I had dinner with Don King last Thursday night at RedFarm, a trendy Chinese restaurant on the upper west side of Manhattan.
King no longer stands astride boxing like a Colossus. In mid-July, Sports Illustrated ran an article about him that was relegated to its annual “where are they now” issue. He’ll be 84 years old on August 20.
But King is still in the game. He promotes several fighters, the most promising of whom is Amir Imam. He has rebounded nicely from recent health issues. His weight is down from 285 pounds to a healthier 220. And he remains an imposing physical presence with the vitality of a younger man.
Here’s what happens when Don King walks into a restaurant. Heads turn. The host moves people around to seat his party of four at a table by the front window. Diners entering the restaurant do a double-take as they pass his table. The energy level in the room rises.
The other patrons are respectful. For the most part, they let him eat in peace. But more than a few stop to say hello on their way out. King has a smile and kind word for each of them. The staff is particularly attentive. He tips generously.
When King leaves the restaurant, a statuesque blonde asks if he’ll take a smartphone photo with her. After the photo is taken, she wraps her arms around him in a long embrace.
There are a lot of celebrities today but very few icons. King is an icon and a larger-than-life legend. His style, his hair, his verbosity, his smile, his charisma, his bling; all of it is his own creation. He still stops a room when he enters. He may be old. He’s no longer the force in boxing that he once was. But he’s still Don King.
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Bill Littlefield once declaimed on National Public Radio, “About the only excuse for boxing – and I’m not sure it’s sufficient – is that the sport has generated some good writing.”
British doctoral student Andrew Douglas opined, “Boxing is little more than organized crime behind a smokescreen of professional sport.”
Littlefield and Douglas are outsiders. But over the years, numerous insiders have also voiced reservations about the sweet science. A sampler follows:
John Schulian (past winner of the Nat Fleischer Award for Career Excellence in Boxing Journalism): “Life isn’t always fair. The fight racket never is.”
Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel: “I don’t think boxing should be abolished. But the way boxing is today, it wouldn’t make any difference. It’s not boxing anymore. It’s exploitation.”
Bill Slayton (honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America as its 1977 “Manager of the Year”): “Boxing has some of the most rotten people you’ll ever meet. Not all of them. But ninety percent of the people in boxing are rotten.”
Randy Neumann (referee and former heavyweight contender): “They don’t dig graves in boxing. They screw people into the ground.”
Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee: “Boxing is a dog-eat-dog sport. You have to be ready to use every trick in the book. It’s not a sport for priests and rabbis. You park your conscience and do what has to be done.”
Former HBO commentator Larry Merchant: “In boxing, you can’t keep a bad man down.”
Roy Jones (pound-for-pound king in the 1990s): “One thing I learned from the ’88 Olympics; it’s not a question of if they can screw you over. It’s a question of if they will.”
And last but not least, promoter Lou DiBella: “It’s a miserable f—–g business.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.