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Playboy Interview: Don King
  • March 11, 2011 : 00:03
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Playboy: Did he do that?

King: Yeah, but only after I reassured him that I wasn't trying to commit him to anything--I just wanted him to write me a letter. So Carl wrote me the letter, and after much perseverance on my part, Herbert finally signed an agreement on behalf of Ali. I will never forget that day--I was jumping for joy. Schwartz and I then went out to Oakland, where Foreman was training, and we got him to sign a contract. I wound up convincing the government of Zaire to put up $10,000,000 for the fight, which would introduce the country to America and western Europe. Even though the Rumble in the Jungle was staged under the aegis of Video Techniques, that was the first title fight I personally put together.

Playboy: Foreman was a heavy favorite going into that fight. Did you think he would beat Ali?

King: I saw it as being a very competitive bout, and if it ended by a knockout, I figured George would be the guy who'd do the knocking out; if it went the distance, I thought Muhammad's boxing skills would carry the day. I certainly didn't foresee Ali knocking out big George. Ali really shocked the world with that fight. That's when he introduced the "rope-a-dope"--Ali just laid back against the ropes and let George tee off on him. It takes a lot of courage to let a guy just come in zinging, but Ali knew how to duck and do little things to make Foreman miss and expend all his energy. When George got tired, Ali finished him.

Playboy: Had he practiced the rope-a-dope?

King: No, and no one in his corner anticipated it. I remember Angelo Dundee, his trainer, screaming, "Get off the ropes! Get off the ropes!" That was Ali's own genius. After the Foreman fight, I became Ali's promoter, and we became very close. That fight had a horrendous effect on Foreman, who didn't exactly know what had happened: Yesterday, he'd been king; today, he was nobody. Up until then, he'd been a tower of strength, and people looked at him as the most awesome and intimidating fighter in the world.

Playboy: Has any fighter since Foreman had that intimidating effect on opponents?

King: Mike Tyson does--when opponents come into the ring, I can see the same type of fear on their faces. They're very visibly shaken. Ali had it, too, but in a different way: Most of the guys who went in against him looked at Ali and just felt he was unbeatable.

Playboy: You promoted nearly a dozen of Ali's fights. Which one, aside from the Foreman bout, most stands out in your mind?

King: Probably the Thrilla in Manila. It was a classic; I've never seen two athletes get so physically honed and sharpened to meet each other the way Frazier and Ali did. I don't think Frazier liked Ali then, and I don't think he likes Ali now. Ali agitated Joe. Ali was a childish guy, a prankster, and he was always teasing Joe. Ali would say, "There's gonna be a thrilla in Manila when I meet the gorilla," and Frazier just couldn't take that kind of talk. He was a tremendous fighter and he had his whole family with him in Manila, and Ali's teasing wounded his pride. That fight was one of the greatest fights ever put on.

Playboy: In what sense?

King: I don't think anyone's ever seen another pair of fighters reach down so deep in the depths of themselves to bring out energy and just punish one another like they did. When the fight was over, Ali said it was the closest to death he had ever come. I had a great deal of admiration and respect for Joe's trainer, Eddie Futch, who threw in the towel when Joe had gotten hit so much that he could hardly see. Futch made Joe quit, and Ali was glad of it. That fight was the highest mountain that both Ali and Frazier could climb. After that bout, they still continued boxing, but they never fought at that peak again.

Playboy: Did you see a decline in Ali after the Frazier fight?

King: I think that what happened in that fight, psychologically, was that Muhammad had reached the mountaintop--he truly felt invincible. After that, feeling his invincibility, he didn't do what he usually had to do to be invincible. He'd worked and worked and worked getting ready for Joe, 'cause he knew what was going to confront him. I don't think he ever again worked as hard to get psychologically, mentally, spiritually and physically ready for any other opponent as he did for Joe Frazier. Believing in his own invincibility, he began taking more liberties.

Playboy: And more punches?

