Humility, thy name is not Don King. As quiet as a 21-gun salute, as modest as George Patton, King is a character of both epic proportions (he’s 6'4" tall and weighs well over 250 pounds) and epic pronouncements. “My life,” he once said, “is a living testimony and is an incongruity and a contradiction to what America has hitherto asked for success.” If that isn’t clear, at least this is: Asked what he fears most in life, King unhesitatingly replied, “The repo man.” Despite his success as a kind of latter-day, shock-haired P. T. Barnum, King is not a victim of hubris. Just ask him. “I am one of the masses, not the classes,” he says. “I have exemplified Rudyard Kipling when he said you can walk with kings and yet keep the common touch. I’ve not lost my sense of balance. My equilibrium is impeccable.” Since 1974, when he matched Muhammad Ali against George Foreman in a heavy-weight title fight staged in Kinshasa, Zaire–a bout he dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle–King has been pro boxing’s premiere promoter. And since the retirement of Ali, he has also been the sport’s leading personality. But perhaps his chief claim to fame is as an instantly recognizable dispenser of ballyhoo at boxing matches and on TV shows around the universe.
Who is this guy? Is King just another flimflam man? The brother from another planet? Now, that’s a possibility: “Space is not space between the earth and the sun to one who looks down from the windows of the Milky Way,” he once told a reporter.
Here on earth, King lives in a $5,000,000 home with his wife, Henrietta, on a 188-acre compound 60 miles from Cleveland that also contains houses for his son, Carl, 30, and daughter, Deborah, 26. (His other son, Erik, 34, lives off the estate.) In New York, King owns a four-story brownstone in the East 60s that serves as his pied-à-terre and operates Don King Productions from a four-story building on East 69th Street.
Although King’s biggest splash has been with heavyweights–he promoted Ali’s biggest fights and those of his successors, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson–he has promotional ties to nearly 100 fighters. A one-man monopoly, he also has a legion of critics. For several years, many of them griped that he gave special consideration to fighters managed by Carl, a charge King never disputed. “A father wouldn’t be worth his salt if he didn’t help his son,” he says, but he points out that Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, favors his family the same way without criticism.
King thinks that much of the griping directed at him is the result of jealousy mixed with racism. Never one to answer succinctly when a bouquet of words will do, he says, “When I deal with jealousy, I remember Othello, the Moor of Venice, and Desdemona–one of the first mixed marriages in history. Both of them loved each other dearly, but from outside agitation and outside influences, it became a tragedy. Shakespeare penned, ‘Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ.’ So no matter how trivial it is, how small it is, you can’t allow the seed of jealousy to fester in your breast.”
The purplish prose is pure King, a brand of street talk that is routinely interspersed with quotes (and near quotes) from Schopenhauer; Plato, Nietzsche, Socrates, Voltaire, Spinoza and his two favorites, Bill Shakespeare and Kahlil Gibran. Listening to King rattle on can be daunting, but one thing is clear: When he says he has “gone from the guttermost to the uttermost,” he’s not just whistling “Dixie.”
Born in a poor black neighborhood in Cleveland on August 20, 1931, Donald King was one of five sons and a daughter born to Hattie and Clarence King. On December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, his father, a worker at Jones and Laughlin Steel, was killed in an explosion of molten metal. With the double indemnity for the accidental death, King’s mother moved the family to a better neighborhood–“to give us a little better opportunity to get an education.”
But money soon became scarce. King’s mother and his sister, Evelyn, baked pies at home that the boys sold. The King brothers also earned money by buying 100-pound bags of peanuts, which they roasted and sold in small bags into which they had inserted a “lucky” number. “We’d go to the policy house, where they used to draw the numbers, and I’d shout, ‘Buy your hot roasted peanuts and lucky numbers!’” King recalls. “I would look through Kansas City Kid, The Three Wise Men and the Red Devil dream books to come up with my combinations, and even at ten, I was very organized–I’d write down where I sold my bags and what the numbers were, and if a customer won on one of them, I’d track him down and get a tip.”
While a student at John Adams High School, he tried his hand at boxing: Donald “The Kid” King fought in the Cleveland Golden Gloves as a 108-pound flyweight, won one bout, won a second on a bye and in his third, lost a decision. He and other aspiring fighters from Cleveland then went to Schenectady, New York, for a night of bouts against New York amateurs. “I was doing great until the second round, when I got nailed on the chin,” King remembers. “It felt like somebody had hit me with a lead pipe. When you get knocked out, you really do hear bells ringing–at least I did. I remember thinking, What am I doing here? There’s got to be a better way. After that, The Kid’s career in fisticuffs was over, at least from the perspective of becoming a boxer.”
Following his graduation from high school, King was accepted at Kent State University and needed $600 for tuition. He earned it as a numbers runner the summer before he was to enroll but then lost it all when he misplaced a betting slip that won; he personally had to ante up $580. At that point, King went into the numbers business full time, and before he was 30, he’d become one of Cleveland’s biggest policy bankers. All went smoothly for him until 1967, when he got into a fight with one of his employees that resulted in the man’s death and a four-year prison sentence. Less than a year after he was released, King promoted a charity bout with Muhammad Ali, and the rest has been a very vivid chapter of public-relations history.
