Oh, what a beautiful morning. Mike Tyson's thumb is busted, and Don King is on trial for wire fraud.
But don't ice down the champagne just yet, fight fans. The injury cancellation last week of the Saturday Night Charade that was to pit Tyson against Buster Mathis Jr., a second-generation heavyweight with shaky credentials, may be a source of joy among many who still love the sweet science. First, it allowed them to concentrate on a real bout--the third meeting between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, two high-quality heavyweights who have managed to evade King's long reach. The canceled card was also a rare blow to King's enormous ego: The bombastic promoter with the electroshock hairdo scheduled the Tyson-Mathis fight for the same night, in the same city, as Holyfield-Bowe purely out of spite--to steal a little thunder, along with a lot of cash. It's beautiful to see a swindler thwarted for once, and we can only hope that the hurt, however slight, doesn't go away anytime soon. As for Leg-Iron Mike's boo-boo, he'll get over it.
But hold that champagne.
King, a former Cleveland numbers runner and a convicted killer, and Tyson, a convicted rapist, may have suffered a little setback the other night, but these two are clearly in the fight game to stay. As long as the supply of chumps and tomato cans and hopeless dreamers whose left hooks can't break glass holds up, Tyson will be happy to take them on. There are plenty of Peter McNeeleys and Buster Mathis Jr.'s out there, and Tyson has 89 seconds of his valuable time reserved for each of them.
Meanwhile, if the woman Tyson raped, Desiree Washington, wants a rematch, that's probably fine with him, too. Kind of shape he's in, Mike could probably take her in three rounds. After all, this is a man who once boasted that the best punch he ever threw landed in the face of his then-wife, actress Robin Givens.
As for the illustrious Mr. King, he makes even quicker work of fight fans gullible enough or numb enough to cough up thirty or forty bucks every time the promoter puts his star pupil into the ring with Alfonzo Ratliff or Alex Stewart or Henry Tillman or Peter McNeeley. If he could cut the deal, The Don would be happy to stage World War III on pay-per-view, then skulk off through the planet's rubble with the entire take.
Surely, no one in America has a better nose for a dollar. Just ask Muhammad Ali, the man who gave King his start in boxing promotion when the charismatic heavyweight agreed to fight a King-sponsored charity exhibition in Cleveland in 1974. It was the beginning of a fruitful, if checkered, relationship. But after King pushed a worn-out Ali back into the ring in 1980 to face Larry Holmes--the fight that ruined the world's greatest boxer forever--the promoter compounded his sin by pocketing $1.2 million of Ali's $8 million share of the gate.
This is but one King misdeed, of course. In a sport long stained by corruption and governed only by the law of survival, this street-smart scammer has shown an astonishing capacity for duping fighters and exploiting chaos. Boxing now has four or five different sanctioning bodies--most of them controlled by King--and scores of bogus world titles in dozens of phony weight classes. The sport's accounting methods are as lax as its medical practices (one major fighter was killed last year; another remains in a vegetative state), and its practitioners--mostly poor, hungry kids--tend to do what they're told.
It's an ideal setup for a predator. "Society didn't want to get in on it," King once told Playboy. "They looked at boxing and decided that it was infiltrated with racketeers. So because it's unorganized, it allowed a guy like me to come in."
Man, did he come in. In two decades King has promoted more than 200 title fights--including 35 of the last 45 heavyweight matchups--and he's put more than $100 million into his pocket as a result. In the early Eighties the FBI investigated him and some other promoters on suspicion of coercion, extortion and links to organized crime. No charges were filed. In 1984 the U.S. government accused King of a million dollars' worth of tax evasion, which could have sent him back to prison for 46 years, but only his secretary was convicted. After the verdict, King signed autographs for the jury.
Meanwhile, he ruined a good fighter named Tim Witherspoon, ripped off Ali and skimmed from the purses of former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Over the years he has been sued by more than a dozen fighters, trainers and fellow competitors, but the cases have never gone to trial: King usually settles out of court, for a fraction of the price.
"Sweet are the uses of adversity," he once said. "Like the toad, it is ugly and venomous, yet wears a precious jewel in his head. I found the jewel in adversity."
Also in Ohio's Marion Correctional Institution. That's where King, who in 1967 was a thirty-year-old numbers racketeer, served almost four years after throwing an associate to the pavement in the midst of a $1,000 argument. Sam Garrett hit his head and died eight days later. King went up the river for manslaughter, but he didn't waste his time: He came out of Marion at 34 spouting Homer, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and his own fractured aphorisms. He was also intent on making a new life--a richer life.
"The Don King who went into prison was armed with a peashooter," he said later. "The one who came out was armed with an atomic bomb of knowledge and understanding."
One thing he has always understood is the manipulation of racial friction. Even as he picked Larry Holmes's pocket, King promoted himself as the embodiment of the African-American Dream and as the benefactor of every black kid who ever laced up a pair of Everlasts for him. "Why give money to the white man?" Holmes later quoted him as saying. "Don't you want to help your brother?"
"Well, I wanted to help my brother," Holmes said. "But it turned out he cheated me."
Whenever the ugly and venomous toad of adversity got near--in the form of criticism or indictment--King blamed it on envy or racism or both. He still does, and that may have even more relevance today than when Ali kicked King's career into gear.
If opposite reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict pointed up the racial divide that still troubles our society, the different ways black and white Americans take to Don King may be even more dramatic. He's seen by many not as a crook but as a gifted black entrepreneur who found a way to beat the system. King himself plays that one to the hilt. "I'm true testimony to the American dream," he once said. "A role model from Appalachia to Harlem...Look at me--black, born poor, been in jail and still a success. Look at what I've achieved. This tells that guy suffering from hopeless desolation that there is a chance."
It also tells the guy there's a pretty good chance Don King will rob him if he gets within arm's length. One longtime adversary, Riddick Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, says it this way: "King talks black, lives white and thinks green. Money is the only thing that matters to him."
But his front remains solid. When the Tyson-Mathis fight had to be canceled last week because of Tyson's broken thumb, King struck his familiar pose as friend of the common man and exemplar of his people: Hadn't he put the fight on free TV on the Fox network?
Truth be told, King's free-fight ploy, designed to build goodwill among the nation's ever-shrinking body of fans, was a matter of necessity. In the wake of the Tyson-McNeeley fiasco, paying customers were clearly in a foul mood, so when advance sales went poorly, King yanked Tyson-Mathis off its previous perch as a Showtime pay-per-view event and sold it to Rupert Murdoch for free viewing on Fox.
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As it happens, the best things in life aren't free.
But that is unlikely to deter Don King from his purpose--the enrichment of Don King. His trial on nine counts of wire fraud, which represents his third federal indictment, stems from an allegedly false insurance claim he made following the cancellation of a 1991 fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Harold Brazier. If convicted, he could face a maximum of five years on each count.
Don't count on it. The man who once proclaimed that "all of my fighters should get down on their hands and knees and thank me for what I've done for them" clearly has no intention of bending a knee for anyone else. On the contrary, he feels firmly in touch with a Higher Power.
"I transcend earthly bounds," he booms. "I never cease to amaze myself, because I haven't yet found my limits. I am quite ready to accept the limits of what I can do, but every time I feel that way--boom!--God touches me and I do something that's even more stupendous than whatever I've done up to then."
What he can't seem to do is get lost.