Albert Page was in a Louisville hospital dying of lung cancer. Every day, a man he barely knew was at his bedside. The family was touched by the gesture made by the famous boxing promoter with the electric Afro.
And when boxer Greg Page's father died, Don King went to the graveside and, preaching before the family, promised the dead man to "keep my word to make your son the heavyweight champion of the world."
"You've got to wonder who writes this guy's lines," said Ferdie Pacheco, a long-time ringside physician and now a consultant and commentator on boxing for NBC. "If this was a 1930s movie you'd say this is too much to be believed . . . but Don King does it. And people love it. The guy is a character."
If this was a movie, the plot also would soon hit all the predictable twists and turns of a Hollywood thriller: Another promoter, Butch Lewis, claimed he had a contract to arrange Greg Page's fights and sued King. In an out-of-court settlement, Lewis accepted $200,000.
"He stole Greg," said Lewis.
"I didn't steal anything," King said. "Page's father and I had a tremendous fondness. On his dying bed he signed his son to me . . . Later, I asked Greg if he felt I took advantage of his sick father. He dropped his head and said no."
"Don King never chased after me," Page said. "I want to work with him. He gets the most money for fights."
And the Hollywood happy ending: Page defeated South Africa's Gerry Coetzee two weeks ago in South Africa for the World Boxing Association heavyweight title. King sold his contractual rights to the fight for $1 million. And his graveside pledge to Albert Page to make his son a world champion came true.
So goes another episode in the boxing-business-as-soap-opera world of Don King, a calculating businessman whose methods frequently are questioned and the premier promoter and P.T. Barnum of boxing.
Two weeks ago, he was indicted by the federal government on charges of tax evasion.
Over the last 10 years, King has promoted more than 130 title fights and positioned himself as the kingpin of major bouts despite the persistent drizzle of suspicion about how his success has come about.
Is King's amazing success a story of a black Horatio Alger rising to the top in a dirty business? Or is it the triumph of a former Cleveland numbers runner, who once spent more than three years in jail for manslaughter in the 1966 killing of a fellow numbers runner and now has become the most visible promoter in the seamy, gut-fighting world of boxing?
"No one has ever done for boxing what I have done . . . " said King. "I have achieved despite all they've said and done . . . "
The government took its stand on King's approximately $45 million operation last Friday when it arraigned King and his secretary in New York on a 23-count indictment involving charges of tax evasion on nearly $1 million. King, 53, pleaded innocent to the charges, which could send him to jail for 46 years.
King's supporters see him as the Curt Flood of his sport. A black major league baseball player, Flood was the first to challenge that sport's free agency rules. In his own mind, King has challenged the white boxing establishment and prompted jealousy and resentment by taking control of the primarily black talent, the fighters.
"You beat them long enough so they had to get back at you," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) told King when the promoter traveled to Harlem to give away 500 free turkeys last week.
"They did the same tax fraud thing to Adam Clayton Powell (the former Harlem congressman) in '58 and to Martin Luther King in '59, so Don is in the right tradition," said Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Youth Movement, a black group. "With us, if you don't get indicted, people think you sold out." Bouts Investigated by FBI 20:
King, who in 1983 was granted a full pardon on the manslaughter conviction by then-Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, came under close federal scrutiny once before, in 1977, when the FBI investigated a series of bouts King helped arrange for ABC -- The U.S. Boxing Championships -- which turned out to involve phony records for fighters. The tournament was killed by the investigation, but no formal charges were brought against King or anyone else.
To this day, some of his fellow promoters, some of his own fighters and some boxing writers have said King steals fighters from their managers and other promoters; that he controls Jose Sulaiman, head of the World Boxing Council, like a puppeteer. It is said he maneuvers Sulaiman to take away titles, sanction championship bouts, whatever is necessary to raise the price of fights King is promoting. Sulaiman has denied that King controls him in any way.
Some of his fellow promoters complain that King has cornered all the major heavyweight fighters by buying the options for their next several fights and having his son manage several of the fighters.
