King's Tarnished Crown
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.
From King's $7.8 million pink mansion in Manalapan, he can see the Atlantic Ocean, its azure kissing the sand of his backyard. It's an incredible view. But from every other vantage point, the promoter can see an ocean of -- to use a phrase he likes -- "trials and tribulations."
Ferdie Pacheco, another boxing legend, lives roughly 60 miles south of Don King in a five-bedroom home off Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. In the rear of the house, he walks barefoot through his art studio. On the walls hang dozens of canvases that he has painted depicting the glamour and brutality of boxing. A medical doctor trained at the University of Miami, Pacheco has been a part of the fight game for more than a half-century. In fact, his role as the physician and corner man for Muhammad Ali in the '70s and '80s earned him the nickname "The Fight Doctor."
Wearing a white guayabera and black slacks, the 75-year-old Pacheco looks tired, his body worn from decades of use. But his mind still turns incessantly, hinting at the man who won two Emmy Awards as a ringside commentator on NBC. He has changed since suffering a stroke two years ago, says his wife, Luisita, a petite former flamenco dancer who married Pacheco 33 years ago. "It was like the stroke woke up different parts of his brain," she says.
Since then, Pacheco says, he has dreamed in fiction, waking up every morning with an idea for a new short story, sometimes an entire novel. He's been quickly putting those tales to the page, and several have been published in La Gaceta, a newspaper in Tampa. He pulls out a printout of a soon-to-to-be-published book's cover. The title reads: Who Killed General Patton? "Now, c'mon, tell me," Pacheco says gruffly. "You're walking in the bookstore. You see this book. Would you not fucking buy it?"
But 30 years ago, before he had thought about becoming a painter or author, Pacheco met Don King. Sitting on his living room couch, Pacheco runs his right hand, open-palmed, across the top of his balding pate and smirks. "The first time I saw Don King, it made quite an impression," he says. "I mean, he's six-foot-four with his hair standing on end, and he was wearing an iridescent-orange Hong Kong suit. It was awful."
That was February 19, 1973, during a heavyweight bout between Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young. Pacheco, who was a spectator, had no way then of divining King's future. That February evening in Philadelphia, after Shavers beat Young to gain a shot at the title, King became boxing's first legitimate African-American promoter. That led to the famous Ali fights -- "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 and "The Thrilla in Manila" the following year -- then to June 28, 1997, when Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear.
During those years, Pacheco became, in a way, the sport's conscience. He advocated strident medical examinations of boxers prior to matches. He went on television and talked about the fighters as if they were giants whose talent was as beautiful as it was violent.
Although King and Pacheco live not far from each other, they rarely see each other. Pacheco, who wrote letters to Tyson regularly after the boxer was imprisoned in 1992 for raping beauty queen Desiree Washington, remains ambivalent about King's role in boxing. "King's gotta be on top of every boxer that comes in," Pacheco says. "If you've got a guy that comes in, King's gonna be there. He's gotta steal him, take him over. But give him credit. He didn't do it with a gun. People come to him. People say, 'Oh, well, if I'm going to get screwed, I might as well get screwed by Don King, because he brings in a lot of money, and maybe I'll get some of it.'
"Don King shaves," Pacheco continues. "[Boxing promoter] Chris Dundee once told me that you have to shave a boxer from his very first fight, even if you take five bucks, ten bucks off him. You have to get him used to the idea that he's not going to get what he signed for. That way, if he becomes a big fighter, he's used to your taking his money. It was like that long before Don King. He didn't change anything. He just took advantage of what was there."
Luisita sneaks up behind Pacheco and hoists a canvas in the air. Like much of Pacheco's artwork, the painting she holds uses bright reds and yellows to accent the sharp lines that provide a three-dimensional appearance. It shows the portrait of a black man, his eyes dark and smile broad, with hair that rises up like a crown. He looks regal -- eager and young and powerful and altogether different from the overweight, graying man of today. "Don King," Luisita says.
Pacheco glances down, blushing.
"King isn't any devil," Pacheco says later. "He's just a smart businessman in a land of dolts, in a land of cream puffs and crazies. In boxing, you're not working with the most intelligent people in the world. That's why he can manipulate people. King is like a shark. He can't stop or he'll drown."
Don King grew up in Cleveland, the fifth of six children. Although he was accepted into Case Western Reserve University following high school, he dropped out after one year to pursue his own enterprise: running numbers. It was a dangerous business. In 1954, when a man tried to rob King, the future fight promoter pulled out a gun and killed the would-be thief. A court later ruled the incident justifiable homicide. Thirteen years later, in 1967, King would take a second life, beating to death a man who owed him $600. Prosecutors convicted him of second-degree murder, but the judge inexplicably reduced the charge to manslaughter.
