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Career Arc: The Rock

The End and Don King

The crumbling of an American icon

In the back room of Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, Don King picked at a pastrami sandwich with his fingers. He had just been asked a question about his electric hair and, for the first time in a day filled with radio and television interviews, King paused before he spoke. A cautious look crept over his graying eyes. As he silently deliberated between several well-worn origin myths about the height of that hair, King tweezed a scrap of pastrami between two well-manicured fingernails and dragged the meat through a puddle of deli mustard. “My hair is God’s aura,” King explained while chewing. “Everything went up when I got home from the penitentiary. One night I went to lie down next to my wife and my hair started popping and uncurling all on its own — ping, ping, ping, ping! I knew that it was God telling me to stay on the righteous path so he could one day pull me up to be there with him.”

King smiled, but not the smile you remember. That smile — the screwed-on mask of boundless optimism — had been on full display throughout this week of promotions, but at the Carnegie, King had finally succumbed to exhaustion. “When I’m doing good, the hair goes straight up,” King said, a bit wearily. “Now that things are difficult, the hair has gotten a little flatter.”

I had been trailing Don King for two weeks between Boca Raton, Florida, and now New York City. This was the closest he had come to admitting that things just weren’t what they used to be. In three days’ time, Tavoris “Thunder” Cloud, King’s last fighter of any consequence, would step into the ring against Bernard Hopkins at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The story of the fight should have been about the 48-year-old Hopkins and his quest to become the oldest champion in boxing history. But because Don King was involved, the focus during fight week had been on Don King and his uncertain future. If Cloud lost to Hopkins — especially in a boring way — his short career as an opponent in televised events would be put in serious jeopardy and King would have very little left to promote. In a pre-fight interview, Hopkins, who, like so many other fighters, had worked with King before an inevitable falling-out, had this to say about his old promoter: “What a way to put the last nail in the coffin. Who thought it would be me that would shut him down?”

At the Carnegie, nobody was talking much about Tavoris Cloud or Bernard Hopkins or the impending end of Don King Promotions. King had come to one of his favorite New York landmarks to enjoy a quiet lunch with three longtime employees. They talked, mostly, about music and old times in Manhattan, the city where King lived and worked during the majority of his reign at the top of boxing. The conversation eventually turned to James Brown. Don King, still digging his fingers into his sandwich, muttered, “James Brown died owing me $50,000. But I loved James Brown.”

♦♦♦

Don King no longer sits on boxing’s throne, but he has nostalgia by the balls. Fights are best enjoyed through old film, which means that if you want to watch Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes or Mike Tyson or Julio Cesar Chavez or Evander Holyfield raise his arms in triumph at the end of a fight, you’re also going to see the big man with the bigger hair climbing in through the ropes. You see him in the Philippines in 1975, hovering over a near-death Muhammad Ali after the Thrilla in Manila. You see him in Japan, 15 years later, looking more or less like the same man, crowding in on a battered and finally defeated Mike Tyson. He has negotiated deals with Mobutu Sese Seko and counted Hugo Chavez as a personal friend. Nobody alive, save some presidents, has taken more photos with world leaders and celebrities. As a boxing fan growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s, I cannot remember a single fight that didn’t end with Don King in the ring, cigar clamped between his teeth. He is one of those big American men who distort our collective memory — I’m sure King’s rival Bob Arum promoted some of the fights I watched as a kid, but when I think of the final bell, I still see the menacing hulk of Don King smiling for the cameras.

So it’s a little sad to sit across from Don King at the Carnegie Deli and see the tourists line up at our table to take a photo with him, and to overhear them talk about the man in the past tense as if he were already dead. Not because Don King deserves our sympathy, but because it’s always jarring to see a once-robust American institution fall into disrepair and decay. The cuffs on King’s “Only in America” denim jacket — the same coat he wore to the Thrilla in Manila — are badly frayed. He sometimes stumbles over his words. There’s a distinct sag in his once-static face. Don King never thought he would live past 50. He is 81 years old now and has been in the public’s eye since the early ’70s.

