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Playboy Interview: Don King
  • March 11, 2011 : 00:03
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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 make deals with sponsors, everything. He really took me under his wing, even though he knew that one day, I'd leave the company and go out on my own. After we came back from Japan, we promoted the fight in Caracas, Venezuela, between George and Ken Norton, and I played a big part in holding it together, because Norton's people kept wanting to pull out. Every time they had a beef about their accommodations or transportation or tickets--whatever was bothering them--I smoothed things over and saved the fight. It turned out that Norton's style was tailor-made for George, just like Frazier's. George knocked him out quick.

Playboy: Why were these fights being staged in places like Venezuela and Japan and Jamaica?

King: Because back then, nobody thought you could guarantee big purses to fighters and still make a profit. So we went wherever we could get the money. Schwartz and I started working this way: If I could get him the fighters, he would make the deals. I began talking to Foreman in Caracas, and I got Muhammad Ali to come to Caracas and do color for the TV broadcast. By then, he'd beaten Frazier in their second fight, and a fight between Ali and Foreman seemed like it would be the biggest thing in boxing.

Playboy: If you could get it.

King: Right. But I did get it. While George was getting ready to fight Norton, Ali signed a letter of intent with me to fight George for that $5,000,000 I'd offered. Ali had always been in my corner, but he wasn't going to make a move without the approval of Herbert Mohammed, a very studious and methodical man. When I met with Herbert, he said, "What are you gonna do, judge?"--he always called me judge. I said, "I'm gonna get you $5,000,000 for Ali to fight George Foreman." Herbert wanted proof that I could raise that kind of money, so I went to a wealthy Cleveland builder named Carl Lombardo, a born-again Christian who loves boxing. I said, "Carl, what would you do if I could put George Foreman and Muhammad Ali together? He said, "Well, that would be a great promotion." I said, "Yeah, I know. Tell you what: Write me a letter saying that if I'm able to put this thing together, you'd be willing to put up $10,000,000 to pay the fighters."

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