You would have felt queasy, too, standing in the paparazzi-stuffed banquet hall at the New York Hilton Friday morning. It was a 30-minute photo-op given shortly before the Friars Club roast for boxing promoter Don King. I elected not to eat my usual greasy egg sandwich before arriving, as I mistakenly assumed there’d be some vittles provided for us at the event. Had the hosts been more gracious, I would’ve given King a spit-shine polish he’d never forget.
King stood on a dais, waving those two American flags that are seemingly glued to his hands, his face a smiling mask. Much of the boxing press wisely skipped this one, but scores of other media did that nauseating feeding-frenzy thing usually reserved for a Hollywood beauty on a red carpet—not a 72-year-old swaddled in enough diamonds to spell “DON” twice.
Forgive King of Kings for needing to see his name written twice on his bling: everyone around him had either forgotten or ignored who he really was. The sins he had committed to acquire such brilliant stones was immaterial. The Sweet Science wasn’t invited to the roast itself, however; maybe a few cheeky allusions were eventually made?
Alas, there were no copies lying around of “Only In America: The Life and Crimes of Don King,” Jack Newfield’s revealing unauthorized biography. The ghost of Sam Garrett didn’t make a special appearance; King stomped him to death in 1967 over a petty gambling debt. There were no sightings of the numerous destitute boxers who had been fleeced by the Evil Genius—somehow they were left off the guest list. Even Larry Holmes, that rare exception who managed to make and keep his money after dealing with King, was a no-show. Oh, right, the forthright ex-champ has said of the promoter, “King’s an equal opportunity dirtbag, he screws everybody.” “The Easton Assassin” always told it like it was. Can’t say the same for Evander Holyfield, who attended the roast.
Joe Frazier was in the house, and that makes perfect sense. “Smokin’” Joe left it all in the ring and is now too enfeebled to ask King not to pat him on the head while picking his pocket. Several others accompanied King on the dais, either suffering from amnesia or playing dumb for laughs. Roastmaster Donald “You’re Fired” Trump, and an assorted cast of C-list celebrities like Gilbert Gottfried, Abe Vigoda, Jackie Martling of Howard Stern fame, “Big Pussy” from The Sopranos, and the guy who played Carlo in “Godfather I,” mugged for the cameras and struck the classic boxer’s pose. At one point, King, who strangely did little talking, just waving and smiling, had the temerity to begin the chorus of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
That’s when it was time for some fresh air.
Fortified by the oxygen, I re-entered the banquet hall only to discover more popping flashbulbs and longer lenses recording the grotesque orgy. What does this have to do with boxing, and why am I here? I asked myself. What worthwhile information can I deliver to the good readers of The Sweet Science?
Thankfully, I caught the eye of TSS’s Robert Ecksel. He was near the mindless media throng, but very much apart: a conscientious objector. He looked even more dismayed than I was. Beside him was another veteran fight scribe, Eddie Goldman. If I couldn’t suss out some critical thinking from these two, we were all doomed.
“My view on Don King is that he’s the best at what he does, as a boxing promoter,” Goldman said, adjusting his bottle-thick glasses. “If you want to deal with corruption and other issues that have starkly come up with him, I think it’s unfair to single him out. I’m not exonerating him. It’s endemic to the business, due to the lack of structure. Because you can bring up any case you want, Tim Witherspoon or Mike Tyson or whoever, but how many of these other promoters have done that differently?
“[Other promoters] are obviously not as flamboyant as King, as much of a personality. But the issue with King that’s come up in boxing circles is not the whole combing his hair up, and the ‘Only in America’ rhetoric, it’s the issue of corruption. And I don’t know if he’s any better or worse, on average, than other guys. I think that the sport is still a Wild West, and allows for things like that…for people to get away with. So you got Cedric Kushner and Bob Arum admitting they paid bribes to the IBF, and on and on. You have King settling lawsuits without admitting guilt. That’s my take.
As if on cue, King punctuated the din with a flurry of “Only in America’s!”
Robert Ecksel rolled his eyes back so that his pupils and irises temporarily disappeared. He is unhappy with King (basically down to his DNA) and his colleague’s comments, too.
“This whole roast is a time of idolatry,” said Ecksel, “a dropping of all critical thinking. This is not the time to embrace Eddie’s great open-hearted humanism, in my opinion. Forgiveness is fine; forgetting, maybe not so good. This is the time when you either get in line and suck up to King, or you tell it like it is. Of course [King] is worse than the others; that’s why he’s so successful! That’s why he’s being roasted, and not Bob Arum – ‘cause he’s even worse than Bob Arum.”
For Ecksel, the whole scene suggested that it doesn’t matter “how King got the money. It applies not only to him but all the great industrialists. The Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, that whole crew. They all made their money off the backs, and the blood, sweat and tears, of the working class. King is no different.”
“They’re aware of what King’s crimes are,” said Ecksel, gesturing toward the platform that now had former mayor David Dinkins embracing the ex-con, the mass of “reporters” acting like automatons. “But they overlook it, it’s not important, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s got his own plane. What matters is that he’s in Madame Tussauds, albeit in the hall of shame across from Richard Nixon. These are the things that matter. All’s fair in love, war, and capitalism. Anything goes.”
It was heartening to know that among the insanity, there were at least two thoughtful, sober minds in Goldman and Ecksel. While the two fight guys disagreed with each other, they both had informed opinions, they had perspective, they questioned the status quo. A couple of 1960s-style dissenters who hadn’t lost their edge.
Boxing needs this. Hell, the world needs it. Especially in America.