He is a storm on the horizon as he approaches. Local weathermen should have a symbol for boxing impresario Don King, maybe a little circle with electric-shock hair sticking from the top. Warning! Don King is in the neighborhood! Close all doors! Fasten all windows! Find your thesaurus and check your wallet! He is a brass band on parade and a cable-access preacher in the throes of revelation, and he is wind and rain and bluster and—if you believe some of the things that have been said about him—a thief in the night.
Uh-oh. Here he is. Check him out. This is from an eight-page SI story in December 1990 that was devoted strictly to the subject of his famous hair. Alert! Alert! "The truth is that my hair is an aura from God," King explains. "Until 1971 it was kinky and nappy and burry, like any other black man's. Then one night I was in bed with my lovely wife, Henrietta, when suddenly my head got to rumbling. It felt like a volcanic eruption. Ping! Ping! Ping!...All them curls were straightening out and straightening up. Each strand stood erect, pristine and beautiful, reaching for the heavens on its own individual stimulation.... Being a religious person like myself, I looked up the Scriptures and found God did it to me. I thought, Whaddya know, I've been chosen by God! He made every shank a citadel." Whew....
From the time he arrived full-bore on the boxing landscape as the promoter of the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, followed a year later by the epic "Thrilla in Manila" between Ali and Joe Frazier, King has manipulated the pieces of his sport with Falstaffian flamboyance. Equal parts W.C. Fields, Jimmy Hoffa and Amos 'n' Andy, with more than a touch of Central American dictator, he sometimes has made boxing his own puppet show, with embarrassingly visible wires stretching from his heavily ringed fingers.
While movement has been glacial in achieving minority ownership in all other sports, King has been, for better or worse, boxing's chief executive, a black man taking the money to the bank. Who hasn't he promoted? He was a player in Ali's biggest fights. His face is still in the background of all pictures of Mike Tyson. Roberto Duran. Julio Cesar Chavez. Ken Norton. Larry Holmes. King has been involved with all of them. In 1982 he was the promoter for 12 world champions; in 1983 he staged 22 world-championship bouts. He helped bring boxing to the cable and pay-per-view markets, generating millions of dollars. He has controlled, controlled, controlled. "Did you ever work for him?" a newcomer to boxing once asked Holmes. "Hah," Holmes replied. "For 12 years my lips were surgically attached to his ass."
Various law-enforcement groups have been more than a little interested in King's many enterprises, and many of his contractual agreements have ended with suits, countersuits and allegations of missing sums of money. Most recently he was indicted on nine counts of wire and insurance fraud; if convicted he could face 45 years in jail and $2.25 million in fines. But so far in his career in boxing he has survived all charges and investigations. These controversies—together with his earlier career as a numbers runner in Cleveland, culminating in a four-year prison stay for manslaughter—have become part of his "only in America" declarations, which tell how a poor child from the ghetto in Cleveland grew up to lunch with kings and potentates.
In many ways he is a return to the old-time sports promoter, surviving on his wiles and personal magnetism, so different from today's corporate team owners. He is a black P.T. Barnum, 63 years old, finding those suckers who are born faster than every minute now, taking sometimes questionable attractions and dressing them in silks and klieg lights, selling them to the public in new ways, making sure the contracts are signed and that they contain certain profitable clauses in the fine print. A rogue. He is the preeminent buyer-beware sports rogue of our time.
Uh-oh. Here he is. "I see my hair, a burning bush basted in righteous juices," he says. "It is only when these spiritual vibrations stop cascading to my brain that I will lose the sense of power that catapults me into prominence and motivates me to towering heights. For now my hair has mastered the universe! When I gaze into the mirror, I never cease to amaze myself. And I say this humbly."
MANNY MILLAN, 1989