Don King was born in Cleveland in 1931 and grew up in the city’s numbers racket, a lottery-style game that King describes as “hope for people who don’t have hope.” As a kid he wanted to be Clarence Darrow, and set himself up to study law at Kent State University. The summer before he was to matriculate, King’s older brother Connie recruited him to “take numbers,” whereby the younger King would walk around Cleveland’s black neighborhoods and record $1 lottery-style bets. Players would submit a three-digit number to King, who was somehow able to keep track of everything in his head. At the end of the business day, if a player’s number matched up with the middle three digits in a predetermined market quote, he or she would win somewhere around $600. King’s phenomenal memory and his talent for talking made him a natural at the numbers game, and before too long he started his own production.

Despite his involvement in the mob-controlled rackets, King managed to mostly avoid legal problems during his youth. But on December 2, 1954, King shot and killed Hillary Brown after Brown and two associates tried to rob one of King’s gambling houses in Cleveland. The judge in the case decided that King had acted in self-defense and declared the act a justifiable homicide. King was released and continued running numbers.

Over the next 12 years, King continued to grow his empire and took over ownership of several businesses in Cleveland, including the Corner Tavern, a music joint that has since been enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The law eventually caught up to him again. On April 20, 1966, King stomped a former employee named Sam Garrett to death over a $600 debt. In a trial overrun with witness tampering and bizarre judicial motions, King was eventually convicted on a reduced first-degree manslaughter charge. “When they sentenced me,” King told me, “they said it was a probationary shock. Like I would go in and come out quickly and they hoped that the experience of the penitentiary would shock me into going straight. Turns out they kept me in there for four years.”

King says he divides his life into two categories — Before the Penitentiary and After the Penitentiary. There is no doubt that his time in prison expanded King’s ambitions. He read voraciously, and by the time he got out he had built up the lexicon of quotations and malapropisms that would turn him into one of the great talkers of his time.

Within a year of his release, Don King was putting together his first fight. With the help of Lloyd “Mr. Personality” Price, a close musician friend of King’s from the Corner Tavern, King convinced Muhammad Ali to come to Cleveland to put on a boxing exhibition to help save a black hospital from going under. As part of the night’s festivities, King put on a concert featuring Marvin Gaye, Lou Rawls, and Wilson Pickett. The Don King template for big-time promotions was set — a superstar boxer, some vague social mission, and a whole lot of great music. He also found his cash cow in Ali, and although Ali’s camp never fully trusted Don King, the champ was impressed by the new promoter’s grand visions. In 1973, King attended the George Foreman–Joe Frazier title bout in Kingston, Jamaica. King, as his own legend goes, rode to the fight in Frazier’s limousine, and after Frazier got knocked out in the second round, King jumped into the ring, hugged Foreman, and left Jamaica with the new champ. By 1974, King’s ambition and hustle produced the Rumble in the Jungle, arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century. Everything else — the notoriety, the Thrilla in Manila, the hundreds of millions of dollars, the multiple investigations by Interpol and the FBI and CIA, the dozens of lawsuits, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Tito Trinidad — came as a direct result of King pulling off the impossible in Zaire. An ex-con numbers runner, three years removed from the penitentiary, somehow brokered deals with Mobutu Sese Seko, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, James Brown, the country of Liberia, Barclays Bank of London, and several other operations that could have killed a fight that was perpetually in danger of being canceled or moved back to the United States.

But none of that — the killings, the jail time, the extraordinary hustle — matters much when it comes to Don King’s legacy. In the eyes of the public, Don King is a monster because he stole from his fighters. After Muhammad Ali’s brutal loss to Larry Holmes on October 2, 1980, King shortchanged Ali about $1.2 million of an $8 million guaranteed payout. While Ali was laid up in Los Angeles, his career finally dead and buried, King coerced Jeremiah Shabazz, one of Ali’s trusted associates, to bring the champ a suitcase filled with $50,000 and a contract that not only released the right to pursue any further punitive damages, but also gave King the option to promote any of Ali’s future fights. Ali, wearied and confused, signed the contract and took the briefcase. King repeated this process with nearly every fighter he worked with in the ’70s and throughout the ’80s. In doing so, he violated Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, and a long list of other fighters who came up, like King, from impoverished backgrounds to claim glory found “Only in America!”

King speaks of himself as a transformative figure, someone who through sheer intellect, hard work, and determination overcame racism, both overt and institutional, and brought millions of dollars and international adulation to the young black men he promoted. All of this is undeniably true. But Don King’s PR problem is that we don’t see him as a civil-rights pioneer. We see him as a gangster — and as a gangster, he must adhere to the strict ethics of a gangster movie. He stole, without a hint of mercy or contrition, from his own people.

