say, See, Don King made $200,000 and all I brought back was maybe 50 out of it. They don't go into the whole story. I saw him give away more money than any man I ever saw. They talk about the fighters, how he's abused fighters. I've never saw that much. I saw him spend a lot of money on a lot of guys, and never get anything back. And the guys who sign up with him, they get a chance. If they lose a fight, he don't throw them away. He bring 'em back, bring 'em back. Terry Norris got disqualified twice and when you sign up with him you pretty much know you're going to get a championship fight. And if you do a good fight he's gonna keep getting you fights.
And he's never had a TV deal like ESPN or where he could have regular work for his fighters. So, as a result, his fights have to be long cards. But that's how he has to get all those kids fights. But he's the most amazing man. And his organization - him and Dana Jamison - that's it. And he's running all these fights and has all these legal battles. But, you know Scoop, if you go back and check his background - I know guys who raised up in Cleveland with him. His nickname was 'Boy Wonder.' He was running the numbers down there. And at 19 he had one of the best nightclubs they ever had in the history of Cleveland, all the top musicians at his nightclub. He had a cleaners business. He had a barbecue restaurant. He was always an amazing businessman. And we just look at him as a boxing guy. But he was a tremendous businessman. I didn't realize all those businesses until everyone he went to school with him said how great he was."
Kery Davis (HBO Senior VP of sports programming): "I have a second-hand story but it's a really good story. I was told it by the lawyer for Don King - John Wirt. So John tells me about a flight they were on, flying from New York to Miami. And he says, You're not going to believe the experience I just had. We're on the flight - it's me, Dana (Jamison), Bobby Goodman, and some other people. And Don. On his plane. In the middle of the flight the pilot gets on the loudspeaker and says, Listen, we have a problem. The indicator light suggests that the landing gear may not be working [laughter]. So we're gonna run some tests to find out if the indicator light's broken or the landing gear itself is actually broken. So no one panicked yet.
So he comes back on the thing and says, Well, we've got a problem. It doesn't feel like it's the light, it feels like it's the gear itself. So what we're gonna do is we're going to try to decrease the altitude of the plane such that we can jam the landing gear down. So they go up and bounce it off the thing to try and jar it. And (Wirt) says people on there are screaming, AHH! BOOM! And so they go through that. Everybody's all upset. He comes back on the intercom and he says, If you have any loved ones you need to call, or any affairs you need to get in order. We're gonna try to do what we call a soft landing. But if you have any loved ones or any affairs you need to get in order, you need to do that right now. So people are calling, they're panicking, calling their families, you know, these tearful conversations. And Don is just sitting there [laughter]. Calm as can be. And the only thing he wanted was, he asked the stewardesses if there was some more chicken left on the plane [LAUGHTER].
Of course they try to land the plane and at the very last minute the landing gear comes out and, boom, they made it. The moral of the story is: Don KNEW that it wasn't his time. He's got a deal. He knows. He knows [laughter]."
(Note: This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine in 2011.)