Nothing from sleep but a dream: Don King at 85

Donald Trump, Master of Ceremonies, and boxing promoter Don King, prior to King's celebrity roast at the New York Hilton in New York City (Photo by Ed Mulholland/WireImage)

Donald Trump, Master of Ceremonies, and boxing promoter Don King, prior to King’s celebrity roast at the New York Hilton in New York City (Photo by Ed Mulholland/WireImage)

 

 

For over 30 years, Don King – loud, brash, Machiavellian – ruled boxing as its most ruthless promoter. In the process, he also became a minor celebrity and a man whose motto, “Only in America,” echoed out thunderously wherever he went. After serving more than three years in prison for manslaughter, King emerged from prison in 1971 to earn millions of dollars with a speed that mocked most rags-to-riches stories. Today, King celebrates his 85th birthday.

 

****

 

Long before his conviction for manslaughter, Don King already had an impressive criminal record. In fact, King was arrested at least 35 times in the years leading up to his killing of a man named Sam Garrett – one of his employees – in 1966. From the 1950s to his prison sentence in 1967, King was the top numbers runner in Cleveland. His battles with the law began when he was only 20 and, over the next 15 years, his record included charges ranging from gambling to carrying a concealed weapon to assault and battery.

 

****

 

“Jail was like a catharsis, a honing and a sharpening, a refining for the life to come. It was like being converted; you know what I mean. It was like Jesus when he tested Jonah in the belly of the whale. Like Daniel in the lion’s den.”

 

****

 

Through a slew of magazine articles, newspaper profiles and even an HBO movie, the fact that King spent time in prison for manslaughter is common knowledge. What is less known, however, is that King had already killed someone earlier. In 1954, a Detroit hoodlum named Hillary Brown was shot to death trying to raid a gambling house owned by King. Brown and two accomplices burst in with guns drawn, looking to scoop up the take but King was not about to yield meekly. He pulled out his gun and started firing, killing Brown. Police officials ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.

 

****

 

“In defending myself, he got shot. I was lucky. He shot up the house. I had on a camel-hair coat; the bullet went right through the camel-hair coat but didn’t touch me. I tell you; it’s divine providence, man.”

 

****

 

As part of the Cleveland underworld in the 1950s, King survived several harrowing experiences. And his run-in with Cleveland mobster Shondor Birns left him with a permanent reminder of how dangerous the dark side of the street could be. One of the most feared gangsters of the Midwest, Birns squeezed King for protection payments until King reluctantly agreed. After a few months, however, King began missing installments. In May 1957, Birns sent his own unique “Payment Due” notice: a bomb that destroyed King’s porch. Rattled, King filed charges against Birns. Before he could testify, however, he was ambushed outside of his house and shot in the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. He survived and went on to testify against Birns but proved to be a poor witness. Birns walked away a free man after the jury failed to reach a verdict. In 2001, a CAT scan taken after he suffered an injury on a turbulent airplane flight revealed that Don King still had shotgun pullets in his head.

 

****

 

“I had a profound decision that I wasn’t going to do anything statutorily illegal no more, as to the numbers. I knew that my vulnerability was in statutorily illegal things.”

 

****

 

It took Don King only a few years to go from a bleak prison cell to one of the most prestigious street addresses in America. After making millions promoting bouts for Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, King opened his offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, most famous, in recent years, as the setting for the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. For King, his lavish offices on the 67th floor of the soaring Art Deco skyscraper were the perfect symbolic counterpart to the bombast of a man whose ambition reached the clouds.

 

****

 

“My life is a living testimony and is an incongruity and a contradiction to what America has hitherto here asked for success. I am a black ex-convict from the ghetto, an ex-numbers runner, and now I’m sitting at the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It’s a testimony that can only happen here in America.

 

****

 

Not many people realize that King was once on the other side of the ropes. While still in high school, King had a handful of amateur bouts as a flyweight – nearly 150 pounds lighter that when he was at the peak of his success in the late 1980s – but met with little success in the ring. He won two fights, lost two fights, and was knocked out once.

 

****

 

“I was a guy that came up in a family of six people. My father died in 1941 on Dec. 7, ironically right at the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In Cleveland, he got consumed by hot molten steel in the Otis steel plant of Jones & Laughlin, where he was a laborer pulling the plug on the ladles that come down the line with hot steel in them. The plug stuck and the ladle exploded and the hot steel just consumed him. So I feel as if my whole life was built upon what we call ‘tragedy money.’ That’s the $10,000 they give you for double indemnity on a laborer in an accidental death. My mother, being very frugal and farsighted, she took the $10,000 that we got for my dad being burned up and created a new life for us – took us out to the peripheries of the hardcore ghetto to a more pleasant neighborhood, mixed with white and black, the name of which is called Mount Pleasant.”

