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Grudge Match—Tyson vs. King

The former heavyweight champion of the world and the world's most notorious boxing promoter are battling in court over millions of dollars.
Geoffrey Gray
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

One night near dawn last spring, Mike Tyson and Don King were together again on the 15th floor of the Peninsula Hotel in New York, haggling over their future. They were in a roomy $1,810 a night suite, filled with faux Chinese furniture with views overlooking the spires of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. His electrically charged, trademark Afro starting to fade at 72, King was pushing another promotional contract at the bankrupt Tyson. There would be a $5 million signing bonus, a possible title, perhaps another fortune and, of course, a settlement to one of the biggest civil lawsuits in sports history that the fighter and promoter had filed against each other. The trial was only a couple of months away. A fresh, tribal tattoo shielding his face, the 37-year-old Tyson picked up the phone for advice and called his friend in Los Angeles, the entertainment manager Jeff Wald, and put King on the speakerphone. Wald, in bed with his wife at the time, remembers a shouting match. He recalls asking King why he had stolen so much money from Tyson, to which King responded, "I'm gonna stick a shotgun up your ass if you mess with my fighter!" It had been nearly five years since King and Tyson had been together, talking business.

They have been locked up in a bitter grudge match since Tyson first fled as the marquee attraction in King's stable of fighters and filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the promoter (in cahoots with Tyson's friends-turned-co-managers, John Horne and Rory Halloway) had conspired to bilk him for at least $100 million in purse money and earnings over the years. The charges included such minute details as the rights to Tyson's likeness being used in action figure dolls. Never to be outdone, or outflanked, King filed a counter suit against Tyson dismissing all charges. He seeks $110 million.

It hasn't been easy for Tyson to take his case to trial. In Tyson's first deposition, King unexpectedly turned up during the proceedings while Tyson's lawyers quizzed their client under oath. King sat down across from Tyson (out of camera view) and began to shoot the fighter menacing stares and intimidating faces, according to people in the room. Furious, Tyson jumped at King and, while lawyers and court bailiffs were able to keep Tyson from socking him into the nearest emergency room, Tyson did manage to dump a pitcher of water onto King's Afro.

"He persuaded me that I could trust him," Tyson told his lawyers. "I depended totally on Don King in taking care of all my financials."

Tyson's admission captures the beginning of one of many turbulent chapters in the story of a troubled boxing legend who earned history's honor of becoming the youngest, perhaps most devastating, heavyweight champion and then placed his future into the weathered hands of boxing's most notorious promoter. Years after that initial liaison, Tyson's script has turned into a tale of blown opportunities and kingdom squandered. For King, the case against Tyson represents one last challenge in court against all odds and accusations.

The groundwork for this tangled web was laid early on in their relationship.

Only three months after co-promoting his first fight, a 22-year-old Tyson signed away powers of attorney privileges to "Daddy" Don. "I authorized him to look out for me and my money and to make sure we don't have no tax problems. I would do anything he told me to do," Tyson said in a deposition.

After only one year under King's financial stewardship, the fighter claims his millions went to keep King's boxing operations, Don King Productions (DKP) afloat, supporting undercard fighters, King's family, lawyer and staff, and, ultimately, King himself. According to King's former employees, Tyson didn't have a clue what he was paying for, or didn't seem to care that he was being ripped off.

"It was comical," says Joseph Maffia, who was then head comptroller for DKP. "We used to joke and laugh about it in the office all the time. The motto was: When in doubt, CBMT!"

That's King lingo: Charge Back Mike Tyson.

A shy, soft-spoken CPA, Maffia is likely to be a primary witness in Tyson's approaching trial. He was also a witness in the government's blown attempt in the mid-1990s to prosecute King. He first testified against King in front of the U.S. Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations. Maffia is tired of testifying, he says, and prefers to let the numbers speak.

According to a copy of a 1998 ledger from DKP, for instance, Maffia's own $4,000 Christmas bonus from DKP was charged to Tyson. Although Maffia and King's other employees never technically worked for Tyson, the fighter also claims he covered an additional $28,000 in holiday bonuses for King's late matchmaker and public relations man, Al Braverman, King's executive director, Dana Jameson, King's limousine driver, Yusef "Captain Joe" Shah, and King's wife, Henrietta. Records show that Tyson even paid for a number of DKP's office supplies, extraneous purchases and charitable and political donations: $6,200 worth of turkeys from W&W Meats in Cleveland; a $15,000 donation for Father George Clements, not to mention bearing part of a $1,500 donation to Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, an old friend of King's who also once went undercover for the FBI in one of the agency's many bungled attempts to convict King for virtually any crime it could find. Dozens of other entries were also billed to Tyson, everything from traveling expenses for King employees to the rent on a condo in Manhattan.

