PBS pins King against the ropes

November 05, 1991|By Robert Seltzer | Robert Seltzer,Knight-Ridder

In a sport where exploitation seems the name of the game, nobody does it better than Don King.

That is the powerful and uncompromising message of "Don King, Unauthorized," a documentary to air on the PBS program "Frontline" at 9 tonight.

The documentary, researched and narrated by investigative reporter Jack Newfield, who has covered boxing for 30 years, presents a chilling portrait of a promoter who uses fighters and discards them like the gauze wrapped around their fists.

King has promoted almost every major heavyweight bout since the third Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier match, the fabled "Thrilla in Manilla" of Oct. 1, 1975.

The documentary explores several serious allegations made by Newfield:

* Citing a report by the New Jersey Commission of Investigations in 1986, the film points to ties between King and organized crime.

* Joseph Spinelli, a former FBI agent and now inspector general for the state of New York, alleges that King tried to get Richie Giachetti, who now trains former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, killed by the mob because Giachetti had cooperated with an FBI investigation of the promoter.

* Newfield alleges that King made $1 million from the Greg Page-Gerrie Coetzee heavyweight title bout on Dec. 1, 1984, in South Africa, even though the promoter had promised to honor a boycott of the country's apartheid government.

The documentary opens in the neon splendor of Las Vegas, a town that King's underlings boast he owns.

"If Don King were a city, he would be Las Vegas," the narrator says.

As the program shows, however, King was not always surrounded by glamour. His empire may be flourishing in Las Vegas, but it began in the gritty streets of Cleveland, where he ran a numbers racket in the early 1960s. King overcame more than 30 arrests to become the biggest numbers boss in the city, according to Newfield.

In 1966, King was convicted of murdering Sam Garret, a numbers runner who owed him $600. King was known as an aggressive bill collector.

Lloyd Price, the rhythm-and-blues legend who knew Ali, introduced the fighter to King in the early 1970s. It was then that King went from numbers to boxing. His first venture was a boxing exhibition with Ali as the draw. It was staged to raise money for a financially ailing hospital in Cleveland. King raised $80,000, but the hospital went bust three years later, according to Newfield.

"The hospital got $1,500, I got $1,000 for expenses, and whatever was left over went to Don," said Don Elbaum, who assisted King in the promotion.

"King has exploited every fighter he has ever had, some more than others," said Newfield.

One fighter who stood up to King was Tim Witherspoon, a two-time heavyweight champion from Philadelphia, who emerges as the hero of the documentary.

"Witherspoon may be to boxing what Rosa Parks is to the civil rights movement," Newfield said.

On July 19, 1986, Witherspoon defended his title with an 11th-round knockout of Frank Bruno. Yet he received only $90,000, while the challenger walked away with $1 million. The champion was crushed, the victim of a peculiar arrangement in which King had had him sign contracts with blanks that the promoter promised "to fill in later."

"It was absurd," Tom Moran, a friend who now manages Witherspoon, says in the documentary. "This guy is heavyweight champion. I'd say, 'Tim, you don't have a contract? That's crazy. What's up?' "

Witherspoon was dispirited. He lost the title in his next fight, suffering a one-round knockout at the hands of James "Bonecrusher" Smith on Dec. 12, 1986. In one way, the defeat was a positive development. It allowed Witherspoon to break free of King, and Witherspoon then sued the promoter for the money he felt was owed him.

The last words in the documentary, appropriately enough, belong to Witherspoon.

"They say money is the root of all evil, and that's what Don is -- an evil man."

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