To interview boxing’s most prolix promoter, Playboy asked free-lance journalist Lawrence Linderman to meet with King. His report:
“King has long been hopelessly addicted to hyperbole, which he finds far more intoxicating than any other substance; he doesn’t drink or smoke, and the only drug he stocks is aspirin, presumably for people who may get headaches listening to the man go on. And he does go on. Thus, it’s no wonder that the public sees him as a hustler who could come up with a profitable scam alone on a raft in the Pacific. Privately, however, King is as bright as he is cunning, and his dedication to black causes goes well beyond any cursory bows in that direction. Last year, for instance, he successfully led a movement to suspend South Africa from the World Boxing Council, for which he was honored with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Humanitarian Award.
"For some time now, one of King’s closest associates has been the Reverend Al Sharpton, a highly visible New York civil rights activist and something of a high-flown talker himself. When I met Reverend Sharpton in Las Vegas, he exclaimed, ‘Don King is the first black business personality to become a household name in the U.S. We’ve never had a Lee Iacocca or a Henry Ford. That’s a breakthrough and that’s where we need to be going–from the era of Dr. Martin Luther King to Don King. Dr. King said that our last battle would be on the economic front, and maybe he saw Don King coming. If Don King fails, then Dr. King’s dream really fails.’
"A few weeks after that rather sweeping comparison, Sharpton made front-page news when he admitted to having been a paid Government informant for the past five years, reportedly carrying a wire for Federal investigations of organized-crime figures and prominent blacks. In New York, rumors quickly spread that he might have divulged damaging information about Don King to Federal authorities–and that Sharpton might be involved in corruption. King’s initial response to all that was a curt ‘Al Sharpton is my friend.’"King himself is no stranger to allegations of corruption, a topic we discuss vigorously in the interview. But the conversation began on a far lighter note.”
Playboy: When David Letterman interviewed you, his first question was, “So, Don, what’s the deal with your hair?” That seems right to us. Once and for all, what is the deal?
King: It’s really like an aura from God. Until ten years ago or so, my hair was kinky and nappy and curly, like any other black’s. But then one night I went to bed with my wife, Henrietta, and she shook me because my head was rumbling and moving and my hair was just popping up–ping, ping, ping, ping! Each hair. All them curls was straightening out and going up. Henrietta couldn’t believe what was going on, so she woke me up and said, “Look at yourself in the mirror.” And what I saw is what you’re seeing now.
Playboy: What was your reaction?
King: Well, I was alarmed. In fact, that morning, I went down to the barbershop to get a haircut, because the sight of my hair standing straight up didn’t make my day at all. The barber plugged in his clippers and tried putting them to my hair, but all he got was static electricity; there were sparks and I heard a lot of pop, pop, pop! I had to leave the shop because the clippers were giving me a migraine headache. So I decided it was like a direction being set for me, and I haven’t had a pair of clippers on my head in more than ten years.
Playboy: Sounds strange to us, Don.
King: It does sound a little unbelievable, but it happened. My hair is au naturel. I don’t use any type of chemicals or mousse on it; it just grows straight up. No matter if it’s when I go to bed or in the morning when I get up, I can go right to the mirror and my hair’s in a pyramid, like there’s 360 degrees of light.
When it first happened, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but now I feel it was an omen, and I liken myself to Samson–you know, the Lord gave him the strength in his hair. And I attribute my success to the Lord, for it is only through God that it could have happened. It would not have been possible without He who sits high, looks low and keeps His eye on the sparrow. There is no other way. I feel that as long as my hair ascends to the heavens, whatever modicum of success I’ve achieved will continue. The day that I let my vanity and ego posses me to the extent that think the world is surrounded by me, that will be the day my star will cascade to the earth, precipitously and with a loud clamor, and there will be no more Don King!
Playboy: Spoken like the Don King we’ve come to appreciate. When you get wound up that way, the public seems to love it. But is that persona real or some character you’ve made up?
King: That, my man, is a profession. It’s an art and a God-given talent to be able to relate and identify with people the way I do. Whenever I go on a TV show or appear in public, it’s the same thing as Bill Cosby going on stage or Paul Newman and Marlon Brando getting in front of a camera.
The part of me the public sees is someone promoting an event and promising to give people excitement. In public, I’m all sizzle, but you’ve also got to have the substance of the steak to get repeat trade. And so far, my sizzle has been outdone by my substance–the products I deliver.
Playboy: Does everyone buy your sizzle?
King: Those who can’t comprehend think I might be unsavory; they try to make me into a snake-oil salesman or something.
Playboy: Well, haven’t you said that if need be, you could sell freezers to Eskimos?
King: The thing is, if I had a deepfreeze of such quality that when I sold it, it would be received and enjoyed, then, yes, I could. There’s nothing wrong with being big or making a lot of money–I’m a capitalist hands down. But basically and fundamentally, I’m a performer, and my hallmarks are integrity and commitment.
