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.