Magazine article USA TODAY

... and in This Corner

Magazine article USA TODAY

... and in This Corner

Article excerpt

I PUSHED OPEN the large oak door. It was about eight feet tall and so heavy I had to lean into it with all of my 115 pounds. It was about four inches thick and, if it were steel, it could have been the door to a bank vault. There was, in fact, a lot of money behind the door, but it was in the form of Don King, the world's most successful boxing promoter.

King grew up a hustler in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a tall, robust black man with an ebullient, circus-like demeanor that could turn quickly. It turned deadly once when a man robbed his gambling hall and King shot him in the back. It turned deadly again when King stomped an employee to death for the sin of owing him $600. That act of retribution landed him in jail for four years.

When King got out of prison, he got into the fight game. As someone who fought with the heel of his shoe, he did not know very much about boxing, but he knew how to sweet-talk people and lure them with money. His rise as a promoter was nothing short of meteoric. He signed names like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and everyone on down to managerial contracts, while at the same time wearing the promoter's hat. He packaged the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 and the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975.

The Rumble was made possible by a payment of $10,000,000 King solicited from the president of Zaire. In the fight, Ali played rope-a-dope with Foreman for seven rounds before sending the exhausted heavyweight champion to the canvas with a barrage of punches Foreman no longer could defend against. One-billion people around the world watched on satellite TV as the aging Ali underscored his legend yet again. All 1,000,000,000 television viewers saw my mentor, Zach Clayton, referee the fight and give the final count.

Few of them knew what Clayton actually was saying during the count. I was one who did: "One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, get off the floor.... "That was one of Zach's trademarks. He had left his post as commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission after completing his term and was replaced by Howard McCall. No one, of course, could replace Clayton in the ring or in my esteem. I was even prouder of him than he was of me.

The Thrilla in Manila was another King coup. As the robber match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, it was a lot more than a world heavyweight championship fight. It was the final meeting between two titans whose whole still was greater than the sum of their parts. The bad blood between Ali and Frazier was real, and the Thrilla harbored a kind of intensity and desperation that probably never could be recaptured.

By the 12th round, the two fighters were trading dozens of last-gasp blows, any one of which could have killed a man. By the 14th round, Frazier could not see and All looked like he might expire. Eddie Futch, Frazier's manager, would not let his fighter come out for the 15th and final round. Afterward, Futch was bombarded with criticism but explained calmly that he had seen too many men die in the ring to let it happen again. Ironically, it was Ali who said after the fight that he now understood what it was like to die.

The man responsible for those epics, and whose only braises were to his reputation, now sat across the room from me. King's office in New York was as huge as his ego. The distance was perhaps 50 feet, but it seemed to take forever for me to approach his massive mahogany desk.

For a long moment, I was not so sure this had been the right plan of action. I was judging fights regularly and was approaching 350 bouts altogether but, as of November 1975, I was not going where I wanted to. I had not gotten a single New York fight since my debut in New York at the Felt Forum the summer before, and I could not imagine how I was ever going to make the leap to a title fight, let alone a title fight overseas. So, I applied a bit of chutzpa in calling Don King's office and making an appointment. …

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