And I deliver. I have never failed to deliver. That’s what makes me remarkable. When I first came on the scene, they said, “The black promoter–he got lucky because Muhammad Ali liked him and allowed him to promote his fights. Without Ali, King wouldn’t be able to do anything.” Well, here we are, almost 15 years later, and the fact of the matter is, I’ve continued to excel. People no longer say black promoter about me; that qualifier has been removed, because by now, I’ve established myself as a promoter of the people, for the people and by the people. And my magic lies in my people ties.
Playboy: Wouldn’t you say that it also lies in having an eye for the theatrical?
King: That’s creative genius, and you can’t discount it. When you create a title for an event, like the Rumble in the Jungle, which was the fight between George Foreman and Ali, or the Thrilla in Manila, which was the third fight between Ali and Joe Frazier, you are creating extravaganzas that will attract people from all walks of life.
Let me give you an education in Kingism. In business, you have supply and demand. All right, now, where there is no demand, you have to create it. And then you have to create a supply to fulfill that demand. Now you’ve got something to sell, something with which to make things happen. And that’s what I love about what I do. I aspire to the heavens. I transcend earthly bounds. I never cease to amaze myself, because I haven’t yet found my limits. I am quite ready to accept the limits of what I can do, but every time I feel that way, boom!–God touches me, and I do something else that’s even more stupendous than whatever I’ve done up to then.
Playboy: It sounds as if being Don King is really one thrill after another.
King: Every day of my life is history! I’ve broken every record known to man in promotion: I’ve had the first $1,000,000 fight sold to TV, the first billion-people audience for one of my spectaculars. I’ve done more than 200 world-title fights, and no one has ever touched that–from Tex Richard to P.T. Barnum. I started not at zero, but at subzero. As a black man, I’m one of those who’ve been dispossessed, disenfranchised, left out–but somehow, I found an opportunity to do these things, and in its own way, it’s almost a miracle.
The thing to recognize about me is my business acumen. My forte is economics; promotion is my side line. But it’s only through what I call the last vestige of free enterprise, which is boxing, that an ex-numbers banker and an ex-convict like myself got an opportunity.
Playboy: We’ll get to the numbers and prison stories later. But first, why do you consider boxing the last vestige of free enterprise?
King: Because society didn’t want to get in on it. They looked at boxing and decided that it was infiltrated with racketeers. So because it’s unorganized, it allowed a guy like me to come in. Boxing is not corporate. The greatest thing for someone like me is to be able to think and put business deals together without being a graduate of Yale, Harvard, Princeton or Oxford. But I’ve had to deal with those kinds of people. To do so, you have to create a sound, constructive business deal, which means recoupment to investment and bottom-line profit, in order to stay in business.
On top of that, I then had to be able to ensure the success of the promotions by capturing the imagination and the attention of people who might otherwise not be very interested in boxing.
Playboy: In the course of doing all that, you’ve also made yourself into a public attraction. At what point did you decide to promote yourself as well as the fights you stage?
King: Well, that didn’t come from trying to promote me; that came from doing my job. Many people don’t really understand. They say, “Don, you have done the most phenomenal job of promoting yourself of anyone I’ve known.” They say I’m more well known than my fighters. The only reason for that is that I work at my job; but it ain’t about me, it’s about the attractions.
By promoting these guys, I established myself as the one in this game who was reliable, who was going to be there in the long run. In so doing, I couldn’t help but promote myself, because I became the staying factor. And I worked at it so good–so dedicatedly, so assiduously–that I became an entity by myself. I work hard at my trade, but I never forget that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a Muhammad Ali or a George Foreman.
Playboy: But still, your profession isn’t easy to classify.
King: Well, I’m not an entertainer who can sing and do the moon walk. And I can’t dunk a basketball or hit a baseball. Yet we live in a time when the people behind these successes in entertainment and sports are white. There’s still few black coaches, no black general managers, yet most of the pawns in professional sports are black. They go out there and they can outrun an antelope.
And what Ali told me when I first came into boxing was, “We need someone to come into this sport to represent us. People think that the fight game is black, but we are the gladiators in the center of the ring. We don’t have no voice in the box office, we have nobody in the board room and we have no promoters. All where the money goes is white; all where the blood goes is black.”
And this is the way it is. I wanted to change that, and I have. I’m a pioneer and a trail blazer, but I’m also human, and sometimes I get melancholy. I look at all that I’m doing for people and for myself, and yet, in the press, all I get is scorn and the casting of aspersions.
Playboy: Why do you think that’s the case?
King: I think it’s because I’ve never had a reporter who had the depth to see and write what I’m all about. You must understand that reporters are very important people–they paint the pictures. An ordinary artist will look at a wall and say, “That’s a gray wall, a bleak wall.” But a great artist will look at the same wall and say, “See that crack over there? It’s like the river of life,” and then he’ll paint a beautiful picture.
Playboy: Well, we won’t interpret what you say. The virtue of this interview is that you’re the artist here.
