Don King gets an Easter surprise
By Paul Upham: The telephone was slammed down hard in Don King's Las Vegas home. It was Good Friday and the high-haired promoter was not a very happy individual. Andrew Golota, who King had given an opportunity from nowhere, despite intense criticism, to fight for the IBF title against Chris Byrd the following weekend in New York, had just pulled out injured.
A new opponent needed to be found ASAP to ensure that the HBO Pay-Per-View card would still go ahead. Not an easy task at the best of times on eight days notice. Even worse when the champion to be faced is Chris Byrd. The slick southpaw is never easy to look good against or beat, for that matter. King gave the order to his Vice-President of Boxing Operations Bobby Goodman and new DKP company matchmaker Eric Bottjer, "Get me someone!"
Meanwhile, at the same time in his European business base in Paris, the Easter Bunny was similarly unhappy, as one of his most trusted advisers and financial managers delivered some unsettling news. The Easter Bunny was almost bankrupt and the entire Easter chocolate egg business was in jeopardy of collapse. As hard as he initially tried to argue his way out of it, his accountants were right and the Easter Bunny knew it. While he had been in a good business for a long time, having taken over from his father and his grandfather before him, the current Easter Bunny liked to enjoy himself and knew how to have a good and expensive time. When he was not working, he was seen with a new female bunny every week. He had so many children that even Evander Holyfield would blush and all those limo rides added up. Just ask Mike Tyson if you doubt it is possible to spend US$300,000 on limousines in a year.
The Easter Bunny needed some big money, and fast. He called his good friend Santa Claus at the North Pole for some advice.
Easter Bunny: SC, EB here. I need help.
Santa Claus: What's the problem?
Easter Bunny: I've got enough money to get me through my production and deliveries for Sunday, but my accountant tells me I'm in a real financial hole and I need some serious moolah next week or the whole Easter road show will fall over.
Santa Claus: Oh, that is a problem.
Luckily for the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus was a big boxing fan and had an idea.
Santa Claus: Listen, I've just read on the Internet that Andrew Golota has pulled out of his heavyweight title fight with Chris Byrd for April 17. Why don't you offer your services and take the fight. I read these boxers make a lot of money.
While the Easter Bunny was not as big a boxing fan as Santa Claus (Santa had the advantage of following the sport up close since John L. Sullivan was champion), the Easter Bunny always loved watching it and considered himself a capable fighter.
Easter Bunny: That's not a bad idea Santa, but do these guys really make that much money for the risk involved?
Santa Claus: Well, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is at the end of a US$12.5 million deal with HBO and look at the guys he's been facing!
Easter Bunny: Good point. Well, have you got any contacts for me to get started?
Santa Claus: As a matter of fact, I do have some contact details here of one of the bigger promoters in the USA. Let me just punch his file up on the computer...Here it is, Dan Goossen. I am familiar with him. He writes me a letter every Christmas asking for the next boxing star under his Christmas tree. I gave him David Reid in 1996, but he wants someone even better. While boxing is a sea of sharks, I've heard some good things about him. When I was following the IBF trial in 2000, apparently they had people on tape saying that he wouldn't pay brides for ranking's. Give him a call and see what he can do.
The Easter Bunny hopped on the phone and placed a call through to Dan Goossen's office in Sherman Oaks, California.
Dan Goossen, was actually a good choice for the Easter Bunny as a first try. He was renown for taking fighters often overlooked for important fights, recycling them and taking them on to bigger and better things.
"Mr Goossen," said the receptionist, at the Goossen-Tutor offices, "there is a Mr E. Bunny on the phone for you."
"If this is another one of those gag calls from Fred Sternburg, I'll kill him," Goossen quipped to himself, as he picked up the phone receiver. The tall, distinguished promoter listened in somewhat surprised, then intrigued, as the Easter Bunny put forward his plan to fight Chris Byrd in eight days time. While the idea of a rabbit fighting for the heavyweight title was an unusual one, Goossen said to himself, "this is boxing, anything is possible." Finally convinced, he told the Easter Bunny, "I'll ring Don King now and get back to you shortly."
As he dialled the veteran promoters cell phone, Goossen was not sure if his asking price for the fight was going to be too much, or too little.
Dan Goossen: Don, I'm ready to solve your problem.
Don King: Dan, I've told you before, when I have Mike under contract, then we'll talk about a fight with James Toney.
Dan Goossen: Don, I'm not talking about that problem. I'm talking about getting you a challenger for Chris Byrd.
Don King: Whoever it is, I saw him first and already have him under contract!
Dan Goossen: Don, he's never fought before, but I think it is a fight we can make.
