Sport’s greatest salesman shuffles between bifold doors and settles down for another pitch. Outside, snow piles high on poolside sun loungers; at this time of year, temperatures in Warren, Ohio, flirt close to -20ºC. Inside this room, though, where Don King is flanked by his grandson, confidants and those trusty companions — his flags — the heat is stifling.
‘Ooh, boy!’ the promoter exhales. It has been a long day, one that began with a blizzard. And business remains unfinished. So King takes a swig of Diet Pepsi and swirls an ice cube around his mouth.
He is 90, and the electricity which once shot through his hair has begun to frazzle. But the lips remain loose and the fire in that belly still burns.
Legendary promoter Don King is now 90 years old but shows no signs of running out of steam
It is 50 years since he convinced Muhammad Ali to help save a hospital down the road from here and that tale is part of an avalanche down memory lane that clatters between Winston Churchill, Kim Jong-un, Eddie Hearn, Tyson Fury, Plato, the Taliban, and bubonic plague.
Only in America. Only with Don King. First, though, this great survivor has advice for someone else learning to cling on.
‘I tip my hat to ol’ Boris. He deserves a break,’ King says. ‘He got caught in the same thing Joe Biden is getting caught in… saying one thing and doing another.’
That, in part, is why King wound up back home — promoting yet another heavyweight title fight, staging his first show in a year on Saturday night and branding it ‘Return To Greatness’.
‘This promotion is about fun, it’s about taking your mind off that Covid-19 that’s killing you, inflation, weak leadership,’ King says. ‘It’s not “V-Day” or a “Mayday” of Churchill, it’s a “Mayday” of understanding, believing, having faith in God and rising to the occasion… when you’re dead, you’re done, so let the good times roll!’ King lets out a cackle.
King (right) has promoted many of boxing’s biggest legends including Muhammad Ali
He staged the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ (pictured) and ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ within a few years after setting up camp on boxing’s summit
‘We’ll give old Boris a chance to get a moment of respite. To change the narrative at 10 Downing Street,’ he adds. ‘So what the heck, Boris: take a chance and have fun while you’re on the run!’
If this is an opportune time to wind back the clocks, Warren feels a fitting setting. There is charm in the city’s quiet streets and classic architecture but it is a far cry from the frenzy of Las Vegas, Manila and Kinshasa, where King made his legend.
Though Saturday’s show features several title fights, it too is a harder sell than past extravaganzas King built with Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Co. But, as he points out: ‘The star of the show is opportunity. Yesterday’s nobody is tomorrow’s somebody.’
Turn back 50 years and King was nothing to boxing. He was an hour up the road, heading down a dark path. A child of the ghettos in nearby Cleveland, King ran the numbers for an illegal lottery. ‘I was promoting then but promoting a scheme of chance,’ he says.
In 1954, he shot a thug who was trying to rob his gambling den. It was ruled justifiable homicide. In 1967, King was convicted after he ‘pistol-whipped and kicked’ to death a man who owed him $600. He spent nearly four years behind bars for manslaughter.
‘I made the time serve me,’ King says. ‘That was from God, he made me work in that penitentiary. To read Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Socrates. I came out of the darkness of ignorance and sin into the bright light of truth, enlightenment and wisdom.’
Soon King set up camp on boxing’s summit. Within a few years he had staged the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Not bad, considering his first brush with boxing promotion came in 1972, only months after his release.
King said he loved Mike Tyson, even though he was one of several fighters who attempted to sue the promoter
King recalls: ‘I called on my friend, Muhammad Ali. I invited him, he readily accepted and he took on four or five opponents. We had a tremendous evening of boxing… and hey, here I am again now, in Warren, going back and recapturing yesterday, today and looking forward to tomorrow.’
The road in between is littered with some of boxing’s greatest names and nights. None more famous than Ali. (‘Like a dream to me… no one can question his greatness. It’s indescribable.’)
None more notorious, perhaps, than Tyson’s ‘bite fight’ with Evander Holyfield. ‘They didn’t know Holyfield had three hands — his left, his right and his head,’ King says. ‘He knew how to use his head like he could do a left jab or right hook. Tyson got so frustrated because he couldn’t deal with a three-handed guy. So he said, “I’m going to eat up one of the hands!”
‘A terrific gladiator, that’s what people want: excitement. They don’t go to boxing to see a Sunday School revival.’ He lets out another cackle. ‘That’s why I love the sport because it tells life like it really is.’