King: Well, then, I’m going to paint for you. I’m going to be a Michelangelo, a Picasso, and I just hope that you will take my painting and put it out there for the people to see. I want people to know that Don King has a lot of textures. He praises this country and extols its virtues but also decries its evils. Slavery stripped blacks of our culture and familyhood, and the first thing we must do is rebuild the black family, the respect and love for the family that form a bond that can go from generation to generation. And I feel that by doing so, the black community will benefit and, in turn, that will inure to the betterment of America. I also feel very strongly about education, because when you educate people, no one can take your ideas away from you. The world worships an original, a creator. The rest are imitators.
Playboy: Did you just give us Ayn Rand?
King: Yeah, that’s from The Fountainhead, and it’s so true. Once you’re educated, no one can steal what’s in your mind. And I preach that to little kids from Harlem to Appalachia–white ones, too. Because there are guys up in the hills that don’t have educations and don’t realize they’ll be exploited the same as a black. We have white niggers, too. And we can’t rely on the Government to turn things around; we have to do it ourselves.
Playboy: Some of the aspersions you’ve suffered have come from the U.S. Government. Specifically, you were indicted some years ago by the IRS on tax-fraud charges. Did that come as a surprise?
King: No, because I’ve always been under undue scrutiny and pressure. And I really think it’s remarkable that I have existed and progressed with every one of society’s protective institutions on my back–the FBI, the CIA, the IRS and even Interpol, for my international activity. Everybody has had me under the eye of a microscope for many years now, and for me to walk out scot-free–that was phenomenal, because the best in the world can be found guilty of some kind of an income-tax indiscretion.
Playboy: Why do you think the Government got on your case in the first place?
King: Well, they accused me of a lot of the unsavory things that white promoters have done before me. In a way, I was carrying the burden of the white guys who were there before me. When the IRS came at me, my greatest fear was that I’d be framed. As far as me being guilty of anything, I knew that wasn’t going to be. The IRS came at me with about 23 charges–they threw a fish net out, hoping to catch something.
Playboy: Why would they have done that?
King: Because, like many other people in America, they feel that blacks can’t think. I’m a successful black, and even successful blacks are stereotyped to believe that they could not have been successful unless they were just a shield behind which some white was doing their thinking, directing and maneuvering for them.
So, coming from that basic view of blacks, they said to me, “How is it humanly possible for a nigger to think like you think? To do the things that you do, you’ve got to have either some racketeers or some mobsters behind you, because this is a sleazy business.” That’s always been the image of boxing.
Playboy: It isn’t a sleazy business?
King: No, it’s not. Some of the people in it are sleazy–that’s always been true. But the thing is, boxing has been disorganized, and all the stories you hear about it have been about organized crime and guys who shoot you or put cement shoes on you and throw you in the lake. That’s who a lot of writers have associated me with. Isn’t that preposterous? Can you imagine? If I have a mob, my mob must be pussies–they don’t break no legs, they don’t put nobody in cement shoes.
Playboy: No one’s charging you with being a mobster, but you have been accused of some very unsavory practices. In 1977, for instance, you staged a national boxing tournament that collapsed when the press discovered that the records of many of the fighters involved were fraudulent. You take no responsibility for that?
King: No, and it’s a shame that happened, because that tournament was one of the greatest contributions I ever made to the sport of boxing. But then the discrepancies arose about some of the fighters' records, and that wasn’t my doing. I worked with people who I felt were credible–I got James Farley of the New York State Athletic Commission to oversee the whole thing, and I put Ring magazine, the Bible of boxing, in charge of ranking fighters and knowing who they were. There was some shabby record keeping on the part of Ring, and when that was discovered, the media wanted to nail me to the cross. I was completely exonerated; but except for the New York Post, which put out a full back-page story saying “King Innocent,” the rest of the press buried news of my vindication in short paragraphs you had to dig for.
Playboy: You’ve also been criticized for not promoting boxers unless they agree to give you options on upcoming fights, which can tie them to you for years. Do you see nothing wrong with that?
King: No, I don’t. The press has made option a dirty word in boxing, yet every sport has options. In baseball, you can’t play for no other team until you play out your option and become a free agent. Football, hockey–they all got option clauses, and for a good reason: How else do you protect your business interests? If I’ve invested a great deal of time and millions of dollars in building up a fighter, and if he becomes a champion, should I just let him go off and work for another promoter? If I get a guy a title fight, he gives me options on his next three fights. I think that’s equitable.
I’ve also given people releases on their contracts, but you never hear about that. I’m accused of all sorts of things, but where’s the proof? Last year, Sports Illustrated assigned one of their writers to do a cover story on me, and for two months–helped by all kinds of documents I turned over to him–the man checked me out. When he turned in his work–he couldn’t find no mark on me–his editors canceled the story. I can just hear them saying, “We thought you were going to write that he’s connected with the Mafia or something. Don’t bring us this shit–we don’t want to lionize the nigger.”
Playboy: We’ll be interested to see what Sports Illustrated has to say when this interview comes out. In the meantime, do you really think you’ve been victimized by the media?
King: Yes, but I’m a victim who’s well briefed and who understands what the situation is. I learned years ago, in reading Shakespeare, that “sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” The press has sometimes treated me badly, but I found the jewel in adversity. The jewel is being able to understand the other man’s perspective. If I was raised in a society where I was told that a different race of people were of no account and lazy and untrustworthy and that all they did was lie and steal–with that being instilled in me all through my life, I’d probably feel the same way as many reporters I meet.
