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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

(continued from page 2)

"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."

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