"Mike just didn't seem to care," Maffia says. "Maybe in his mind he figured he was making $10 million to $20 million a fight, so if some went missing, it wasn't really worth fighting for.

"We bombarded Mike with the bills and contracts," Maffia says. "It's not like we sat down with him like any other accountant might to a client and explain: This is what you're paying us for and why. He was never given the opportunity to read anything that was put in front of him."

"I'd sign anything he asked me to," Tyson told his lawyers about King. "I believed in him…"

The stakes in this case could not be higher. A dramatic courtroom showdown should decide the fate of both enigmatic boxing legends. "Only in America!" as King might say. With one jury decision, Tyson looks to score his biggest payday yet and, in a twist worthy of Shakespeare, the bankrupt fighter looks to retire the plum promoter in his place.

"It's a character fight," says Dale Kinsella, the lead attorney for Tyson. "A lot of fighters have sued Don over the years, and a win for Mike could mean sweet justice."

But so far, the trial of all trials, like so many hyped promotions in boxing, has been only a tease. Lawyers were to begin picking jurors for the case last September and now, after a number of bizarre events that have plagued Tyson since he checked out of the Peninsula last spring, it's unclear when Tyson's day in court may come. A new trial date has tentatively been scheduled for the third week of April or until the depths of Tyson's financial morass have been navigated and untangled.

But making sense of Tyson's earnings and spontaneous spending sprees could take a while, and already Tyson seems to have lost interest in the merits of his claims. He rarely calls his lawyers. He seems detached and resigned. Asked about his chances in court, Tyson told me recently, "I don't really know nothing about that, man. That's something that I be handling in a totally different arena."

Unlike the fighter, King has been following the case against Tyson at every turn. An avid reader of Shakespeare's tragedies, King's favorite tome is The Merchant of Venice, he says, a tale of revenge, money lending and betrayal. He understands the reversal-of-fortune plot line that lays ahead in the case. He insists he isn't worried.

"I didn't do nothing wrong," King told me recently over dinner in Las Vegas, where he was promoting a three-title-fight card. Any allegation of fiscal treason, he added, misses the point. "It's not really a problem of whether I'm right or wrong," he says. "Who really wins? Nobody really wins. It leaves only a lot of bruised feelings. It leaves divisiveness in the community. It leaves people being anti when they should be pro."

King has come a long way from running the numbers game amid the pimps, grifters and low-life thugs of the Cleveland ghetto, and doing four years time in state prison for pistol-whipping an old friend to death over a $600 bet. He is the first black promoter to be elected into the boxing hall of fame and the only nonathlete that Sports Illustrated magazine named as one of the world's 40 most powerful sports figures. He is also probably the only man to be convicted of manslaughter and have the privilege to "meet and greet" a number of sitting U.S. presidents. King attributes this success to the country's tolerance for second chances ("My country tis a thee!") and the opportunities inherent within free enterprise ("My magic lies with my people ties!").

King seems to carry a kitschy fondness for manifest destiny, and in that gambling, good-luck, gold-rush way, he is a relic of a more brazen and fearless America. Put simply, he's a gambling man who likes to win -- and he's good at it. Within King's office compound off Interstate 95 in Florida, a small coaster on his grand mahogany desk reads: "When you're the lead dog, the view never changes."

Often in his bouts, however, when King steps into the ring, chest out and head high and waving miniature plastic flags, he is heckled by fight fans. They might hold grudges for the fates of "Terrible" Tim Witherspoon, who publicly criticized King for shackling fighters with onerous "multi-fight contracts," who protested King's drug-infested stables and, strapped for cash, came back to King again and again and eventually fought for the heavyweight championship for a meager $90,000. There's Muhammad Ali, who, instead of taking King to court on a $1 million claim, settled with a suitcase filled with $50,000 cash. And there's King's first fighter, Earnie Shavers, who was often spotted on the casino floors of Las Vegas at King's boxing shows begging for money.

