The Reign of Don King

Talk the Talk

In 1966, Don King was sent to prison for the manslaughter of Sam Garrett and in his typical charismatic style, he would later state, "I didn't serve time. I made time serve me". 

This was in reference to the fact that he became widely read in literature and philosophy while incarcerated which helped him build his vocabulary, adding a lexicon of quotations and malapropisms to his speech that turned him into one of the most captivating speakers within the entertainment industry.

Walk the Walk

One of the key factors in Don King’s career success is that he can remember any number. 

When he worked on illegal lotteries, he remembered every bet he took and did not need to write anything down. 

In his later career as a boxing promoter, his amazing memory for numbers made him a shrewd negotiator as no matter how many times a deal would alter, King could recall every figure involved in the negotiations, however long they took.

Boxing Quote

Machiavelli taught me it was better to be feared than loved. Because if you are loved they sense you might be weak. 

I am a man of the people and help them but it is important to do so through strength.

~ Don King ~

Prior to becoming the most successful promoter in boxing history with a net worth of around $150 million, Don King grew up on the rough streets of Cleveland Ohio in the 1930s. His entrepreneurship showed through from an early age and as a boy, he started selling pies baked by his mother Hattie. 

Along with his brothers, he made a tidy profit for the family and as a sales gimmick, they added ‘lucky numbers’ into the bags which people would then use when betting on the numbers rackets (an illegal lottery played mostly in poor neighbourhoods in the United States), making the King boys very popular with the local gambling community.

While in high school King tried his hand at boxing, fighting under the nickname The Kid, however after getting knocked out in a few of his bouts, he decided that the ring was not the place for him. 

Instead, King’s career would focus on the numbers rackets and by the age of twenty, he was well on the way to becoming a successful numbers runner, collecting money and lottery slips and delivering them to makeshift betting parlours. 

King or Cadillac Slim as many called him at the time, was a natural and by the 1950s, he had complex systems in place that made him the most successful ‘numbers banker’ in Cleveland along with his other business ventures which included running a nightclub.

Don King and the Law

Don King’s legal history is chequered, to say the least. In 1954, he was arrested (see mug shot above) after fatally shooting Hillary Brown when he was caught attempting to rob a gambling house owned by King. However, charges did not stick and he was a free man after a judge ruled the killing was a ‘justifiable homicide’.

Twelve years later in 1966, King was responsible for the death of another man, Sam Garrett, who owed him $600 from a bet. After a brief argument, the two men were brawling in the street but Garrett, a drug addict and a much smaller man, was no match for King and was soon left helpless to an onslaught of blows that would result in his death. King claimed he was acting in self-defence and witness accounts varied. However, he was convicted of second-degree murder which, amidst claims of corruption and bribery, was effectively changed to manslaughter; as a result, King was a free man in less than four years.

The King Meets the Greatest

King left prison in 1971 and a year later he got involved in helping a local hospital that desperately needed to raise cash. He enlisted the help of a successful singer friend, Lloyd Price, who also happened to be friends with boxing legend Muhammad Ali and proposed an exhibition bout to help raise funds for the hospital. Despite the fact that King had never promoted a boxing match before, Ali agreed to take part; the match was such a success that the King was able to use his powers of persuasion to convince Ali and his Nation of Islam managers to allow him to promote the boxer in future fights, launching Don King’s career as an American boxing promoter and changing boxing history, for better or worse, forever.

King has had many detractors over the years but nobody can deny his ability to stage a major event. This would be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt with the first two professional fights he promoted for Ali, both of which are amongst the most famous and memorable boxing matches of all time. The first in 1974 pitted the former champ against the then reigning champion George Foreman in a fight dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. The fight was held in Zaire with each contender earning $5 million, twice the amount earned by anybody in the ring before. 

The event was a great success, Ali regained his title and most involved were happy, though this did not apply to everyone. In a move that would become common for King throughout his career as a boxing promoter, he neglected to pay some people involved in the set-up, most notably his friend Lloyd Price who was one of numerous singers who had performed on the night.

The reign of Don King as America’s premium boxing promoter had begun and the second fight he staged for Muhammad Ali was against the formidable ex-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. The Thrilla in Manilla as it was called is seen by many as the greatest title fight in boxing history and cemented King’s reputation for holding major events that were as exciting to watch for the fans as they were lucrative for the fighters. He would go on to promote five more fights for Ali, as well as working with many of the best fighters around including Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Roberto Durán, Julio César Chávez, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Larry Holmes. 

The King of Corruption

One of the hallmarks of Don King’s career has been the almost constant accusations of corruption. He has been watched by the FBI and investigated by the IRS but always seems to come out on top. However, what has turned boxing fans against him the most is his habit of stealing prize money from fighters. When Muhammad Ali lost to Larry Holmes in 1980, King persuaded one of Ali’s trusted advisers to take a suitcase to the ex-champion who was still dazed and confused after a severe beating in the ring. 

It contained $50,000 and a contract that stated no more money would exchange hands in terms of prize money for the fight and also gave promotion rights to King for any future fights Ali may have. This left him around $1.2 million short on a guaranteed $8 million purse and although Ali sued, King would end up getting an out-of-court settlement for just $100,000.

This set a precedent for King that would continue through the 1980s and '90s when a long list of boxers felt they had been short-changed by the promoter. This led to a number of lawsuits from his own clients, though like Ali, most settled out of court typifying Don King’s legal history of seemingly getting off lightly. After accepting $100,000 for a $300,000 lawsuit, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes commented that King, “looks black, lives white, and thinks green.” 

