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26 NOVEMBER 2014

 

Don King In The Twilight




By Thomas Hauser: Don King arrived at Barclays Center for the March 9th IBF 175-pound title fight between Bernard Hopkins and Tavoris Cloud shortly after 8:00 p.m.

 

King will be 82 years old on August 20th, but he has the physical presence and vitality of a man half his age. His large bulky frame, Cheshire Cat grin, booming voice, and high-pitched laugh suggest a force of nature.

 

Wherever King goes, he’s encapsulated in a bubble of public attention. Everyone, from high-ranking corporate executives to men and women on the street, stop and stare and are drawn to his side.

 

In the September 2, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram wrote, “Don King is big, black, and hardly beautiful, a 50-carat setting of sparkling vulgarity and raw energy, a man who wants to swallow mountains, walk on oceans, and sleep on clouds.”

 

 

That was mainstream America’s introduction to King. Two months later, Muhammad Ali dethroned George Foreman in Zaire with Don playing a key role in the promotion. In the decades that followed, King promoted more than 500 world championship fights. At one point, Don King Productions could lay claim to promoting seven of the 10 largest pay-per-view fights in history (as gauged by total buys) and 12 of the top 20 highest-grossing live boxing gates in the history of Nevada.

 

King has promoted Ali, Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones, and dozens of other Hall of Fame fighters. He’s one of the few people in boxing today who transcend the sport. His name and face are more recognizable than those of Floyd Mayweather Jr. or any other active fighter.

 

“People come up to me all the time, put their babies in my arms, and ask me to kiss them,” King chortles. “That doesn’t happen to [Top Rank founder] Bob Arum or [Golden Boy Promotions CEO] Richard Schaefer.”

 

Boxing fans are used to seeing King in a tuxedo on fight night, a shining apparition draped in bling that seems to reflect off everything from the top of his hair down to his black patent leather shoes.

 

At Barclays, King had a different look. The promoter was wearing red-white-and-blue jogging shoes, maroon corduroy pants, a blue shirt, an American flag-themed tie, and a rhinestone-studded blue denim jacket accessorized by three “Obama” buttons. The jacket (one of three celebrating America that the promoter owns) was badly frayed. By contrast, King’s fingernails were impeccably manicured. He had an unlit cigar in one hand and miniature flags representing two dozen nations in the other. The name of each country was written at the base of its respective flagstick.

 

There was a time when it didn’t matter a whole lot to King who won or lost a big fight because he controlled both fighters. That time is long gone. Now it’s rare for Don to control even one combatant in a major bout. Cloud was under contract to King, but the Hopkins fight was the last under their promotional agreement. The assumption was that, win or lose, Tavoris would soon be gone. It was also deemed possible that this would be King’s last fight on HBO.

 

What happened to King’s power?

 

For starters, he was a prisoner of his own success. What had worked in the past stopped working as well as it had before. But King had enough money and enough trappings from the glory years that he wasn’t forced to adapt. The times changed and he didn’t change with them.

 

King is into control. He has always been hands-on in every area of his business. He likes everything to run through him and chooses not to share all his tricks of the trade with anyone. Thus, he never had a strong number two to help with the heavy lifting or guide him in new directions.

 

Don had always played leverage to the hilt. For years, control of the heavyweight champion (Ali, Holmes, Tyson) and the heavyweights beneath them was his most valuable asset. Then he lost that control. He managed to thrive afterward with fighters like Felix Trinidad and Julio Cesar Chavez but the power dynamic in boxing was shifting to favor the premium cable television networks. Network executives found other promoters easier to deal with than King. After Don took Mike Tyson to Showtime in the mid-1990s, HBO made a decision to license fewer fights from him. Then King lost Tyson and Showtime moved away from him too. Eventually, King no longer had a fighter who network executives felt they absolutely needed and HBO began the process of helping to build Golden Boy.

 

Also, whatever corners King had cut as part of his business model (and there were many), other promoters began cutting with an even sharper razor. The sanctioning bodies found new suitors to occupy the place on their balance sheets where King had once been. The tentacles of these promoters soon reached throughout the boxing industry as Don’s once had.

