Watching boxing as a kid, I was always fascinated by Don King and his larger than life manner. I mainly started watching boxing during Tyson’s post-prison fights – a time that would be the beginning of the end of Don King’s long reign atop the boxing world.
King is undoubtedly a fascinating character. Only in America presents an aggressively reported look at the dark side of King’s empire. For Newfield, this book is personal and it’s clear he feels compelled to draw attention to the hurt and harm King has caused to boxers and the sport of boxing.
Newfield paints King as an intensely smart and charismatic man, one whose talents could have led him to more legitimate success. Instead, King could never leave the underhand corrupt world he grew up in and never missed an opportunity to enrich himself under the table.
Prior to entering boxing, King had been a major player in illegal gambling and been sentenced to prison for beating to death a gambler who owed him money. Newfield strongly suggests that the judge was paid off to reduce his conviction to manslaughter from murder in the second-degree.
Emerging from prison, King sought fame and fortune through boxing promotion. His friendship with the famous singer Lloyd Price seemed to play a significant role in opening doors. Ultimately, his break into the big time came with the Forman v. Frazier fight in Kingston, Jamaica where he where he famously arrived in Frazier’s corner but left with the victorious Foreman. Subsequently, he would go on to have a hand in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle and most of the big heavyweight fights for 20 more years.
King used his charisma, his race and underhand contractual arrangements to tie up most of the up and coming black boxers to long term contracts. These usually included excessive compensation to King’s son for acting as the fighter’s manager and clauses giving King rights to promote all of the fighter’s future fights.
Newfield sets out in details the significant damage King did to a whole generation of heavyweights. He clearly stole millions from his fighters through billing excess expenses and excess fees. Among the lives he severely impacted is Buster Douglas – the journeyman boxer who beat an ill-prepared Tyson to become heavyweight champion. King spent months trying to get the result overturned and subsequently scammed Douglas out of the majority of his purses each time he defended his title.
Overall, King is presented as a villain who uses his cunning to take advantage of multiple boxers before discarding each one as soon as they lose their value to him. It’s remarkable that even in the world of boxing, such a character was able to service and thrive for so long.
Only in America is a damning indictment of King. As Newfield says, the book is part biography, part investigative reporting, part memoir and part essay. Newfield’s priority was to tell the story of those boxers King exploited and to shine a light on King’s misdeeds. The book achieves this and more. It’s a gripping and shocking read.
I don’t know a huge amount about how King ultimately lost his grip on boxing but, within 3 years of this book being published, King’s last great fighter, Mike Tyson, sued him for $100 million for cheating him out of money over a decade. The lawsuit was later settled out of court with Tyson receiving $14 million.