King served three years and 11 months in prison, and when he was released, he turned to boxing. From his start handling Shavers, King transformed himself into boxing's trendsetter, pioneering casino fights that freed promoters from television networks and having to fill stadiums.
The promoter's rise to success has been well-documented. King represented some of boxing's modern-day luminaries -- Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, among others -- and became the first to guarantee seven-figure purses for nonheavyweights. As King's stature and fortune grew, federal prosecutors became eager to take him down. But they repeatedly failed. In 1985, ten years after Ali knocked out Frazier in "The Thrilla in Manila," King beat a tax-evasion rap that landed his secretary in prison for four months. Ten years later, King was charged with nine counts of insurance fraud after Lloyd's of London alleged that he had illegally collected $350,000 for a canceled fight. The trial resulted in a hung jury.
King has been in and out of court his entire career. In fact, he's been sued more than 100 times by boxers, managers, promoters, and others. Most either failed or settled for nominal amounts. Even Ali couldn't KO his promoter. He sued in 1982, alleging that King had shortchanged him $1.2 million for a comeback fight against Larry Holmes. King successfully stalled the champion, settling for a briefcase filled with $50,000 in cash.
Another suit was filed by Tim Witherspoon, a promising heavyweight who in 1987 was in line to battle the undefeated Tyson. That year, instead of fighting "Iron Mike," Witherspoon sued for $25 million, alleging that King had cheated him out of earnings. The ensuing legal battle took four years, and since Witherspoon was under contract with King at the time, the promoter wouldn't give him any title fights. By the time Witherspoon won a $1 million judgment and could again be a contender, he was a has-been.
King spent most of the '80s living in Windsor, Ohio, about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, but in the early '90s, he began to use his fortune to buy property in Palm Beach County. In 1991, the promoter's wife, Henrietta, a portly woman with dark hair drawn tight to her scalp, bought a five-bedroom house in Delray Beach's Foxe Chase subdivision for $179,000. The next year, Henrietta bought a $200,000 home in the same subdivision and then a third in 1995 for $125,000. It appears the couple paid cash; Palm Beach County records do not indicate the existence of mortgages.
The Kings finally moved to Delray Beach in October 1993, living in the five-bedroom home Henrietta had purchased two years earlier. "He likes the weather, and he loves the fact that it's a slower pace," explains Bobby Goodman, vice president of boxing operations for Don King Productions.
Although Henrietta plays a significant role in King's life, the fight promoter has worked diligently to keep her out of the public eye. "You all didn't know anything about her, because I was smart enough not to get her involved in this rat race," the promoter said during a 1997 Boxing Hall of Fame induction speech for Sugar Ray Leonard.
But King has involved Henrietta in the finances of his South Florida properties. And for good reason. Homes in her name are protected from creditors. In March 1999, Henrietta purchased a 32,049-square-foot mansion in Manalapan for $7.8 million. Two months later, Henrietta Realty Corp., a company controlled by King's wife, bought the mansion next door for $6.5 million. Over the next two years, Henrietta sold her three houses in Delray Beach for a $566,000 profit and subsequently purchased a $212,000 home in Boynton Beach.
And then there are the cars. In a 1999 lawsuit, King listed 25 registered to Don King Productions in Florida, Nevada, and Ohio. They included a $28,000 1991 Bentley Turbo, two 1991 Lincoln Town Cars worth a combined $136,000, an $11,000 1976 Cadillac El Dorado, a $115,000 1991 Rolls Royce, and a 1995 Mercedes valued at $149,000. The promoter's company paid the annual $51,674 insurance premium.
King entered the local business arena in a public way in 1999 when he bought the vacant Palm Beach Jai-Alai Fronton in Magnolia Park. At the time, King said he hoped to turn the facility into a boxing arena and entertainment venue that would rival the casinos of Las Vegas. "You're going to have everybody who's anybody here," King told Casino Magazine shortly after purchasing the fronton. "I want to really make [Palm Beach] a world capital of sports and entertainment."
Instead, the fronton became a money pit. King bought it for $6.25 million. It has continued to depreciate and is now worth $5.4 million. King recently tried to persuade the Florida Marlins to buy it and relocate to Palm Beach County. "I'm trying to give them a home, because they're homeless, and I have such empathy for homeless people, coming from the downtrodden," King commented to New Times.
The Marlins have yet to entertain King's offer publicly.
"I got 54 acres of land free and clear, some of the most picturesque land in South Florida," King added. "From I-95, you can see it. Everybody can see it. Right there, we can build a 45,000-seat retractable-roof stadium, and everyone I know will jump in to help do this. But we find ourselves knocked out, blocked at the door, with one extension after another. But God bless America. That's the process."
Another American process is litigation. King knows that fact all too well.