 

Meanwhile, King’s reputation was catching up with him. National attention focused on him in a critical way. Elite fighters became wary of signing with him. He was subjected to closer legal scrutiny than other promoters and, in some instances, held to a higher standard.

 

And finally, Don got old. People slow down at a certain age. There are no 80-year-old international chess champions. At a certain age, men and women think one fewer move ahead than they used to.

 

“I’m like Churchill,” King says. “I’ll never surrender.”

 

But one had the feeling at the Barclays Center that King is nearing the end of an extraordinary journey. Indeed, although his fighter was the champion, it was Hopkins (promoted by Golden Boy) who had been listed first in pre-fight, promotional material. Cloud was fungible, a guy with a belt. Hopkins vs. Cloud was about Hopkins.

 

The defining feature of Bernard’s career has been his longevity. As noted by Tom Gerbasi, “He took the time when boxers’ legacies get destroyed or at least tarnished and made his even greater.”

 

Hopkins ascended to stardom with a 12th round knockout of Felix Trinidad on September 29, 2001. He was 36 years old and the assumption was that his days in boxing were numbered.

 

Big number.

 

Over the next 41 months, Bernard recorded victories over Carl Daniels, Morrade Hakkar, William Joppy, Robert Allen, Oscar De la Hoya, and Howard Eastman. Then, at age 40, he lost twice to Jermain Taylor. Now, surely, the end was near.

 

Hopkins’ record has been uneven since then. Prior to facing Cloud, he hadn’t scored a knockout since stopping De la Hoya in 2004. Over the previous eight years, he’d recorded six wins, four losses, and one draw with one no-contest. He had won only one fight in the preceding 35 months. But he’d been competitive every time out. And what makes Bernard’s ledger so impressive is his age. He’s now 48 years old.

 

Margaret Goodman (former chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission) says, “If a fighter is old enough to need Viagra, he shouldn’t be boxing.”

 

Hopkins says, “I’m a fighter. This is what I do. Age is not my enemy. Don’t look at the number. Look at the man. I’m not counting age. Everybody else is counting it. I’ll stop when I want to stop.”

 

Hopkins has superb footwork, great balance, and a rock-solid chin. He comes into fights in the best condition possible and is a master of ring generalship.

 

“No fight is about yesterday,” Bernard says. “Every fight is about now. I take every fight like the building block of another generation of what I need to do.”

 

His mindset also includes a healthy respect for the traditions of boxing.

 

“I don’t know that I could have survived in a time like the 1940s,” Hopkins acknowledged several years ago. “Fighting three, maybe four times a year, I think I would have been competitive with the best in that era. But physically and mentally, it would have been hard for me to fight 14 or 15 times a year like those guys did.”

 

In sum, when Hopkins enters the ring now, he does so with the weight of history behind him and the burden of age on his shoulders.

 

Hopkins-Cloud was Bernard’s first fight in New York since 2001. There were the usual mind games such as Hopkins showing up at the final pre-fight press conference wearing a black hoodie with sunglasses and a mask across his face and refusing to speak.

 

“I’d be a fool to get caught up in Bernard Hopkins’ mind games,” Cloud told the media. “That’s a fool’s game, buying into those traps. You can’t lollygag and bullsh*t because that’s his game. He’s in his own world, so I’ll let him be until March the 9th.”

 

Cloud was a three-to-two favorite, based largely on the 17-year age differential between the fighters. When Bernard turned pro in 1988, Tavoris was six years old. Cloud’s own pro debut hadn’t come until 30 months after “Old Man Hopkins” beat Trinidad in 2001.

 

“I don’t think any fighter can stay young forever, no matter how hard they try,” Tavoris said, “and it’s evident that he slowed down in the last couple of years.”