Now, after a four-year investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, King faces charges of not reporting $422,000 in personal income for three years and failing to pay $210,000 in taxes. In addition, his corporation did not report $407,000 in gross recipts, according to the government. Also, his secretary, Constance Harper, the vice president of Don King Productions, is charged with not reporting $195,000 in income and failing to pay $94,000 in taxes.
King views it all as another entry for the life story: "I've had a hell of a life," he said, driving in his stretch white Cadillac limousine. "I never cease to amaze myself. I say this humbly.
"The government shouldn't be bothering with me, it should be supporting me. Man, I'm true testimony to the American dream, a role model from Appalachia to Harlem . . . Look at me, black, born poor, been in jail and still a success. Look at what I've achieved. This tells that guy suffering from hopeless desolation that there is a chance. Slim or none, but if you catch None in town you might have something."
King's achievements are not questioned, even by his critics. He has returned glamor to a sport that was dying, with the exception of an occasional Muhammad Ali fight. He has won huge purses for fighters where there was little money and no interest, particularly in lower weight classes. And King has staged boxing spectaculars that are the stuff of fabulous fantasy for boxing fans -- the "Thrilla in Manilla" between Ali and Joe Frazier; the "Rumble in the Jungle" of Zaire between Ali and George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard's two fabled fights against Roberto Duran. The fights generally set or ied records for earning money.
"This may sound strange coming from a law and order guy, but I hope Don King beats that tax rap because he is good for boxing," wrote Dick Young, a New York Post sports columnist.
"In my opinion he is a terrible promoter," said Bob Arum, King's closest rival for being the top promoter in boxing. "He has no promotional plans, he doesn't know how to sell tickets . . . but the guy is unbelievable at putting deals together that should not work. He can convince people to put up unreal sums of money. He is the world's greatest one-on-one salesman. He keeps it interesting."
"He's made money for some fighters," said rival promoter Lewis, "because he is a snake-oil salesman. He amuses people first, tells them he has a bad reputation but he won't do it to them. They say, 'What a nice guy, he can't do it to me' . . . then the deal is done and they are another name and another number taken by Don King."
"He's a hustler, works hard -- harder than other promoters -- never stops, and that personality and the deals he's brought off, can you believe it?" asks Angelo Dundee, the fight trainer. "He's good for boxing."
"I don't know anybody he's hurt," said John Condon, who handles boxing for Madison Square Garden. "He's made money for a lot of people."
"I made them millionaires," King unabashedly says when asked. "Ken Norton, Jimmy Ellis, Roberto Duran, George Foreman . . . " 'There Are Still Good Americans'
While on his way to Harlem to give away the 500 turkeys, his chauffeur spotted Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan on Madison Avenue. Donovan and nine other men, including seven executives from his New Jersey construction company, have been indicted on charges of grand larceny and fraud by a Bronx, N.Y., grand jury, accused of scheming to steal $7.44 million from the New York City Transit Authority on a $186 million subway project.
Donovan came over to the car to tell the indicted boxing promoter: "Hang in there, I know what you're going through . . . there are still good Americans but there are fewer and fewer and we've got to stick together. The American people know what's going on."
King replied to Donovan: "Yeah, but you've got to go through the humiliation, the trauma, the expense . . . I was in a bar the other day and people were telling me they know this ain't nothing."
But King knows that his reputation is not simply as an American hero who has achieved success in the face of adversity, made others rich and restored boxing's popularity.
"When I first came on the scene as a black guy, an ex-con, people were suspicious," he explains. "But they were very good, very good times, so people forgot. But then in 1976, the first time something threatened me (the FBI investigation into the ABC boxing series he set up) . . . it all turned back to fear and apprehension. You've read Machiavelli -- like that. The first time there was a semblance of truth-taking to conform with suspicions, the people, especially the writers, began saying 'Damn, I don't want to get caught out here with this guy if he goes under.' "
But King has not been lonely. He has been to the White House for state dinners. He is a welcome figure among the moguls of Las Vegas, where King promoted fights for outrageous amounts of money and helped to bring new life, glamor and high-rollers to the strip. The law firm he has hired for the tax case is Williams & Connolly of Washington. King said he called the firm because he knew one partner, Edward Bennett Williams, from the days when King promoted a fighter managed by Williams, Irish Mike Baker.