King: Absolutely. Ali's thing had always been to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee--to hit and not get hit. A lot of people always questioned his ability to take a punch, so then Ali started taking shots to let them know he could take shots. I ain't never seen nobody in boxing who could take shots like Muhammad did. But what did that prove?

Playboy: What do you think it proved?

King: It didn't prove anything. Ali's skills went down after the Frazier fight, but a lot of that was because of Ali himself. If you're a concert pianist or a violinist, you've got to practice. I don't think there's anything more taxing than being a boxer, but instead of practicing the way he had, Ali began making a lot of indiscretions. He never would have fought Frazier the same way he fought--and lost to--Leon Spinks. Leon had a lot of courage, but I'd be remiss If I didn't say that Ali was his own worst enemy.

Playboy: Ali now appears to be what used to be called punch-drunk. Do you think he stayed too long at the fair?

King: Well, I urged Ali to retire long before he did, but it's completely ridiculous to think that Ali is punch-drunk. Muhammad Ali does not suffer from brain damage. He has Parkinson's syndrome, which is not caused by blows to the head--it's an affliction of the nervous system, and millions of people suffer from it. Ali is still sharp, and his thinking capacity hasn't changed, but he slurs his words.

Howard Cosell also suffers from the shakes, It's ironic that two men so closely associated in their lives and careers have both ended up with similar afflictions. I think it's an omen; they should join hands and become champions in the fight against these kinds of diseases. They were a good team once, and even though Howard has turned his back on boxing, I think they could be a good team again.

Playboy: How do you assess the abilities of the current heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson?

King: I think history will record that Mike Tyson, at his age, is far more advanced than any heavyweight that we've seen. He's a tremendous fighter, very precocious and learning all the time. Mike's got incredible hand speed and he's a devastating puncher with either hand. I think the sky's the limit regarding how far he can go. He's also very, very smart. And funny: Tyson does great imitations of Eddie Murphy and of me.

Playboy: In June, Tyson is going to earn more than $15,000,000 defending his title against Michael Spinks. Do you think Spinks can beat him?

King: No. I think Tyson will knock Spinks out hands down, unquestionably. I don't think Spinks can take Tyson's punches. I think he can take some punches, but in his second fight against Larry Holmes, Larry had Spinks out on his feet in the 14th round and could have finished him off, but for whatever reason, Larry stopped attacking and didn't do it. Tyson will not stop.

Playboy: Why are you so sure about that?

King: As he showed in the Holmes fight, Tyson is a finisher. When he gets a person hurt, he goes after him and he doesn't stop throwing leather. He's relentless and unwavering in his commitment to throw punches with bad intentions. It'll be a big fight, and Iron Mike will knock Spinks out.

Playboy: You've pretty much done it all in boxing. Do you see yourself branching out into other fields?

King: I already have. I'm producing a movie for Home Box Office and I'm planning on making a movie--a very authentic movie--about the life of Muhammad Ali. And don't forget, a couple of years ago I promoted Michael Jackson's Victory Tour--went right out the chute and put together the biggest concert tour in the history of mankind. I also negotiated with the Pepsi-Cola company and got the Jacksons the highest price ever paid for a commercial. People around Michael said, "Hey, King has no experience in this business. He didn't have his apprenticeship. He doesn't know all the little nuances and the little languages that go along with this business." Well, this was not amateur night in Dixie.

Playboy: How did you manage to become producer of The Victory Tour?

King: I got involved with the family when Joseph Jackson, the father, came to see me and gave me the honor and privilege of promoting his children. The Jacksons are one of the most successful, wholesome and exemplary families I've ever had an opportunity to meet. Joseph Jackson has been a hard worker who suffered the shortcomings of not being able to have a top-notch education. I was delighted to meet them.

You know, people can relate to and identify with all of the brothers, and their success, vicariously, is our success. But as I mentioned earlier, blacks in America may be part of this country, but we have been ostracized and castrated--and you'll never see that more blatantly and flagrantly demonstrated than with the Jacksons.

Playboy: Why?