 

But the feeling among the boxing intelligentsia was that youth was Cloud’s only edge. Tavoris’ record was 24-0 (19), but there wasn’t much on his résumé. He’d had only two fights since 2010. The only slick boxer of note he’d fought was Gabriel Campillo. Campillo won that fight, although two of the three judges gave the nod to Cloud. The other “names” on Tavoris’ curriculum vitae were Clinton Woods and Glen Johnson. Other than Yusaf Mack (who has been knocked out in three of six fights during the past 45 months), Cloud hadn’t stopped an opponent since 2008.

 

Moreover, the fighters who have given Hopkins the most trouble over the years (Roy Jones when he was young, Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe, and Chad Dawson) all had speed on him. Cloud is slow on his feet and slow to pull the trigger.

 

Meanwhile, much of the pre-fight activity was focusing, not on Hopkins vs. Cloud, but on Hopkins vs. Don King. They’ve had a long and often contentious relationship.

 

King promoted Hopkins for much of Bernard’s middleweight title reign and the fighter (like many of his brethren) bridled at what he perceived as exploitation at Don’s hands. Bernard exacted a measure of revenge in 2001, knocking out Felix Trinidad to derail the promoter’s plans for a mega-fight at Yankee Stadium between Trinidad and Roy Jones. But he was still contractually bound to King for three additional fights that covered two more years.

 

King, of course, was supportive of Cloud in the upcoming battle against Hopkins.

 

“Tavoris Cloud will beat Bernard Hopkins,” Don proclaimed at the January 15th kickoff press conference (held on Bernard’s 48th birthday). “That’s not a guess or speculation or prognostication. It’s a promise.” On the same occasion, King turned to Hopkins and noted, “You’re smart. When Tavoris knocks you out, you’ll know it’s time to quit.”

 

But for the most part, King kept the rhetoric down. “I love the man,” he said of Bernard. “I have no problem at all with him.”

 

Hopkins took a contrary view.

 

“I don’t like Don King,” the fighter declared, “and I made it clear I don’t like Don King. Tavoris Cloud is Don’s last horse. There ain’t no stable. When Don’s last horse breaks his leg, Don will be done. Whoever thought that Bernard Hopkins - not the mob, not the street people, not the fighters who threatened him over the years, not other promoters - whoever thought that it would be me that shut him down? Everybody that Don threw at me, I knocked out. I’m 15-and-0 against him. I understand my biggest motivation. Don King, willingly or unwillingly, helped me build my legacy and I’ve been beating him ever since. To put the last nail in the coffin, it’s an honor.”

 

 


To that, Richard Schaefer added, “I guess [King] enjoys what he’s doing, walking around in his jean jacket with the flags and yelling ‘Puerto Rico.’ He doesn’t even have a Puerto Rican fighter anymore. He’s living in the past.”

 

King took it all in stride.

 

“I’m very delighted to have listened to some of the comments that Mr. Hopkins made,” Don said during a February 27thteleconference call. “I thought he was just par excellence. Bernard is doing a great job of promoting and I just want to say that he’s not a nemesis to me. I think it’s really wonderful that he’s had such a unique, grand, wonderful career. There’s nobody that can take that away from him. I love Bernard. Both of us are alumni from the penitentiary. He’s a fraternity brother.”

 

In truth, there are many similarities between the two men. Like King, Hopkins (whether he admits it or not) has become part of the boxing establishment. Like King, Hopkins has defied age and uses words as a battering ram. There was a time when King was the hardest-working man in boxing and also the hardest man working in boxing. That mantle arguably now belongs to Hopkins. Each man has a take-no-prisoners mentality and wants all the toys for himself.

 

Listen to Bernard Hopkins speak:

 

*           “It’s not luck. Luck didn’t get me out of the penitentiary without getting killed, stabbed, raped, or whatever. Luck didn’t get me out of the ghetto and turn my life around. Hard work creates luck.”

 

*           “The rules are different for Bernard Hopkins. The rules should be different for Bernard Hopkins because I’ve made them that way.”

 

*           “I’m doing something that ain’t supposed to be done. Now it becomes something different and that’s what I am. Different.”

 

*           “I do it my way.”

 

King laughs when Bernard’s words are brought to his attention.

 

“Bernard wants to be like me,” the promoter says, “but he’s got a long way to go.”

