Don King: The P.T. Barnum Of Fist City
It's showtime for Don King. For nearly an hour, the Electric-Haired One has been watching as his top-ranked charge, Mike Tyson, accompanied by comedian Roseanne, runs up a tab at the Versace store in Las Vegas. Suddenly a camera crew pushes through the crowd of onlookers being held back by police and is ushered into the store.
As Roseanne and the champ try on jeweled watches, King, a Mike Tyson T-shirt straining across his midsection, moves between the two stars. "Here we have the queen of television and the king of boxing," he bellows in the direction of the cameras. "Here in Las Vegas for the greatest of spectacles, the fight of fights, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield." As his gold-toothed fighting machine grimaces, King pulls out a receipt for more than $71,000 charged to his American Express Card to cover Tyson's hour-long shopping spree.
NEAR IMPOSSIBLE. Flash, dash, and a pile of cash. That's Don King, arguably the most powerful fight promoter in history. Counted out more times than a palooka from Nowheresville, King today sits atop a boxing empire of nearly 80 fighters that he says generates more than $100 million in annual revenues. And with Tyson, the 30-year-old man-child who returned to boxing in 1995 after three years in prison for rape, King has accomplished the near impossible: persuading America to pay millions to watch a hard-edged champion whose prey rarely stays in the ring long enough to break a sweat.
"When Don's gone, they'll be comparing him to P.T. Barnum," says his friend Jeff Wald, a Hollywood talent manager whose clients include boxer-actor George Foreman. Indeed, an estimated 1 million people paid up to $50 apiece to watch Tyson's last mauling, when he knocked out little-known Bruce Seldon in 109 seconds. With closed-circuit and overseas rights, the event generated an estimated $85 million in revenues. Tyson got $15 million and Seldon $5 million. How much for King? Hard to say, but upwards of $5 million would probably be a fair starting point.
King is swift to shrug off any criticism about making fans pay through the nose for such a quick count. "It's like Streisand singing a song or a Mozart masterpiece," he says, chewing on roast beef and fries in a Vegas steakhouse. "You know the tune, but you'd pay again and again to see a great artist do his work." Still, it falls to King to find new ways to hype his uppercutting virtuoso. Famous for naming his fights--it was King who came up with "Rumble in the Jungle" for Muhammad Ali's 1974 fight with Foreman in Zaire--the promoter rechristened the Tyson and Holyfield bout the "World Series of Boxing" because Tyson is from New York and Holyfield from Atlanta. King then quickly lined up several members of the Yankees and Braves for fight night. And he has struck a deal that would allow Cablevision's Northeast subscribers wary of missing the bout while they go to the refrigerator to pay $9.95 per round.
His mastery of hyperbole is only part of what gives King, 65, such power. A onetime Cleveland numbers runner who did three years in prison for beating another runner to death, he practices the simplest of economic theories. By lining up supply--in this case Tyson and other top fighters--he can dictate the price the market will pay. That's how he wrung a $100 million advance from Viacom Inc.'s Showtime channel for pay-per-view rights for the first 10 Tyson fights after Iron Mike got out of prison. Oh yeah, and half the profits.
LIVING HIGH. To stage six of Tyson's first seven fights at the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas, MGM gave King 618,557 shares of stock, guaranteed him a $15 million stock profit by early 1998, and gave him the gate receipts. By the time Tyson and Holyfield climb through the ropes on Nov. 9, King and his fighters will have a piece of what will likely be a $110 million revenue stream. That includes half of the $50 that 1.5 million or more homes will each ante up for the pay-per-view telecast. "This is the real American dream," observes King, who says he got into numbers to pay for college and law school--a plan destroyed by his 1967 manslaughter conviction.
For King today, the American dream includes three homes and a 400-acre training facility near his estate outside Cleveland. Getting a piece of the American dream is a mantra he pours into the unsophisticated ears of his fighters. To lure them into his camp, King lays it on thick about self-reliance, his common experience in coming up from the underclass, and above all, a boxer's right to cash in on his abilities. "I know a lot of great boxers who are poor," says Tyson. "I'm rich, and he's the reason."
