SI Vault
Mark Kram
September 15, 1975
Up from the gutter and reaching for stars comes ex-convict Don King, cast in the flamboyant mold of P. T. Barnum and Tex Rickard
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September 15, 1975

'there Ain't No Others Like Me'

Up from the gutter and reaching for stars comes ex-convict Don King, cast in the flamboyant mold of P. T. Barnum and Tex Rickard

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Malitz is a familiar face; he was long the right arm of Bob Arum. Malitz is a pro. He has no equal as an orchestrator of closed-circuit television. He knows where the money is, and he knows how to collect. King needs Malitz, but why Arum? "He has a brilliant legal mind," King says unconvincingly. The fact is that King has no choice but to cut Arum in on the promotion. The Manila connection, a personage named Thomas Oh, had dealt with Arum first, having been led to believe that Arum could deliver Ali. King had been trying to put the fight on in New York. Failing, he went to his sources in Manila, who did not have the clout of Thomas Oh. Finally, learning that Arum did not have Ali, Oh had to deal with King. Now Arum's only chance was to bring Thomas Oh and King together. They sat down, but King held out as long as possible, looking for money elsewhere, mainly because of Arum's presence in the deal. Herbert Muhammad was impatient. He wanted a contract from King, or else he was going with still another rival promoter, Jerry Perenchio.

King saved promotional face by hooking up with Thomas Oh at the last minute, so Arum, the man who used to "control" Ali in a promotional sense is once more in the thick of things. King fought long and hard to break Arum's grip, and here Arum is, back in the middle of the money, right in the middle of King's own operation, sitting on his shoulder like a wise and patient owl observing a field mouse who has gotten too big.

But a hired hand in King's office says, "There's no way King's going to get hurt. So far he's done the impossible for Herbert and Ali. If Herbert ever does sink him for a white man, he's going to look pretty bad after the way King's performed. And as far as this promotion is concerned, King won't be caught napping. The secret of closed circuit is who gets to the money first, and that's King now. King and Arum have absolutely nothing in common. King has his faults. He's too loud. His tired black line can wear you out. But he's a decent human being, generous and sensitive. One day he must have had his driver 20 hours. So he's going into his hotel, and then turns back and presses a $100 bill in the driver's hand. Another promoter would have borrowed $20 from the driver!"

The main person King must keep an eye on is himself. It is an old truth that the bigger the man, the easier the con. King's feathers must be preened, his ego stroked; grafters with larger plans usually jump at the chance, and then they become much more. Loyalty is almost nonexistent in boxing, but King has what little there is. He did not have to ask for it, or pay for it. It was given to him because he was strong and fair, and his followers saw him as a deliverer from the tyranny of Madison Square Garden. "He's made a mole out of Teddy Brenner, and he's put Mike Burke in his pocket," says Paddy Flood, a manager. "The Garden doesn't count anymore." But there are some who believe King's ego and his ambition have leaped out of hand. "He don't listen too good anymore," says another manager.

"It's all subjective," says King. "They don't understand that up here is like bein' in a war every day. I'm so tired most of the time, I goes home and falls into bed."

It is a Sunday afternoon. He sits beneath a large portrait of Ali. He has been talking about his early life, about the roaches in the tenements that he would spray furiously with bottles of white poison, and still they kept coming; about all the days he spent running to deliver squalling chickens from Hymie's Chicken Shack to the slaughterhouse knife; about his reign as the regent of the numbers in Cleveland; about Benny, one of his predecessors, who used to equip his numbers runners like an army preparing for winter invasion. "He used to buy a whole supply of galoshes and hats and overcoats and hand them out to his men," says King.

King is not wearing a shirt, and his massive chest is moist with sweat. It is a hot day in New York, and he does not like air conditioning. An angry scar crawls up his chest, a gift from his prison days when an incompetent doctor turned a simple cyst surgery into an awful mess. It is obvious, as he stretches and prowls throughout the room, that he likes the space of his office. King knows all about space, for it was only six years ago that he was put into the hole at the Ohio Penitentiary with only bread and water and a Bible and darkness; he read the Bible by light that slithered through cracks, and then he would use it as a pillow. "I had no trouble in prison, except for that one time a guy hit me in the mouth," says King. "They don't need much excuse to do anything they want to you."

King was in prison because he killed one of his runners in a fistfight, just an ordinary scrap. The memory of it haunts him and so do the four years he got, a severe sentence for the kind of charge that a lot of people have beaten over the years.

"I went up on manslaughter," says King, "and I expected to be paroled early. But they made me do four years in the joint. These parole flops cut the heart right out of me. My numbers reputation was held against me."

The details, the moments of prison life, are engraved in his mind: being led by foot chains off the bus; the 60-man floor at Marion Reformatory where nightmares came to life in sound, and King would stay awake as long as he could so he would not have to enter subconscious hell; the 6-by-12 cell, where they made you wash out of the toilet bowl, and the smell of sulphur in the water made you sick; the look on the face of his wife, who drove 400 miles every weekend to see him—and the riot.

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