”You know, you’re a special guy,” Don King told me. “I’m impressed with you.”
And all I’d done was bring an extra audio tape. Of course, it was a very special morning. The Home Box Office corporate dining room, where we were seated for breakfast, was filled with love-the love of money and of the people who can help deliver it. Mr. King, the 67-year-old boxing promoter with the high-voltage hair and even higher self-esteem, had come to break bread with 51-year-old Seth Abraham, the HBO Sports chief and boxing impresario, after an eight-year rift between the two men who had once dominated boxing together.
So they were seated side by side, high above Bryant Park, straining to demonstrate a little love, now that they were temporarily back in business for a pair of fights at Madison Square Garden. Yes, Don and Seth were together again, as they had been back in the 1980′s when they were the fight game’s First Couple. For a dozen years they had ruled the boxing universe, turning HBO Sports, a unit of Time Warner Inc., into a pay-per-view juggernaut. Mr. Abraham had the big budget to buy the big fights. And Mr. King had the heavyweights, eventually getting ahold of the most lucrative one of them all: Mike Tyson. Over late-night feasts in rib joints and hotel suites, at baseball games and tennis matches, the two men, who happen to share the same birthday, had engaged in spirited negotiations that were often far more intriguing than many of the lopsided laughers they staged in the ring.
But then came “the divorce.” In 1990, during talks on a new Tyson-HBO contract, Mr. King, Mr. Tyson’s promoter at the time, demanded that HBO remove its ringside commentator, Larry Merchant, from its Tyson broadcasts because Mr. King felt Mr. Merchant was too critical of his fighter. Mr. Abraham refused. The deal fell apart. Mr. King bolted HBO, and delivered Mr. Tyson to Showtime, HBO’s rival. The Don and Seth show came to a stop.
But now, on a morning when Mr. Tyson was holed up in a Maryland prison, Mr. Abraham and Mr. King were sitting elbow to elbow in a corporate dining room, recalling the rough patches while picking at plates of melon and fresh berries.
“I guess you could say I’m very sensitive and sentimental about relationships,” Mr. King said. He was seated to Mr. Abraham’s left, dressed head to toe in maroon: maroon turtleneck, maroon cardigan, maroon wide-wale cords. “I was more hurt personally in the divorce, because I really relied heavily on him, depended on him. I didn’t think a commentator could come between us. I didn’t think no one could.”
“It was tough, it was tough,” Mr. Abraham said. “When you’re married to someone professionally for years and years, and all of a sudden every day is a fight, an argument, a debate, it becomes a very, very testy situation. But by remembering we were rivals, not enemies-I told Don, ‘Hitler is the enemy, Mussolini is the enemy, Hirohito is the enemy, but you’re not the enemy’-we always kept the line of communication open.”
But they didn’t do business together. And while early on it may have hurt Mr. Abraham more, because of the loss of Mr. Tyson, as time went by Mr. King found himself losing his claim to the title of the most powerful promoter in boxing. HBO had the hot boxers, while he kept losing his. Meanwhile, a series of Federal trials, along with civil suits filed by some of his boxers, kept him tied up in the courts, where he has always been far more successful than Mr. Tyson. The old hustler was getting squeezed out.
He Wanted Respect (and Cash)
After having licked the Government and his former charges in court last year, however, Mr. King wanted back in. He wanted respect, and he needed money. He found a way to get a measure of both, when it became expedient and necessary to make a fight (as they say in the boxing business) between the two top heavyweights, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. The fighters wanted it made, as did fans long deprived of sensible and competitive match-ups. But Mr. Holyfield belonged to Mr. King, and Mr. Lewis belonged to HBO. So the only way to make this fight was for Mr. King to put his fighter in harm’s way, make peace with Mr. Abraham and get as much as he could out of the bout, which of course is never enough.
“You’re hanging, but you got a chance to have the guy ride by and shoot the rope, you know what I mean?” Mr. King said. “So Seth gave me a chance to have the guy ride by and shoot the rope. But I had to work my ass off. That’s what I call the Lemon Doctrine. I got a lemon and done made lemonade out of it.”
On March 13, HBO will carry Holyfield-Lewis, live from Madison Square Garden on pay-per-view. In the sordid farce the fight game has become, Lewis-Holyfield is that rare good thing: a match-up of two worthy heavyweights. The winner will lay claim to all three championship belts. It is one of the biggest fights in years, and the most significant bout in the Garden, the self-proclaimed boxing mecca, since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier duked it out in 1971. The Garden already is sold out, but the real money to be made is in the pay-per-view orders. Mr. King, the lead promoter, has said he won’t make any real money unless those orders top 850,000. So he is “incentivized,” as he put it, to do what he does very well: attract attention. Because attention equals eyeballs, and eyeballs equal money. And in boxing, it’s all about the Benjamins-as in Franklin, as in the face on the $100 bill.