There is no forgiveness for the hypocritical gangster.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails at least he fails while daring greatly, so that this place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
 
— Theodore Roosevelt

 
As King recited the quote above, he slapped excitedly at my wrist. Certain words deserved a certain emphasis, and Don King delivered them by slapping me a little harder. “Valiantly” was one of those words. So were “worthy,” “greatly,” and, of course, “victory.” We were standing in the museum-like hallways of Don King Productions in Florida. The Roosevelt quote, printed out in neat, uniform calligraphy, hung directly underneath a letter from Jimmy Carter and the 1980 Democratic National Convention that thanked Don King for his work as “the cornerstone of the Mideast Treaty between Egypt and Israel.” After King finished his recitation, he looked down at me, his face lifting up into one hellish grin, and said, “You and I are colored people and therefore we operate at a psychic handicap. White people, institutionally, have made us believe that we cannot achieve what we, in our hearts, know we can achieve.”

I shrugged and tried to suppress a smile. King caught me slipping and squawked with laughter.

“But real life, boy, is stranger than fiction,” he yelled. “Who could ever dream up a life like mine? I still can’t believe it! I wake up every morning and I’m shocked that I’m alive.”

Don King Productions moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan down to South Florida in the late ’80s. Today, King works out of a two-story office building in Deerfield Beach. Out the back, you’ll find a low-slung stretch of I-95 and a slow line of Buicks heading up to Boca Raton. Out the front, it’s pure Florida office park — smelly tropical trees, overgrown lawns, all of which cast an eerie, green glow on Don King’s two-tone blue-and-stainless-steel Rolls-Royce Phantom. Like all tropical places, Don King Productions is in a state of decay — the carpets have picked up the mold that can only be kept out with the greatest vigilance in South Florida. The plants droop. Throughout the late ’90s and early aughts, when King promoted Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Hasim Rahman, and a host of other big-name fighters, somewhere around 50 employees worked at DKP. Today, no more than 10 of King’s longtime advisers and employees remain.

We moved on down a hallway filled with framed photographs. “That’s the former president of Pepsi,” King reported, pointing at a black-and-white photo of himself with four people in businesswear. “We did the biggest endorsement deal in the history of America together.” The next photo was of the Jackson Five. “That’s from the Victory tour,” King explained, referring to the 1984 worldwide showcase that brought in a reported $75 million. “We set the record for the most money ever made on a tour.” King then pointed at the image at the end of the hallway and smirked. “And that’s Mobutu Sese Seko.”

Don King’s office takes up two large rooms on the second floor. Memorabilia has been crowded onto every available surface — in one corner, you’ll find a LeRoy Neiman painting collection. In another, you’ll find a truly unusual number of swords from every culture around the world. At a desk littered with bags of candy and gum-ball dispensers, Don King took phone calls and signed contracts for an upcoming fight he wanted to put on in Germany. During pauses in his work, he talked to me about what should have been a variety of different subjects. But when you’re talking to Don King, all discussions quickly funnel back down to what he calls “the color barrier.” Our talks almost always returned to the history of racism, and it struck me as strange that a man whose work ethic and unfailing optimism placed him so squarely in the present seemed to only be concerned with the past.

He rambled on about Frederick Douglass and Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. and Simon Wiesenthal and Porfirio Diaz and Shimon Peres. All these anecdotes and references seemed strangely rehearsed — propelled by a meandering yet insistent boredom. Like many men in their 80s, King seemed to be talking mostly because he could not believe the young man sitting across the desk was so dumb. By way of example, during our first interview, King lectured for 10 straight minutes about Joseph Goebbels and Nazi propaganda. By the time it was over, I had already forgotten the question that launched this particular history lesson. Upon review, I had asked him something about Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and the new Barclays Center.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I heard King talk about Goebbels and Willie Lynch and the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson and W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and dozens of other historical people, events, and phrases. When I read books and articles about King, some written as far back as 20 years ago, I’d find those same phrases, almost verbatim. In the past, several boxing writers would make fun of King for mispronouncing the names of prominent philosophers or misquoting famous passages in their work. Having spent enough time with him to watch the repetition of these mistakes (my favorite example: “Beware the Ids of March, young man! Beware the Ids of March!”), it’s ludicrous to believe that Don King’s famous malapropisms are unintentional.

