The octogenarian who promoted and personified a glorious era in boxing—the heyday of the heavyweights—is as recognizable and bombastic as ever. It's just that fewer people are looking or listening, and that's not necessarily a good thing
INSIDE THE Birmingham City Hall, past the security desk, up three floors on the elevator, down a winding hallway and behind the door of a vacant conference room, Don King is slouching in a leather chair, half a dozen of his staffers seated around him. It's 60°, a chill meant to combat the sweltering 90°-plus heat outside. Most of King's team is dressed for the swelter; T-shirts, shorts, skirts. Not King. Rain or shine, hot or cold, his public attire rarely changes: shopworn denim jacket covered in pins and patches, dark slacks, powder blue shirt with a tie striped like the American flag. King-wear is ever so predictable.
King is in Birmingham to promote a heavyweight title fight, but then isn't that predictable too? For decades King was a driving force behind Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. He was the electric-haired, dynamite-voiced impresario introducing Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. He gave boxing the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila, spearheaded a heavyweight reunification series in the 1980s and milked every dollar out of a Tyson-worshipping public in the '90s. No one understood the value of heavyweights like King; not coincidentally, no one made more money off them—in 2006, Forbes estimated that he'd taken in $1 billion off more than 600 bouts over 33 years and his personal worth was $350 million.
The A-side of this fight is Deontay Wilder, the WBC champ, a muscular 6'7" puncher with a pulverizing right hand from Tuscaloosa, Ala. In another era, another life, Wilder would have been a King fighter. What King could have done with an Olympic bronze medalist, what stories he could have spun with a fighter who once drove Budweiser trucks, who took up boxing only to help pay his sick daughter's medical bills. Only in America! King would bellow, and a roomful of reporters would nod in agreement. Wilder isn't with King, though. Never considered it. He signed with Golden Boy Promotions, headed by Oscar De La Hoya, after the 2008 Olympics, then six years later switched to Al Haymon, the little-seen manager who has more than 150 fighters in his stable. King? He's in Birmingham representing Eric Molina, a 33-year-old journeyman who's expected to serve as a welcome mat for Wilder's homecoming.
Outside City Hall, a modest crowd mills around metal barriers, many of whom noticed the set for the impending weigh-in—the stage, the cameras and the police blockade—and simply wondered what the fuss was about. Molina and Wilder appear and generate a tepid reaction; in boxing's splintered state, even a heavyweight champion is anonymous. Not King. The moment he emerges from the building, cellphones are ripped from pockets and aimed in his direction. Arms jerk into the air, and the thin layer of onlookers presses forward, searching for the best angle to photograph a boxing icon. Approaching the dais, King climbs the steps slowly. One step. Pause. Don, over here! One step. Pause. Don, look this way! King is 83, and though time has not dulled his mind, it has weakened his body. A nasty fall last October put him in the hospital with a head injury, and though King swears a battery of tests came up with nothing, he is more careful. He's eating better and has stopped smoking cigars. He will sniff them, lick them and chew them beyond recognition, but he won't light them up.
On stage Wilder and Molina stand nose-to-nose, a traditional prematch promotional photo op that can yield tasty B-roll if the fighters are feisty. King stands between them, that familiar Cheshire cat grin creasing his face. When the fighters separate, King doesn't move. Center stage, he randomly pulls out one of the 17 flags he's carrying and raises it. The American flag. Then the Puerto Rican flag. Then the flag to honor America's POWs. He smiles. He waves. He pivots toward many of the voices calling for him. Members of both fighters' entourages approach; they want pictures with King too. For a few minutes he stands in the oppressive heat like a wax figurine, a living relic whose image onlookers eagerly try to capture for posterity.
King's part in this promotion is nominal. His name doesn't appear on the banner behind the fighters. Showtime's Jimmy Lennon Jr., emceeing the weigh-in, doesn't announce King as a copromoter. Financial terms were negotiated by Haymon. Logistics for the event were handled by event promoter Lou DiBella. It's been three years since King was the sole promoter on an HBO or Showtime bout, and network executives say they have no current plans to return him to that role, either. In the twilight of a decorated career the most visible promoter in boxing history has become an afterthought.
DON KING PRODUCTIONS exists in an unmarked building in Deerfield Beach, Fla., nestled onto a leafy plot of land that abuts I-95. King's company was founded in New York City in the 1970s before relocating to South Florida in the late '80s. Two stone lions flank the walkway to the entrance. A faded gold placard etched with CIRCLE TRAVEL—King's travel company—is the only identifier, near the door. A marble monument memorializing King's wife of 50 years, Henrietta, who died in 2010, rests on a patch of dirt nearby.
Once, King's office bustled with activity. He employed roughly 50 people in his heyday; today, the number of full-time staffers has dwindled to around 10. Many have been with King for decades. Dana Jamison, the company's vice president of operations, has worked for King for 29 years; Celia Tuckman, an executive vice president, has been with him for 37. King's past is polluted by shady business deals. In 1980 Ali sued him after King shortchanged the champ of $1.2 million of an $8 million purse, but Ali dropped the case after King sent him $50,000. In 2004 King paid Tyson $14 million as part of a settlement of a lawsuit in which Tyson accused King of stealing $100 million from him. But around the office there are tales only of King's benevolence. Al Bonnani, a semiretired trainer who has worked closely with King, recalled one Christmas in the late 1990s. Bonnani's wife was sick, and he was struggling to pay the medical bills. King called Bonnani to his office and handed him an envelope with $25,000 in it.
