A number of comics and z-list celebs recently gathered at the New York Hilton for a Friar’s Club Roast of Don King. Newsday’s Wally Matthews wasn’t laughing very hard, though he does bring up some valuable tidbits from King’s biography, in case they ever do a 2nd roast.
Far too many of us have bought into the popular image of King as a flamboyant but basically harmless boxing rogue.
Freddie Roman, Pat Cooper, Norm Crosby and the rest of them have certainly swallowed it, and though they may be accomplished roastmasters when the subject is your standard-issue celebrity, when it comes to King, they are as clueless as any of the dozens of well-heeled suckers who have fallen under King’s spell, only to be kicked to the curb. As a result, the “roast” was a series of gentle slaps, followed by professions of deepest love and respect for this man who “has done so much for boxing.”
Truth is, the Friars were not qualified to give King the roasting he deserves. That could be done only by those King already has roasted.
People such as Sam Garrett, who worked for King (above) as a numbers runner in Cleveland back in the 1960s. But Garrett couldn’t be there because he was dead, stomped into a coma by King over a $600 debt. According to the police report, Garrett’s last words were, “I’ll pay you, Donald, I’ll pay you.”
People such as Jeff Merritt, King’s first heavyweight, the one who got boxing people to pay attention to his ex-con manager because he could hit like a ton of bricks falling off a roof. But Merritt wound up a junkie and a failure; when last seen, he turned up at the Mike Tyson-Peter McNeeley fight begging his old manager for a few bucks. King had him thrown out by security.
People such as Earnie Shavers, King’s second fighter, whose huge punch propelled King into big-time boxing. He wound up having to cut the lawn at King’s mansion after he was betrayed by his trusting nature – and glass chin.
People such as the employees of financially ailing Forest City Hospital in Cleveland, who in the early ’70s believed King would save them with a boxing fundraiser at which he had convinced Muhammad Ali, whom he had never met, to appear. According to a book by the late journalist Jack Newfield, Ali got $10,000, King got $30,000, the hospital got $15,000. The hospital folded anyway but King met Ali, and the rest is boxing history.
Most of all, you need to talk to Ali, now 62 and in the grip of Parkinson’s disease widely believed to have been caused by repeated blows to the head. The most damaging of those were likely inflicted in his last two fights, against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Both bouts were promoted by King despite medical reports, as detailed in Thomas Hauser’s comprehensive Ali biography, showing that Ali already was suffering brain damage and should not have been allowed back in the ring.