For Don King, everything is strategy and payback. And if someone thinks King is a buffoon because he mispronounces “Nietzsche,” the real buffoon will pay at the negotiating table. King might mispronounce Sun Tzu and misquote him, but he sure as hell understands The Art of War better than anyone who might point out his mistakes.

“There’s nothing I love more in life than turning around a bigot,” King told me repeatedly. I took him at his word on this statement, not because I thought Don King relished the opportunity to teach people about the history of Willie Lynch or Joseph Goebbels, but because I believed that he takes outsize pleasure in outsmarting someone who has underestimated him because of who he used to be — a black numbers runner from the streets of Cleveland. King told me that when he arrived in New York in the mid-’70s, he made sure everyone in town knew that he was an ex-con. “They’ll always underestimate you for who you are,” he said, “and then they’ll try to use all that against you. So you’ve got to use that to your benefit, because they’re never going to change.”

This strategic intelligence extends to every part of King’s life. He does not answer questions as much as he circles and hypnotizes them to the point of exhaustion, but in our later interactions, he could quote back, verbatim, questions I had asked him several days before. He could recall the specific numbers that people in his old neighborhood in Cleveland would play back in the 1950s. He could recite almost any line of any contract that he had ever signed. When Norman Mailer wrote about meeting King in Zaire, he portrayed King as a self-proclaimed genius who sprayed every negotiable issue with a cloud of fast-talking bullshit. In his account of the Rumble in the Jungle, Mailer wrote, “It would be hard to argue that King was not a genius.” This is undeniably true. Don King, even at 81, possesses the sort of bullying intellect that lets you know, almost immediately, that you will never, ever outsmart him.

♦♦♦

Four days before Cloud vs. Hopkins, King arrived at Barclays Center for the last press conference. He had been in Panama the night before, setting up the details of a fight he wanted to hold in Russia in the upcoming months. His flight into New York had arrived at four in the morning. When he saw me in the open-air concourse in front of Barclays, King yelled, “Jay, baby! I want you to listen up because I was so saddened to hear about the death of my dear friend, mi hermano Hugo Chavez last night. I first met Chavez when he was a lieutenant in the Venezuelan army in 1971. He was my security when we opened the Poliedro de Caracas!”1

Once inside, King held court with the 20 or so reporters who had shown up. He talked to anyone who would listen about Chavez and all the medical care he gave to the poor mountain people of Venezuela. A vaguely European reporter shoved a camera in King’s face and asked, “Is your story possible in any other country?” King took the bait and bellowed, “Only in America!”

It had been a while since anyone had seen Don King at one of these things, especially in a city like New York. Before Cloud, King’s last notable fighter was Devon Alexander, whose last two fights with Don King Productions had been held at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and at the Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri. Onstage in front of an audience of about 50, King sang the praises of New York City — “The city so great, they named it twice!” — and talked about the importance of promoting the spirit of the people, but he did not talk very much about Tavoris Cloud. Earlier in the week, I talked to Cloud at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. When he realized that all my questions were going to be about Don King, Cloud threw his head back and chuckled sarcastically. He then gave one minute of boilerplate about Don King’s greatest hits. When asked if he felt any pressure for being Don King’s last hope, Cloud said, “Nobody’s going to ever stop Don King from promoting, man.”

At the press conference at Barclays, Cloud spoke softly but firmly about his confidence heading into the fight. Like so many other fighters, Cloud carries himself with an almost genteel modesty. He does not crave any spotlight. It’s not even clear whether he enjoys boxing, or simply sees it as a way to support his growing family. As Cloud spoke unsteadily into the microphone, King punctuated the end of each sentence with a “Yes!” or a “That’s right!” or a “Thunder and Lightning Cloud!” Earlier, King had rambled on about Tito Trinidad’s post-9/11 fight against Bernard Hopkins and how Tito had not really been in the proper state of mind when he entered the ring. He then talked about a possible rematch between Trinidad, who is 40, and Oscar De La Hoya. It was unclear if King was talking about the past or if he was proposing Trinidad–De La Hoya II for the immediate future, but if you want to know how far Don King has fallen, consider that in his first meaningful press conference in years, he talked, mostly, about the “Fight of the [Last] Millennium.”

