SI Vault
Mark Kram
September 15, 1975
Up from the gutter and reaching for stars comes ex-convict Don King, cast in the flamboyant mold of P. T. Barnum and Tex Rickard
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September 15, 1975

'there Ain't No Others Like Me'

Up from the gutter and reaching for stars comes ex-convict Don King, cast in the flamboyant mold of P. T. Barnum and Tex Rickard

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Space is not space between the earth and the sun to one who looks down from the windows of the Milky Way." He pulls on a Montecruz Supreme, releasing a smoke ring that flutters above his head like a broken halo. "It was but yesterday I thought myself a fragment quivering without rhythm in the sphere of life. Now I know that I am the sphere, and all life in rhythmic fragments moves within me." Having rid himself of these thoughts, the big man, the main man, the "impresario of the Third World" (name him, and you can have him, say his critics) turns and booms, his voice ripping across the skyline of Manhattan, "Yes, I do have an ego! I am an ego! I am!" Then, humbly, he adds, "But no man is an island, ya deeg?"

One could swear he hears the world sigh with relief, so glad it is that the orator admits to being human. "I am quintessential!" he begins again. He does not say of what he is quintessential, and it does not matter, his eyes seem to say; the word fits his mood. Words are always hovering above anyone who happens to be within ocean's distance of Don King, words fluttering in the air like crazed bats. But nobody waits for the next word, his next sentence of impeccable incoherence. They wait for his next move, that next gale of a gamble that knocks reason senseless and has powered him in a few short years from a busted-out life to the summit of his business—which you can also have if you can name it.

Call him a boxing promoter, but that does not explain what he does; it only gives him a label. Nobody knows exactly what he does or how he does it, and his adversaries, who underestimated him so badly, now flinch at the sound of his impact. The clattering telex in his office tells much more: Baby Doc Duvalier, the president for life, hopes that King can visit Haiti to discuss a situation of mutual interest; a spokesman for President Mobutu Sese Seko of Za�re has shown much interest in King's idea for a future project. King does not deal much with private capital, he works with governments, Third World countries whose rulers find King to be a useful catalyst. He says, " Henry Kissinger can't get in the places I can."

The power of the world, says King, "is slowly shifting, and you don't have to be no prophet like...who was that old dude? Yeah, Nostradeemusss. It's right in front of your nose, if you wanna look. But I don't care about politics. Just call me a promoter. Not the first black one. Not the first green one. But theeee promoter, Jack. There ain't no others, 'cause they've only had three in the history of the world: P. T. Barnum, Mike Todd, and you are lookin' at the third. Nobody kin deny it. They mock me at their peril."

Some do, though—with passion. They look upon him as a blowhard, a mountebank—and look at the way he dresses, like an M.C. in a cheap nightclub. "Just an uppity nigger, right?" says King. But the facts bite back in his defense: he has raised $35 million in less than a year for his boxing spectaculars; he has made more money for Muhammad Ali "than AH done in all his previous fights in his whole career." With the Ali-Foreman fight—and for only $14 million ("most of which they got back")—he brought "dignity and recognition and solidarity" to Za�re, a place "where people thought it was ridden with .savages." And in a few weeks King will bring to the universe Ali vs. Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in Manila. How's that for quintessential, his long pause seems to ask.

What he did not do and what he might do in the future are equally dramatic, according to King. With oil money from Saudi Arabia, he was on the brink of buying Madison Square Garden before deciding it was a bad investment. "It's become a turkey of a building," he says. He is now thinking of purchasing a major movie company. But more immediate is his sudden thrust into big team sports and music as a packager and manager of careers. He says that he has already signed 85 black pro football players, with more to follow in basketball and baseball. Overnight, it appears, he could become one of the most powerful men in all of sports.

"I won't be creatin' any wars," he says. "We just wants in on the middle of all that high cotton."

But for now, right this minute in Tokyo, or Za�re, or Cairo, or London, or in the back streets of Cleveland, whether among the rich and polished sportsmen, or those who leg the numbers up dark alleys, Don King is boxing, the man with the show, the man with the fistful of dollars and the imagination to match. Quickly, with a lot of street genius, enough brass for a firehouse and the messianic support of Herbert Muhammad ( Ali's manager, who has an inscrutable genius of his own), King has managed to reduce the ring's power structure to rubble, and he is left all alone in his cavernous office atop Rockefeller Center to commune with the gods and play with his own ideas as if they were toys.

Boxing promoters have seldom been so singular; most of the big ones have been nearly invisible as personalities. The color, it seems, was left to the scufflers who kept their offices under their hats, would step on a nickel if a kid dropped it and would smoke a cigar down to its last gritty and defiant end. In one sense, the big ones weren't promoters, not in the way of a Tex Rickard, his mind as sharp as his familiar diamond stickpin, or a Mike Jacobs, with his clacking false teeth and pawnbroker's shrewdness—they were names who worked up front. In the last decade or so, all those who have come along have been moneymen who happened to be in control of the heavyweight champion. The list is long: Roy Cohn, the Bolan brothers, the Nilon brothers, Bill Fugazy and that most resilient of night creatures, Bob Arum.

Limousines, hot dogs, the law, these were their businesses, and they drifted like clouds across a big moon. The ring was an amusing subsidiary, a playground in which to exercise their already fully developed roguishness; they left nothing behind, and if they were not completely anonymous, they were as dull as their gray suits. Now there is Don King, who used to stick out like a single hatchling turtle trying to make the sea in full view of sly crabs and deadly frigate birds. That image has been smashed, replaced by something close to King Kong skipping across the jagged teeth of Manhattan's skyline. He will be heard. He will be seen. He thinks a low profile is something you get in a barber shop.

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