“Forget death and taxes. The only sure thing is that, win or lose, Don King is counting the money" - Jack Newfield, King Biographer.
His silhouette is as iconic as that of any fighter, his shock of black grey hair that has been described as a man falling down an elevator shaft, or sticking his finger in a plug socket.
His American flags, flamboyant suits, extravagant oratory and relentless pursuit of wealth have been a staple of press conferences and ring interviews for the last fifty years.
Versions of him have been played by Samuel L Jackson and Ving Rhames. He’s inspired a Rocky film, he’s been parodied by Dave Chappelle, South Park, and the Simpsons. Now he’s rubbing shoulders on the campaign trail with President Donald Trump.
For better or for worse, Don King is embedded in the boxing zeitgeist forever.
He has represented some of the most famous champions in boxing. After getting into boxing riding the coattails of Muhammad Ali he went on to represent Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Roy Jones Jr, Bernard Hopkins and many others.
As famous for defrauding them as he is for representing them, King has paid enormous out of court settlements to Ali, Holmes, Tyson, Tim Witherspoon and Terry Norris, as payment for financial wrongdoing.
Although his greed and financial misdealings in boxing are well known, less well known is his sociopathic past, his criminal connections and violent methods.
With King now in his 90th year and fading out of boxing, it would be easy to absorb the caricature into the man. To forget the remorseless, violent, avaricious criminal that not only defrauded so many boxers, but ultimately robbed two men of their life.
Born in Cleveland Ohio at the height of the Great Depression making money quick was a necessity. The cultural ferment of his youth was always focused on the quick buck. This eventually led to King dropping out of Kent State university to pursue his passion for illegal bookmaking.
Although his offices are now situated in a plush office building on Deerfield Beach in Florida his first money running scheme started in the basement of a record store on Kinsman Road in downtown Cleveland.
This was the site of Don’s first murder. When Hillary Brown burst into Kings bookmakers looking to rob as much as he could. King responded with, as he described it at trial “Reasonable Force.” King produced a pistol and shot Brown dead.
Although King never denied the killing, he managed to serve no jail time, telling the court he acted in self defence. The court agreed and ruled the act a justified homicide, allowing King to walk free. Despite the illegality of his enterprise his profits were deemed important enough for King to reasonably kill a man.
This incident didn’t deter King’s criminality as he was arrested a further 30 times for charges that ranged from illegal bookmaking to assault and battery.
In 1966 he was arrested for yet another murder, this one even more brutal than the last, the motive again, was unadulterated greed.
Sam Garrett worked for King, again in book making, and ended up owing his employer six-hundred dollars, and for this, King imposed his own form of psychotic retribution.
Witnesses testified at his trial that King had, in the middle of the street, stamped repeatedly on Garrett’s head as well as pistol whipping him with the butt of a handgun. One witness stated that Garrett’s final words before his death were “I’ll give you the money Don.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence charge was dropped from second degree murder to voluntary manslaughter. King was sentenced to 15 years but was miraculously after serving just three years and eleven months. being released in 1971 and completing his Parole in 1972.
Although a pardon from the governor is often cited, this did not actually occur until 1983 he was pardoned by Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes, specifically for his charity work. This pardon was prompted by letters pleading for King’s pardon from Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader; Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr and Steve G. Davis, executive director of the National Publishers Association*, among others.
With the endorsement of such figures it seemed as through King had used the shovel of philanthropy to bury his twisted past. Respectability and wealth had literally absolved him of his numerous crimes.
Although after his pardon he seemed virtuous, King’s greed always threatened to pull away his mask of presentability.
In 1992 King was linked to the Gambino crime family and was asked to testify in a senate investigation into their boss, John Gotti. King pleaded the 5th amendment, the right to silence, the amendment designed to prevent individuals from being forced to incriminate themselves.
When International Boxing Federation President Bobby Lee sr was arrested in 1999 for racketeering, a familiar face again showed up in the paperwork. Although not charged King was said to be “an unindicted co-conspirator who was the principal beneficiary of Lee's machinations.”
Despite these two incidents King deftly evaded the law, always staying that one step ahead, maintaining his millions and never stepping into court. His murders though, were not yet fully remanded to history.
In 2016 the Cleveland City council looked to rename one of their streets after one of the city's most famous sons. King was delighted and in true Don King fashion made a long speech about how proud he was to be from Cleveland. However, their choice of street would unearth the King's grisly secret.
Cedar Avenue, the proposed new Don King Avenue, was actually the very same street where King, almost exactly 50 years before, had savagely beaten Sam Garrett to death.
In a karmic twist the plans for Don King Avenue were scrapped. The bad taste was too bad even for the state that had pardoned King of the very crime that now caused them embarrassment.
Although Don King once said "I'm one of the world's great survivors. I'll always survive because I've got the right combination of wit, grit and bullshit.” I only partially agree with this statement.
King is a survivor, and has survived, but not because of his ‘wit, grit and bullshit’. He has survived in the most Darwinian way, by absolving himself of moral responsibility.
He has killed, beaten, stolen and intimidated his way to the top, and for the most part has gotten away with it.
Well, “Only in America” I suppose...
Article dedicated to the memory of Sam Garrett and Hillary Brown
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx