King sells, but does Steele need this pitch?

October 18, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Don King alighted from Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's campaign bus, smiling broadly, waving two small American flags and sporting his American-flag-Statue-of-Liberty tie. The small crowd of onlookers cheered as King and Steele walked to television microphones set up for the occasion.

"It's great to be a citizen of the United States of America in the great state of Maryland," King, campaigning for Steele's U.S. Senate candidacy, boomed as the crowd applauded. In one brief scene, I got just one example of how King rose from serving time for a manslaughter conviction to become the premier promoter in boxing.

He did it with a combination of charisma, enthusiasm, ebullience and salesmanship. Why this guy wasted the first part of his life running numbers in Cleveland -- a line of work that led to his killing a man in 1966 -- is beyond me. There's a rapper named Cassidy who, in his song "I'm A Hustler," brags that "I can sell salt to a slug."

Trust me: King is better at that than Cassidy. King's the master of it.

King is also a bundle of contradictions, much like Muhammad Ali, the boxer whose fights helped King rise to the top of the world in promoting fights. King spouts down-home, God-bless-America patriotism and laces it with a dash of black nationalism. (One writer pointed out that King is the only guy who has successfully done this. King is probably the only guy who could do it.)

When, in the mid-1970s, King was helping fighters such as Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman earn unprecedented purses, Mark Kram wrote this about King in a 1975 Sports Illustrated story:

"Loyalty is almost nonexistent in boxing, but King has what little there is. He did not ask for it, or pay for it. It was given to him because he was strong and fair, and his followers saw him as a deliverer from the tyranny of Madison Square Garden."

That success might have gotten the better of King. Fast-forward about 10 years or so, and we have former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon offering this observation about the numbers runner-turned-fight promoter:

"Don's specialty is black-on-black crime. I'm black, and he robbed me, so I know this is true." That quote is from writer Jack Cashill's Sucker Punch, a 2006 hatchet job on Ali masquerading as a biography.

Butch Lewis, who's also a black boxing promoter, alleged that King subjected him to race-baiting after Lewis cut a deal with white promoter Bob Arum for one of Ali's fights.

"King was [bleeped] about losing Ali," Lewis said in Thomas Hauser's Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "He kept using all that black [bleep] against me, saying, `Butch Lewis is just an Uncle Tom; he's just a front man for Arum."

In the past, Steele has rightly complained about Democrats using race-baiting tactics against him. Those tactics included Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller hinting that Steele was an Uncle Tom for being a black Republican instead of a black Democrat. Now Steele has happily accepted the endorsement of a guy who has been accused of using the same tactics.

"Mr. King is a friend of the lieutenant governor," Steele spokesman Doug Heye said when I asked if Steele had any qualms about accepting the endorsement of a guy with a reputation for fleecing black fighters. "The lieutenant governor is happy to have him campaign for him."

I understand loyalty to friends. I can even understand how King fits into Steele's commitment to getting blacks more focused on business and economic development and cutting back on help from the federal government. There isn't a better by-your-own-bootstraps, rags-to-riches story than King's. His many detractors in recent years seem to have forgotten King's extraordinary accomplishments.

And he did it against insurmountable odds. Perhaps King himself put it best with one of his favorite quotes: "Only in America."

He's right. Only in America could a former numbers runner who stomped a guy to death on the street leave prison, put his sordid past behind him and use his exemplary entrepreneurial skills to become a millionaire. That truth doesn't get said enough about America. If Don King is one of the few who wants to say it, I'm more than willing to listen.

On the matter of endorsing one of Maryland's three candidates for the U.S. Senate, I'm leerier. I have no doubt King sincerely supports Steele's promise to turn boarded-up buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue into businesses. But I have to wonder who will vote for Steele with King's endorsement who wouldn't have voted for him without it.

King's endorsement of Steele -- like that of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who endorsed Steele yesterday -- is one the lieutenant governor really didn't need.

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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