The assembled press mostly chuckled at King’s outbursts and asked him questions about the past. But there was a hard edge to their laughter. In the past, these same journalists would have either cowered or steeled their nerves for a confrontation over a question that Don King didn’t want to answer. The menace and the power have left Don King — to most people these days, he’s little more than a rap sheet and a haircut. Old American icons should never play their younger selves in public. When the aura fades, the seams start to show. And Don King, with his bombast, his circuitous way of talking, and his faded set of affectations, is nothing but seams.

Most people will look at the black and believe that he is what they say he is — lazy, lethargic, can’t rise to the occasion, all lies, cheat and steal, shiftless, worthless, no good, no account, he’s a heathen and a savage.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “No lie can live forever.”

I’m a promoter of the people, by the people, and for the people, and my magic lies in my people ties.

Yesterday’s nobody becomes today’s somebody.

You must be able to deal with what is real.

How long? Not long!

They blamed me for the Lindbergh kidnapping, World War II, the invasion of Poland, they made me the villain and tried to tarnish my reputation.

I’m a promoter of peace, unanimity and zeal, constricting negativism to its narrowest form and working for the betterment of mankind.

♦♦♦

When asked a direct question, especially one about money, Don King hems dozens of these phrases together into a dazzling yet utterly meaningless tapestry of pretty much everything that has ever happened in the history of the world. By the time he’s done quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Frederick Douglass and William Cullen Bryant, you’re so confused and exhausted that you’re willing to accept any statement that’s not tied to a historic event or quotation. It’s a performance worthy of a Borges story — Don King is one of those rare orators who understands the inverse value of words, whereby the most momentous phrases, especially those that have been stamped by history, can stand in for straight bullshit. There was always a bullying element to King’s plundering of history. In the past, as long as King talked about matters of political importance at a loud volume — especially those that make white people uncomfortable — nobody would cut him off and redirect him to the matter at hand. At the height of his considerable powers in the ’80s and ’90s, King used these types of historic words to help convince young black fighters to sign with the only black promoter in the game. Now, they’re mostly used as a diversionary tactic, a way to duck questions about Ali, the briefcase, and Mike Tyson’s expense accounts.

It’s almost as if the man dislikes the act of giving a straight answer so much that he’s figured out a way to play a puzzle game that would make Baudrillard swoon. There’s a library of puffed-up phrases stored inside Don King’s head and if you take Quotation 1.4 and match it with Historic Event B7 and then transition over to Quotation 2.17, you’ll get something like Don King’s explanation for why he wants to put an upcoming second-tier fight in Russia.

“I have a special affinity for the Russian people for their resilience. In World War II they stood up and fought and endured the inclement weather, and that was a big part of their victory against the Nazis in Stalingrad and Moscow, and that’s something I love about our people, how they resist the oppression and no matter what they say or do they fight and stand up for what they believe in — liberty and freedom and justice and equality — and even if the goal is not fulfilled, you’ll find me there with the downtrodden and the underprivileged. Every country I go to I do the same thing. I’m a promoter of the people, for the people, and by the people. My magic lies in my people ties.”

This is maddening, I know. But if you listen to King long enough, you’ll start to trace out patterns that hint at an underlying system of beliefs. Now, it’s possible that the symmetries are illusions and nobody will ever know, possibly not even Don King himself, just how much he believes in his own stated politics. But it goes something like this: Over the course of Don King’s 81 years, the problem of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the color line” has gone underground. What used to be a simple proposition — an oppressed people fighting against their oppressors — has gone institutional. Black people, according to King, still live their lives at a distinct handicap, and whenever they try to accomplish anything the white men will discredit them and try to destroy them. King, of course, uses his own life as the great example of this and argues that before his time, boxing was controlled by mobsters like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, who fixed bouts and stole much more from fighters than Don King ever did. He points out that his longtime rival Bob Arum has been sued by fighters and managers and pretty much everyone else who came in contact with him.

Today, Don King stands in for every shady backroom deal, every shortchanged interaction, and every time a greedy promoter pushes a shot fighter into the ring to get pummeled to death. In the business of boxing, everyone is a hypocrite and a liar, but in the eyes of the public, Don King is the only hypocrite and the only liar.