Boxing took King to the White House but also earned him the nickname ‘Teflon Don’. FBI investigations. Allegations of fraud and mob links. Angry fighters, too — Ali, Lennox Lewis and Tyson tried to sue King. Mahmoud Charr, who was due to fight on Saturday, filed a recent lawsuit, too. The promoter’s character references include ‘wretched’, ‘slimy’, ‘reptilian.’ And that is just from Iron Mike.
‘Everyone thought we were enemies — I love Mike,’ King insists. ‘He told me, “If I tell the truth and say how you helped me… they won’t give me eye water to cry with. In fact they’ll condemn me. But if I tell a lie, they’ll give me some money.” I said, “Well, get your money”.
‘God has given me the gift of being able to dodge bullets, bombs, dynamite — bullets are still coming out of the back of my head from where I was shot at point-blank range,’ King says. ‘That’s the most important moment in my career.’
There were other close shaves. ‘A bag lady saved my life. “Don’t go down this street, they’re waiting on you to do something to you”,’ he continues. ‘Then a policeman saved my life. “Don’t go to this dinner tonight because there’s going to be a whack!”… God has been tremendous, I’ve got eight, nine lives.’
King was in prison before boxing and the 90-year-old has had several close calls with death (pictured with Eddie Murphy and Tyson)
How many remain? ‘I don’t know, that’s up to him. I had prognosticated that I would be dead by 50 — I told my wife and everybody,’ King says. ‘I have to keep going until God gets ready to call me home permanently.’
So here we are. The 90-year-old is out from the shadows where he has spent recent years. ‘Back doing what I did best. And what I can continue to do best.’
Perhaps that explains why the build-up to this fight night has been a celebration, a reunion of old friends. Among them is Ohio commission chief Bernie Profato, who refereed during that 1972 hospital exhibition. The local mayor declared January 26 2022 ‘Don King Day’; Don King badges, portraits and the newspaper he publishes — Call & Post — were all on offer.
King was clapped in and later mobbed for photographs. Less a Don King show. More The Don King show. ‘I’m still here. It’s unheard of, but all things are possible when you believe in God,’ he says. ‘Every time they try to jump on me, it makes it better because you’ve got a guy over there in the UK named Eddie Hearn. Oh, nice guy, he has a big laugh. Eddie Hearn, he’s desperately trying to emulate and imitate a guy named Don King and the lonesome Bob Arum.’
What does he make of the Matchroom boss? ‘I think he’s wonderful! He should get an Oscar for being a clown! He played that character superbly. This guy is quite an actor, like Clark Gable!’ King chuckles. ‘His daddy Barry Hearn was my friend. Naturally he wanted his son to emulate and imitate him.’ But? ‘He don’t have the characteristics of his dad.’
King (centre) is staging his first show in a year on Saturday entitled ‘Return to Greatness’
Barry has handed down the torch but King and Arum, fierce rivals for so long, battle on. As they both enter their 10th decade, the Top Rank boss holds the trump card.
‘I love Tyson Fury because he’s similarly lived a life that shows you that never-say-die attitude,’ King says.
‘He went berserk because he got what Delilah put on Samson — he told the secrets of God and God clipped off his hair where his strength was.’
He explains: ‘Tyson Fury fell into degradation, disrepute, disgrace… now he has come back and revitalised boxing.’
How does he rate the way Fury and Anthony Joshua have been handled? ‘They’re really not being done justice. They’re not being promoted, all they’re doing is being merchandised,’ he says.
‘I love Tyson Fury because he’s similarly lived a life that shows you that never-say-die attitude,’ King says
The legendary promoter said Eddie Hearn should ‘get an Oscar for being a clown’
For now, though, other priorities remain. Saturday’s show. Guiding his own heavyweight, Trevor Bryan. Handing out turkeys every Christmas. Re-installing Donald Trump — God’s ‘sacrificial lamb’ — as President of the USA.
‘Kim Jong-un made the incredible remark to my sources, to me, that he respected Donald Trump but he didn’t trust America. Well, we can’t trust America either.’
Who knows, perhaps King could one day return to Kinshasa with his cruiserweight champion Ilunga Makabu. All that should keep him busy enough.
‘I never left but I was doing other things,’ King says. ‘Working on the underground railroad, on that journey called life.’
It has been a hell of a ride and few signs suggest we are at journey’s end.
No wonder, then, that after the tapes turn off, King takes another sip and swirls more ice. The fire still rages.
King’s cruiserweight champion Ilunga Makabu (right) pictured with the president of Congo Felix Tshisekedi
Don King, Return to Greatness, featuring Trevor Bryan vs Jonathan Guidry and Ilunga Makabu vs Thabiso Mchunu will be streamed live on https://www.donking.com