By Thomas Hauser
If one were to choose a handful of men who have shaped, molded, and personified professional boxing over the past century, Don King would be among them. King has put on some great shows and is a show unto himself, a man of Shakespearean proportions.
But in court this past Wednesday (August 21st), King looked like an aging lion. His suit was rumpled; his shoes were scuffed; and his face was weary. He's seventy-one years old and has been on a fast track for a long time.
King had been dragged into court by John Ruiz. On May 8, 1998, the two men entered into a contract that grants King "the sole and exclusive right to secure and arrange all professional boxing bouts" that require Ruiz's services. Thereafter, King paid Ruiz $6,500,000 in purses plus expenses for a series of fights and guided him to the WBA heavyweight crown.
At the final press conference prior to Ruiz's July 27th title defense against Kirk Johnson, Tony Cardinale (the primary business advisor and attorney for Team Ruiz) thanked King for his efforts. "John Ruiz had a dream," Cardinale told the assembled media. "And he realized that dream because of Don King." Then Cardinale looked directly at King and said, "Don, we love you."
Immediately after the bout, Norman Stone (Ruiz's manager and trainer) declared, "We will not fight anybody unless Don King is with us. Believe me when I tell you that. This is the man we live with. This is the man we die with.''
But the money-making potential of Mike Tyson is like the allure of an irresistibly beautiful woman. It makes men do strange things. The Ruiz camp wanted a Tyson bout. And King saw Ruiz-Tyson as a chance to settle some side business, thereby doing well for Ruiz and himself. More specifically, King indicated that he would not allow Ruiz-Tyson to happen unless Tyson settled his $100,000,000 lawsuit against the promoter on terms favorable to King or gave King an unspecified number of bout options.
In response, Ruiz sued the promoter, seeking a temporary restraining order that would "enjoin Don King Productions and Don King, directly or indirectly, from in any way seeking to enforce the promotional agreement between DKP and plaintiff and from impeding, hindering, or interfering with the negotiation, arrangement, or promotion of a professional boxing bout between and Mike Tyson."
Don King plays by a larger set of rules than most people. Court battles are a regular part of his plan. Over the years, he has spirited numerous fighters away from their managers and promoters. This was karmic payback. And the Ruiz lawsuit also played into the litigation strategy of Team Tyson in that it sought to weaken King by threatening his hold on the WBA crown.
King has been taking some knocks lately. The Tyson litigation is a source of considerable concern. Lennox Lewis has remained independent of Don King Productions and formed a competing promotional company that's about to receive multimillion-dollar television backing. The Hasim Rahman litigation and Rahman's subsequent loss to Lewis cost the promoter a bundle. Felix Trinidad is at least temporarily retired, and Bernard Hopkins is proving more difficult to deal with than King thought he'd be.
In boxing, all great championship reigns come to an end. When King entered the United States Courthouse on Wednesday, his aura of invincibility was at stake. The vultures were circling. Driving at stake through The Great One's heart won't solve boxing's problems, but a lot of people with business interests in the sport would be happy to see him go.
The hearing began before Judge Laura Swain at 2:15 pm. Ruiz was represented by Aaron Marks. Peter Fleming appeared on behalf of King.
In his opening statement, Marks told the judge that "John Ruiz's ultimate career goal is to be recognized as one of the greatest fighters of all time." One hopes, for Ruiz's sake, that he has a backup career goal in mind. More to the point, Marks maintained that King had breached his contractual obligation to Ruiz by putting his own interests ahead of those of the fighter. "The only impediment to John Ruiz fighting Mike Tyson in the most important fight of his life," Marks told the judge, "is Ruiz's own promoter."
Fleming, in his opening statement, told the court that Ruiz was a fighter going nowhere, carrying the stigma of a nineteen-second knockout at the hands of David Tua, when he signed with King. The promoter then orchestrated and financed the litigation that led to Lennox Lewis being stripped of his WBA title; put Ruiz in three title bouts against Evander Holyfield and one against Kirk Johnson; and generated millions of dollars for the fighter.