So I try to teach white people about black people, because I know about white people. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Caucasianism, but they don’t know about us. It’s a shortcoming for whites not to know about us, because we do exist, and you would be proud to learn about us, my white brothers. We know when you’re hurt. We know when you feel bad, and when that happens, so do we. We’re worried about your children. Throughout the life of black people–though they’ve been enslaved, tormented, tortured and persecuted–they’ve always taken care of the babies of the white master and his wife.
You never met another race of people like black people. During the Civil War of this great nation, there actually were slaves fighting for enslavement, as well as those who were fighting for liberty. Now, you know it’s incongruous that you would fight to be enslaved, but in many cases, the love between the master’s family and the slave far exceeded what was rational, given the circumstances.
Playboy: Let’s return to your early days in boxing. You said Ali was the first to suggest you make it a career. How did your friendship with him begin?
King: That came from me knowing Ali before he was forced to give up his title over Vietnam. In those days, I was in the numbers business in Cleveland, and whenever Ali–or any black celebrities–came through Cleveland, they would come to see me, because I was where the action was. All the musicians, all the people that were into the life would stop by my night club–the New Corner Tavern Supper Club–which was part of what we used to call the Chitlin' Route. B.B. King, Esther Phillips, Lloyd Price, Muddy Waters, Oscar Peterson, Lou Rawls–they all played my club. Erroll Garner–he wrote Misty–played so good that I put in a piano bar for him and bought a $10,000 Steinway he’d just come by and play because it was tuned to his liking. The New Corner Tavern Supper Club took up a square block, seated about 600 people, had a revolving stage and was posh, elegant and luxurious. In addition to the best entertainment in the world, we had great food. In 1960, I was paying my chefs $30,000 a year, and white folks used to come by all the time, the same way they used to go up to Harlem in New York. I had the carriage trade. I was one of the affluent and I used to go all the big black outings of sophistication and glamor.
Playboy: Were Ali’s fights in that category?
King: Oh, yeah, they were like family reunions for all the players and hustlers, the money handlers and high rollers in the black community throughout the nation. I traveled with Ali. The last fight I went to with him was in 1967, when he gave a boxer named Zora Folley a payday at Madison Square Garden–Ali knocked him out. That was just before Ali went into exile and I went to prison–we both did four years.
When I got out, I brought him to Cleveland to do an exhibition for me–at the time, Cleveland had the only black hospital in Ohio, and the state was about to close it down. Ali boxed five rounds with five different guys, and we raised enough money to save the hospital. Ali told me, “You know, Donald, you’re the best promoter I’ve ever seen. You really should go into boxing–you did a phenomenal job.”
Playboy: You went to prison for killing a man named Sam Garrett. You’ve never discussed it in any detail. Can you tell us what happened?
King: I got into a fistfight in Cleveland. And out of the 10,000 daily fights in the ghetto, I had the misfortune to fight with a person who was sickly.
Playboy: What led to the fight?
King: Well, back then, most of the guys in the community who were getting out of prison knew they could come to me for help. I’d give them a few bucks and let them go on their way. When this guy Garrett got out of jail, friends of mine recommended him to me, so I gave him a job.
Playboy: Doing what?
King: I let him take some of my layoff bets–those were bets I laid off with other bookies on numbers I thought might hit. He became one of my runners. Well, one day, he came back to me and said, “I have an overlook”–that’s when there’s an oversight. The bookmaker he laid off the bets with supposedly didn’t pay him, because the guy had no record of the bet. I gave this man the tissue on the book–the paperwork showing that the number was bet–to take over to this other bookmaker.
The next day, he came back and he still didn’t have the money. He said, “The guy still hasn’t paid me; he keeps giving me stories.” I said, “You stop making up stories.”
Playboy: You had checked?
King: Other people had told me. So I said, “I can’t play with you anymore.” I wasn’t going to do anything more than that, because I had too much to lose by getting into big trouble in an argument over $1000 or so. So I just told him I was disassociating myself from him. That should have been it. We were in a bar, and when I left, he followed me outside, saying, “Man, you can’t stop playing with me.” I said, “I just stopped. I don’t want anything to do with you till you pay me my money; you bring me my money, then I’ll listen.”
Then this guy called me a Mickey Mouse motherfucker and attacked me from the rear. So we got into a fistfight, and his head hit the pavement. He went to the hospital and I was charged with aggravated assault. Seven or eight days later, he expired. An untimely death. I found myself instrumental in the fatality of a fellow human being, and I’ve suffered deep contribution since then.
Playboy: When Garrett died, was the charge upped to manslaughter?
King: No. When the district attorney’s office found out I was Donald King, the numbers man, the charges were upped to second-degree murder. It had happened in a hot part of Cleveland when the Hough riots were going on, and I guess the D.A.’s office felt that in getting rid of Don King, it could rid Cleveland of all the evils that ailed it. They wanted to get rid of me, because it was very difficult for them to understand my success in a time when blacks were protesting the way they were being treated. And here they saw a brash young black man, impeccably dressed and riding around in a new Cadillac. When I finally came up for trial, however, the judge reduced the charge against me to manslaughter.
