Behind Don King's GOP Hustle

Don King was in his full boxing pitchman throttle at the GOP convention. Weighted down with three Bush buttons, a double American flag lapel pin, two American flags, and a red white and blue tie with an American Eagle image, King mugged, clowned and shouted in front of the TV cameras while hammer locking and bear hugging any GOP delegate he could get his hands on. King declared loudly that his shill for the GOP was driven purely by political idealism. He liked Bush's tout of diversity, his appointments of Colin Powell, Condeleezza Rice, Rod Paige, and HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson and claimed that Bush's minority homeownership and small business program was better than anything the Democrats had to offer blacks.

That makes some sense, and there may even be a touch of political scruple in his GOP love affair. But King didn't become the boxing world's best-known mouthpiece, showman and hustler, and rake in a king's fortune solely through political altruism. King banks that he can kill a boxing reform bill that he doesn't like, and that the GOP will help him do it. King's crusade to kill the pending legislation offers yet another revealing glimpse at the unsavory tangle between big money, phony patriotism and politics. 

Boxing is the only national sport that has no labor union, health and pension plan for its athletes, or a national commissioner to enforce safety standards and uniform rules. It is hamstrung by a crazy quilt patchwork of warring state commissions, sanctioning bodies, and dubious fight contracts. The clamor to clean up what has long been regarded as the dirtiest, and most lethal of sports has grown louder in recent years. The antidote to this is federal regulation. In 2003, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed Arizona Senator John McCain 's boxing reform bill. The bill would establish a United States Boxing Administration run by the Department of Labor. It would mandate the licensing of fighters, managers and promoters, and the sanctioning of the confederations. The new agency would have the authority to pull licenses for violations.

King's alarm bill rang loudly at this. Federal regulation is the last thing that King wants, and he has made no secret of that. King quickly swung into action with a one-man lobbying campaign against the bill. He fueled it with big money, schmooze and a generous dose of PR hype. Late last year, he made relatively small donations to a Republican and Democratic Senate Campaign committee. The Democratic Committee got some of King's largesse because Harry Reid, a one-time co-sponsor of the boxing bill, was a Nevada Democrat. King earlier had sweetened the Republican pot with a small love offering of $2,000 to then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond's segregation days notwithstanding, Lott was (and still is) a powerhouse Republican and could work wonders in helping to kill a bill King hates.

In January, King turned the money spigot on full force. He dumped $25,000 into the Republican National Committee's coffer. A few months later, he tossed a monster Republican fundraiser at his Deerfield, Florida mansion. The take was a whopping $625,000. While King's thinly disguised money and PR assault on boxing reform is aimed at killing boxing reform, Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie's aim is to get Bush re-elected.

Gillespie quickly saw that King could be useful to the Bush campaign. Polls still show that African-Americans are Bush's most relentless foes. They gave him fewer votes in the 2000 presidential election than any Republican president or candidate in the past three decades. That won't change this election. Polls still show that blacks will vote overwhelming for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. But King is a flamboyant, high profile black, and his pitch of minority business, and homeownership might have slight residual appeal to younger blacks and independent voters.

In June, with much fanfare, Gillespie, with King in tow, trotted around to Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, and Cleveland on what they branded their "Economic Empowerment Tour." King back patted and hailed Gillespie as a man that "stands up with us" in the ghettoes. But he didn't stop with this flim-flam. On a GOP website, King is the referee in a mock boxing match that hammers Kerry with the standard GOP knock against him that he flip flops on the issues. In an interview in the New Yorker Magazine in August, King said that he's promoting Bush "for free."

There's no free ride in politics. Beneath the flag waving and the hype, King is playing a high stakes game to preserve his tainted power and influence in the boxing world. If he can deliver the knock out blow to a bill that would restore integrity to a sport desperately in need of it, and the GOP can help him, his GOP hustle will be well worth the price he's willing to pay.


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