Don King, 89, will likely be remembered for two things: his big hair and his bigger fights. The boxing promoter got his start in 1972 when he convinced Muhammad Ali to box in a charity exhibition at a Cleveland hospital. Two years later, he promoted the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle,” a boxing match between Ali and George Foreman. The event, hosted in Zaire, guaranteed both fighters a whopping $5 million.
The fight’s success took King’s career to the next level, and he went on to organize seven of Ali’s title bouts. A 1975 fight against Joe Frazier—dubbed “The Thrilla in Manila”—earned Ali a hefty $6 million paycheck.
King also managed countless other boxing talents: Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Felix Trinidad.
But critics are unmoved by what he’s done to bring boxing to the mainstream. In fact, many believe he’s actually done a disservice to the sport. Find out how King’s personal actions got in the way of his own success.
King has had a shady history both before and after he entered the world of boxing. Before working as a promoter, he faced criminal charges on multiple occasions. A 1954 murder charge, brought on after King shot an attempted robber, was ultimately deemed a justifiable homicide. But in 1967, he was convicted of manslaughter for beating a man to death. King served almost four years in prison and was formally pardoned in 1983 by then-Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes.
He eventually traded street crimes for white-collar crimes. King was plagued with investigations during his time as a major promotor. In 1977, the FBI looked into the possibility that King forged fighters’ records (he was never charged). And in 1985, he and his secretary Constance Harper were indicted on insurance fraud charges. Harper took the fall on three counts of attempted tax evasion; King came out unscathed.
Even his own fighters didn’t like him. Several sued him. King was famous for a dirty contract clause that forced any winning boxer to be managed by the promoter. He essentially monopolized the sport—any aspiring pugilist would have to go through him to get to the top.
In 1997, Terry Norris sued King for $70 million in damages. He also demanded an end to what was described as a “horribly one-sided and unfair” contract. The suit lasted for years, but as the jury finally got around the deliberations, Norris accepted a $7.5 million settlement.
In June 2004, Mike Tyson followed suit and reached a $14 million settlement with King. The legendary heavyweight alleged that following his 1995 prison release, the promoter stole upwards of $100 million from him.
For perspective on how much money Tyson was generating, consider Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield II—the 1996 fight in which he bites a chunk of Holyfield’s ear off. It earned $180 million alone. Not that Tyson was a great money manager himself; he was drowning in debt at the time he settled. According to the New York Times, he owed $38.4 million to various creditors, the IRS, and his ex-wife.
Like it or not, King amassed a fortune during his lifetime—and he didn’t squander it, either. According to Celebrity Net Worth, he is currently estimated to be sitting on $150 million. The New York Times caught up with King in 2017 and found that he had become mildly reclusive. Sources close to him told the outlet that he hadn’t been the same since his wife’s death in 2010. However, he wasn’t entirely ready to walk away from boxing.
“You can call me semiretired,” he said. “But I just got to find the right fighter that really wants to fight. The sport is not the same. These guys are not dedicated and committed to the sport like the older guys were. They all want to read the headlines, and when you go out and extol them virtuously and say things about them, they believe the things to the extent they don’t have to do nothing. They believe it’s going to be like osmosis, it’s going to fall from the sky.”
We can’t help but wonder how he feels about the upcoming spectacle between Logan Paul and Floyd Mayweather. If the fight generates a renewed interest in the sport, it probably won’t be long before we hear from King again.
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