Perhaps the most famous was Mike Tyson’s $100 million lawsuit started in 1998 after the boxer claimed King had been siphoning the money from his earnings for fights after he was released from prison in 1995. The case finally ended six years later when Tyson accepted a settlement for $14 million. King has responded to criticisms of these lawsuits by stating, “They spend their money, then they get mad at me for keeping mine.”

Not just content with stealing money from fighters, King is accused of stealing the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight title from Leon Spinks. In 1978, Spinks won both the WBA and WBC belts from Muhammad Ali in a fight promoted by Bob Arum, who would have got to promote subsequent title defences. Spinks revered Ali and offered him a rematch giving King, not happy with missing out on promoting future WBC contests, the chance to act. 

He contacted his friend and president of the WBC José Sulaimán who promptly stripped Spinks of his title for not agreeing to defend it against the number one contender who also just so happened to be one of King’s fighters, Ken Norton. After being awarded the belt, Norton lost it in his first defence but that did not matter as his opponent, Larry Holmes was also from King’s stables.

Later, King would use a contractual clause that required any fighter coming up against one of his title holders to be promoted by him in future fights should he win meaning he would retain control of titles fights regardless of the outcome. Any fighter refusing to sign such a contract had great difficulty obtaining title fights leading many to criticise the reign of Don King and the level of control he had over the boxing world. However, King would answer such claims of corruption in his own uniquely charismatic and flamboyant style, for example, he once stated:

"Let me write it down for you. Muhammad Ali is a multimillionaire. Larry Holmes a multimillionaire. Mike Tyson, he sleeps on a bed of money. HBO, I made you mother****ers a fortune. Oh, I could go on and on. You love my Black ass! You know why? Because I'm exciting. You ain't making no movie on Bob Arum, are you? It's entertainment, baby! That's all! Heroes and villains, angels and devils, sh*t if you didn't have Don King you would have to invent him. And for all of you out there saying this and that, remember this; many fighters step into the ring, but only one is still King".

Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Don King was America’s premium boxing promoter, was seemingly involved with any boxer of any note and after the retirement of Ali, had a level of fame and notoriety that eclipsed that of his fighters, at least until Mike Tyson burst onto the boxing scene. He has had many detractors over the years who feel he has had a negative influence on boxing. King’s legal history, questionable tactics and the level of control he has been able to obtain over the boxing scene have reinforced the idea of boxing being a corrupt sport. 

However, it is undeniable that it has not been all bad. Not only did he increase the purses for the fighters right from the start of his career as a promoter, but he brought a level of showmanship to the sport never before seen in boxing history that has helped to dramatically increase interest from spectators and participants alike, therefore having a positive influence on the economics of the boxing world.

Written by Andrew Griffiths – Last updated 23/10/2023. If you like what you see, consider following the History of Fighting on social media.

Further Reading:

Don King.  [Internet].  2014.  Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Available from: [Accessed February 3, 2018].

Kang, J.C.  [Internet].  2013.  The End and Don King.  Available from: [Accessed February 3, 2018].

Pulley, B.  [Internet].  2006.  The King and His Sport, at Twilight.  Forbes.  Available from: [Accessed February 3, 2018].

Tyson Reaches a Settlement with King.  [Internet].  2004.  The New Your  Available from: [Accessed February 3, 2018].

Winters, R.  [Internet].  2004.  Notable Sports Figures – Don King.  The Gale Group, Inc.  Available from: [Accessed February 3, 2018].

 More Boxing History

Boxing History Home

The history of boxing dates back in one form or another as far as civilisation itself with ancient Greek boxing even being a part of the early Olympic Games. Modern boxing rules have made the sport safer for the fighters and more entertaining for the crowds, resulting in pugilism becoming one of the most popular athletics events on the planet today.

Boxing in the Ancient World

Ancient boxing dates back to the Samarian culture and probably beyond and is known to have also been a part of the Egyptians and Minoan civilisations. It became an event in the ancient Olympic games in Greece in 688 BCE, and ancient Roman boxing was also practiced by athletes, gladiators and Roman soldiers.

Boxing in the 18th Century

Modern boxing history really began to develop into the sport known and loved today in the 18th century. Bare knuckled boxing contests began to be regulated and safety measures also began to be put in place. However, the period was also marred by controversy as it saw the first instances of corruption in the form of prize fighters taking payoffs and intentionally losing fights.

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This list of bare-knuckle boxers from the 19th century charts those who are generally accept as being World Champions. It includes some of the best fighters from this period in boxing history starting with Jem Belcher, the first champ of the new century and concluding with Jem Mace, who made the switch from bare-knuckle boxing to using boxing gloves after the introduction of the Queensbury Rules.

Post-Queensbury Rules Boxing Culture

With the introduction of the Queensbury Rules in 1867, boxing culture was dramatically changed. The safety of the boxers was much improved though bare-knuckle boxing was still popular and as brutal as ever. For black boxers however, things actually changed for the worse as it became increasingly difficult for many of them to reach their full potential as a result of institutional racism.

Sam Langford

Sam Langford, aka the Boston Tar Baby, was one of the greatest boxers never to be crowned world champion. Fighting in the early half of the twentieth century, he was a victim of the colour line in boxing and was not afforded a chance at the title because of the colour of his skin despite the fact that the champion at the time, Jack Johnson, was an African American.

Joe Louis

Joe Louis (The Brown Bomber) was an American boxer and widely considered to be one of the greatest world heavyweight champions of all time. He became an American hero when he defeated the German Max Schmeling, then later through his work promoting the war effort. Despite his considerable success, later in his career he would face massive debts due to unfair treatment by the taxman.

Little Known Facts About Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and is widely regarded as the greatest boxer of all time, as well as one of the most influential sportsmen of the 20th century. This selection of little-known facts about ‘the Louisville Lip’ show he led an interesting and varied life, both inside and outside the ring.

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