King, Arum still at it after all these years
Don King clasped his fingers in front of him and bowed his head. For a second, one of the world’s most loquacious men was silenced.
The 79-year-old boxing promoter is trying to drum up interest in a fight between the World Boxing Association super welterweight champion, Miguel Cotto, and the zany Ricardo Mayorga.
Cotto and Mayorga are set to fight Saturday in the main event of a pay-per-view card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and the payday of all the principals – Cotto, Mayorga, King and lead promoter Bob Arum – depends on the success the promoters have in convincing enough people to drop $50 for it.
Mayorga is an 8-1 underdog; there’s a fight on HBO between Sergio Martinez and Sergiy Dzinziruk opposite their pay-per-view; and there will be several NCAA basketball conference finals on television competing for viewership. It’s an uphill battle for the longtime rival promoters, who have set out on something of a barnstorming tour to discuss their careers in the hope it generates interest in their fight.
They’re recounting tales of four decades of pitched battles against each other, where the fights outside of the ring were often fiercer and the stakes frequently higher than those in it. King tells the story of the time he was in the New York apartment of legendary ex-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad, trying to convince Muhammad to agree to an Ali fight against George Foreman.
While King was in the apartment making his presentation, Arum showed up to discuss an Ali-Jerry Quarry fight. Unbeknownst to Arum, King hid in the bathroom while Arum made his pitch, emerging after Arum left to seal the deal.
“And I was paying for the damn apartment,” Arum said, with mock indignation.
King cackles as Arum laments the lost opportunity, but it’s not long before King is eerily quiet. King promoted Roberto Duran for a large portion of Duran’s early career, but when Duran was beaten by journeyman Kirkland Laing on Sept. 4, 1982, King thought Duran’s time had come to an end.
“I cut him a check for $100,000 and told him it was time to retire,” King said.
But Duran was just 31, and despite having lost three of his previous five, he wasn’t even close to being ready for retirement. Arum swooped in, signed Duran and quickly matched him with one of his young champions, Davey Moore.
Moore was 24 and just 12-0, but he held the WBA super welterweight belt – the same title Cotto will defend on Saturday. Moore wanted to beat a name opponent to establish his bones as a big-time champion, and urged Arum to make a fight with Duran.
Arum devised a grandiose plan. He planned to put on a doubleheader featuring Duran vs. Moore in the main event with a lightweight title fight involving champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini on the undercard. He’d bring the card to South Africa, where his friend, Sol Kerzner, owned a casino, and would pair it with a concert by Frank Sinatra. The legendary singer, a big fan of Mancini, was eager to do it and Arum dubbed the event “The Chairman and the Champions.”
Then, disaster struck – or so Arum thought. Mancini broke his collarbone during training and couldn’t fight. When Mancini was out, so too was Sinatra. And Duran-Moore wasn’t a big enough bout to headline.
Arum moved the fight to New York’s Madison Square Garden and, acting on a tip, spent all of his advertising money in Spanish-language media outlets. Stunningly, the card sold out and ticket takers had to turn buyers away.
Even better for Arum, Duran was masterful in decimating Moore, winning the title and rebuilding his career.
“I learned a very important lesson,” King said. “Never again would I tell a guy it was time to retire.”
Neither King nor Arum is ready to retire. Arum, also 79, remains on top of the game, with his company the dominant promoter in the sport. King has fallen on hard times and doesn’t have the deep stable he once did, but he’s only one fight away from being back in the mix.
And so, King made an impassioned case for a Mayorga victor, while Arum excoriated a reporter he felt didn’t believe in the fight.
When Arum called King to offer Mayorga the Cotto fight, King was on the verge of signing a deal to have Mayorga fight in Germany against Felix Sturm. He jumped at the opportunity to work again with Arum, believing it would be a better promotion and could, ultimately, lead to a mega-payday against Manny Pacquiao.
Mayorga smokes and drinks and is unpredictable in the best of times. King has frequently been at his wits’ end with Mayorga, but Mayorga can punch and anyone who can punch always has a chance. So when Arum offered a title shot at Cotto, King got stars in his eyes and began to calculate.
Cotto is an attacking fighter who will wade toward Mayorga, making it easier for Mayorga to land that one punch. And if Mayorga could land it, well, it could lead to a fight with Pacquiao. King knew he had to accept Arum’s offer.
“I was seduced, but I knew what [Arum] was thinking,” King said. “†‘I’ve got a crazy man on my hands here. Cotto can walk through this guy and if it goes past three, four rounds, he ain’t going to make it.’ I recognize that myself. I’m handicapped, but when you’re sitting on the curb watching the cars go by, you have to find something to do.
“So I said, ‘OK,’ and we got this fight together. But I told him, ‘Bob, I’m going to be honest with you: This guy may not even get to the ring, but I’ll make every effort to get him there.’ It’s been hell, honestly.”
But in the introductory news conference two months ago, Arum said if Mayorga were to defeat Cotto, he’d be in the mix for a fight with Pacquiao. That was all Mayorga needed to hear. It gave him great motivation to train, which he hasn’t always done.
Mayorga is as unpredictable as any fighter in recent boxing history, but his midsection is ripped and he looks like he’s worked hard to prepare himself. It’s because he believes that he’ll get a shot at Pacquiao by beating Cotto, King said.
“Bob stimulated this boy, Mayorga, by telling him he could get Pacquiao – and [Mayorga] believed him,” King said. “I had been telling him the same thing, but when he heard it from me, it was like he thought I’d say anything. You have to understand something that is basic and fundamental in people of color: A white man could tell a lie and it’s believable; the black man could tell the truth and it’s questionable. When Arum said that, it was over.
“He doesn’t know it, but he signed his own sentence for Cotto because [Cotto] will be iced. It ain’t going to be like you predict it to be. The odds are 8-1. … The thing about it is, it’s war – because he’s going to beat Cotto because what he really wants is Pacquiao. And Bob here convinced him it was true, that he could get him.”
King is on a roll and Arum just lets him plow ahead. Arum has harsh words for nearly all of his other competitors – he singles out Golden Boy Promotions and Gary Shaw Productions among those with little innovation, in essence just opening the doors and hoping the crowds roll in – but is heaping praise upon King.
They’ve fought their battles over many decades. Once, when Arum was promoting the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, King tried to climb into the ring to congratulate Leonard even though he had nothing to do with the fight. He’d done it once before in an Arum-promoted event, getting into the ring at an Ali-Leon Spinks bout. Most of the world believed King promoted it because he appeared on television in the ring after the bout.
So nine years later – after Leonard edged Hagler in 1987 – Arum spied King trying to enter the ring yet again.
“I grabbed him by his suit coat and I tore the coat, trying to yank him back and keep him out of the ring,” Arum said. “I don’t think I ever paid him for tearing it, but I wasn’t going to let that happen to me again.”
Years before, King kept Arum out of the ring – but he didn’t have to tear his sport coat to do it. After King convinced Muhammad to put together the Ali-Foreman fight and go to Zaire, he asked Zaire president Mobuto Sese Seko to have Arum banned from the country.
Arum couldn’t get into Zaire to make a play on Ali, and King put on the bout that became known as “The Rumble in the Jungle” – one of the biggest fights in the second half of the 20th century.
Arum shook his head.
“We’ve had some battles, haven’t we?” he said directly to King, who nodded his head in agreement.
They could have waxed nostalgic for hours, but neither man is that way. It wasn’t long before they were bounding out of the room in the bowels of the MGM Grand and heading to the lobby. An arrival ceremony was being held for Cotto and Mayorga, and Arum and King had talked enough.
“Come on,” Arum said to King. “We’ve got a fight to promote.”