It may be unfair to hold King responsible for the fallout fates of his fighters, but a striking number of them have pressed legal action against him. All the suits have carried similar allegations: that King overcharged them for training or travel expenses; or that King shortened the net gross of the promotion by deducting hundreds of thousands in "off the top" expenses; or that King convinced them to sign exploitative contracts that consisted of little more then a dotted line and a blank page.

Asked why hundreds of fighters had sued him, King says, "You find a lot of guys that don't got a problem until somebody tells them they got a problem and then when once they got a problem, they don't understand what the problem is. But they think that in the end they can get something for nothing. That's the mentality."

If the Tyson case does go to trial, King is confident of victory. "I've weathered the storm of several indictments and, under the worst of conditions and under the worst of odds, I've come out from under them OK," he says. "It's because of this country. I love this country, man! Go into a courtroom, [seek] redress for your grievances, and get some justice!

"When you look at the record," he adds, in a vague summary of events with Tyson, "you had two or three urchins from the ghetto -- me included -- who came together, rose to an occasion where you could go out and make more money then you ever dreamed of in your whole life, and everyone gets paid, and everyone spends, and one person tries to keep more money [King], and the other [Tyson] gets mad at that person [King] for trying to keep his share, because they want to drown in their own tears. And then they come up with ideas that you must be taking something from them. I find this all the time. But hey, it's better than sitting on the stoop."

Just mentioning King's name seems to presume guilt, he says, and it's hardly fair given his competition. "There's worse in boxing then me," King once told Joe Spinelli, a former FBI agent, cited in Jack Newfield's Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King. "I just play by the rules that exist. I'm just a 24-hour-a-day guy. Nobody can outwork me. That's why I'm on top. Nobody can outwork me and I play by the rules. The problem is, you don't like the rules."

Even King's enemies praise his conviction and in his company seem to feel the giddy effects of his uproarious personality. Promoters Cedric Kushner and Lou DiBella remember a time when King came to New York and, despite both having pending lawsuits against King, he invited them to dinner at The Palm. After finishing a spread of lobster and steak with King, Kushner remembers scurrying home to call DiBella on the phone, saying, "How fun was that!" Of King, fight manager Shelly Finkel says, "A master negotiator." Jeff Wald: "He'll sit [at] a table for thirty or forty hours -- outwork you to death." Vice president of HBO sports Xavier James: "There's only one like him." King's son, Carl: "He's the best. Bar none."

King makes no delusions about his motivations. In June, at a press conference before a recent boxing match King promoted, Rich Neiderman, director of boxing operations at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, told reporters in Las Vegas, "We'd like to thank Don King for bringing us this great championship fight card. Hopefully, next time we'll make some money." (Laughter.) King took the podium for nearly three hours. He was hilarious, poetic and often seemingly delirious. "A lot of people extol me and my family, but fighters make more with me then they do with the honest guys!" he said, then chuckled. "Like me or dislike me, I get the money."

In boxing, stealing from a fighter has become so engrained into the lore of the sport that few are willing to give cries of theft any attention. As one television network executive told me about Tyson's case, "Nobody could give two shits." Accusations of robbery are almost expected, if not shrugged off as cliché in an industry governed without enforceable rules or regulations. There is no union, no pension plan or guaranteed benefits for either fighter or promoter. There is only chaos -- "a world of amorphous Jell-O," as Bert Sugar, the cigar-chomping fight historian, says. It's the last frontier for unfettered American enterprise, a no-holds-barred landscape where a fighter like Tyson can go broke after earning more than $300 million -- and a promoter like King can develop a reputation for such genius, and fiscal chicanery.

Tyson had been warned about King. The bald, nearly blind, paranoid boxing sage Cus D'Amato told him that when the championship would come, there would be others coming to earn his trust and test his financial naïveté. In a story often told, D'Amato adopted Tyson, the ghetto thief from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, arrested 38 times between the age of 10 and 13. Plagued with an awkward combination of great physical strength and a wispy, almost feminine voice, Tyson spent his fabled youth sleeping between the walls of abandoned buildings, mugging older women, sticking up delis and getting tied to his bed and beaten by his brother and sister who could not control his behavior. Tyson was the kid who held the gun because the other thugs could be tried as adults.

He was uncontrollable.

"Our walls were plenty dirty," says Teddy Atlas, who first trained Tyson under D'Amato. "If there's a leak in the roof, you know, the spill doesn't just stay in the kitchen."


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