Sport’s greatest salesman shuffles between bifold doors and settles down for another pitch. Outside, snow piles high on poolside sun loungers; at this time of year, temperatures in Warren, Ohio, flirt close to -20ºC. Inside this room, though, where Don King is flanked by his grandson, confidants and those trusty companions — his flags — the heat is stifling.
‘Ooh, boy!’ the promoter exhales. It has been a long day, one that began with a blizzard. And business remains unfinished. So King takes a swig of Diet Pepsi and swirls an ice cube around his mouth.
He is 90, and the electricity which once shot through his hair has begun to frazzle. But the lips remain loose and the fire in that belly still burns.
Legendary promoter Don King is now 90 years old but shows no signs of running out of steam
It is 50 years since he convinced Muhammad Ali to help save a hospital down the road from here and that tale is part of an avalanche down memory lane that clatters between Winston Churchill, Kim Jong-un, Eddie Hearn, Tyson Fury, Plato, the Taliban, and bubonic plague.
Only in America. Only with Don King. First, though, this great survivor has advice for someone else learning to cling on.
‘I tip my hat to ol’ Boris. He deserves a break,’ King says. ‘He got caught in the same thing Joe Biden is getting caught in… saying one thing and doing another.’
That, in part, is why King wound up back home — promoting yet another heavyweight title fight, staging his first show in a year on Saturday night and branding it ‘Return To Greatness’.
‘This promotion is about fun, it’s about taking your mind off that Covid-19 that’s killing you, inflation, weak leadership,’ King says. ‘It’s not “V-Day” or a “Mayday” of Churchill, it’s a “Mayday” of understanding, believing, having faith in God and rising to the occasion… when you’re dead, you’re done, so let the good times roll!’ King lets out a cackle.
He staged the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ (pictured) and ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ within a few years after setting up camp on boxing’s summit
‘We’ll give old Boris a chance to get a moment of respite. To change the narrative at 10 Downing Street,’ he adds. ‘So what the heck, Boris: take a chance and have fun while you’re on the run!’
If this is an opportune time to wind back the clocks, Warren feels a fitting setting. There is charm in the city’s quiet streets and classic architecture but it is a far cry from the frenzy of Las Vegas, Manila and Kinshasa, where King made his legend.
Though Saturday’s show features several title fights, it too is a harder sell than past extravaganzas King built with Ali, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Co. But, as he points out: ‘The star of the show is opportunity. Yesterday’s nobody is tomorrow’s somebody.’
Turn back 50 years and King was nothing to boxing. He was an hour up the road, heading down a dark path. A child of the ghettos in nearby Cleveland, King ran the numbers for an illegal lottery. ‘I was promoting then but promoting a scheme of chance,’ he says.
In 1954, he shot a thug who was trying to rob his gambling den. It was ruled justifiable homicide. In 1967, King was convicted after he ‘pistol-whipped and kicked’ to death a man who owed him $600. He spent nearly four years behind bars for manslaughter.
‘I made the time serve me,’ King says. ‘That was from God, he made me work in that penitentiary. To read Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Socrates. I came out of the darkness of ignorance and sin into the bright light of truth, enlightenment and wisdom.’
Soon King set up camp on boxing’s summit. Within a few years he had staged the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Not bad, considering his first brush with boxing promotion came in 1972, only months after his release.
Barry has handed down the torch but King and Arum, fierce rivals for so long, battle on. As they both enter their 10th decade, the Top Rank boss holds the trump card.
‘I love Tyson Fury because he’s similarly lived a life that shows you that never-say-die attitude,’ King says.
‘He went berserk because he got what Delilah put on Samson — he told the secrets of God and God clipped off his hair where his strength was.’
He explains: ‘Tyson Fury fell into degradation, disrepute, disgrace… now he has come back and revitalised boxing.’