King's rise in boxing has given him international contacts, too. He boasts of telling former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that there were places he could go that Kissinger could not. Later, he said, he stood on the ground in Zaire discussing with officials whether Kissinger should be allowed to land.
In fact, the fight that established King in boxing was an international event seen by over a billion people -- the Ali-Foreman fight. He said he had to go outside the country to get started because he says white American promoters did not want to give him a chance.
"At first, they freezed me out here," he said. "I had to go around the world . . . then, when I was a success, they welcomed me here as the prodigal son come home."
King's use of his blackness as a stick is both responsible for getting him started and for his continued troubles. Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, was looking for a black promoter to handle Ali's fights and gave King the chance to do a fight in Africa -- the Foreman bout. At the time, there were no black promoters.
And King is well known for using race as leverage in making deals with boxers. Arum, his rival, bitterly recalls that King called him the "slavemaster," because he was a white promoting fights between blacks. King has used race in the boardrooms, too, to bargain with white businessmen and TV executives.
"Now, I just can't believe the way he plays the skin game," said a TV executive who asked not to be named. "Now, everybody is trying to keep from cracking up when he goes into that. But, you know, he's not laughing."
King's use of race as a bargaining tool is so well known that when James Earl Jones played King in a recent TV movie (wearing a wig to get the hair right), one basic line for the TV character, to both businessmen and pretty women, was "You don't like me because I'm black."
In person, King remains very racially conscious, even tense despite his wealth and ability to move easily in the white world: "Can't assimilate so don't alienate . . . I've only moved out on the periphery of the ghetto. I'm an extention of the ghetto."
But, again, King is a man of contradictions. He was recently upbraided by Arthur Ashe, cochairman of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, for his part in the Page-Coetzee fight in South Africa.
"He's always talking about his principles," said Larry Holmes, one of King's main boxers and the heavyweight champ. "It seems to me he sold 'em."
But King's stand on South Africa continues to be that he is opposed to arranging fights there. He said he simply sold his rights to the fight for $1 million and had nothing to do with where it was held.
Even so, King's awkward stance on South Africa is mentioned by critics and friends, less to condemn than to illustrate that they don't know what drives him -- money, fame, power? Taking Advantage of the Rules
"My only criticism of Don King," said Condon, "is that he signs a lot of fighters to options that freeze them. They can't fight if they don't fight for him and he doesn't want some fights."
"Don King has taken advantage of every rule in the book," said Pacheco, the NBC boxing consultant. "If he can't have a fight he'll sign both fighters anyway so no one else can have the fight . . . He's a very good businessman; he's taken advantage of the same things that made the Kennedys, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers -- hard work, dedication, persuasion, toughness. King did it."
"Don King is a pain to negotiate with," said Mike Trainer, who represented Sugar Ray Leonard. "He puts outrageous proposals on the table, he puts on his acts . . . "
"He's a very tough negotiator," said Dan Duva, another promoter.
"You tell me how Don King was able to get millions for a nothing fight between Holmes and 'Bonecrusher' Smith, you tell me," said one boxing official. "I've seen him sign a contract for too much money with a fighter. The fight goes off and King comes back to the fighter and says, 'We took a bath.' Suddenly it's 'we.' He tells the kids they have to take a cut (accept less money). The kids don't want to go to court so they say it's all right . . . King tells them he will make it up to them next time. What a line.
"He will sign for fights with people telling them that they can make all the money he is charging them. But not everyone is Las Vegas and can make the money back at the craps tables."
King, the former 112-pound flyweight Golden Gloves boxer from Cleveland, sees the muttering, finger-pointing and head-shaking as pointless jealousy.
Says King, "I've played it according to their rules. And now they want to change the rules, they want to believe I'm breaking some law. I came into boxing because it is the last vestige of free enterprise. You can make money on your talent and hard work . . . I outcompete every promoter in the business."