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.
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.”