Lord Of The RingThane Peterson
ONLY IN AMERICA
The Life and Crimes of Don King
By Jack Newfield
Morrow 352pp $23
Veteran New York journalist Jack Newfield's Only In America paints a convincing portrait of boxing promoter Don King as one of the most nefarious scalawags in American sports business. King, now 63, got his start in the numbers racket in Cleveland. He did four years in prison for kicking a man to death (though he later was pardoned, possibly as a political payoff). According to Newfield, King's morals improved only marginally in the intervening 24 years, as he clawed his way to the top in boxing promotion.
In Newfield's telling, King has a certain perverse attractiveness. He rose from a background of poverty and crime using street smarts, malaprop-filled bluster, and hard work to bull his way into almost every major fight, starting with Muhammad Ali's epic 1974 bout with George Foreman. Along the way, King charmed--and usually outfoxed--everyone from TV executives to FBI agents.
But this book is mainly an expose of King's alleged misdeeds. Citing legal and other documents and interviews with boxers, law enforcement agents, and ex-confidants of King, Newfield accuses the promoter of routinely ripping off fighters by skimming their purses and padding their expense tabs. King, Newfield says, also increased his take by packing fighters' entourages with members of his family. And then there's King's racial hypocrisy: He uses a black-solidarity pitch to lure African American fighters away from white promoters, only to squander their talent in demeaning bouts against great-white-hope patsies with TV appeal. Mike Tyson's Aug. 19 drubbing of Peter McNeeley is only the most recent example.
In the end, Newfield's case against King may try the patience of many readers. Long before you finish, you're left with two big questions: How could we have ever allowed such a man to dominate a major sport? And given the cynicism behind his matches, why does anyone pay to watch them?