King listened intently as Goossen pitched the idea of the Easter Bunny fighting Chris Byrd at Madison Square Garden in New York. King laughed and then became angry as he felt Goossen was just wasting his time. Finally, one sentence changed his entire attitude to the proposal. "Don, just think about how many fans the Easter Bunny has around the world. The pay-per-view sales could be enormous!"
With that, the calculations began computing in King's head and he envisioned some fight slogans, "Byrd vs. Bunny - This rabbit ain't soft n' cuddly" or "Byrd vs. Bunny - The battle of the species".
"OK, Dan, lets do it," King replied enthusiastically.
The two promoters hammered out a deal on the telephone over the next hour. Byrd would make $2.5 million, while the Easter Bunny would be paid $1.5 million.
King then rang Mark Taffet, HBO's Senior Vice-President, Sports Operations and Pay-Per-View to tell him of the change. "Don, we can't have a rabbit fighting for the heavyweight title," said Taffet. King quickly used the same line that Goossen had given him, while adding, "you don't want to be the one to offend all his fans around the world including your own children, do you," and the HBO executive was sold, albeit reluctantly.
The real fight preparations then began. As the Easter Bunny was left-handed, Winky Wright's trainer Dan Birmingham was brought in to work with him, while ace PR guru Fred Sternburg was commissioned as a publicist and immediately got to work. His first release read, "This Thumper can really thump!" followed by, "Byrd faces a real South-Paw!"
After making his deliveries on Saturday night, the Easter Bunny arrived on Sunday afternoon in New York and began working out with Birmingham in a gym in Yonkers. A press conference was scheduled for Monday at midday at the Waldorf Towers Hotel to announce the new opponent for Byrd. They had delayed the press conference two days to ensure that the Easter Bunny was not injured during his weekend deliveries. As King stepped up to the podium, who would have ever believed that for the first time ever, he was nervous about the speech he was about to make.
"Ladies and gentleman," he said, "I wish to announce the new opponent for the IBF heavyweight champion of the world Chris Byrd in what will now be one of the greatest boxing spectacles this universe has ever seen. The Easter Bunny will for the first time, challenge for the heavyweight boxing crown."
While the media in attendance had seen the Easter Bunny seated at the podium, many had assumed it was some obscure marketing ploy by King to boost pay-per-view sales. The majority of them were shocked at what they had just heard, though there were some local newspaper scribes and television reporters who have no idea about boxing whatsoever, or the magnitude of King's announcement. Which just goes to show what happens when you don't have specialist boxing writers on your payroll. Their questions began to flow like the Easter Bunny was just another unknown pug brought in for an undeserved shot on a King card. "Do you think you will knock him out," yelled one. "Is this the toughest fight of your career?" asked another. It took SecondsOut's senior writer Thomas Hauser to bring some sanity to the proceedings. "Don," he asked. "How can a rabbit fight for the heavyweight championship of the world?"
"You are a very perceptive man Thomas and I thought that question may eventually come up," replied King. "In this great and glorious land that we live in, everyone deserves a chance. The Easter Bunny has brought so much happiness to the people around the world, who are we to deny him this wonderful opportunity?"
The IBF was asked how they could sanction the bout considering the Easter Bunny was a rabbit and had never competed in a professional boxing bout before?
"When Andrew Golota was injured, that left the No.15 position vacant and we just slotted him in there," replied IBF President Marian Muhammad. "We searched high and low for someone else to put in there, but the heavyweight division is in such a poor state now, there was no one else and you must admit, the Easter Bunny is very cute. That, and the US$20,000 request fee paid by the promoter for an optional defence convinced us."
Chris Byrd, one of the trickiest southpaws in his own right, had long been ducked by many a good fighter in the heavyweight division and seem unconcerned about facing the Easter Bunny. "It's all business to me," he said. "I've always said I'd face anyone and this is just another chance for me to show how great I really am. I've promised my kids I won't hurt him too much, but when he steps into the ring he's just another fighter."
Dan Birmingham was asked whether the Easter Bunny would be fit enough to go the distance having taken the fight on only one weeks notice?
"Are you kidding?" he replied. "My guy just ran the planet delivering chocolate eggs on Saturday night. He can go 360 rounds."
At 5'8'' and weighing around 200lbs, the Easter Bunny was going to be the smaller fighter to Byrd at 6'2'' and 220lbs. Privately, while Birmingham was impressed with the Easter Bunny's movement and work rate, he wanted him to plant his feet more for better leverage with his punches. There was also a problem with his ears getting in the way. "Tie them back like Lennox Lewis did with his hair," urged Sternburg. "We'll say he has dreadlocks and tap into the reggae market. 'Dis' bunny is cool mon.'"