 

When Don King arrived at the Barclays Center on fight night, he went directly to Tavoris Cloud’s dressing room.

 

“Let’s get ready to rumble,” he told the fighter. “Do your business. Then we’ll go home and eat a steak.”

 

In years past, most likely that would have been followed by a pre-fight victory tour of the arena. Tonight, King settled on a folding cushioned chair, where he would remain until Cloud walked to the ring two-and-a-half hours later. It was more comfortable for Don in the dressing room and less energy was required of him there.

 

The room was quiet and would remain so for most of the evening. There was no music, little conversation within the fighter’s camp, and virtually no interaction between any member of Team Cloud and King.

 

Unprompted, the promoter took a smart phone out of his pocket and began brushing his finger across the screen to move from photo to photo.

 

“That’s me with Jimmy Carter. This is me with the first President Bush…Bill Clinton…George W. Bush…Mobutu [Sese Seko]…Coretta Scott King…Ferdinand Marcos…Nelson Mandela. He’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met.”

 

Abel Sanchez (Cloud’s trainer) drew the attention of New York State Athletic Commission inspector Mike Paz to a cut on Tavoris Cloud’s right index finger that hadn’t fully healed.

 

“Can we put a piece of tape over the cut to protect it before we wrap?”

 

The answer was no.

 

“Hugo Chavez. I loved that man. He was like a brother to me…Silvio Berlusconi…Jacques Chirac at the French White House.”

 

That was followed by photos of King with a parade of boxing luminaries.

 

“Muhammad Ali. Me and him, we changed history…Joe Frazier…Mike Tyson…Larry Holmes…George Foreman…Roberto Duran…Felix Trinidad…the big fights bring people together. It’s not just about two men fighting. It’s about bringing people of the same culture and different cultures together. It’s a happening that people feel in their hearts and talk about for years. I didn’t just promote fights. I promoted cultures and people. When I wave the Puerto Rican flag and shout, ‘Viva, Puerto Rico!’ all of Puerto Rico gets involved.”

 

More photos. Then King paused to gaze at an image of his younger self standing next to his wife of five decades.

 

Henrietta King died in December 2010.

 

“My wonderful wife, Henrietta. I miss her dearly. Everything I accomplished in life, I owe to her.”

 

The viewing continued.

 

“Pope Benedict. He just resigned…That’s me at the United Nations…Henry Kissinger…Here’s some more presidents. I forget what countries they’re from…Shimon Peres at the Wailing Wall…That’s with a giant panda in China…This is with some troops. I support the troops wherever I go…This is a picture of a painting that the Pope gave me. It’s worth a million dollars.

 

“Michael Jackson…Janet Jackson…Christie Brinkley…Celine Dion…Danny Glover…Natalie Cole…This is some hip-hop stars…LeBron James…Martina Navratilova…Roger Federer…Rafael Nadal…All these people and I came out of the ghetto in Cleveland.”

 

Then a photo of King embracing a gray-haired woman with her head pressed against his chest.

 

“My sister Evelyn. There were seven of us. Six boys and a girl. We’re the only two left.”

 

King looked at photos for well over an hour. One can surmise that virtually every person whose photo is on his smart phone remembers meeting Don too.

 

“The reward is in the journey,” King said, “and I’ve had a wonderful journey.”

 

At 9:30, Cloud stood up and began shadowboxing.

 

Another hour passed.

 

“I get anxious sometimes before a fight,” King admitted, “but you don’t want to show that to the fighter.”

 

Then King began talking about Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad and how fate had conspired to deny Trinidad his due. Team Cloud couldn’t have cared less about what had happened in a boxing ring more than a decade ago.

 

Don waved his miniature Puerto Rican flag and called out “Viva, Puerto Rico!”

 

Silence.

 

King refocused his attention on the fighter in front of him.

 

“Mr. Thunder,” he roared. “The storm is coming. Let the warm air come in and mix with the cold air and we’ll have ourselves a storm. God parted the waters for Moses. We’re gonna part the waters tonight. This man is gonna strike a blow that will free us all. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down. You got to land that thunderous blow for all mankind.”

