What Donald Trump learned from Don King

For more than three decades, boxing promoter Don King and Donald J. Trump have shared an enduring friendship and apparent similarities: a go-to hairstyle and a selfish courage that became a kind of superpower, a trail of beleaguered creditors and an unwavering belief that more it is more.

“I’m putting gas in the tank,” Mr. King, 92, said recently at a South Florida bistro-casino, presiding over a 4 p.m. lunch of New York strip steak, three eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, pancakes, grits, cranberry juice and coffee (“black like me”), with agave syrup and African hot sauce he brought back from is home.

His server asked him if he was missing anything. “Yes,” Mr. King said, “We’re going to need more butter.” »

As much as any figure in Mr. Trump’s grandiose and wild public life, Mr. King modeled what Mr. Trump is considered success for a black man in America. For the former president, Mr. King was both an ally and an example — half a generation older and an avatar of the unrepentant excess and streetwise bravado in Mr. Trump’s 1980s heyday At New York.

If the famous promoter may seem airlifted from another era – when the boxing business was king, when Mr. King was the boxing business, when some scores were settled outside the ring and the legal system – he t was the time when much of Mr. Trump’s world seems to have frozen into one worldview.

“He was never an establishment man and he was proud of it,” Mr. Trump said in a statement sent by his presidential campaign, hailing Mr. King as “a champion and fighter like few ‘others “. “He made money when others lost money, and he’s been doing it for a long time. I give it the highest rating! »

In a 90-minute interview, Mr. King said the two men learned a lot from each other, reinforcing their mutual professional instincts as they promoted fights under the Mr. Casinos banner. Trump’s Atlantic City.

At the height of their handshake, Mr. Roi and Mr. Trump made money together, advertised together and overcame business disputes together.

“Donald Trump was a young man who wanted to be himself,” Mr. King said. “In business, hyperbole works because you know you’re not breaking any laws. You exaggerate. You know what I mean? You are promoting. You make things more exciting.

The Reverend. Al Sharpton put it more succinctly.

“If Donald Trump had been born black,” Mr. Sharpton said: “He would have been Don King. »

Now, as some polls have shown Mr. Trump making modest but potentially significant inroads with black voters — alarming Democrats as President Biden works to consolidate his position — Mr. King remains a staunch supporter who understands the former president like few others can.

Dwelling little on Mr. Trump’s long history of racial harassment, Mr. King viewed his transactional approach to politics and business as the wisdom learned from a fellow traveler that Mr. King helped show the way.

Before Mr. Trump vowed to “make America great again,” Mr. King said, “Only in America!” » to any camera within range.

Before Mr. Trump heard thunderous ovations at sold-out cage fights, endearing him to a hypermasculine segment of his base, he was at ringside with Mr. King watching Mike Tyson, who then accused Mr. Roi of defrauding him.

Before Mr. Trump was a criminal who insisted the system was rigged, Mr. King said was too.

“They treat Trump like a black man,” said Mr. King, who served prison time more than half a century ago after stomping an associate to death over a debt, echoing some of Mr. Trump’s agitated theories about his secret trial in Manhattan. “He’s guilty until proven innocent.”

Although slowed by age, Mr. King remains, like Mr. Trump, very much the person he was when they met, wore a bedazzled denim jacket with his own face on it and paid his bill lunch with a big wad of hundreds of dollars tied with an elastic band.

With a home in Boca Raton, Fla., a nearby office and a group of relatives and associates who help him keep up appearances, Mr. King has continued to promote fights in the area, anchored by boxers often in decline or second tier and its own deadpan promises that every match is an unprecedented spectacle.

“Excitement is in the air!” he said this month from ringside at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., midway through a mid-power but entertaining fight card sponsored by a printing company and two strip clubs. tease. “A spectacular event! »

For boxing fans who have met him, Mr. King is always a rolling attraction, whether he is wheeling his walker across the casino floor or being pushed in his wheelchair by a grandson.

Approached by watchful strangers who notice his crown-shaped pouf: “Don King, what’s up, baby!” “Only in America!” – he poses with Wishes playfully making fists for the camera but not really interacting with it, proceeding as if they were standing next to a wax statue of the man.

