Thursday, 26 March 2020

Other sports no. 3: Don King and the 45 minute answer

It was the week before the Mike Tyson versus Evander Holyfield rematch at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

I'd been at the first fight when Holyfield had pulled off a major upset by stopping Tyson in the eleventh round, even though beforehand there was a concern that Evander might actually die in the ring. He had been diagnosed with a heart condition that he now claimed had been cured by a faith healer.

As a piece of sporting theatre it was the most exciting thing I'd seen. Afterwards both fighters came to a press conference in a big white tent that had been erected behind the casino and was the locus of media activities. Holyfield had been there almost every day in the run-up and would happily talk to anybody. Now he sat at a table with Mike Tyson, explaining how it was God's plan that he would win. Mike Tyson had angry red welts on his forehead where the fighters' heads had clashed, and he kept pressing them with a white towel. Between them sat Don King, beaming with delight.

A British journalist called Jeff Powell stood up and said, 'Mike, do you think that after that defeat you should consider retiring, and Evander, now that you've achieved everything in the sport, would you think about retiring again too?'

The look on Don King's face was priceless, which I suspect Jeff Powell knew it would be. One of his great talents as a promoter was to be up on both sides of the deal. A Holyfield victory meant not just a rematch but a potential trilogy of big-money fights - from which the one guaranteed winner would be Don King.

I needed a commission to get to the second fight and managed to sell the idea of a piece about Don to Punch, the humour magazine that was undergoing one of its many revamps. I went over intending to try and get an interview in the big white tent during fight week.

As usual, it was an interesting moment for Don. He was facing a trial for wire fraud that carried a prison sentence of 45 years. The accusation was that he'd profited from a false insurance claim to Lloyds of London after the cancellation of a fight involving Julio Cesar Chavez. He'd already been tried once, but the jury had failed to reach a verdict.

There were lots of things that a piece about Don King was duty bound to mention, from the fact he'd killed two men, to his rise from prison to promoting fights like the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle, and then listing the many fighters, promoters and officials he'd duped, bilked and baffled with his brilliance and his bullshit. When he'd been acquitted on tax evasion charges in the mid-80s, the US Government's lead prosecutor said that Don King was the cleverest man he'd ever cross-examined. 

It was an extraordinary life, an American life ('only in America' was one of the stock phrases Don loved to bellow at people), and in the flesh King was just as monumental, six feet four or five tall with the famous hair standing way above that. He dwarfed both Tyson and Holyfield whenever he stood next to them.

Although he sued anyone in boxing at the drop of hat, he never sued the media because he knew the value of his reputation. Instead he talked and talked, a verbal steamroller that simpy couldn't be stopped, not matter what was thrown at him.

I was a genuinely lightweight opponent, but after a couple of days I got my chance. He was standing by himself in the media tent, so I crept over, turned on my tape recorder and said, 'Don, could I just ask you about the insurance case...'

Without blinking, he was off. I can't recall much of what he said, but back then, a dictaphone ran on physical cassettes that had 45 minutes of tape before you had to flip them over, and by the time he'd finished speaking, the thing had turned off in my hand.

It was vintage Don, exactly what I'd hoped for. He called the wire fraud 'a victimless crime,' and 'insinuendo'. A 45-minute answer... Only in America. I wrote the piece, which was very much like every other Don King piece, but I was quite in thrall to boxing at the time. A few months later, he was acquitted after a trial in New York. As the New York Times reported, "the fight promoter laughed boisterously, soliloquised his jubilation in religious and hyperbolic terms and signed autographs."

Being in thrall to boxing changed, slowly. Two years later I was working at an Australian newspaper. I liked to get in early and read the wire reports. One morning I saw one that began: 'Rick Parker wanted to be Don King. Rich. Intimidating. Powerful...'

It was from a paper in Florida, only a few paragraphs about this Parker guy, who, it transpired, had been advised by King to try and find a white heavyweight boxer who could win the world title - at the time there hadn't been a white champion since Marciano. So Rick Parker did. Well sort of, he tried at least, and left behind him a wild and sad story of fixed fights, mayhem, money and ultimately murder - his own, at the hands of one of his fighters, Tim 'Doc' Anderson.

I tried to find out more about Rick Parker. When I got back to England, I began writing to Tim Anderson, who was serving life without parole in a Florida prison. As the story became clear - the story of how a good man came to kill another (deeply flawed) human being - I realised that I no longer loved boxing.

It was an emotional rather than a logical thing. Lots of sports, maybe every sport, was corrupt in some way or another, some, like FIFA or the IOC, to a much higher level than boxing was, too. But boxing seemed more personally ruinous, and there was a divide between the men that got in the ring and those outside of it. After wading through the wreckage of Tim's once blessed life, I didn't find Don King's stories about ripping off fighters and being up on both sides of the deal funny any more.

The corruption in boxing was mostly low-level, in then-unregulated states like Oklahoma, where Rick Parker had poisoned Tim Anderson so that he would lose a fight with Mark Gastineau, the former NFL defensive end. Where men fought under assumed names that they took from the local cemetary. Where fighters were smuggled over borders, given fake social security numbers, made to fight outside their weight class, and lots of other shit that no-one cared about. 

But it stretched upwards, too. Everyone was connected. Tim Anderson had fought George Foreman at Rick Parker's behest. Rick had a piece of Big George's comeback at the start, but Bob Arum took that. Nonetheless Rick found himself hanging over the top rope of the ring at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta as 'Smokin' Bert Cooper, who he managed and promoted, was one more clean punch away from knocking out Evander Holyfield to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

One punch away.

Bert Cooper is dead now, and so is Rick Parker, and Tim Anderson is still in jail. Bob Arum is 88 years old and promotes Tyson Fury. Don King is also 88 years old, and much diminished.

Don's on the outside, and no-one is getting 45-minute answers any more.



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