“I’m peerless in this business,” Mr. King said. “Seth is one of the few who has respect for my business acumen. The promotion deal, that’s hype, you can go out and hype and say you’re hyping, but you gotta be able to put something under that smoke to give a panache to it that will make it have a supportive situation that will substantiate what you’re selling. You got to have the sizzle, and you have to have the steak. You have to get ‘em to come back, because comeback sauce is what really counts.”
For breakfast, Mr. King ordered pancakes, scrambled eggs and crisp bacon. When the food arrived, he put five pats of butter on the pancakes, then cut the stack into squares. As he dug in, Mr. Abraham watched him. “Don makes the business fun for me,” he said. “I get a lot of personal pleasure from it. The energy that you get after a terrific fight, you don’t wanna let it go. When the fight is over, I don’t want to go to the hotel room. I don’t gamble, so I’m not interested in going to a casino. I’ve been married to the same woman for 27 years, so that doesn’t interest me, so after a big fight when I have a lot of energy and Don has a lot of energy, we look for interesting places to go. Remember Winston’s?”
“Yes,” Mr. King said, producing a smile to go with the memory. “Seth came to Cleveland for [Gerri] Coetzee-[Michael] Dokes, so he’s got to be my guest. It’s my hometown. I have the baton, so I took him to Winston’s. Winston was a guy who was creative, who made a restaurant with an after-hours perspective-a house where he cooks his ribs, gives you special service. Like the creoles. So we sat there, had a great dinner and made some great deals.”
Mr. Abraham nodded. “Real soul food, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning. Don’s a dervish at that stuff after a big fight. He can go for hours! We talked about a unification fight and other fights to make. I had a 7:30 A.M. flight back to New York. I went right to the airport from the restaurant. Is Winston’s still there?”
“Naw, he’s out of that one now,” Mr. King said. “He had all those movie theaters on Euclid. He was a weird guy, but he was a good hustler.”
The two men were warming to each other, recalling all those good times, so it seemed like a fine moment to ask them what was the nastiest thing they ever said during the divorce.
Nasty? Who, Me?
Mr. King got out a big belly laugh. “I don’t recall anything nasty,” he said.
Mr. Abraham paused for a moment. “The darkest chapter was what I call the dueling dates. Don was going to promote Tyson-[Buster] Mathis on the same date that we were going to do [Riddick] Bowe-Holyfield III. He wouldn’t budge.”
“I came up with the date first,” Mr. King said. “I had the date first, and that’s what the problem was, and once they were locked in on the date, they didn’t wanna give up on the date.”
Mr. Abraham recalled: “I said to the writers that if Don continued to put Tyson or any of his other fighters on our dates, we would then start putting our fighters on his dates and in the long run he’d have to lose.”
“It came out that we had to move,” Mr. King said. “Tyson got hurt, anyways.”
“Things calmed down: Tyson injured a thumb, the fight got moved,” Mr. Abraham said. “A truce developed by an act of God. But it would have been terrible for boxing. It would have been a very dark day.”
The pancakes appeared to energize Mr. King. He embarked on a 20-minute filibuster, discoursing on the glory of America, his flagpole in Florida, his own “yiddish kop” and his work on behalf of blacks. As he half-listened, Mr. Abraham took a few bites of his scrambled eggs. (A power-breakfast rule of thumb holds that he who eats the least possesses the larger portion of the power. By that measure, Mr. Abraham had the juice there, but the rule probably does not apply in the boxing business, where restraint and self-discipline don’t count for much.)
Mr. King said: “At one time, I wanted Seth to quit Time Warner-it was Time then-and come with me. We could go be adventurous: ‘I’ll bring the fighters, you take care of the cable operators.’ I wanted to stack my fortune with Seth, run the gamut. You know, ‘Let’s go out in the boat, like Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Ocean. Let’s get in the boat together. There will be no impossibility. We can snatch the possible out of the impossible, victory from the jaws of defeat!’”
Mr. Abraham did not interrupt him, and before long, breakfast was over.
A few days later, on a Saturday night, the two men were at the Garden for the other fight that occasioned their recent reunion, a welterweight bout between Pernell Whitaker and Felix Trinidad. After Mr. Trinidad (a King boxer) won, Mr. King jumped into the ring to get into the post-fight interview with HBO’s Larry Merchant, so that he could flog for a meeting between Mr. Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, HBO’s reigning superstar. But HBO would not put him on. Its announcers don’t interview promoters. Mr. King went berserk, though he did say, “I’m not blaming Seth, it’s his subordinates.”
Jay Larkin, the executive producer of Showtime boxing, referred to the incident a few days later, when asked what he thought of the reconciliation between his rival Mr. Abraham and Mr. King, with whom Showtime has a contract. “I’m not sure how much of a reconciliation it is,” he said. “This is a fluid business. It’s like a bag of snakes. You throw it in the corner, and it changes its position.”