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21 NOVEMBER 2018

 

The Black Lights


By Thomas Hauser
Editor's Note: "The Black Lights" by SecondsOut columnist Thomas Hauser is one of the most widely heralded books ever written about boxing. Hauser joined the training camp of WBC super-lightweight champion Billy Costello while Costello was preparing for a title defense against Leroy Haley. Five days before the scheduled bout, Haley pulled out claiming a hand injury, and Don King sought to substitute Saoul Mamby as Costello's opponent. Costello's manager, Mike Jones, balked at the switch, fearing that Mamby was too experienced to take on as a short-notice opponent. Costello's trainer, Victor Valle, had similar reservations. But King and CBS were pressing hard for the bout. Finally, with the clock ticking down, Jones and CBS boxing analyst Gil Clancy went to visit King at the promoter's office. Hauser went with them. The result was an unusual insight into the inner workings of boxing and Don King.

"Thomas Hauser," The New York Times later wrote, "was obviously given entry that a working reporter could not get, and he made the most of it; particularly in a tense showdown between Don King and Mike Jones that is more gripping than anything in the ring." Playboy concurred, declaring, "Hauser's recounting of an ugly contract negotiation between Mike Jones and promoter Don King is one of the most dramatic non-fiction narratives to appear in print in a long time." And writing for the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates declared, "'The Black Lights' has become a boxing classic."

"The Black Lights" has been reissued by The University of Arkansas Press. The book is available at most bookstores and online booksellers. It can also be purchased directly from the University of Arkansas Press at www.uapress.com.

Here is Thomas Hauser's recreation of the extraordinary confrontation between Mike Jones and Don King, excerpted from "The Black Lights".

* * *

The room looked as though it had been furnished by Hollywood central casting. Red carpet, plush leather sofas, a formica desk and glass-topped conference table with two huge American flags standing in the background. The wall opposite the door was primarily windows. An adjacent wall bore sixty plaques awarded to King by various civic and boxing organizations. Opposite that was a fully mirrored wall. Three color televisions stood on a wall unit to one side of the door. A fully stocked bar was on the other. The ceiling was also mirrored. Only one autographed photograph graced the walls -- a picture of two men with the inscription, "To Don King, Best wishes, Hugh Hefner." Behind the desk, at floor level so they weren't visible from most parts of the room, six television screens attached to closed-circuit cameras monitored the rest of the townhouse.

Don King was seated at the desk, dressed in brown slacks, a white shirt with faint brown stripes, and a brown silk tie. His face looked tired. Rumor had it that the promoter was suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. And perhaps more troubling, he was the target of an ongoing investigation by the Organized Crime Task Force of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. In public King joked about the situation. "Investigation is my middle name," he said. "My plight is to be investigated from the day I was born until the day I die." But in private, King was far less flippant about the matter. Indeed, in a recent civil lawsuit, he had refused to answer questions other than his name and address, and had taken the fifth amendment 364 times.

As Mike Jones and Gil Clancy entered, Don King looked up from his desk. "What a life," he muttered. "Once I was poor and hungry. Now I got money to spend and no time to eat." Then, he gestured toward Mike. "Gil, I just can't believe this guy. Nine months ago, Mike Jones was chasing me all over the country, begging to fight Bruce Curry for twenty-five thousand dollars. Now I'm chasing him, begging him to take a hundred and fifty thousand."

"I know how you feel," Mike said, "but I have to go by my instincts. Billy just isn't prepared for Mamby."

"Hell, Mamby ain't prepared for Costello. If your man turns this fight down, people will be talking about him the same way they talked about Gerry Cooney. Costello will never live it down. They'll say he don't fight nobody."

"Styles make fights."

"Yeah, Mike, I know. But the way you work, you always find problems with styles. This opponent's too fat. This one's too slow. This one's too tall. This one's too wiry. Hell, when you say the words 'world champion,' that means you fight everybody. If your man don't fight this thirty-seven-year old opponent, he should retire."

Don King was warming up. His words were coming incredibly fast, yet each one was rich and resonant, enunciated with the ring of a carnival barker. "Mike," Clancy interrupted. "You're depriving Billy of his right to become a great fighter. And you're depriving him of a pretty good payday too."

"But he'll still be champion."

"Mike," King said, picking up the assault, "I hate to see you make this mistake. I got too much respect and admiration for you. Up until now, Billy Costello has been a worthy champion. But if you turn this fight down, he'll no longer be worthy. A coward dies a thousand deaths; a brave man dies but once."

Don King was known for pulling out all the stops to get what he wanted. In 1977, George Foreman had retired from boxing to preach the Gospel for a small church in Texas. With the heavyweight ranks growing thin, one day Foreman received a breathless telephone call from Don King.

"George, I just had this vision."

"What did you see, Don?"

"It was like a dream, George. It looked like Mr. Hayward Moore (a friend of Foreman's who had just died). He was leading you and me together and you were back in boxing, entering the ring with a cross on your robe and trunks."

"Don," Foreman had answered, "you don't put the cross on your robe. You put it on your heart.

Now Don King was putting the pressure on Mike Jones. Clancy's loyalty was to CBS. King, obviously, was concerned with his own interests. Mike's job was to protect Billy. At six o'clock, he excused himself and telephoned Victor Valle at Gleason's Gym. Once again, Victor said "no" to Mamby. When Mike returned, King was on the telephone. "Just a minute," the promoter said. "Here he is." Then he handed the receiver to Mike.

