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.