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BOXING

Don King on the Ropes and Getting Worn Down

November 01, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI

As long as he lives and breathes, Don King will keep prattling, battling and bartering, until the last great fight can be made or the last charges are pursued against his reputation and his right to do business.

There is one concrete rule in this anarchic sport, and it is this: Never count Don King out of anything. He isn't bigger than boxing, though it sure is a close call.

But he is pushing 70 now, on trial again starting this month in federal court, and signs of a possible slow fade out are flashing with every new defection from his camp and former friend heading to the arms of enemies:

* Fighters are actually taking him on in court to break his infamous lifetime contracts--and they are winning, from Terry Norris to Frans Botha.

* King's greatest ally, World Boxing Council President Jose Sulaiman, has been making goo-goo eyes at promoter Bob Arum, and, not coincidentally, his main fighter, Oscar De La Hoya.

* British promoter Frank Warren, once one of King's closest allies, hand-delivered big money-maker Naseem Hamed to HBO, a severe blow to King's ability to put together good television cards on his network, Showtime, in the future.

* Mike Tyson, whose comeback grossed King about $50 million, is on the shelf and crashing motorcycles. Julio Cesar Chavez, who kept King in the money during Tyson's three-year incarceration, has about one last decent fight in him.

Because King had so much invested in Tyson, and now in Evander Holyfield, the other good fighters in his stable (Norris and his brother, Orlin, Hamed, and many others) have been left to wither without much TV exposure.

* And even when he wins, such as when King outbid everybody to land the rights to World Boxing Assn. champion Holyfield's next two fights, he had to pay Holyfield $20 million (possibly about $5 million too much) for next Saturday's less-than-mega title bout against International Boxing Federation champion Michael Moorer.

King can come back from these things--he has come back from worse. He is rumored to be wooing popular super-bantamweight Johnny Tapia and maybe Roy Jones Jr., and still has Puerto Rican superstar Felix Trinidad, who made his first lead appearance on a pay-per-view bout in August, and registered 60,000 buys.

But 60,000 buys does not keep an empire afloat.

"Yeah, he's had nine lives," Arum said this week of King, "but who knows, maybe he's run out."

The immediate threat is the U.S. government, which gained a far better chance at a conviction when an appellate court allowed King's company, Don King Productions, to be added as a defendant for wire-fraud charges.

Last year, with King as the sole defendant, the jury deadlocked and the trial was declared a mistrial. This time, King can't hide behind the actions of his subordinates.

If the jury finds that something wrong happened but, like the last jury, can't pin it precisely on King, it can put DKP out of business and free up every fighter under contract.

The bidding for Trinidad could start and end with Time Warner's first offer.

"He's worn down--all these things are definitely piling up on him," said former DKP employee Scott Woodworth, who recently left the company, with the Norris brothers in tow, and successfully has sued for their freedom.

"But no matter how tired he is, he keeps fighting. He'll never stop."

Woodworth acknowledges that King still has many moves left, especially if he can beat the federal charges one more time. King has Tyson, he has ties across the sport and he can make people money.

But nobody, probably not even Don King, can fight off the world forever.

"I don't think he's ever been this down," Woodworth said. "We were blessed that we got him at the right time. A year earlier, he probably would have buried us."

Woodworth has led the charge to try to hold King's machinations with the corrupt sanctioning bodies to the light of American law. A Philadelphia judge has ridiculed King and the WBA, and demanded that Orlin Norris not be punished in the WBA ratings for leaving King. That was always King's biggest hammer: Leave me, and suffer major consequences.

"He controls those organizations," Woodworth said. "But now he's in trouble, he doesn't have any heavyweights. . . . Felix Trinidad has to be asking himself, 'What am I doing here?' "

ONE LAST MOVE

Here is the way boxing observers say King can put together one last giant fight: He takes the winner of Holyfield-Moorer to WBC champion Lennox Lewis and guarantees the winner of that unification fight the big prize--a 1999 bout against Tyson. That way, he can keep the heavyweight division somewhat under his control, even if he has to pay crazy money to do it.

Holyfield seems less and less enthralled with the prospect of a third Tyson fight each time he is asked about it.

"Basically, the fight with Mike Tyson is behind me," Holyfield said Friday. "I beat Mike twice. My goal in boxing now is to be the undefeated champion."

QUICK JABS

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