King: When you get right down to the nitty-gritty, you might find that those who have vested interests in the Jacksons--the men in the gray-flannel suits who graduated from Ivy League colleges--realize it's not in their best interest to extol black familyhood. In my opinion, however, it is in their economic interest to divide this family, which they have done.

Playboy: Are you perhaps saying that because your role in the tour was diminished after it got under way?

King: No, because they didn't divide the family on me--they divided it on the Jacksons themselves. But, sure, the suits went after me. They did their usual thing. They told Michael, "You know, a black guy can't do this. And King is a racketeer. Michael, your image is at stake here." His image? What Michael's got to understand is that Michael's a nigger! It don't matter how great he can sing and dance; I don't care that he can prance; he's one of the greatest megastars in the world, but he's still going to be a nigger megastar. He must understand that. Not only must he understand that, he's got to accept it and demonstrate that he wants to be a nigger! Why? To show that a nigger can do it! That way, it gives all those who are niggers--including the black quasi bourgeoisie--the understanding that we are good, basic people. Whites put an epithet on us that we don't like? Fine. Now let's demonstrate by action and deed that we can overcome it.

All right, so here we've got a wonderful family, and each one of these kids is a success, with his own personal record contract. But all of a sudden, the people who carried them, nurtured them, enabled them to be alive to do it ain't good enough to handle their business. They ain't even good enough to be a part of it.

Playboy: Are you talking about the Jacksons' parents' being pushed aside?

King: Yes, and this is ludicrous! The people who tell them their parents can't handle this are making more money off the kids than the family is. If nothing else, this would be an opportunity to demonstrate family solidarity to all black people, and that would make us blacks feel more inclined to be family-oriented.

There is no way Michael Jackson should be as big as he is and treat his family the way that he does. No way! Nothing can justify that! He feels that his father did him wrong? There can't be so much wrong his father did him--Michael, after all, is the biggest star there ever was in the music business. His father may have done some wrong, but he also had to do a whole lot of right. Whatever it was, Michael could reprimand, chastise, teach--"If you did it wrong, Dad, don't do it wrong no more."

Playboy: You're very upset at this moment. What is it about the Michael Jackson situation that gets you?

King: Michael's father is a victim; he's the embodiment of all black Americans who are uneducated and who aren't able to deal in the arena of high finance--we don't know what that is; it's like a foreign country to us. But meanwhile, Michael's father always worked hard and made sacrifices to buy his children drums and guitars. What if Michael hadn't had a father and a mother who were musically inclined and wanted the best for their kids? What then? Do you think there would even be a Michael Jackson? This is the basic point I'm trying to get across.

Playboy: You still haven't told us why Jackson demoted you to playing a subordinate role in The Victory Tour.

King: He did that because he was told I was trying to take his manhood from him. He was told that I wanted to be able to tell him what to do, that I wanted him to work for me rather than work with me. What they did to Michael, they do to all successful blacks. They play the game of feeding our egos and pandering to our whims and caprices. Michael Jackson has got a complex, and in his complex, he lacks understanding. He's a very smart, shrewd, street-wise individual from the perspective of knowing how to ingratiate himself with people who can get things done, but he lacks the sensitivity of helping those and bringing those along who were there with him. They fed him all kinds of lines about how I was going to build something from my relationship with him and he wouldn't be a part of it. And he swallowed it.

Playboy: Did you ever talk with him about that?

King: Sure, I talked to him, but I'd talk to him for five minutes or an hour and they'd have him for 24 hours.

Playboy: Who are they?

King: They are the lawyers, the guys around him who try to protect their vested interests. It doesn't behoove any businessman who's making a living exploiting Michael Jackson to tell him to deal with a black guy who could be good for his career, and who could give Michael a basic understanding of the people from whence he came. That's what he doesn't understand. With the type of talent that he's got and all of his brothers and sisters have, the Jacksons could be one of the most dynamic, unifying forces in the black community. But I don't see that.

Playboy: What do you see?