With those who make him speak, Mr. King is not inclined to stop, peppering an interview with allusions to Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare (“the Bard of Avon!”), Muhammad Ali (“the greatest of all time!”), Johnnie Cochran (“the glove didn’t fit him). ! ), the O’Jays, Schopenhauer himself – and he has willingly refuted his many critics over the years.

There is a long lineage attributed to Jack Newfield, Mr. King’s disgusting biographer: “Forget death and taxes. The only sure thing is that whether he wins or loses, Don King counts the money.

This is absurd, Mr. King suggested.

“I never count money,” he said. “If you can count your money, you don’t have any.”

Mr. King and Mr. Trump have remained in touch, mostly visiting each other and reminiscing over the phone.

Evaluating each other recently, they touched on a surprisingly similar topic: the art of turning nominal losses into gains.

“I’ve seen him in the heat of battle, some very tough, and he always comes out on top,” Mr. Trump said in his statement. “Don understands the importance of never giving up.” (The former president previously tested Mr. King in a trial over disputed fight contracts.)

Mr. King’s expression of respect for Mr. Trump deepened as his properties faltered in the 1990s.

“What really impressed me was when he started taking it on the chin,” Mr. King said. “He turned bankruptcy into a business.”

Mr. Trump’s campaign highlighted Mr. King’s 2024 endorsement on social media with a video clip and a boxing glove emoji. Aides also highlighted his long relationships with other black sports figures of the 1980s and 1990s, including Mr. Tyson and Herschel Walker, the former football star who lost a Senate race in Georgia two years ago.

But Mr. Trump’s friendship with Mr. King has survived some past Republican efforts to create distance between them.

When Mr. Trump pushed Mr. King to speak at his 2016 inauguration convention, party officials said Republicans could not risk associating with someone once convicted of manslaughter.

Two months later, Mr. King walked to a microphone on Mr. Trump’s behalf anyway, joining the candidate at a church in Ohio.

“We need Donald Trump,” Mr. King said then, “especially black people.”

Remembering advice he once gave Michael Jackson, Mr. King vowed that day to clean up his anecdote to avoid saying “the N-word.” Fourteen seconds later, he said it.

“Ahhhhh,” Mr. Trump then declared warmly, as a small media hurricane was underway. “There is only one Don King.”

These days, the promoter admitted, being Don King isn’t quite what it used to be.

At his restaurant table, he rubbed a ring given to him by his wife, Henrietta, who died in 2010. “We are still together,” he said.

Mr. Ali, whose career helped boost Mr. King’s after the developer left prison, died six years later. Mr. King lit up briefly as he recited the heavyweight’s refrain “float like a butterfly” from his seat. (In their zigzagging partnership, Mr. King was also accused of cheating Mr. Ali out of his fighting salary.)

But while his once-dominant sport has ceded the national spotlight, Mr. King is still clearly drawn to its pageantry.

At a news conference before the recent fights, Mr. King played the role of master of ceremonies in a Hard Rock ballroom for more than an hour, beginning his remarks with a digression about Mr. Trump and his smile through a chaotic exchange between his headliners. (One fighter, Blair Cobbs, the eventual winner between the ropes, launched into extended pieces with a puppet and two live birds; the other, Adrien Broner, appeared to threaten Mr. Cobbs with gun violence.)

When fight night arrived, Mr. King found himself in a more reflective mood, offering a tour of the pins on his jacket: one celebrating Mr. Ali’s 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, another of Lady Liberty, a third in the National Rifle Association.

He posed with a man wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” hat who mocks Mr. Biden and, as a result, during some shouted greetings nearby:

“The gift!”

“The living legend!” »

When the most high-profile fights began, Mr. King trudged up a short flight of stairs with help and slipped under the ropes to enter the ring for the arrival of the boxers, defying a publicist’s predictions (and, almost certainly best medical practice for a semi-mobile nonagenarian) and delighting the crowd.

“Life is a fight,” said Mr. King said quietly, spontaneously, as he settled into his padded wheelchair at ringside.

He was asked which round he was taking part in. He chuckled a little, then fell silent.

“You will know,” Mr. King said, “when the count comes.”

Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.

Audio produced by Tally Abécassis.

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