Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1931, Don King enjoyed success as a street hustler before being incarcerated on manslaughter charges in 1967. After his release, he established himself as a top boxing promoter by staging the famed 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The flamboyant King helped his fighters achieve record payouts, but he was also sued by many of them for wages owned. He was still a top promoter by the time he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, though his power began to wane the following decade.
Early Years and Business
Donald King was born on August 20, 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio. When he was 10 years old, his father, Clarence, died in a steel plant accident, enabling his mother, Millie, to use the insurance money to move the family to a middle-class neighborhood.
Despite his improved environment, King was attracted to the thrill of illicit activities. He abandoned his plans to become a lawyer, dropping out of school to "run numbers" through a back-alley lottery system. By age 20, he was thriving in his lucrative street business.
King's chosen profession came with inherent dangers. In 1954, he killed a man who tried to rob one of his gambling houses, but emerged unscathed after a judge deemed it justifiable homicide. King also tangled with the region's organized crime syndicate, and survived getting shot in the back of the head.
The law caught up with King after he beat a former business associate to death in 1966, though he managed to get the charges reduced to first-degree manslaughter. He read heavily while incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institute, earning his release in September 1971 after serving four years.
Rise to Fame
Seeking to become a boxing promoter, Don King quickly hit pay dirt by convincing Muhammad Ali to fight in an exhibition for an African-American hospital in 1972. From there, he talked his way into the inner circles of top heavyweights Joe Frazier and George Foreman, who were set for a title bout in January 1973. King notoriously arrived at the fight with Frazier's entourage, but switched allegiances after Foreman scored the decisive knockout.
King firmly established himself in the sport with the 1974 title bout between Ali and Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Although he possessed little formal experience as a promoter, King convinced Zaire dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko to provide the financial backing for the $5 million he promised each fighter, and organized an accompanying music festival that included James Brown and B.B. King. Despite delays and numerous attempts to move the fight back to the United States, the "Rumble in the Jungle" took place in late October and entered the annals of boxing lore with Ali's win.
King again staged an international title bout the following year, the famed "Thrilla in Manilla" between Ali and Frazier in the Philippines. He continued to add to his stable of fighters, signing such hard hitters as Larry Holmes and Roberto Durán, and helped change the economics that drove the sport. In 1979, during cable TV's infancy, King arranged for a fight to air on HBO. Within a few years, he was negotiating packages for closed-circuit, pay-per-view and a broadcast television.
By the time he took over as promoter for heavyweight champ Mike Tyson in the late 1980s, King was as well known as any fighter in the business. Instantly recognizable with his huge smile and frizzy hair, he commanded the media spotlight with his colorful outbursts, punctuating his rambling stories with "Only in America!"
However, behind the cheery facade lurked a tough negotiator: When a boxer wanted to fight someone under the umbrella of Don King Productions, that meant the boxer had to sign with King if he won. His tactics helped keep him on top of the business, with champions like Evander Holyfield and Julio César Chávez choosing King for some of their biggest matches. In 1994 alone, he promoted 47 title bouts.
Seeking to squeeze every last dollar possible out of the business, Don King was often accused of shortchanging his clients. Ali and Tyson were among the championship fighters who sued the promoter for wages owed. Another, Tim Witherspoon, accused King of "black-on-black crime" after allegedly only receiving $90,000 of a promised $500,000 purse.
Additionally, King drew the attention of the federal government for his dealings. He was indicted for tax evasion in late 1984, twice tried for fraud following a canceled 1993 match and subjected to an FBI search in 1999 as part of an investigation into International Boxing Federation kickbacks. Each time, he escaped punishment.
Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, Don King remained one of the sport's major players well into the following decade. In 2006, Forbes estimated he had promoted some 600 championship bouts and generated a net worth of $350 million over his career.
However, the dilution of boxing talent through numerous sanctioning bodies and the rise of mixed-martial arts as a mainstream sport combined to erode King's power. He was forced to cut staff members at Don King Productions, and in 2011 he sold his massive estate in Manalapan, Florida. Additionally, he endured the loss of his longtime wife, Henrietta, around this time.
King remained active professionally, though he usually drew far more attention than the little-known fighters he was promoting. He occasionally surfaced in the news for other reasons, such as when he was rumored to be a speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
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