King: Because it had been an accident–there wasn’t willful intent on my part. Witnesses to the fight had all seen that I’d been attacked without provocation. The primary reason, though, was that when the guy attacked me, I had a .357 Magnum on the seat of my car and I didn’t use it–and I could have gotten to it. I was getting in my car when he hit me from the back, and the gun was lying right there. But I left it sitting there on the seat.
Playboy: Why were you carrying a gun in the first place?
King: When you’re carrying a lot of money, you carry a gun for protection. You’re running from the shop to shop and people know that you are doing this, so you need some protection. I never particularly cared for having a bodyguard, because that’s a part of a gangster’s image, and I never wanted to be a gangster.
Playboy: But you ran an illegal numbers racket.
King: Really, to me, being a numbers writer was being a businessman. Gangsterism calls for violence, and I didn’t indulge in that. Mine was a case of self-defense, and I really believe I wouldn’t have been convicted of anything if I hadn’t been in the numbers business. It would have been judged as justifiable homicide, but when you’re involved in something that’s illegal according to statutory law, you waive your rights. When you break the law, you give the law a license to indiscriminately do whatever it wants with you, without recourse, without compunction and without remorse.
Playboy: You spent four years in prison.
King: Yes, I was sent to the Marion Correctional Institution in the southern part of Ohio, and it was a dark, dreary world of confinement. When I arrived, they still made all the blacks walk behind the whites. I got a job on the prison farm so I could get some fresh air. The farm boss gave me a wheelbarrow and said, “I hear you drove a Cadillac when you was out on the street. Here, grab this Cadillac.” I had to clean the pigpen.
Playboy: How did you get along in prison?
King: I got along well, because I always watch the lay of the land; you know what I mean? In Rome, you got to do what the Romans do. I found the guys in there that were the tough guys, got respect from them and made friends with them and didn’t have no problems. My only problem was being there–it was hell, man. When you’re in jail, you’re totally isolated from family, friends, everybody. After a while, people don’t write you letters, and visits become few and far between. That was the most painful, excruciating period of my life.
Playboy: What did you do to pass the time?
King: I really didn’t serve the time–I made the time serve me. I escaped through books; I read thousands of books. On my first day in prison, a guy gave me a book called The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and I lay there on my bed in a four-man cell, and I just went deep into this book. Reading about Rome gave me the appetite to read whatever I could get my hands on. I then got a job in the kitchen making coffee for all the different shifts, and when I finished. I’d sit in a little room in the kitchen and read, and when I got off, I’d go to the library. I tried to escape by reading other people’s ideas and putting my ideas with theirs and developing a sense of discipline. I learned that I can live without anybody. In its own way, that’s a kind of freedom that is very difficult to come by.
Playboy: Did you get interested in any political movements while in prison?
King: The movement I wanted to be part of was one of humanistic adaptation, human acceptance–and I saw that all movements were more or less the same, at least in this sense: Everybody wanted to be free. But in reading about black history, I was left with the question of why, just because of color, a whole race of people could be subjugated and subordinated to become sniveling idiots and imbeciles and beasts of burden treated without any compassion or remorse. How do you justify that? What is the reason? What blasphemy, what traitorous deed did we do to deserve this?
So then I read what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had to say. Malcolm said, “If you hit me, I’m going to hit you back.” Martin Luther King said, “If you hit me, I’m going to turn the other cheek.”
Playboy: And what did Don King say?
King: I said, “You got to get some money.” I understood that freedom was a very cherished and precious thing, but in all cases, there remained one factor: economic independence. Every ethnic group has to attain economic independence to be a participant in the power-sharing process.
Playboy: What were the differences between the Don King who went into prison and the Don King who came out?
King: The Don King who went in was armed with a peashooter; the one who came out was armed with an atomic bomb of knowledge and understanding–I was thinking universally and in terms of society as a whole. I’d changed considerably.
Playboy: Did you know what you were going to do with your life?
King: No, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to subject myself to the humiliation of not having the benefit of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So I knew I did not want to go back into the numbers game; I knew I did not want to be part of anything that was going to be illegal. In a way, prison turned out to be another jewel in adversity, because if I hadn’t gone to prison, I never would have gotten out of the numbers game.
Playboy: What did you do instead?
King: My wife and I sat down, and Henrietta strongly advised me to wait a few months–at least until the new year–before making any decisions regarding an occupation. That’s when I started reading all the newspaper articles and seeing all the television news stories about how the Forest City Hospital was gonna be shut down. Although raising money to save a hospital wasn’t my forte, I got together with the pillars of black society in Cleveland and put on that exhibition with Ali.
Playboy: And that was when Ali encouraged you.