♦♦♦

Notorious men make for bad relics. Don King was vilified throughout his three decades on top, but like all self-made men, his power stood in as its own rebuttal. You didn’t need to wonder if a black man could rise to the top of boxing, because Don King was there. But now that the avenues of influence built up over a career have been shut down, Don King has started thinking about what it all might have meant. In his office, he began talking about the “evening of his career” and how he wanted to help poor white people understand that the black man was not the enemy. After he finished his usual 10-minute response, I asked him a follow-up question: “Don, now that you’re in your last act—”

“Last act?” he bellowed. “I said evening, not last act!” He turned to one of his advisers, who had come into the room carrying an armload of paperwork. “This motherfucker’s trying to bury me,” King said, incredulously, “and I ain’t even close to be done yet!”

If King wants to reflect on the past during this, the evening of his career, he only has to look around his offices at Don King Productions, where he has surrounded himself not only with memorabilia, but also with the same people who helped him rise to the top. Dana Jamison, King’s vice-president of operations, has worked with King for 27 years. His personal photographer has been around for two decades. Of all the people I met associated with Don King, only Tavoris Cloud was under the age of 40. King’s productions feel even older and more out of date. While waiting for him to show up back at the headquarters of Don King Productions, I squeezed into a long-since-abandoned cubicle, careful not to disturb an ancient Brother typewriter and a stack of press releases and legal documents from the late ’90s. In the lobby, there was an old movie theater popcorn machine stamped with Don King’s emblem. One of his employees told me that in the ’90s, that machine had pumped the smell of fresh popcorn into the vents of the building. He couldn’t remember the last time it had been turned on. Out back in a warehouse behind the offices, more than 20,000 square feet of King’s possessions — mostly ornate furniture and towering bronze statues of lions — gathered dust along with seven of King’s cars. Earlier this month, Jessica Lussenhop of the Riverfront Times published an excellent article about King’s ongoing legal battle with St. Louis boxer Ryan Coyne, a conflict that started in November 2012. If you go to donking.com today, you will find a story titled “Undefeated National Champion Boxer Ryan Coyne Meets Cardinals Three-Time MVP Albert Pujols.”

But nothing about Don King feels older than those interchangeable phrases, quotations, and exclamations that make up his public persona. His is a civil-rights gospel straight out of 1974 — everything King talks about when it comes to race in this country has since been co-opted and turned inert. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the phrase “playing the race card” was coined by someone who wanted to figure out a way to shut up Don King.) It’s a commonly held belief among boxing people that King ran boxing with the same exact ruthless street ethic that carried him to the top of Cleveland’s numbers game, and that he is categorically incapable of change. This might very well be true. But that’s not why every conversation with Don King inevitably circles back to Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois. King talks about those great men because he believes himself to be in their company as a pioneer for his people.

In an otherwise scathing book about King’s career in boxing titled The Life and Crimes of Don King, investigative reporter Jack Newfield wrote, “The great tragedy is that if Don King had gone straight after [the Rumble in the Jungle], he could have become one of the great black role models in contemporary history. He could have been the black Horatio Alger hero. King could have become a universal inspiration, a black man given a second chance, who rose from prison to the pinnacle of entrepreneurship by hard work, desperado bravado, grand ambition, evangelical salesmanship and by the mean standards of boxing — merit.”

I asked King on several occasions if he saw himself as a civil-rights hero. It took five tries, but he finally gave me something of a straight answer. We were riding in a limo down Second Avenue in Manhattan. King had just accompanied Tavoris Cloud for an appearance on Good Day New York. In the green room of the Fox studios in the Upper East Side, King ran into the actor Terrence Howard. “They should create an Oscar category for black actors who play Uncle Toms,” King said to Howard. “And the award should be given to Samuel L. Jackson for his role in Django Unchained.” Once Cloud and King got on the air, the show’s host asked King about his relationship with Mike Tyson. King gave his standard answer to all questions about Tyson and claimed that Tyson loved King and said those horrible things only because he had been conditioned to believe that the only way a black man could get attention in America was to denigrate another black man. King then started yelling about Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and ended the interview by waving a miniature Venezuelan flag and yelling some more about Hugo Chavez. The segment did little to promote Cloud or the fight, but the rare spotlight had put King in a good mood. He talked to me about his life in Florida, a place he calls “God’s waiting room,” and reiterated that he would retire only when he was dead. I wondered aloud whether King saw himself as a transformative figure, if he believed that his accomplishments could serve as inspiration for the breaking down of his despised color barrier. “They’ll never give me the credit for what I accomplished!” King shouted. “Who else came out of poverty and desperation and got to where I got? Who else brought millions of dollars to young kids who didn’t have nothing? Who has lived a life like mine? And still, they demonize me!

