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The laughing arrives first, echoing down the hallway. Then comes the commotion. Bodyguards and business associates enter the room, walking slowly backward so as not to lose sight of their smiling, boisterous, broad-shouldered boss. The cameras roll. The laughing continues. The man enters.
And he sparkles. Literally. Overhead lights and camera flashes sparkle off dozens of gold chains and rich jewels surrounding his thick neck, large hands, and long fingers. His unkempt gray coif reaches skyward, as if the hairs were stacks of smoke rising from all that blistering bling bling.
He laughs. He smiles. He waves.
It's April 29, 2004, in a conference room at the Miami Airport Marriott, where boxing promoter Don King's 71-year-old frame moves through the doorway. Carrying two small American flags and wearing a jean jacket with a glittering map of the continental United States on the back, he consumes the attention of the crowd of about 50.
"Heh heh heh," he laughs in his booming voice. This day marks a new chapter in the promoter's career. Despite having headquartered Don King Productions in Deerfield Beach since 1993, the promoter has largely ignored South Florida as a region for major fights.
That's about to change.
He stands behind a brown podium, flanked by cruiserweight fighters Ezra Sellers and Kelvin Davis. "It is indeed a happy moment for me to be back in Miami and to be bringing boxing back to the people of the great state of Florida," King begins.
Indeed, South Florida is hallowed boxing ground. A young Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Auditorium on February 25, 1964, to win the heavyweight title. Boxing trainer Angelo Dundee's Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach trained 12 world champions. In fact, South Florida has such a reputation for boxing greatness that actor Mickey Rourke tried to jumpstart a fight career here on May 23, 1991. He beat Pompano Beach cruiserweight Steve Powell on points in a four-round bout. Rourke went on to fight seven more matches, his last in Davie in 1994.
Now, King is here to announce a new type of pugilism -- a "black-tie dinner fight" -- to be held May 1 at the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton's ballroom. It will be the first of its kind in boxing, the promoter explains. No stadium, no casino, no general admission. Tickets will go for $1,500 to $2,000, King says.
"It's going to be not an ordinary dinner fight but an extraordinary dinner fight," the promoter tells the audience. "It's going to have the lamb chops, the lobster tails, and the filet mignons and all the different kinds of hors d'oeuvres."
King waves his American flags, unable to control his excitement. The crowd laughs. "Only in America could a Don King happen," King says, raising his voice and wagging his right index finger as if he were a preacher energizing the faithful. "So that's why Old Glory may she ever wave. My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty!"
The flags wave. The crowd cheers.
"Woo!" King yells.
King's true reasons for bringing boxing to South Florida may have less to do with his love of the subtropics than his problems in New Jersey, where he has promoted dozens of fights in the past. The Garden State's Casino Control Commission in April banned King for at least one year after he refused to answer investigators' questions about his dealings with International Boxing Federation (IBF) President Robert W. Lee Sr., who is serving a 22-month federal sentence for accepting bribes from promoters to manipulate rankings.
It's a sign that there may finally be a crack in King's armor, which has protected him since 1973, when he promoted his first fight as a 40-year-old entrepreneur fresh out of prison for stomping a man to death on the streets of Cleveland. Earlier this year, King paid $7.5 million to boxer Terry Norris in restitution for swindled earnings, the largest settlement the promoter has ever paid. What's more, former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson continues to pursue a lawsuit alleging that King bilked him out of more than $100 million.
The problems extend even beyond the courtroom. A South Florida fight promoter has alleged that King violates federal boxing laws. And Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain recently reinvigorated his quest to reform boxing by pushing through the U.S. Senate a bill that would create a federal commission to police the historically corrupt sport's kingpins -- primarily King and Las Vegas promoter Bob Arum. "Promoters refuse to pay fighters who have put their lives on the line, local boxing commissions fail to ensure the protection of boxers' health and safety, boxers are contractually and financially exploited, and the list continues," McCain told the Senate commerce committee last year.
King is reticent about addressing the problems. When first approached by New Times on April 29, the promoter seemed eager to discuss them, wrapping his hulking arm around a reporter and patting his shoulder with his bejeweled right hand. "We're going to work together," he said boisterously. But, like many of King's gestures and much of his verbiage, that was an evasion. For more than a month, the promoter delayed and canceled interviews, citing business trips to Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and South Africa.