Lunch With The FT : Don King The Wise

Sunday, October 26, 2008

…..After almost two hours…King appears.  He offers his hand and a perfunctory apology for the delay.  He’s in tan-coloured shirt and shorts, and leather sandals.  Now 77, he is in robust health, and more than 6ft tall.  He exudes that magnetic presence that sets rock stars and successful politicians apart from the rest of us.  He is also carrying three satchels, which he unpacks on the dining-room table – they contain about 20 books, including five on Martin Luther King and a book of guidance called What Would Shakespeare Do?, along with a cigar case, from which he takes a large cigar.  He spends the rest of our three-hour talkathon tasting but never smoking the cigar.  Donald King was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1931.  His father died in an accident when King was 10 and his mother supported the family by baking.  As a young man, he became a “numbers runner” for a street lottery. He went on to become the world’s most famous and controversial boxing promoter, the man who largely created the modern professional boxing business, from the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, to the following year’s “Thrilla in Manila” that pitted Ali against Joe Frazier, and the 1996 and 1997 matches between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson…..Introductions over, we settle into our seats on opposite sides of the limestone table.  I start awkwardly, talking about King’s hair.  I ask him how he keeps it standing up.  “It does it on its own,” he tells me.  “It’s au naturel.  It’s something like Samson and Delilah.  You know, God gave Samson his strength in his hair, and she betrayed him by telling the Philistines that his strength was in his hair … I came home from the penitentiary to be with my beautiful wife Henrietta, and my head was rumbling and my hair began to pop up, ‘Ping, ping, ping.’  Couldn’t put scissors near it, no clippers.  You put them there, you get static electricity.  I’ve never put a pair of scissors or clippers to it over the last 30 or 40 years.”…..

“I was always fighting for economic [progress], because economics is the basis of it all.  Money, wanting something for nothing, that’s the greatest evil you can have.  That’s larceny.  You could never be conned if you didn’t want something for nothing.  If you didn’t have larceny, you could never get beat.”  The US election is two weeks away and King has presidential politics much on his mind.  He talks and talks, his speech like an extended jazz riff of the kind that might once have been heard at the tavern he once owned.  King has been a prominent supporter of George W Bush and has been a regular guest at Bush’s ranch in Texas.  “Every black looked at me like I had bubonic plague,” he says, although he is unrepentant, calling Bush “a revolutionary president”.  I ask him to explain.  “George Walker Bush had the most diverse cabinet of any president in the history of this nation: he had the Latinos, he had the blacks, all those who had been degraded, dehumanised and cast into a … package of negative associations. He took those [people with] negative associations and he put them to the forefront of the nation.”  King believes Bush prepared the way for an Obama presidency, and compares his willingness to put African-Americans in charge of national security to a defining moment in baseball history, the 1947 decision of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to sign the black player Jackie Robinson, thus integrating the sport…..King is hopeful for an Obama victory: “We can do it,” he tells me.  “God has given us an opportunity that just is wonderful.  And I’m just glad to be alive during this time to bear witness.  But we’ve got to see it through to the end…..This is the greatest time in the world to be living, because you are seeing change you would never believe.  Let me tell you something: the mere fact that he’s been adopted by a major party … this in itself is a winner.  But I’ve got to see him win all the way through, because that is change.”…..”To me, peace is the harmony of people living together without dissension.  That’s what peace is to me.  You can always say that peace is living without war and hostilities but peace is a harmony of people living together.”  It crosses my mind that there’s a certain irony in these words, coming from a man who has made his fortune from fisticuffs…..As we part, I find myself not just shaking hands but going into a bear hug with King.  I have been enveloped by his aura.  Have I been manipulated?  Who knows?  And for the moment, at least, I don’t care…..

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