“Sheeeeeeeit,” King spat. “They’ll never acknowledge me!” He reminded me of something he had told me in his offices back in Florida about the prospects for minorities, including myself, to really get their due respect in America: “If you poor, you a poor n—–, if you rich, you a rich n—–, if you dancing, sliding and gliding n—–, you a dancing, sliding and gliding n—–. If you have intellect, you’re an intelligent n—–. But you’re going to be a n—– till you die.”

Then, with all the brass in his body, King bellowed, “They’ll shut you out, man, they’ll shut you out. I can’t get eye water to cry with.”

♦♦♦

In the locker room before the fight at Barclays, a subdued Don King sat next to Thomas Hauser, a former lawyer and longtime boxing writer. In 1992, Hauser and Joseph Maffia, the former chief financial officer of Don King Productions, put together a series of affidavits that ultimately led to King’s indictment on nine counts of wire fraud. Early on in the investigation, a lawyer from a Senate subcommittee investigating corruption in boxing came to interview Maffia and asked him if Don King was tied to organized crime. Hauser, who was in the room as Maffia’s legal adviser, told the lawyer, “You don’t understand. Don King is organized crime.”

But all that seemed in the past. King sat in a chair near the locker room door, an iPod Touch cradled in his massive hand. He took Hauser through four decades of photographs and gave long, rambling captions for each one. He told stories about Christie Brinkley, Henry Kissinger, Ali, Martin Scorsese, Michael Jackson, and Jacques Chirac. As the two old men, awash in nostalgia, stared down at those tiny, digital images, Cloud went through his pre-fight preparation. Once Cloud’s hands were taped up and gloved, he sat down in a corner and tried to have a quiet moment to himself. King was talking to Hauser about Shimon Peres and Israel and Cloud yelled out, “Don, you giving interviews now?” King grinned and waved him off. King then talked about his plans to take a victorious Cloud to fight in North Korea. “It’ll be my show this time,” King said while waving the flags of North and South Korea. “A real event for the people!”

On a TV in the locker room, the last round of the last undercard fight came to an end. Cloud hopped up and down and slapped his gloves together. His trainer and his childhood boxing coach both shouted their encouragement. The excitement in the room finally drew King out of his melancholy mood. He pointed at Cloud and yelled, “We gonna keep going where we gonna go and that man there is gonna strike a blow to free us all!”

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Cloud lost. In the ring after the fight, Bernard Hopkins screamed something at Don King that nobody in his camp would repeat. In his post-fight press conference, Hopkins said, “Who would ever think in anybody’s wildest dream? I wouldn’t even bet on it! That Bernard Hopkins would be the one that put Don King out of business. I did Richard [Schaefer] a favor, I did HBO a favor, I even did Bob Arum a favor. I did everybody a favor. Don King, whether you like him or not, is no more.”

King did not attend the press conference. He was back in the locker room with Cloud and the remaining employees of Don King Productions. There was still the matter of paying out everyone who had worked on the fight, including the fighter himself. King sat slouched in a folding chair. Dana Jamison, his longtime assistant, knelt on the floor in front of a calculator and a giant three-ring binder. This was Don King’s checkbook. Someone in the room told me that King had been shaken by Hopkins’s outburst in the ring. When he saw me enter the locker room, King raised his head and gave a weak smile. Cloud, who was undefeated going into the fight, didn’t seem to be too upset. After about five minutes of quiet payouts, King ordered everyone out into the hallway. It was time for him and Cloud to negotiate a payment.

After about an hour, King and Cloud emerged from the locker room. I asked King what he had planned next. King said, “This is a setback. You get back up, you dust yourself off, and you get back in the game. We had a great singer named Ray Charles who wrote a song called ‘Drowning in My Tears.’ You can’t afford to drown in your tears. You gotta go back, rededicate yourself, redouble your efforts, and persevere.”

In our prior conversations, King had talked frequently about setbacks. Every time he said the word “setback,” he would immediately follow it with this phrase: “I have completely eradicated the word ‘failure’ from my vocabulary.” This time, he did not.

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

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