Soon Shavers and Merritt were ranked heavyweights, and King was saying, "I ain't been in this business more than six or seven months and I'm the manager of the year already. My fighters will fight anybody. They're going to be like Ali and Joe Louis." Then, sounding like Cyrano, he added, "Don't bring us mortal men. Bring us giants!" Shavers and Merritt soon proved to be ever so mortal. Jerry Quarry knocked out Shavers last December, and Merritt flopped badly soon after. But it was the loss by Shavers that struck the first spark for the Ali-Foreman fight. King had dropped by to see matchmaker Teddy Brenner at Madison Square Garden. He wanted to know if he could bring Shavers back to New York. Brenner turned to King coldly and said, "Earnie who?" King recoiled, but not nearly as much as when Robert Arum took a slice out of his pride.
Arum is still at the top as a mover and shaker in boxing, but several months ago his power was absolute. The name of Arum evokes rage from some in the business, silence from others. King was neutral on the subject of Arum, that is until Arum garnisheed the purse from Shavers-Quarry in an effort to make sure he got his money from the closed-circuit rights in Ohio, which came to about $4,000. "I felt emasculated," says King. "The man did not even give me a chance to pay him." Add to this the whole business of King dealing with Arum for the TV rights to the second Ali-Frazier fight. King wanted the state of Ohio, and he put in a bid for $50,000. Arum termed it unrealistic, and King gave him another one for $75,000. King says that Arum assured him that Ohio was his. Several weeks passed and no contract arrived. King called Mike Malitz, Arum's associate. Malitz asserted that he knew nothing of any contract.
Finally it came down to Arum telling King that Malitz had accepted a bid for $80,000 and that he felt quite bad about it all. "He knew about the bid all the while," says King, "and he never had any intention of honoring mine. He gave the tight to a white man who'd never done boxing before." King was stung. He felt that he had been stripped of his dignity and he vowed to himself that he would have his day against Arum. King then decided he would make the Ali-Foreman fight, fly right into the teeth of Arum, who was Ali's lawyer as well as closed-circuit promoter.
King first went after Ali and Herbert Muhammad, who acts as Ali's manager. They listened to him, laughing all the way. King told Herbert what Arum had done to him, how a black man once more had been victimized by a white, how Arum couldn't care less about human beings, and he pulled out a then-recent magazine article to show how Arum had no feeling for Ali. Herbert scoffed, tried to defend Arum, but King pressed on. He summoned up the preachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Herbert's father. "You got to help the black man, that's what he teaches. You find a black man who can do the job, you got to let him do it before a white man, that's what he says." Herbert weakened. King then went with him to see Ali beat Frazier. Ali and Herbert drew closer to King, but they were still skeptical.
In New York, King intensified his pursuit. Herbert was afraid to make a move without Arum. King insisted that Arum could have no part of the promotion. Ali did not believe Foreman would fight him. "He's gonna wait till I'm too old," he said. King made steady progress, and Herbert finally relented. He and King shook hands. Herbert gave his word, which counts for everything in the black world. "I am ecstatic with delight!" King said. He then called partner Schwartz and told him he had Ali. Did Schwartz have Foreman, as he had indicated earlier? "Don," said Schwartz, "we don't have Foreman." King could not believe what he was hearing. He feared he was being measured for a fool's hat once more, and, according to his arrangement with Herbert, he had only one day to deliver Foreman's word to him.
King flew to California, where Foreman was training to fight Ken Norton in Venezuela. Foreman was in a bad mood. He was in the middle of a divorce. He felt that he had been taking a lot of bad advice and he knew for certain that his financial condition was chaotic. No, George Foreman would see nobody. King was in California only a few hours before he cornered Foreman in the parking lot outside of his hotel. The two of them walked around for two hours, and the mesmerizer King did not stop talking as he gave George a lecture on black history. Then he said, "George, I know people been screwin' you. But I tell you this. I'm going to give you a chance to make $5 million. Don't lose this chance." Foreman shot back, " Ali don't want to fight me." King said, "I can deliver him. I have his word."
King then stopped walking, pointed to the skin on his arm, and said, "This is my promotion. And I'm black. Here is a chance, a big chance to show all blacks that black men together can succeed like no one has ever believed we could." Foreman then turned to King, looked at him steadily for a long moment, and said, "I'm gonna give you an agreement. This is with me. I've never done this before, but I'm givin' you my trust. You got the fight." King had just made it under the wire.
Now King had the word of Ali and Foreman—but no signed contracts. "To the white way of thinking," says King, "you don't have a commitment without a written contract. But their word was better than a contract." The negotiations began. King went to Ali and Herbert and they signed; so did Foreman. The fighters were guaranteed $100,000 apiece right off, to be followed several days later with another hundred grand to each. It was here that the financial noose tightened around King. Promoter Jack Solomons of London reversed an earlier promise to deliver backing. Then Ladbroke, the gambling club, jumped at the proposition, only to back out at the last moment. It was John Daly of Hemdale, approached by Schwartz, who put up the first $200,000. Daly said he was seduced by the historic nature of the event.
King tried to round out the circle of financing. Paths were beaten from Wall Street to London to Dallas. Mike Burke of the Garden declined. Jerry Perenchio, who did the first Ali-Frazier fight, sent his lawyer over. He examined the contracts (which had then been signed) with a magnifying glass. But Perenchio backed off. "His ego was crushed," says King. "That's all it was. A black man had beaten him."
It was in February when the first breeze from Arum's bullwhip was felt. The money picture was still unstable, to say the least, and even Daly and his backers were nervous, if not wavering. The slightest hint of trouble might send Daly & Co. sprinting toward an exit. In Herbert Muhammad's Manhattan hotel room, trouble walked through the door in the form of Arum and Brenner. Present were Herbert, Ali and Ali's sidekick Bundini Brown. King also was there, but when he found out who was coming he slipped into the bedroom. With the door cracked, King listened to Arum and Brenner's pitch to get Ali to fight Quarry in May. If Ali fought Quarry before Foreman, it might mean the end of King's grand plans. Sweating, King listened to an $850,000 offer for Ali.