 

****

 

Although primarily known for his melodramatic career as a boxing promoter, King occasionally tried to branch out into other fields. In 1984, King promoted “The Victory Tour,” featuring the Jacksons, for most of its US dates. With Michael Jackson still riding high on the strength of his “Thriller” LP, The Victory Tour promised to be a bonanza for everyone involved. Eventually, the tour became a financial disaster – but not before King had sold the rights at a substantial profit.

 

****

 

“People come up to me all the time, put their babies in my arms and ask me to kiss them. That doesn’t happen to (Top Rank Promotions’) Bob Arum or (former Golden Boy Promotions CEO) Richard Schaefer.”

 

****

 

It was a hard lesson to learn but King found out that boxing could be just as dangerous as the dark alleys of mob-run Cleveland. In his autobiography “Undisputed Truth,” Mike Tyson gleefully recounted two vicious beatings he gave to King, who promoted Tyson for most of his career. One of the assaults popped up in an excerpt on Deadspin: “Don picked us up at the private airport in his Rolls and he had Isadore Bolton, who used to be my chauffeur before he stole him from me, driving some of Don’s associates in the lead car. We were driving down to Miami from Fort Lauderdale on the I-95. Don said some innocuous thing, and all that jealousy and rage spilled out of me and I kicked him in his fucking head. Boom! You don’t turn your back on a jealous cokehead. Don swerved off onto the side median and I started choking him from the backseat. I got out of the car to get into the front seat and kick his ass some more, but Don took off down the median.” But King had also been the victim of a brutal assault years earlier. In 1981, when King sought an injunction to stop his fighter Trevor Berbick from facing Muhammad Ali in the Bahamas, he incurred the wrath of a rebel promoter named James Cornelius, who had a long criminal record. Cornelius rounded up some of his thugs, cornered King in his room at the Princess Hotel and administered a savage thrashing. With his nose broken and a few teeth missing, King limped out of his hotel and fled directly to the airport.

 

****

 

“Surviving at the top…Surviving at the top is very hard. “

 

****

 

Even as King became a multimillionaire, he found it difficult to leave his past behind. This was underscored as recently as 2012, when King, then 81, was stopped at Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, for trying to carry live ammunition on board a plane. That, however, was just the most recent example of how gun-crazy King is. In 1987, King and Bob Arum, his promotional archrival, got into a scuffle following the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler bout in Las Vegas. Arum, incensed that King was trying to crash his party, attempted to physically restrain King from entering the ring. During the scrum, a pistol fell out of King’s pocket and hit the floor.

 

****

 

“Where I come from, you help your friends and kick your enemies in the ass. Boxing is the only business in the world where people help their enemies and kick their friends in the ass.”

 

****

 

For years, King has been dogged by accusations that he was tied to organized crime. On Sept. 14, 1982, King, while under surveillance by the FBI, was seen having dinner with John Gotti in Little Italy, only a few blocks from the Ravenite Social Club, where Gotti held court in the early-1990s. According to reports, King did not have a fine dining experience with the most notorious wiseguy of his era. Indeed, Gotti later told an associate that he had smacked King around for being late on payments. At that time, Gotti was only a few short years from ordering a mob hit on his own boss Paul Castellano, and becoming the new, brutish head of the Gambino crime family.

 

****

 

“I’ve either got to be the best crook in the world or the best promoter – or both.”

 

****

 

Today Donald Trump is running for President of the United States but, nearly 30 years ago, he came close to shifting the balance of power in boxing from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Atlantic City, New Jersey. And his partner in this audacious plan was none other than Don King. Trump brought big-time boxing to Atlantic City by paying enormous site fees for Mike Tyson to fight near his Trump Plaza Casino. When Tyson faced Michael Spinks in 1988 for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in Atlantic City, it was the highest-grossing fight in history. But boxing was far too unpredictable – even for the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal.” Trump faded from the scene within a few years, while his short-lived partner King continued his workaholic ways and made millions as a promoter.

 

****

 

“You don’t get nothing from sleep but a dream.”

 

****

 

Quote sources: The New York Times, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Magazine, Jack Newfield, “Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King,” Thomas Hauser, “The Greatest Sport of All”

 

 

Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.

 

 

Comments

comments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,