King first scored big with The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, in 1974, after a musician friend introduced them. After weeks of hustling for backers, King lined up $5 million for Ali and $5 million for Foreman from a London film company and a Zaire government eager for the limelight.
From that fight on, King's strategy was "OPM"--for using other people's money to attract fighters. The "Rumble in the Jungle" brought new money-hungry boxers to his stable, among them future heavyweight champs Ken Norton and Larry Holmes and champions from other divisions like Julio Cesar Chavez and Tommy "Hitman" Hearns. Indeed, in most King-promoted cards today, he is paid for representing both fighters
FALLEN STAR. But when Tyson was convicted, King hit the canvas, too. With his star fallen, he signed up a bunch of two-bit fighters and slowly positioned them as contenders in the alphabet soup of boxing divisions. He also generated a lot of interest in the non-heavyweight divisions, putting more emphasis on fighters like Chavez. "King for a while had his nose pressed against the glass looking in," says boxing writer and historian Bert Randolph Sugar. "But he was able to come to [an about-to-be-released] Tyson with a contract signed by Showtime and MGM and get back into the picture."
Today, King controls most major heavyweight fights and has been methodically matching his fighters against one another for the biggest paydays. He can also stop other fighters by withholding not only the services of Tyson but also those of a Seldon or a Frank Bruno.
Negotiating with King is not a pleasant experience, most people agree. "The son of a gun works 24 hours a day," says rival promoter Butch Lewis. "It ain't like this guy is sitting somewhere on his butt and waving magic wands." Adds MGM Grand President Alex Yemendjian, who once negotiated for 14 hours straight with King: "He will fight and fight for the last $5,000."
Several fighters have thought that King kept too many of those last dollars. Ali sued King for $1 million for allegedly shortchanging him but dropped the suit just before he received $50,000 from King. King also settled a $25 million lawsuit with onetime champion Tim Witherspoon for a reported $1 million, a figure that King won't confirm. "This is a business that is done on handshakes, and there are always disagreements," he says. "I settle because I'd rather the fighter get it than some lawyer."
His own lawyers have been busy over the years, successfully defending him against a 23-count income-tax evasion case in 1985 and protecting him from a 1992 Senate subcommittee investigating mob influence in boxing. King took the Fifth Amendment then but has said since that he is not associated with organized crime. Last year, a hung jury acquitted King of federal charges that he defrauded Lloyd's of London of $350,000 after a 1991 fight was canceled because Chavez suffered a cut. But the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York has reinstated the insurance indictment, and attorneys for Lloyd's say they intend to file a civil suit this month. King's attorney says his client has pleaded not guilty to the federal charge. Still, because of his legal woes, King is under suspension by the New Jersey Casino Control Board and can't promote fights in Atlantic City casinos.
Is Don King good for boxing? That jury is also hung. "The function of a good manager," says Sugar, "is getting the most money for the least risk. If you're gonna feed your man [Peter] McNeeleys and Seldons and Buster Mathises, you've been brilliant. If it's good for boxing is another matter. Right now, boxing...is quickly devolving into a sideshow. And [with all the comebacks, Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes,] you don't need a cut man in the corner, you need a liver-spot man."
BIG DEAL. As he prepares for the Tyson-Holyfield bout, Don King isn't thinking about his place in boxing history, though. He's thinking ahead. He's just struck a $3 million deal with Cablevision to help him promote a country concert in Nashville on Jan. 11, the same weekend he plans to promote a fight between client Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis. He's also been musing about the coming 500-channel universe a perfect place for a boxing channel that would be fed by 25 years of fights he says he has on tape.
"America is a wonderful place, I love America," he says as he heads out of Versace for dinner with Tyson and Roseanne. The waiting crowd readies their cameras. "And they say Mike is a hated man, disgraced, and dishonest," says King, gesturing to the ogling horde. "Well, if that's hated, give me 12 more that are just as hated as him." Didn't Lincoln say something like that about General Grant?