The fight week went ahead as planned and finally Chris Byrd and the Easter Bunny entered the ring in front of a sell-out crowd. With new commentator Roy Jones Jr. unavailable due to his preparation for his rematch with Antonio Tarver, George Foreman was brought back in to do one more show with Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant. "Tonight we have a most interesting contest," said Lampley in his HBO Pay-Per-View introduction. "We have the guile of Chris Byrd against the Easter Bunny, whose has reportedly looked in excellent condition during training and is no slouch in finding his way around the ring either. For the fans out there who really appreciate pure boxing, we should see a match tonight featuring the best skills pugilism has to offer, Larry."
"All I want to know is what the hell a rabbit is doing fighting in the ring," said a puzzled Merchant shaking his head. "Has the world gone truly mad?"
The action finally got underway and it was clear from the early exchanges, or lack or exchanges that this was going to be an extremely difficult fight to judge. As hard as Byrd tried, he could not land a punch on the Easter Bunny, who was having equally as much trouble landing his own combinations. After three rounds CompuBox had neither boxer landing one single punch.
"Jim, I've got it 30-30, all three rounds even," said HBO's ringside judge Harold Lederman. "If they can't land a punch, there's no way I can split them and the way they are going, we could have all twelve rounds exactly the same!"
Lampley and Merchant were then stunned with George Foreman's assertion after round four that the Easter Bunny was winning the contest easily.
"It's just like on Sunday morning when you wake up and find those chocolate eggs," explained Foreman. "The Easter Bunny has been working while you didn't even know it. Chris Byrd doesn't realise the work his opponent is doing. He's in and out before you blink an eye."
As the rounds ticked by, Don King slumped lower and lower in his seat at the thought of how the seemingly endless supply or rounds without punches being landed would be criticised after the fight.
In the ring, the Easter Bunny was actually having the time of his life. He was smiling and laughing as he made Byrd miss time after time. But when he got back to the corner at the end of the 6th round, trainer Birmingham pulled him up. "What are you smiling at," he asked. "This is a fight. Stop playing around. You can be friends after the fight. Now go out and hit him."
The final bell mercifully sounded at the end of twelve rounds and there was high tension in the arena. Who had won the fight? Hardly anyone was prepared to make a prediction. Finally, Jimmy Lennon Jr. read out the scores and it was a razor thin split decision for Byrd 120-119, 120-119 and 119-120.
As Don King climbed into the ring to what he thought would be criticism and boos, he was stopped by an ecstatic Mark Taffet. "Don, you won't believe it!" he gasped. "We haven't finished counting yet, but the pay-per-view buys so far have topped 40 million. That's twenty times what Lewis-Tyson did."
Dollars signs lit up in the promoter's eyes as the sounds of a million cash registers chiming at once echoed through his mind.
"You haven't told Goossen yet have you," asked King, with Taffet shaking his head. "Good, if you want an immediate rematch, don't release those figures until Monday."
"No problem," said Taffet, as King rushed into the ring and fronted Dan Goossen.
"Dan, you want a rematch, you got one. But I'm not paying you one cent more than $5 million and you'll have to sign the contract tonight."
Goossen had never expected such an offer and had been thinking himself that the fight was a stinker and readily agreed.
After Byrd had given his post fight interview, Larry Merchant interviewed the Easter Bunny with Goossen looking over one shoulder and King beaming on the other.
"You came here totally unknown as a boxer," enthused Merchant. "You proved tonight that you belong in the realms of pugilism as well as being an icon of hope and happiness for children around the world. What do you say to those who watched you tonight put on one of the greatest exhibitions of speed and movement ever seen inside a boxing ring, even if you didn't land a single punch?"
"Happy Easter," was his only reply.
Don King thought to himself, "what a strange reply, it's not Easter..."
"Happy Easter Donald."
"Donald, wake up. Happy Easter," said Don King's wife Henrietta.
"What. What. Where I am," said a confused Don King.
"Donald. You are here in our Las Vegas home. It's Easter Sunday and here is your present."
A large chocolate rabbit wrapped in golden foil left by the Easter Bunny lay in front of him.
"Have you been dreaming about pay-per-view sales again," asked his wife.
"Dammit," said King. "I had the Easter Bunny fighting on my April 17 card and we did over 40 million buys."
The realisation that the Easter Bunny was not really fighting on his card dawned on him. It was all a dream. King lied back on his bed and thought about the money he didn't make as he chewed on the head of his chocolate rabbit. "Only in America," he said to himself.