…And then I’ll put on Muhammad Ali against Ken Norton on July 4, 1976, in Washington or Philadelphia. It’ll be a promotion second to none, reliving the heritage of our great nation. Buttons and banners, T-shirts with Nathan Hale on one side and Muhammad Ali on the other. If the big fat-cat companies—the Exxons, the GMs and the IBMs—would come together, we will give the fight free on all three networks in a super-spectacular extravaganza, waving flags over the land of the home of the free and the brave…
The meek, according to Matthew, shall inherit the earth, but in the meantime, a braggadocio ex-con, ex-numbers runner intends to run it. It was four years to the day after his parole from an Ohio jail (on a manslaughter conviction) that Inmate No. 125734—a/k/a Don King—assembled an estimated $13 million for the biggest payoff package in sports history, the “thrilla in Manila” title fight between Ali and Joe Frazier. So there is no Vegas line now quoting odds against King’s delivering on his Bicentennial bravado.
Already the man with the Afro-shock hairdo has given a rejuvenating jolt to boxing and, more important to him, the Third World, promoting earlier Ali bouts in Zaïre and Malaysia. In the process, the self-described “poor product of Cleveland’s black ghetto” wound up operating out of a Rockefeller Center penthouse two levels above the Rainbow Room. Upon moving in last May, King cracked that he wanted folks to wonder, “What’s that crazy nigger doin’ up there?”
The blow-by-blow chronicle en route to the 67th floor would provide another set-up bout for boxing Boswells like Wilfred Sheed and Norman Mailer. King, now 44, found education late, reading the likes of Hegel and Sartre while serving four years of a one-to-twenty stretch for fatally beating a numbers runner who double-crossed him out of $600. Upon release, Don went straight into the boxing business and eventually persuaded Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s manager (and the son of the late founder of the Black Muslims and brother of its present leader) into letting “another black man” stage the fight in Zaïre. King then impresarioed every subsequent Ali fight, pocketing enough loot to flash a $30,000 diamond ring and live with his wife, Henrietta, and their two kids on a 180-acre Black Angus cattle ranch in Ohio. (Don’s Manhattan pied-à-terre is a four-story brownstone.)
King’s rivals write him off as an overpuffed mountebank whose bunkum and bluster will be deflated the day Ali retires. But King, while conceding that his success is owed so far to “wits and grits and bullshit,” now sees himself as unassailable. “I’m a mini-conglomerate,” he boasts. His sports division, headed by Abner Haynes of the old AFL, manages 85 pro football players, and Don is currently hot after an “Ohio spectacular superstar,” the first double Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin. King is also sounding off about cutting into Berry Gordy country, making movies, producing records (on the Don label), investing in a fishing flotilla in the Bahamas, and establishing an economy for the Third World. “I’m talking to all the presidents and all the nations. It’s going to be big, big, big money,” crows King. “When I say my strength is greater than Kissinger’s, I’m not saying that for no joke. This is history, baby…”