Longform

King's Tarnished Crown

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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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson