At an age when he could be forgiven for slipping on his favourite pair of slippers, relaxing in a fireside armchair and re-watching any one of the 500 or more world-title fights he has promoted, Don King refuses to fade away.
The stentorian voice still booms as it has since the days of Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle and boxing’s most recognisable showman insists he is still breaking new ground.
A crowd of 9 000 was at his latest bill in St Louis last week when Verno Phillips claimed the International Boxing Federation light-middleweight title, but King anticipates ”many, many millions from Mongolia to Mali, from China to Chile, from Japan to Jakarta”, watched the event free on the internet on his own television network, launched that night.
”As long as I’m still breathing, I want to be opening up new doors. I want to give boxing back to the people and recapture the glory of yesteryear,” the 76-year-old promoter boomed, before adding with a trademark cackle: ”I’m a promoter of the people, for the people. My magic lies in my people ties.”
The torrent of verbiage, one-liners, malapropisms and sheer relentless enthusiasm for the sport he loves seem undiminished by the passage of time.
Conversation with him is peppered with his love for Britain, the Queen, Dunkirk spirit, Winston Churchill and, more relevantly perhaps, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton. Ever the salesman, King sums up Calzaghe’s April 19 light-heavyweight showdown with Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas as ”the wisdom of age [Hopkins] against the strength of youth [Calzaghe]”, conveniently airbrushing the fact that, at 36, Calzaghe is himself nearing the veteran stage as a fighter.
”I think it will be a great fight, but Joe throws too many punches for Bernard. He has too much energy and I don’t think Hopkins is going to be able to keep him away,” he says, before floating the possibility of one more big deal.
”And whoever wins, I want to put him in with Roy Jones Jnr, who stands as a legend in boxing. I’m his promoter now and he was phenomenal in his last fight, man. He beat Felix Trinidad and was brilliant. But now all the rest are running and hiding. We want to drop the gauntlet.
”Calzaghe and Jones would be an epic. I love Frank Warren [who was once King’s partner before their relationship broke down amid acrimony, with Warren having to pay King Ã‚Â£6-million (R96-million) after a court battle]. He does great things with promoting in Britain and we could put on a fight between Calzaghe and Jones that would do amazing business all over the world.”
As for Hatton, the prospect of a re-match with Floyd Mayweather is a fight that would once have been the sort of contest King would have moved heaven and earth to stage himself. No matter that Mayweather beat Hatton emphatically first time around, the justification for a second fight lies in the refereeing of the first bout, where Hatton convinced himself he got a raw deal. The thinking is almost classic King.
Amid the massive controversy of the first fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield nine years ago at Madison Square Garden, scored by a draw when most observers believed Lewis should have been given the decision, the voice of King the businessman was heard above the clamour for police investigations and legal action as he told anyone prepared to listen: ”We can dance again, we can dance again.” Later that year Lewis and Holyfield each pocketed another $20-million (R162-million) or so and King laughed all the way to the bank.
”Ricky Hatton is a great guy,” says King. ”I like his mother and father. He is a family man and it is marvellous to see he has become such a success. We need our heroes in boxing and Ricky is a hero to the people of Britain. Mayweather is excellent but he has not captured the imagination of the public in the same way. He makes money the supreme, but you have got to have the pride of the people.
”George Foreman has made four or five hundred-million dollars because the people love him. Muhammad Ali made more than anyone could have dreamed of at the time because the people loved him. Now the heavyweight division is in a mess. Did you see that [Wladimir] Klitschko fight against the Russian [Sultan Ibragimov]? That is what turns people off boxing.”
Klitschko won almost exclusively behind his jab in a dire fight in front of a jeering near-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden. It is almost with pain that King reflects on what he views as a massive opportunity lost for the status of the heavyweights.
Nevertheless, his love affair with the world heavyweight title continues. King was the dominant promoter in the division from Ali’s fight with Foreman in 1974, through the Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Holyfield eras, and now he cherishes hope that his Nigerian fighter, Samuel Peter, who recently won the WBC version of the title, might emerge as the world’s top heavyweight.
”I have always said that where go the heavyweights, there goes boxing,” says King.
”Since Lewis there has not been a fighter that the world has looked at as the true heavyweight champion of the world. The best have got to fight the best to find out who is the main man. I want Peter to beat both the Klitschkos and then go looking for the Giant [Russia’s 2,1m tall Nikolai Valuev]. As long as God is willing to keep me on earth — and he’s never failed me yet — I want to be opening up a legacy, opening doors for new people.
”And the way forward for boxing is for the best to fight the best. Now people don’t know who the four champions are in the divisions. They don’t even know the governing organisations. We need heroes to glorify and quantify the sport.”
King was on a roll and, one suspected, could have talked all night. — Ã‚