"Nobody wanted to be up front before me," says King. "They all wanted to sit back, collect their money and play their dirty tricks on each other and even the ones who worked for them. But I'm out there, Jack. You can see me, and if you don't, then you're color-blind. My name's on everything. This ain't no No-Name Productions. It's Don King Productions. I perform. And when I don't perform, then I gotta go, too."
All right, let's look at the record over the 1� years King has been a front-rank promoter. First, there was Foreman vs. Ken Norton in Venezuela; give it a rating of two garbage cans. Norton was timid, King's partners behaved like sharks, and Foreman was his usual self; that is to say, his presence did not radiate. It was pure chaos. Next, Ali vs. Foreman in Za�re. Give it three stars. It was a brilliant victory for Ali, cerebrum over inept strength; it was genuinely exciting, and if the figures did not excite accountants, they did not disappoint them, either. On the negative side was government censorship, and again the attitude of some of King's associates, who tried (and in some cases managed) to cheat the press out of a charter-plane refund. King went on his own with Chuck Wepner vs. Ali, Foreman vs. the Infirm Five up in Toronto, Ron Lyle and Ali in Las Vegas, and Ali against the catatonic Joe Bugner in Malaysia.
The artistic merit of these four productions is dubious. "How did I know Foreman would go berserk in Toronto?" says King. "But I'll take the blame. It was a good idea, but I didn't think George would make a farce of it." The business aspect is brighter. Wepner took a loss, but television picked up the tab for the Toronto show and Lyle; Toronto held its own against Connors vs. Newcombe in the TV ratings, and the Lyle fight had an enormous pull in numbers. Bugner in Malaysia lost a few dollars, too. "What can you do?" says King. "Here's a big strong dude with the chance of a lifetime, and he stands in the ring like a 1,000-year-old mummy."
Essentially, King works for Muhammad Ali, the hottest property in the world, and for Herbert Muhammad, a hard realist who could not care if King's skin was Technicolor; when Herbert looks at a promoter, he sees only green. Herbert gave King his chance, but he would not stay with him if King didn't produce. Herbert never really believed King would deliver, yet he could not deny a black brother a chance to fail. But King did not fold, and as Herbert watched, King produced the figures, the action, the credibility, the continuity that Herbert demanded. "He's a hard taskmaster," says King, "but he's taught me much." King has survived.
The trio gets along well. Ali introduces King as "a businessman—and former gangster." Often bemused, Herbert looks on quietly from the background. He is sensitive to any nuance suggesting that King is the brains behind Ali. Recently, when Ali conned the press into thinking he was retiring, King said he was going to Malaysia to intercede, to use his influence on him. "What's this?" asked Herbert. "You got everybody thinkin' you're the manager of Ali. I'm paranoid 'bout that, Donald." Herbert tries to tone down the excessive side of King, and that is like trying to rein a runaway team of Clydesdales. The excesses, the props, have become King's style.
Harold Lloyd had his lensless glasses, W.C. Fields his voice and Clark Gable those ears. Several distinctions—familiar things that have become a part of his character—mark Don King. His hair looks like a bale of cotton candy just retrieved from a coal bin. He must hold the record for time spent in a tuxedo; he easily beats out Tony Martin, the recognized champion. Then, there is his jewelry. To look at King is to look into the sun or to gaze at a mobile Cartier's. On one finger is a meat block of a diamond ring that cost $30,000, on his pinky is a $3,000 number and on his wrist is a $9,000 watch. Add to all of this his voice and language, a thunderous roll that blends black slang with newspeak words like infrastructure, interface and input, a grandiloquent soliloquy that he will suddenly interrupt to summon up the ghosts of the Apostle Paul, Fran�ois Villon, the moonstruck Khalil Gibran and King's favorite, Shakespeare.
Now King, at age 44, has found a headquarters, an address to match the man. The suite of offices, including two boardrooms, is located on the 67th floor of the prestigious RCA Building, just two floors up from the famous Rainbow Room and close enough to the sky to grab a star. The rent is $60,000 a year, and the furniture cost him $40,000. The move by King shook those who follow such things, not to mention the fight mob, which was used to dealing in the back rooms of bars, or in five-story walk-ups. "I'm not walkin' up to the top of that place," said one manager. Clearly, the offices have done what King hoped they would do.
"They're all out there wonderin'," he says. "They're wonderin' what's that crazy nigger doin' up there. He must be doin' somethin'. The place has become a magnet."
King has made people pay attention, so much so that his reception room looks like the last lifeboat leaving the Titanic, and his messages run to 200 a day. He tries to see everyone, from inventors who have machines with strange powers or a solution to the aging process of the body, to the lowliest fight managers who look up and around the place as if they were in a spaceship—all of the schemers and dreamers looking for that peg to hang the world on. King spends an average of 15 hours a day in his office, some of it in the effort of staying atop office intrigue. And well he should, for he has made himself vulnerable.
King's high command is a good example of how things work in boxing promotion. For instance, one never lets a grudge get in the way of making money. Working with him are Henry Schwartz, Mike Malitz and, of all people, Bob Arum, once King's avowed enemy. Schwartz was King's former boss at Video Techniques. He first brought King on the scene, made him a vice-president and thought of him as "my black interface." Which, as King says now, was another way of saying "chump." But King could not be held on a leash, and soon he went on his own, leaving behind such disgraceful practices as extra charges for equipment; closed-circuit exhibitors were badly mauled by Video on the Za�re fight. "Schwartz has got nothin' to do with the business end now," says King, "but he's valuable when it comes to technical stuff like satellites."