King: I see that Michael has nobody black around him--nobody. So therefore, he is, in effect, a pseudo white. When you get in a position of power, that is the time to be standing up against racial injustices, not by being out there with a clenched fist, but through business transactions in which you put people into positions to bring about change and to demonstrate that our people can think and can function. Instead, Michael sits in his office with his battery of advisors, none of whom are honest with him. They all blow smoke up his ass and tell him he's the Second Coming, even when he's making an absurd observation. And in the meantime, they'll be feeding him their own ideas.

In his field of performance--rhythm-and-blues and singing--Michael's a master, but in the world of business, he ain't no genius. He's no Rhodes scholar, but you're going to find these legal eagles fawning, shuffling and acting as his sycophants. I hate that bullshit.

Playboy: Sum up: What do you think has happened to Michael Jackson?

King: The people around him have extricated Michael from the black community. I'm hoping that Michael will come back home. He don't have to give me nothing, because I don't want to put this on a personal basis. Michael is an example of what happens to our top entertainers, athletes and leaders as soon as they begin to make money and gain stature and acclaim. They are swooped up from the black community and told, "Oh, you're not really a nigger, you're something else." And that's basically why I use the term nigger. I don't want there to be any confusion. If I do anything worth while, a nigger did it. If I do something that's questionable, I ain't got to tell 'em a nigger did it--they'll say the nigger did it. If I can contribute any philosophy or attitude born of success, unanimity, friendship and zeal, I want it to be "The nigger did it." This is what I want people to understand.

Playboy: Are you sure they will?

King: I am a nigger. Many blacks are going to get upset with me for saying this, because they'll feel they're being thrown back. But that's just their state of mind. I know who I am.

Playboy: And that is...?

King: Well, a part of me feels that I have been chosen from the least of men, from the lowest rung of the ladder. I'm always thinking, How can I inspire people to come together? I want to be a kind of catalyst because I see the senselessness and degradation of prejudice--where people cast aspersions against this group, because it doesn't speak the same language, or that group, because it doesn't have the same pigmentation of skin.

I tell black kids the truth: "Don't look for pie in the sky when you die; get something sound on the ground while you're around. In this society, your blackness is a shortcoming, and you better be able to deal with it, because you're going to run into prejudice, discrimination and segregation. But instead of getting bitter, angry and mad, get smart."

Prejudice has been on a lot of people--the Jews, for instance--so no one can holler about having an exclusively on slavery. The Jews were enslaved for 2000 years, and they've never forgotten that. What I want to do is establish a black Seder, where you can ask the questions and get the answers and say, "Yes, we were slaves, but we're not going to let this happen to us again." And search for the ways and means to prevent that from taking place. We have to give black kids something that they can hang on to that has been proven a winner, to let them know that they can make it in America.

Now, I'm aware that many blacks have a defeatist attitude: "No matter how hard I work, no matter what I try to do, I ain't going to be able to make it." Well, to me, that's bullshit. I just work harder. I never, ever let that touch me, because I know you ain't going to make it by hating. Kahlil Gibran says hate is a dead thing and I would not become a tomb. So I don't want to be a sepulcher, a funeral pyre. I want to be alive and evolving and helping to bring about that much-needed change. I may not be able to reach the poor bigoted peoples of America, but what I can do is to become a shining symbol for blacks, from a business perspective.

Playboy: And still speak to a wider audience?

King: Of course. The real secret of what I do is that I'm always promoting America. No matter where I go in the world, you'll always hear me saying, "Only in America." For no matter how many indignities and how much suffering black people have undergone in this country, due mostly to age-old laws that were established before my birth, the fact of the matter is that this is still the greatest country in the world. I want to make my nation whole, and I want to make my nation right. I think my nation needs a lot of surgical treatment; but understand, it's my nation, and I want to save the patient. I don't want to be one of those who walks behind the casket saying, "If America had done this or that, we wouldn't be burying it." I want to diagnose the problem and prescribe treatment to prevent America from being in that casket. I recognize that I want to live and die, if I have to, for America's virtue. I'm not gonna decry what should be--we all know what should be. Instead of sitting back and crying about it, I'm gonna try to make it happen by working hard, extolling this country and making it live up to its creed.

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