King: Yes. I told Ali I didn’t want to be a promoter, because I didn’t know anything about boxing, but he said, “Man, you could promote anything. Just think about it and let me know what happens.” A few days later, Don Elbaum, the local boxing promoter who’d gotten me the fighters for the hospital benefit, came to dinner at my house and echoed Ali’s words. It was Elbaum who introduced me to Hank Schwartz and Barry Burnstein, the two men who owned Video Techniques, an exhibition company that had bought the rights to the closed-circuit telecast of the Joe Frazier-George Foreman fight. I went to see Hank Schwartz in New York, and after we talked awhile, he said, “You really know Ali?” When I told him I did, Hank said, “That’s great. You know, there would be a big match for Ali with the winner of this fight.” So Hank agreed to send me to Kingston, Jamaica, to see the Foreman-Frazier fight and to help them promote it–he felt I could get Ali, Foreman and Frazier to do interviews.
Playboy: And he thought you might be the one to persuade the winner to fight Ali?
King: Yeah, he figured I might have an in–he later began calling me his “black interface.” I said, “Well, we’ll see what happens,” and off I went to Jamaica.
Playboy: Did you know Frazier and Foreman?
King: I didn’t know Foreman. George was a big cantankerous country kid from Texas, one of them mountain boys who was as powerful as all outdoors. He was a very different animal than Ali. You could excite Ali by talking about his greatness and relating his exploits, but George didn’t want to hear stuff like that. And you didn’t want to say anything that was facetious, and you dare not make fun of George–he was most serious. His thing was to demonstrate to the world that he didn’t have to be a clown to show he meant business. He considered Ali a clown.
Playboy: What did he consider you?
King: A friend–I really liked old George, and still do. George is making a comeback now, and if he keeps knocking out guys the way he’s been doing, he’s gonna have some big paydays.
Anyway, let me just say that I ingratiated myself with George. I went with him to the airport every day to pick up members of his family. Once I started talking to him, I began telling him, “You’re going to knock Joe out.” He’d say, “You think so, man?” I told him, “Sure, you will. George, you don’t know how good you are.”
I only made one mistake with Foreman, but it wasn’t fatal. One day, I said, “You know, Ali ain’t so bad–he helped me with a hospital benefit.” George said, “Man, don’t tell me nothing about that guy–he’s a clown. I ain’t even thinking about what you’re saying.” I thought, Freeze on that, D.K. I said, “Yeah, well, the important thing is that you’re the man of the hour.”
Playboy: Did you also ingratiate yourself with Joe Frazier?
King: Yes, but that wasn’t as difficult, because Yank Durham, Joe’s manager, still knew me as a player–before I went to prison, I’d seen most of Frazier’s fights. So in Jamaica, when I went over to where Frazier was training, Yank said, “Where you been?” and after that, we’d sit and talk during the afternoons.
Playboy: At that point, no one knew you were trying to break into boxing?
King: Right. I still had celebrity status from the other side of the street. Meanwhile, Ali shows up in Kingston, and he’s selling my virtues about what I’d done in staging that hospital benefit. I started playing golf most every day with Yank Durham, and afterward, I’d go over and watch Joe work out.
Playboy: What was your impression of Frazier?
King: Frazier was tough, tough, tough. In training, he would just kill his sparring partners–he was always a rough fighter. When me, him and Durham would rap, Joe would say, “I’m gonna give Foreman a good whuppin', gonna teach him a lesson.” He thought George was a baby, because George didn’t have no experience. Foreman was big and strong, but so was Joe, and Joe felt he had the knowledge to take care of business.
Playboy: Did you tell Foreman about any of that?
King: I told him about it the next day. George said, “Come on, man, you’re jiving. Did Joe really say he’s gonna knock me out?” I said, “Yeah, George, he told me that, but you’re going to knock him out. You’re going to shock the world.” And he did.
Playboy: Did that surprise you?
King: Yeah, because he did it so easily. On fight night, I got into a limousine with Durham and Joe Frazier and rode to the stadium with soldiers on both sides of us, sirens all the way. Yank had told me to sell my tickets and gave me a seat in the first row, right behind Joe’s corner.
So I’m sitting there, and when the bell rings to start the fight, George runs out there and hits Joe, and Joe goes down, gets up, goes down, get up–boom, boom, boom. Joe was getting pummeled, so I started moving down the row over to George’s corner. When the bell rang at the end of round one, I was in the middle of the aisle. Everybody was standing up and cheering, because George done bounced Frazier up and down like a rubber ball.
When round two started, George ran out of his corner and hit Joe with another haymaker–bang! He hit him so hard that Joe was lifted up in the air; I’ve never seen anything like that. They stopped the fight quick; Foreman won by a technical knockout. When the fight was over, I shot up the steps and jumped into the ring with George and said, “Champ, I told you so.” He said, “You sure did.” We’re hugging and I’m telling him how proud I am of him and George says, “You’ve got to come home with me,” so I did.
I went to the fight with one champion and left with the new champion, again with the police escorts and sirens going. I really loved being part of the hoopla and electricity that surround a heavyweight championship fight. Then and there is when I decided to get into boxing full time.
Playboy: And you made moves in that direction when you returned from Jamaica?