Seven years ago, Judd Burstein, an ambitious New York litigator whose clients have included Lennox Lewis and Donald Trump, sued King. He represented three-time World Boxing Conference (WBC) super-welterweight champ Terry Norris, who alleged that the promoter had stolen money from him throughout his career.
Once filed, the Norris lawsuit threatened to deal a body blow to King and sparked an international war of words. At first, it seemed the lawsuit had slim chance. History was against Norris.
Burstein alleged in court that King conspired with Norris' manager, Joe Sayatovich, to shave money from the fighter's purses. Last December, Norris finally had his day in court. At the end of closing arguments, a New York jury asked the judge for a calculator and a magnifying glass. Worried that the court might enter a judgment close to the $61.5 million claim, King offered to settle for $7.5 million.
Burstein accepted the settlement as a victory. "People do not pay $7.5 million if they have not done anything wrong," he said to reporters outside the courtroom. "Don King is a cancer in the sport of boxing. Today's settlement provided boxing with a dose of chemotherapy."
Later, Burstein tells New Times: "It sends a message that if boxers are willing to persevere, they too can get justice. Any time somebody has to pay $7.5 million, it's a little more than a crack in the armor."
The relationship between King and Burstein has become hostile. On July 4, 2003, the New York Daily News quoted King as calling Burstein a "shyster lawyer."
Burstein responded in interviews with two boxing websites. In one of them, the lawyer commented: "The term 'shyster lawyer' when used in connection with a Jewish lawyer is designed to provoke anti-Semitic feeling... He is quite plainly an anti-Semite."
King retaliated by filing a slander lawsuit in England; it has yet to be decided. "It unquestionably shows Don King's extraordinary hypocrisy," Burstein comments. "He keeps shouting 'Only in America' and waving an American flag and then shows no regard for the American Constitution. He decided to sue an American who made a statement to an American website about Don King, an American citizen, in England, because there's no First Amendment protection there."
In spring 2003, another potential threat to Don King's empire came to a head in South Florida. Although the details are vague, a lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County on July 3, 2003, describes a violent dispute between the promoter and Mike Tyson.
On May 3, 2003, according to the suit, King sat behind the wheel of one of his two dozen cars and headed toward the Boca Raton airport. Accompanying the promoter in another vehicle was bodyguard Isadore "Izzy" Philip Bolton. The two men were preparing to pick up Tyson and his entourage. Tyson and a friend entered King's car. The rest of the party, whose size isn't specified in court papers, traveled with Bolton.
The two cars headed south on Interstate 95. Bolton was in the lead. Not long after passing Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, Bolton looked in his mirror and noticed that King had fallen behind. He doubled back. Near the Griffin Road exit, Bolton saw Tyson standing in the median. He pulled alongside. Sitting in the car, Bolton asked the heavyweight fighter to return to King's car. Tyson allegedly responded by slugging the bodyguard twice in the face, fracturing the bone below his left eye.
What started the battle is unclear. King and the heavyweight weren't on the best terms. Since Tyson's 1995 release from prison, the promoter had reportedly made $113 million off the crazed bruiser while promoting six fights at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Most of that money was rightfully Tyson's, the boxer alleged in a 1998 lawsuit filed in federal court in New York.
Two months after the freeway incident, Bolton sued Tyson seeking $15,000, plus attorney's fees, to compensate for the "resulting pain and suffering" and the "loss of the capacity for the enjoyment of life," among other things. So far, Bolton has collected nothing. (Neither Bolton nor Tyson could be reached for comment.)
In August 2003, Tyson declared bankruptcy, claiming that he had squandered his fortune. But Bolton could well make out if Tyson can win his $100 million lawsuit against the fight promoter. "The Tyson case is very strong," Burstein says. "Don King has a very good habit of triple-talking, saying one thing and giving a provision for something else." In fact, if successful, the Tyson case could potentially put an end to King's promotional career.
"I'm not sure that Don King has $100 million in cash," comments Nigel Collins, editor of Ring Magazine.
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."
Goodman sighs, noticeably aggravated by the topic. "McCain likes to see his name in the papers," he continues. "Going after Don King does that."
Had such a governing body been in place when the dispute over Hurtado's title shot arose, Margules says, it would have simply suspended King. "A national commission would bring more accountability to the business side of the sport," Margules says. It would also prevent promoters such as King from moving fights to, say, Florida while banned in another state. A national commission could suspend a promoter nationwide, Teflon armor be damned.
"When promoters like Don King and Bob Arum are no longer around, there's going to be a shaking out," says New York attorney Burstein. "They've ruled boxing for the last 30 or 35 years. When there's a change to the new guard, which is going to have to come at some point, the sport will change dramatically. Boxing is great, but it's become less mainstream. The national commission is imperative to restoring integrity."
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