Rumble In The Jungle
In 1974, King put together a title fight between the champion, George Foreman, and challenger Muhammad Ali. To add a note of black pride, he decided to hold the event in Africa, in Zaire, and coined it the "Rumble in the Jungle." He promised each of the contenders $5 million, twice what any previous fighter had earned, and despite the suspicions of both Ali's managers and George Foreman, the corruption of Zaire's megalomaniac ruler Mobutu, and a five-week delay that threatened to torpedo the whole project, King pulled off a match that was a huge financial success for all concerned. Or nearly all. Lloyd Price, one of numerous singers who had flown in to perform on the night of the big fight, never received payment.
With Ali's title regained, and Don King firmly in his camp, the two began to plan his next big match. The result was the "Thrilla in Manilla," which put Ali up against former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Many consider this the greatest title fight in boxing history, adding a note of quality to King's reputation for mounting lucrative spectacles.
King's growing influence soon attracted the attention of the federal government, notably the FBI and IRS. After numerous investigations, the FBI concluded that the chaotic structure of modern boxing meant that King probably was not criminally liable for his shady deals, although it continued to watch him. He has also survived IRS investigations for tax evasion and a 1995 federal charge for insurance fraud, which ended in a hung jury. In fact, the jury convicted King's secretary, Constance Harper, while letting King himself off. A grateful King sprung for first-class plane tickets and ringside seats for the jurors. In addition, King has fended off a number of lawsuits from his own clients, but these have generally been settled out of court. As former heavyweight Larry Holmes, who settled for $100,000 after suing for $300,000, once put it: King "looks black, lives white, and thinks green."
As Muhammad Ali entered his declining years, especially after losing his title to Larry Holmes, Don King emerged more and more as the face of modern boxing. In fact, for a time in the 1980s, everyone who contended for the heavyweight championship was promoted or managed by Don King. As a Sports Illustrated reporter put it in 1990, "Boxing is run out of King's right-hand drawer." And it wasn't just his business savvy. Heavyweight champions like Michael Dokes, Mike Weaver, and Trevor Berbick did not resonate with the public the way Don King did. Only one recent boxer, Mike Tyson, has eclipsed Don King's fame—or notoriety. When Tyson lost his title and then went to jail on a rape conviction, it seemed to some that King had lost his last big meal ticket.
But Don King has gone ever on. Promotions (including a brief detour into the music industry when he promoted the Jacksons's Victory Tour in the late 1980s), law suits, grand schemes for reviving the sagging fortunes of heavyweight boxing, intense rivalries with other promoters, all continue to fill the busy life of Don King. Even Mike Tyson returned to the fold after his prison term, earning more money for the promoter, although he has since sued King for $100 million. Undoubtedly, many boxers and promoters wish Don King had never entered boxing, but they might consider two of his legacies. First, he dramatically increased the prize money for fighters. Second, and rather more importantly, he brought a charisma and undeniable showmanship to a sport that has always depended on such fireworks to attract the public's interest, and the money that flows from that interest. As King himself once put it: "I never cease to amaze myself. I say this humbly."