Boxing promoters have seldom been easy on the eyes or the ears. There has always been a flaccid, pulpy quality to their presence, and often it seemed that if one tried to reach out and grab whatever it is they represent there would only be air, or at best a gummy substance. They viewed words like loyalty, character and honor as cave animals might look upon sunlight; such things always surprised them. There have been various species (none of them black): fat and rumpled, thin and dandyish, even a woman who could stare a manager into marble. They have all shared a common ground: a sincere belief in the fathomless ignorance of humankind.
The state of the ring being what it is, the old independent promoters are not too visible anymore. Their robes have been passed on to men more compatible with a technological age and its uses in boxing. The newcomers wear Cardin suits, keep the French sauces off their ties and talk of millions in metallic voices. They know the law, taxes and politics and generally thrive in this land of the fee and home of the crave. They rarely use the first person—it is always "we"—and nothing can erase their plastic smiles, unless, perhaps, Switzerland should vanish like Atlantis. Most of all, they think in terms of the gigantic, look to seize the event that defies ordinary words and descriptions: Ali vs. Frazier, Ali vs. Foreman. They play a deadly game.
The thought of a black man in this sophisticated company is naive. Even in less complicated times, when promoters did not have to contend with the complexities of closed-circuit television, black meant only one thing: sweat. Blacks carried the buckets, cleaned the cuts and scrounged for work whenever a fight camp was setting up. That is changing. Blacks make decisions now, they even close deals, but none had cracked through to the center of power, to those plush offices where the packages are deftly pieced together. And then suddenly came a long, dark wind out of Ohio, and when everyone next looked, the landscape in boxing was not the same.
The man is Don King, big, black and hardly beautiful, a 50-carat setting of sparkling vulgarity and raw energy, a man who wants to swallow mountains, walk on oceans and sleep on clouds. He has no tenure as a maker of the spectacular in boxing; indeed he may never acquire any considering the seismographic needle that records the ring's power shifts. But for now he is the main man, the principal character behind the scenes of the Ali-Foreman fight in Za�re. It could be the richest prize in the history of the ring, and Don King snatched it right out from under the smirks of those who never have anything taken from them—especially by a black man without a club in his hand.
The whole ticket for Ali-Foreman comes to $11.5 million. Each fighter gets $5 million. The promotional funds come from two sources: Hemdale Leisure and Investment Ltd. of London and the government of Za�re. John Daly, a young Englishman, is president of Hemdale. King represents Video Techniques, the closed-circuit company hired by Hemdale and Za�re, and King's associates are two New York citizens named Barry Burnstein and Henry Schwartz. Hemdale is responsible for $1.5 million of the promotional nut. The balance is Za�re's through a Swiss firm called Risnelia, which has interests in Za�re. That is the official breakdown, but it is not official enough to satisfy rumors that range from insinuations of mob influence to some bankrolling from Robert Vesco or Bernie Cornfeld.
Even without those last two it is hard to think of a promotion that has turned up a more disparate group of characters. First there is Daly, a neat little man from the south of London who worked as a ship steward before helping to build Hemdale's name in movies and rock music. He is a careful man, full of the latest public-relations jargon and he fits his office quite well. Asked if he is relaxed, he says, "Yes—but alert, too." Then there are Burnstein and Schwartz, who remind one of a burlesque comedy act. Burnstein weighs more than 300 pounds and is capable of eating several loaves of Italian bread before the main course arrives. Schwartz is a bland, forever-smiling middle-aged engineer out of Brooklyn; both Schwartz and Burnstein could be boffo on television selling hairpieces. Throw in the black power in Za�re, and after the fight the group could suddenly be strangers to each other in a strange town.
In the middle of this, at the epicenter of the promotion, is Don King. He is about 6'4", with a Falstaffian belly and hair that seems to stand straight up as if electrified. There are usually several books on his coffee table that seem to have been read into tatters: the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare (he loves The Merchant of Venice
), the Bible and a work by Gibran. Open the Gibran book, and it tells you where he has been. Up at the top in his own hand, it reads: "Donald King...No. 6178." The number was his only identification for four years, when he was a guest in Ohio's biggest house. The rap was manslaughter. The way King tells it the victim was a friend who worked for him as a lay-off man in his numbers domain. "When he got out of prison," says King, "I bought him new clothes, teeth, but then he turned around and bit me. He ran off with some money, and then I wouldn't let him work till he made good. He jumped me from behind, and we went outside. His head hit the concrete...." King pauses. "He expired," he adds. "I have suffered great contrition since." He seems to like the sound of that sentence, for he is conscious of words, of lines that he can add to his repertoire.
A second-degree murder charge was knocked down to manslaughter by the judge, and King got 1-to-20 years. King did not appeal. He was scared of the legal system, afraid that if he lost he'd get 10 to 20. "So I went up, figuring I'd be paroled in 11 months," he says. The parole board thought otherwise. Influenced by King's reputation as the Lord of Numbers in Cleveland, the board let him stay for four years. They let him go in late 1971, and when he came outside he was barely intact, mentally and physically.
The refuge of the prison library saved him, he says. He was suddenly an explorer of a geography that he had never, known before. His world had been one of Cadillacs, a fat wallet with never less than a grand in it, little slips of paper that were his lifeblood, and always danger. When the white mobs tried to move in on his territory, his life hung by a thread; once they tried to take him out with a shotgun, and then they blew up his house. All that is behind him now as he looks toward a life within the law. "Where the real villains are," he smiles.
King was soon in boxing, as the manager of three fighters: Earnie Shavers, Jeff Merritt and Ray Anderson. Nothing was too good for them. He bought one of them a new car, and he was a dramatic force (often sitting with him until dawn) in Merritt's defeat of his drug problem. But King could be tough, too. Once he thought that Anderson had hinted of violence during a contract talk. "Ray, we from the same gutter," said King. "Let's not jive each other. You could pick up that phone and make me dead in a half hour. I can pick it up and have you dead in five minutes." Taking the pen from King, Anderson docilely signed.