King: Yes. When I came back, I went to see Ali at his training camp in Deer Park, Pennsylvania. I told Ali how excited I was about the whole thing, and that I wanted to take him up on what he said about me getting into boxing. Well, Ali had a fighter in his camp named Ray Anderson, a light heavyweight who’d fought Bob Foster for the title. Ali told me I should become a manager, introduced me to Anderson and said, “You ought to start out with this guy.” So I talked to Ray, and he agreed to let me manage him.
Playboy: Had you thought of becoming a manager at that point?
King: No, but it was a good place to start, even if it meant starting at the bottom. Ray told me about another fighter I should manage: Earnie Shavers. Shavers had knocked out some tough fighters and he had a pretty good name. Earnie was big and strong and looked very mean, but he was just like a pussycat when you talked to him. Ray said that Earnie had never gotten a break, and that if I worked with him, Earnie could go a long ways. I said OK, and Ray told Shavers about me and it was fine with him. So now I had two fighters, and I needed to get them bouts.
Playboy: Was that hard to do?
King: No, because I decided to personally promote a fight for Ray Anderson in Cleveland and told him he could hand-pick his opponent. Ray said, “I got just the guy–Cookie Wallace from Dallas. This is a guy who comes to fight. I know I can beat him, and since he makes a good fight, I’ll look good in beating him.” I said fine, and called up Cookie Wallace, who turned out to be a baggage handler at Dallas airport. When I got him on the phone, Cookie said he’d try to put on a good show for me, and I believed him. I’d rented the Cleveland Music Hall, and I just didn’t want the fight to be a stinker.
Playboy: Was it a stinker?
King: Not at all. On the night of the fight, Ray Anderson came to the Music Hall in a full-length mink coat, a pretty lady at his side, and he’d been training and he was ready. And Cookie–he was this guy who just couldn’t stop grinning.
Well, the fight starts and Ray’s out there, dancing and hitting Cookie–and Cookie’s still grinning. He just kept grinning and kept coming back at Ray. And then he started pounding on Ray. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I said, “This is the guy he picked?” Cookie won the fight easy, and after that, Ray’s image was really ruined. It was truly embarrassing for me, too. Everybody in Cleveland who had known me from my days in the numbers business–all the players, the boosters, the pimps and the whores–were there for one reason: to see D.K.’s fighter. And my fighter got beat by a guy he hand-picked all the way from Texas, a likable fellow who never stopped grinning.
Playboy: What about your other fighter?
King: I got Earnie a fight with Jerry Quarry in Madison Square Garden. Great prospects there, too–Ali broke training to come see the fight. Only problem there was that the bell rang and Quarry knocked my man Shavers out in the first round. That boy beat on Shavers so bad. The next day, Ali called me up. He said, “I know you’re disgusted and you probably want to get out of boxing, but don’t. Send your fighter to my camp. I’ll teach him how to box.”
Playboy: Did you think of hanging it up?
King: I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was very upset. But when Ali called me, I said, “Look, if you really want to help me and keep me in boxing, why don’t you let me promote you?” Ali said, “I already got a fight coming up.” He was scheduled for a return bout with Joe Frazier, who’d broken his jaw and won a decision in their first fight. I told him, “Ali, you’re gonna win easy. After you beat Joe, you should let me put you and George Foreman together for the world title.” He said, “You think I’m gonna beat Joe?” I said, “Man, ain’t nothing gonna stop you.”
Well, that really got Ali going. He went off on me for about ten minutes, talking about how he was gonna dance and sting Frazier all night. He whipped himself up so high, at some point, he probably started wondering why he was going through all these gyrations during a telephone call. When he calmed down, Ali said, “How much you gonna pay me to fight George Foreman?” I said, “Five million dollars.”
Playboy: Did you have that figure in mind before you got on the phone with him?
King: No, I didn’t even know he was going to call. I did know that the biggest purse in the history of boxing had been $2,500,000 apiece for Ali and Frazier in their first fight. In order to get anybody’s attention, I figured I’d have to double that, so I just said $5,000,000 off the top of my head.
Playboy: What was Ali’s reaction?
King: Ali said, “Nigger, you crazy.” When I stuck to my guns and told him I could raise that kind of money, Ali said, “Well, if you think you can, talk to Herbert”–Herbert Mohammed was his manager. He said, “I’ll talk to Herbert about you, and in the meantime, you bring Shavers to my camp and I’ll teach him to box.” I said OK. I’d planted a seed in Ali’s mind.
Playboy: How long did it take for that seed to sprout?
King: As soon as I left New York and got back to Cleveland, I called Hank at Video Techniques and told him that I’d just made an offer to Ali to fight George Foreman. Hank then invited me to go to Japan, where Foreman would be defending his title against a guy named Joe King Roman. Video Techniques was promoting the closed-circuit telecast of George’s first title defense, which didn’t last too long–George finished Roman in the first round.
Playboy: Did you talk with Foreman about fighting Ali while you were both in Tokyo?
King: No, because I didn’t spend too much time with him–besides helping Video Techniques, I was a manager, and all the guys around George were watching me very closely. By then, Hank Schwartz and Barry Burnstein had welcomed me into their company, so now I was part of Video Techniques. Hank showed me how to make money on a closed-circuit fight–how much attendance you need, what the equipment costs, how to ma