King's personal office takes up two rooms on the second floor. It's less a workspace than a shrine to his career, displaying everything from a handwritten letter from George Foreman demanding King promote his next fight after the Rumble in the Jungle to a sprawling collection of swords. Nearly every foot of wall space displays a picture or newspaper story acknowledging a King accomplishment. There's a signed photograph with Jimmy Carter. A framed letter from the New York City fire department thanking King for a $1 million donation after 9/11. A picture of King aboard a military helicopter in the Middle East. "I ain't no Brian Williams," says King. "You see me in that helicopter." In an adjacent conference room he puts on a 34-minute video that is little more than a montage of fighters, network executives and heads of state lauding King.
Most of the memorabilia is old. Decades old. King now represents just a handful of fighters; only one, super lightweight Amir Imam, is a serious prospect. In the 1980s and '90s, King battled Bob Arum to sign the world's elite. Today, Arum's Top Rank is still one of the most powerful promotional companies; King's is on the brink of extinction.
Where others have evolved, King has not. He isn't active on social media; he can't stream untelevised fights on his website because he doesn't have one. Unlike Arum, King has no heir apparent because he remains a one-man show. "Don trusts very few people," says Seth Abraham, former president of HBO Sports. "Over the course of his life as a boxing promoter, you can count on one hand the number of people that Don really trusts intimately, completely and totally. As a result, the organization is him. In effect, there [is] no organization."
Of all the conflicts King had with fighters, the one with Tyson was the most destructive. It was a nasty dispute that caused potential clients to wonder, If this could happen to Mike, it might happen to me. King admits it. "Did it hurt, yeah," says King. "He's poor, and he's telling lies. Give me $400 million and say you robbed me. I loved Tyson. We made a lot of money together. He threw his away. I kept mine."
In recent years, too, fighters have viewed King as being more about his own interests. Take Steve Cunningham, a two-time cruiserweight champion. Starting in 2002, Cunningham fought for eight years under King's banner. A former Navy serviceman, Cunningham signed believing King would exploit his military background. What he got was indifference. "A guy like DK, as soon as you come into his office, he places a price tag on you," says Cunningham. "He decides, This is what I'm going to spend on this dude. People say he is the greatest promoter in boxing. I beg to differ. He could have been with his star power, but he promoted himself more than any fighter. With his power, he could have made any fighter a star."
When King speaks, his words—spit out as if they're branches passing through a wood chipper, piling up into long, rambling paragraphs littered with irrelevant historical digressions—seem to confirm his impulse toward self-aggrandizement. Ask King what he wants out of the rest of his career, and he declares a desire to be a leader on racial issues and women's rights. He talks about writing a book and the interest he has received in a biopic. He expresses an interest in bringing bouts to Egypt and other areas of the Middle East. He doesn't bring up any fighter. He doesn't reference any future matches. He admits he would like to be back atop the promoting field, but says he isn't haunted by his descent.
Others demur. "I think it kills him," says Abraham. "I think he's trying to figure out how to get back in. It's more than wistful. It's like half of his blood supply has been drained out of him because he's not the dominant promoter."
IT'S TWO hours before the fight when King saunters into Molina's dressing room. Immediately, the dozen or so people in it burst into applause. Again, it's the Don King show, complete with photo ops and non sequiturs. "And the new ... !" King bellows. More applause. A referee comes in to take a picture with King. Molina, still dressing, pauses to get one too. Sensing the moment, King slips into character.
"They counted us out, we counted us in!"
"We going to celebrate tonight with the whole nation of Iran!"
"They ain't going to give it to you, you have got to take it!"
The shame of King's decline is that he still has much to offer. "He is indefatigable," says Abraham. "He loves the action. He loves the adrenaline that comes from promoting." As boxing has been pushed toward the fringes, King remains one of the sport's most recognizable faces, the rare figure mainstream outlets still pay attention to. "The public's fascination with Don has not decreased at all," says Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports. "He's a unique personality. His busiest years are certainly behind him, but his residual celebrity value still exists."
King's core promoting principles are missed. Boxing events have grown top-heavy, with undercards that do little to support the main event. King's shows were usually deep and well-balanced, which enhanced the fans' experience. Today, they are exposed to far too many one-sided bouts slapped together by promoters fearful of leading a fighter into a loss. To King, matches needed to be meaningful. "You fight with Don, he is going to see if your teeth are sharp enough," says Cunningham. "Every guy I fought for Don King got me closer to a world title."
A King comeback seems unlikely. Molina lost, dropped four times en route to a ninth-round knockout at Bartow Arena. Later, at a press conference, King praised Molina's courage, gratuitously gushing over a largely ineffective night. He also lauded Wilder for bringing a fight to Alabama, a state with a history of racism that King had referenced often during the week. "Birmingham is back," says King, "ain't no stopping her now."
Minutes later, as the crowd dispersed and Wilder continued to celebrate with his team, the man who enjoyed so many golden moments in boxing slipped out a back door.
"People say he is the greatest promoter in boxing," Cunningham says. "I beg to differ. He could have been with his star power, but he promoted himself more than any fighter."
Photograph by Kevin Liles For Sports Illustrated
BANNER DAY King used two fistfuls of flags to try to rev up enthusiasm for a recent fight involving one of the few fighters he still manages (not the headliner).
NEIL LEIFER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WITH ALI AND FRAZIER)
HEAVY TRAFFIC King posed with Ali and Frazier in 1975, walked with the president of Zaire before the Rumble in the Jungle in '74, and flashed smiles and smackeroos with Tyson in '89.
RON GALELLA/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (WITH TYSON)
[See caption above]
NEIL LEIFER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
KEVIN LILES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MIDDLE ROUND King's usual regalia is as eclectic and jarring as his personality, on which his company was built.