By Iron Mike Gallego
Bermane Stiverne knocked out Chris Arreola on Saturday, winning the WBC heavyweight title belt vacated by retired champion Vitali Klitschko. This victory makes Stiverne the heavyweight champion in the eyes of approximately 0.0 percent of the boxing press, all of whom continue to recognize Vitali's brother, Wladimir, as the true heavyweight champion of the world. But the fight did get boxing writers talking. No, it wasn't because of Stiverne's powerful punches or ability to withstand a sustained assault. It's because Stiverne's promoter, Don King, has a heavyweight titleholder for the first time in nearly a decade.
Don King. Did merely reading that name send a chill down your spine? Did you involuntarily reach for your hip pocket to make sure your wallet was still there? You could hardly be blamed for reacting that way. Don King, now 82 years old, is probably boxing's most recognizable figure beyond Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson -- two men whose legends he helped create -- and most of what you know about him probably isn't very flattering. But this isn't an article about that. If you want an objective biography of Don King, I recommend the superlative HBO film, Don King: Only In America. This is not an objective biography of Don King. This is an article about why you -- yes, you -- should appreciate Don King.
Don King is an icon. Stop and think about that for a moment. Don King is a goddamned icon. There are many celebrities in our society, but icons are few and far between. On The Simpsons, there was Lucius Sweet. Rocky V had George Washington Duke. The Great White Hype had the Reverend Fred Sultan. They're all Don King, and no one in the audience needs to be told they are Don King (though The Simpsons, to be safe, explained that Sweet was "as rich and famous as Don King, and looks exactly like him too"). Think about how few people in our society have been represented that way. Hell, think about how few people in our society could be represented that way. The hair. The sparkle in his eye. The shameless, endless recitation of hyperbole merged with malapropism. Only in America. It's all exclusively the realm of Don King. We know and recognize Don King in a way we don't know most of our political leaders, rock stars or royalty.
Don King came from nothing. Nothing. He was an anonymous, poor, black college dropout with a lengthy rap sheet that included two killings 13 years apart, although he only served abbreviated time for one (the other was ruled "justifiable homicide"). He stole the biggest star in the world, Muhammad Ali, from the biggest promoter in the game, Bob Arum -- a Harvard-educated lawyer who served under Bobby Kennedy in the Justice Department. Then he put his stamp on Ali's legacy. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manila. Under King's watch, Ali was transformed from a militant draft dodger to the biggest sensation that sports has ever known, and likely will ever know.
Ali was only King's entrée into the sport. By the end of the 1970s, King had locked down virtually all of the black American heavyweights -- which, at the time, meant that King owned boxing. In 1982, King promoted the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney title fight at Caesar's Palace, pitting the undefeated black heavyweight champion against a gutty white Irish contender. King is sometimes villainized for the manner in which he used race to promote the fight, but the charge is misguided. Don King was only exploiting openly the passions that many fight fans preferred to keep hidden, something white promoters have done for years without attracting similar criticism. In any event, the promotion worked: A fight between a quiet, unpopular champion and a solid but unremarkable contender became the highest-grossing fight in boxing history.
In the mid-1980s, King unearthed the most profitable treasure of his career -- a young slugger from Brooklyn fighting out of the Catskills, named "Iron" Mike Tyson. Years later, Tyson would bemoan his time with King and the two men would spend years engaged in a war of words in and out of courtrooms. But, at the time, their partnership seemed fated -- a coupling that would first escalate and then ultimately devour both parties, like Romeo and Juliet in literature or Castillo and Corrales in the ring. Under King's careful stewardship, Tyson exploded into a sports and entertainment supernova. Kid Dynamite. The youngest heavyweight champion in history. The baddest man on the planet. And King? Well, King became insanely rich and powerful through his association with Tyson.
Yes, Tyson would eventually sue King, accusing him of embezzling millions of his hard-earned dollars. Yes, Tyson would invoke Kingian levels of hyperbole in describing his former promoter as "a wretched, slimy, reptilian mother---ker." But so what? It's boxing. Ugly fights between promoters and their ex-charges are par for the course. Bob Arum -- the same Arum whom King relieved of Ali -- developed Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather into the two biggest box office draws of the 21st century, only to find himself embattled in similar litigation and shouting matches outside the ring with both men. (Those battles did more than anything else to prevent the long-desired showdown between Mayweather and Arum's biggest star, Manny Pacquiao -- who, incidentally, only joined Arum's stable after he found himself in litigation with his prior promoter). The ugliest war of words in recent years involved boxing's reigning elder statesman, Bernard Hopkins, and his former promoter, Lou DiBella. Hopkins loudly claimed DiBella was corrupt, which ultimately resulted in DiBella being awarded $610,000 in a libel lawsuit. But the nastiest statement Hopkins made was never litigated in court: Before his fight with DiBella's fighter Jermain Taylor, Hopkins mocked the suicide of DiBella's brother, a fact he'd learned in confidence when the two men were still friendly. Compared to those around them, the relationship between Tyson and King seems shockingly functional.
After Tyson's decline and retirement, King's influence in the sport seemed to wane overnight. In recent years, his most consistent fighter has been Ricardo Mayorga, a brash Nicaraguan brawler who hurls wild punches and outrageous insults with a reckless abandon that stands out even in boxing. Though Mayorga briefly captured a world title, and continues to serve as a viable opponent for top contenders looking for a tune-up, he has never been a headline attraction. The few prospects King developed seemed to wither on the vine. Ultimately, they abandoned King in droves. Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions has long since supplanted King as the primary alternative to Arum's Top Rank. And with a dearth of King's staple -- black American heavyweights -- entering boxing, he seemed to be fading into boxing's past. Last year, Grantland even ran a profile titled, "The End and Don King," a preemptive obituary for a man who just years earlier seemed larger than the sport itself. Bad Left Hook agreed, pronoucing King "finished."
As Bermane Stiverne proved this weekend, rumors of King's demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
Who is Don King? That's an impossible question to answer. When Mike Lupica visited him in 1991, he found King to be an intelligent, charming, passionate man "trapped in the wild-haired character he created for himself." In this sense, King can be viewed as something of a tragic figure. He is a bit like another modern icon, Tupac Shakur -- the talented, sensitive art-school student who became so consumed in the gangsta rap character he was portraying that it ultimately destroyed him (after a King-promoted fight, no less).
I don't buy it. No one who could construct the legend of Don King from nothing other than sheer will could ever wind up anywhere other than where he wants to be. Perhaps King -- after living through so much, and having lost his beloved wife of 51 years -- doesn't have the same ambitions he did in 1974. But he is still unquestionably, unmistakably, undisputedly Don King. And as long as boxing has Don King, it remains the most splendiferous magnificacious exhibition of extermination on Earth.
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Iron Mike Gallego is the online identity of a passionate boxing fan. IMG is an occasional contributor to Deadspin, where he has written about topics ranging from boxing to champagne, and can regularly be found on twitter @ironmikegallego.