Don King is back where it all started for him 40 years ago.
Back in Cleveland, Ohio where he was born and where he launched his boxing promotion career. The man who helped give us “The Rumble in the Jungle’’ and “The Thrilla in Manila’’ started in Cleveland when he somehow convinced Muhammad Ali to agree to a boxing exhibition to save a local hospital in 1972.
It was a bold move for a man who had just been released from prison after serving four years for manslaughter.
“That hospital was going to close,’’ King said. “I got Muhammad Ali to box an exhibition with five local boxers. I got the community to rally around it. Got local companies like Firestone to help support us. The community demonstrated that Cleveland has a heart. It gets knocked down, but it gets back up. Now I’m back and I’m marketing Cleveland.’’
Forty-four years ago the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire. The river isn’t on fire this time, but there are enough other embarrassing problems to go around.
The Cleveland Browns, an NFL laughingstock, is a mess. The owner Jimmy Haslam hired a new coach and then fired the team’s CEO and general manager two months before the NFL college draft. United Airlines, one of the largest U.S. carriers, announced that it is shutting down its airport hub in Cleveland in June, eliminating 470 jobs and cutting off direct flights from Cleveland to several major U.S. cities. Yes, Cleveland can use some marketing.
“Cleveland has been getting a black eye lately,’’ King said. “The Mayor (Frank G. Jackson) called me and asked how I could help out.’’
So King is doing what he does best – promoting a boxing show. He is staging a card, which includes a 10-round lightweight main event match between Angelo Santana and Hank Lundy at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University on ShoBox on Showtime on Friday night.
“I’m looking at this as the beginning of a year-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of “The Rumble in the Jungle,’’ King said. The match between Ali and George Foreman occured in Kinshasa, Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974.
Santana-Lundy is nowhere near an event on the grand scale of that one or any of the hundreds of other that King used to promote involving boxers like Ali, Larry Holmes, Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr. and Mike Tyson. King isn’t moving in those circles anymore either. He has scaled back his operation considerably in the last few years. But he is working Santana-Lundy as if it were a major show, appearing on national TV and radio shows to promote it.
“I’m taking a ShoBox date and I’m making it a monumental event because I’m promoting for the people now,’’ King said. “It’s not like there’s a big licensing fee with ShoBox. I’m working with what I have right now. I’m not doing this for the license fee. I’m giving something back to the community in Cleveland.’’
The 82-year-old promoter sounds like he has as much energy as ever. He said he didn’t scale back his operation by choice.
“All the networks are working with their own little cliques now,’’ King said.
For its championship shows, Showtime has a near exclusive agreement with Golden Boy, while HBO works primarily with Top Rank. Both promotion companies were once King’s main rivals. As his inventory of champions has dwindled in the last three years, King has been marginalized by the two major cable networks that financially support boxing.
King has one more round in his promotional chamber – heavyweight Bermane Stiverne, who is supposed to meet Cris Arreola for the WBC title left vacant when Vitali Klitschko retired to concentrate on his political career in Ukraine. Stiverne defeated Arreola in a title elimination bout last April 24, and has been waiting for the title match since. If Stiverne, a Haitian-born slugger who lives in Las Vegas, can beat Arreola and win the WBC title, King will be back in the mix. King said he is in negotiations with Arreola’s promoter, Dan Goossen, to finalize a deal for the match.
In the meantime, King said he is promoting matches where he can and doing something to lift the spirits of people.
“I went to a party last week, Valentine’s Day, and there were all these wounded warriors there and I was really touched by them,’’ King said. “The hypocrisy of what we do these young men and women. We send them off to war with all these patriotic words and then when they come back with all these injuries we kick them to the curb. I want to be able to do something for them, to give back.
“So for this fight I’m going to invite them – the Army, the Marines, the Navy, and the Air Force. We’re going to have flags all over the place. Let them know that we appreciate what they’ve done.’’