The voice at the other end belonged to Jose Sulaiman.

"Mike, I do not understand why you will not fight Saoul Mamby. For the good of boxing, I urge you to accept this fight."

The screws were being tightened.

"Jose, I just don't think it's the right fight for my fighter."

Don King picked up on another receiver. "Jose, this man is hurting boxing. And I love boxing."

Jones wouldn't budge. Finally King changed the subject for a moment, telling Sulaiman that he had received the tape on an interview aired recently on CNN in which he'd effusively praised the WBC president. Sulaiman expressed interest in hearing the tape and King called his stepson Carl into the room, instructing him to hold the telephone receiver to a television set while the entire interview was played. Partway through the tape, which lasted thirty minutes, another King aide came into the room with a tape of Mamby's recent loss to Ronnie Shields. Jones retired to the second-floor video room. Mamby looked less impressive than on earlier tapes. His legs seemed weak. After three rounds, Jones picked up the telephone and called Valle.

"Victor, come over to 32 East 69th Street. I want you to look at a tape with me."

Valle replied that he was in the middle of training Gerry Cooney, and would need at least an hour to get there. Jones told King and Clancy that he was going across the street to the Westbury Hotel for a drink. When he returned, Valle still hadn't arrived. Meanwhile King's staff had unearthed a tape of Mamby's most recent fight, against Kevin Austin the preceding July. Mike watched it. Mamby's legs looked strong again.

Valle arrived at 6:45pm, and Jones took him out onto the street where they could talk without fear of eavesdropping devices.

"How did Billy look today in the gym?"

"Very good. He boxed four rounds with Bruce Williams and won all of them."

"Billy could be the first person ever to knock out Mamby."

"Mike, I don't like the style for Billy; not on short notice. To fight Mamby there's too many things Billy has got to do different."

"The pressure is on. CBS, Don King, the WBC; they're all pressing."

"But none of them cares about Billy."

At seven o'clock, King and Clancy went across the street for a beer at a bar called Confetti's. When they returned, Jones and Valle were on the second floor watching a tape of Shields versus Mamby. Clancy telephoned CBS for a status report. The network had decided, if necessary, to substitute Mark Holmes versus Odell Hadley and broadcast it from Las Vegas.

At seven-thirty, Mike Jones reentered Don King's office. Everybody was tired.

There was an ugly edge to King's voice. "Are you ready to fight?"

"I've watched the tapes," Jones answered. "I've consulted again with Victor. We don't want this fight. Billy signed to fight Leroy Haley; not Saoul Mamby. We want to fight. We'll fight all the big names -- Pryor, Mancini, Hatcher, Oliva -- but not Mamby. That's it."

"Who do you think you are, motherfucker? You can pull that shit with Gerry Cooney because he's big and he's white. But not with Billy Costello.

"Look, Don --"

"Not with Costello. You're a liar, man. You know that." King's voice was rising. "Nine months ago, you was begging me for a shot at Curry. You was crawling and begging and you said, 'Give us a chance at Curry and we'll fight anybody after that.' Well, you're a fucking chickenshit coward, and your fighter is, too."

"Don, there's a lot of brave managers out there who don't do what's best for their fighters."

A Shakespearean rage was building. "Fuck you, man. Fuck you. You don't care shit about your fighter. You're just playing ego games, sucking the blood out of your fighter's heart. You're gonna be a fat rich white boy living out on Long Island, and your fighter will be hungry. If you think Billy Costello is fighting for me again after this, man, give it up."

"Don, if that's the way you feel, release us from the options, and we'll find someone else to promote Billy."

In one motion, Don King picked the telephone off his desk and slammed it down. Papers flew. The receiver spun off and twisted wildly, dangling in midair.

"You ain't worried about your fighter looking bad," King shrieked. "You're worried about losing. You're a coward, man, and your fighter is too; a chickenshit coward."

"Billy Costello's not afraid of anybody."

"Fuck you, man. Fuck you. Get out of my office. Don't want to see you again. But I'll get you, motherfucker. It's just a matter of time, that's all. It's just a matter of time."

The weather outside was unseasonably warm for the end of October. Mike Jones walked twelve blocks to the Park Lane Hotel and took the elevator up to room 3814. Billy Costello was waiting, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans. The room looked out over southern Manhattan.

For several minutes Jones recounted what had happened.

"Maybe I was wrong," he said at the finish. "I don't know. I did what I thought was best for you."

Billy sat silently, the emotions of the moment written on his face.

"Are you disappointed?"

"Yeah, but you're the manager. You make the deals. All I do is fight."

"You're still champ."

"It don't feel like it."

The two men talked for another twenty minutes. Then Mike Jones rose to leave.

"Hey, Mike," Billy said softly. "You know something. It's all bullshit."

* * *

Later that night, shortly before midnight, the telephone rang in Room 3814 of the Park Lane Hotel. Billy Costello reached across the bed, past the ornate headboard covered with silk damask, and picked up the receiver.

"Billy, this is Mike. I'd like you to do a favor for me."

"What is it?"

"This Saturday, I want you to go up to Kingston and kick Saoul Mamby's ass."


Editor's note: Billy Costello successfully defended his title against Saoul Mamby, winning a unanimous twelve-round decision in Kingston, New York.



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