By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
In a glass office building on Pines Boulevard in suburban Broward, 50-year-old lawyer Leon R. Margules kicks his feet up on the desk. "Don King doesn't like me," Margules says, throwing his right hand up softly in a "so what?" gesture. "He's been outspoken about it."
That's because Margules is more than a lawyer. He's also a boxing promoter. And he recently threw his legal prowess into the ring in an attempt to knock out King and win a better deal for one of his champions.
Margules' introduction to the business of boxing came in 1996, when he received a call from Luis de Cubas, the former handler of middleweight boxing great Roberto Duran. De Cubas said that he was managing Diosbelys Hurtado, an up-and-coming super-lightweight fighter who had recently defected from Cuba, and that he expected to pick up a few other fighters from the island. He needed a promoter. The resulting conversations inspired the attorney to form a new company, Team Freedom Promotions.
By 2001, Team Freedom was well-established. By then, Hurtado was the number-one World Boxing Association (WBA) contender in the 140-pound division. The Cuban-born fighter wanted a shot at Randall Bailey, the number-two contender, who was represented by Don King Productions. The winner would take the vacant WBA super-lightweight title.
In July 2001, Don King Productions announced a September 15 title fight between Bailey and Hurtado. The next month, Hurtado agreed to accept $60,000 for the match, but he didn't much like the contract that King later sent him. "The bout agreement as written would have bound me to four additional bouts to be promoted by Don King Productions," Hurtado said later. "Furthermore, the promotional agreement was to bind me to Don King Productions for five years and cut out my promoter."
After reviewing the contract, Hurtado and de Cubas removed provisions granting future promotional rights and signed, according to court records. All seemed well. But on September 7, 2001, eight days before the scheduled fight, King canceled the event, citing Hurtado's refusal to sign over promotional rights. Five months later, King announced a new title bout, this one between Bailey and Demetrio Ceballos, the fifth-ranked contender. The WBA sanctioned the fight, demonstrating King's clout with the sanctioning body.
Hurtado and Team Freedom refused to accept the technical knockout. On September 25, 2001, they sued King and the WBA in Broward County, alleging that the promoter's actions were not only underhanded but illegal. "Both the bout agreement and the promotional agreement were forms which contain provisions which are clear violations of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act," Hurtado told the court, referring to a 2000 federal law sponsored by Sen. McCain.
But before a Broward County judge could mediate, the WBA settled the matter, agreeing to sanction a championship fight in Puerto Rico between Bailey and Hurtado. The Team Freedom fighter then knocked out Bailey in seven rounds, winning the WBA super-lightweight belt without having to sign over future rights.
"King's the only promoter who can make an event out of you versus me," Margules says. "Some fighters swear by him. Some fighters hate him. Some fighters are horrified by him."
McCain, 66, is a lifelong fan of the ring. In fact, as a young man in the U.S. Naval Academy, he was a boxer, imitating the wily moves and lightning-fast feet of prolific welter- and middleweight champ Sugar Ray Robinson.
Now an aging political contrarian, the senator still loves the sweet science. Since 1998, he has worked aggressively to reform the sport -- and the business -- of boxing. That year, he sponsored the Ali Act, hoping to put an end to Don King. "Certain promoters have become quite skilled in duping boxers into signing long-term contracts that represent nothing more than a sophisticated version of indentured servitude," McCain told the Senate. The Ali Act failed to pass the House in 1998. But McCain kept at it, finally seeing his reforms signed into law in 2000.
Before the law passed, McCain invited King to testify before Congress. King declined. The war between the two men has simmered ever since. "When they made the Muhammad Ali Reform Act, they should have just named it the Don King Reform Act," says Goodman, of Don King Productions.
Today, largely because of what Nigel Collins, editor of Ring Magazine, calls the law's "toothless" quality, boxing remains a corrupt enterprise. Last year, McCain began a new attempt to nail King. "I receive calls from boxers who have worked tirelessly to escape poverty only to find themselves subject to the exploitation of the unscrupulous few who control the sport," McCain told the Senate commerce committee on February 5, 2003.
This past March 31, the Senate passed a McCain-sponsored bill that would create the U.S. Boxing Commission. If approved by the House, it would represent the first time a group sponsored by the federal government has governed a sport. "The government has enough on its hands trying to manage the country and take care of the states -- much less govern a sport like boxing," Goodman says. "You don't see the government stepping in to govern baseball. They don't govern football. Boxing is a free-enterprise sport, and it should stay that way."