 

At 10:50, Cloud left his dressing room and walked to the ring with King behind him.

 

The fighters were introduced to the crowd. Hopkins didn’t look at King and refused to come to ring center for referee Earl Brown’s final instructions until Don had stepped outside the ropes and begun moving toward his seat in the front row facing the main television camera.

 

The bell rang. The fight was on.

 

Before the bout, Cloud said, “If you look at Bernard Hopkins fight, he doesn’t fight the whole round. You just gotta go in there and make him fight. You can’t let him tie you up and start all that bullsh*t. You have to be really blunt with your fighting style. You just gotta go in there and beat his ass.”

 

“I know I’m the better fighter,” Hopkins responded. “I know I have the better fighter’s I.Q. and I’m also the better-conditioned fighter. Cloud is one-dimensional. I love his style. He’ll be coming right at me.”

 

The fight was fought at Bernard’s pace. Jimmy Tobin summed it up nicely for TheCruelestSport.com.

 

“Gabriel Campillo had already skywritten Cloud’s limitations,” Tobin wrote. “And Hopkins had read the message. This was an impressive performance primarily because of Hopkins’s age, not because of his opponent. With a combination of feints, purposeful movement, and a handful of discouraging punches, Hopkins physically and psychologically wedded Cloud to his own inactivity. Cloud spent long stretches of the fight harmlessly following Hopkins as the latter slid along the ropes. He should have forced the fight against Hopkins, thereby increasing his chances to land something withering enough to remind Hopkins of his age. He should have played to his strengths, abandoned thinking, and tried to whale on the only other person in the ring not wearing a striped shirt. But this fervent attack never materialized. Even when in range, Cloud largely kept his guns holstered.”

 

King knows what he’s watching. He didn’t say much as the fight progressed, but what he said was on the mark.

 

“Veteran moves from Bernard…See how he throws the elbow…He did it again just then…Whenever Cloud gets inside, Bernard ties him up but he doesn’t do it the way most fighters do. He locks Cloud’s head in with his arm, pushes down, and twists. That weakens a man, but you do it as long as the referee lets you.”

 

There were moments of hope.

 

“That’s it. Give it to the body. That got Bernard’s attention and spread his legs…Bernard has a great poker face. He never shows when he’s hurt, but he was hurt then…Cloud has to step it up and take the fight to him.”

 

In round six, Hopkins opened a cut on Cloud’s left eyelid. As the rounds went by, he continued to dictate the pace and terms of engagement. By round 10, there was a look of resignation on King’s face. Midway through the 12th round, he looked up at the giant screen overhead to see how much time was left.

 

“Bernard’s got it…Great job. He’s a good fighter.”

 

The reading of the judges’ scorecards was anti-climactic: 116-112 (twice) and 117-111 for Hopkins.

 

Don King has had many critics over the years and I’ve been one of them. But this is a time to praise Caesar, not bury him.

 

King was capable of sitting down with professionals on the opposite side of the negotiating table (whether it was Seth Abraham at HBO or Bob Arum at Top Rank) and doing what had to be done to make the big fights that the public wanted to see. Historic co-promotions like Ali-Frazier III, Holmes-Cooney, and Trinidad-De la Hoya bear his imprint. His showmanship put 132,247 fans in seats for Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Greg Haugen in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. And for those who think anyone could have sold tickets for Chavez in Mexico, King also sold out the Savvis Center in St. Louis for Cory Spinks vs. Zab Judah. If Don had been calling the shots, Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather would have happened.

 

“Everybody is trying to do what I’ve already done,” King said three days before Hopkins-Cloud. “Ain’t nobody can touch me here, not in this lifetime.”

 

So for the moment, let’s put the bad aside and celebrate the excitement and energy that Don King has brought to boxing over the past 40 years.

 

“You’ll never be able to replace boxing as a sport,” King has said.

 

Boxing won’t be able to replace Don King either. He’ll leave a global footprint when he has gone.

 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (And the New…: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

 

March 20,2013



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