Fleming also represented to the court that, "Don King is prepared to pursue negotiations for a Ruiz-Tyson bout with no preconditions whatsoever." And in terms of law, the attorney declared, "Mr. King is not a fiduciary. The Ruiz King contract specifically states that Ruiz is an independent contractor. There's a contract here, and they just want to walk out on it."
Cardinale was Ruiz's first and only witness. He testified that Showtime wanted to telecast Ruiz-Tyson as a pay-per-view bout on November 9th and that King had made unreasonable demands of Tyson. But more significantly, Cardinale acknowledged that Shelly Finkel (Tyson's advisor) and Dale Kinsella (Tyson's attorney) had told him that Tyson would not go forward with the bout if Don King were Ruiz's promoter. Cardinale also told the court, "Time is of the essence. If this window of opportunity is lost, Tyson will simply fight someone else."
Then King took the stand. He told of flying to Atlanta prior to Ruiz-Johnson in an attempt to settle his litigation with Tyson. That was followed by several meetings in New York with Finkel and Tyson's legal team and a final meeting at King's office in Florida. There was no settlement. King acknowledged that, like any good negotiator, he had initially asked for concessions from Tyson in conjunction with a proposed Ruiz-Tyson bout. But he stated that he subsequently told Finkel that the fight could be done unencumbered and that he was "ready, willing, and able to promote a fight between John Ruiz and Mike Tyson."
As for his overall relationship with Ruiz, the promoter declared, "Johnny was a hard sell because all people thought about was that nineteen-second knockout. No one respected Johnny. The press wouldn't accept Johnny. I stood up for Johnny and the rest of his team because of what I thought was their love, affection, and loyalty, which I know now doesn't exist anymore." One half-expected King to close his testimony by quoting King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Instead, he ended with, "You have to live up to your contracts. Here's a fighter I have under contract. And because he thinks he can make a lot of money, he just walks away from his contract."
Court was adjourned at 6:05 p.m. after some final words from PeterFleming: "There is nothing more important in the business of boxing than the ability of a promoter to enforce his promotional contracts. The heart of this case is the contract. Mr. King has served Mr. Ruiz well, and now they want to cut him out."
Judge Swain issued her ruling on Thursday morning.
In order for a temporary restraining order to be granted, two standards must be met: (1) The moving party must be facing irreparable harm if the order is not granted. That harm must be actual, imminent, and not compensable by monetary damages; and (2) The moving party must show a likelihood of success on the merits.
The judge denied Ruiz's motion. She ruled that, although all contracts carry with them a duty of fair dealing and good faith, there is generally no fiduciary duty owed to a boxer by a promoter. In fact, she noted that the Ruiz-King promotional agreement contemplated instances where the interests of Ruiz and King might be inconsistent with one another. She also ruled that the Ruiz-King promotional agreement does not give Ruiz the right to unilaterally choose his opponents and held that King is not required to put aside his own commercial interests in fulfilling his contractual obligations. Her decision was not a final resolution of the matter, but it strongly indicates what the end result will be. The case has been put on the court calendar for an expedited trial to begin on Friday, September 6th.
All of this, of course, leaves the question: "Will Don King make Mike Tyson versus Joh Ruiz?"
After the court's decision, King said that he would seek to arrange the bout. But during his trial testimony, he told the judge, "The numbers that are realistic aren't going to be acceptable to Mike." That could have been laying the groundwork for failure. Or maybe it was just the start of negotiations. Either way, King could seek to use Ruiz-Tyson as an opportunity to get his hooks into Iron Mike again. He could even make the fight and then, knowing which buttons to push, upset Tyson so much that the fight blows up and doesn't happen.
Meanwhile, hours after the judge's decision, the Ruiz camp released the following statement: "Team Ruiz looks forward to setting up this fall a bout between John Ruiz and Mike Tyson, and we also look forward to the court hearing on September 6 to ask that we be permanently excused from our promotional agreement with Mr. King if this fight is not made."
The folks at Team Ruiz are not going quietly. But there's a lot of fight left in the old lion.
Team Ruiz would be wise to remember the admonition of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him or don't strike at all."