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Don King: The Last Roar of the Lion in Winter?

Bernard Fernandez

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It has been a remarkable run for a remarkable character, truly an American original, unique even by boxing’s fast-and-loose, anything-goes tolerance and even compliant acceptance of outrageous behavior.

But Don King, he of the electrified hair, bombastic personality and streetwise cunning, has slowed down from full-throttle manipulation of boxing to a minor role that seems to shrink with each passing day. The “Teflon Don,” as he once was dubbed for his ability to unstick himself from the many lawsuits filed against him, is 83 now, a graying lion in winter. Forty-plus years of wheeling and dealing can sap the vitality from even the most driven of alpha males, and especially so if the aging go-getter is an octogenarian who no longer is dealing from a position of near-absolute control.

That familiar, bellowing roar – well, more of a heh-heh-heh cackle – now comes with the volume turned low. At least the message being barked out isn’t reaching as many listeners. Maybe that is because the man himself is simply tuckered out, and maybe because his depleted stable of fighters is basically down to one lead pony that, upon further inspection, is lacking the regal bloodlines and staying power of many of his predecessors. But regardless of their place in boxing’s pecking order, King’s fighters during his glory days were obliged to pledge fealty (and hefty percentages of their purses) to the boss as a condition of their servitude.

Some observers have made the mistake of writing off King in the past, but whenever it appeared he was becoming less relevant, he simply found a way to restock his talent pool with a fresh influx of elite attractions, more than a few of whom were lured away from rival promoters. If it is indeed possible for a slick enough huckster to sell sand to Bedouin tribesmen, it was a near-certainty that DK would find a way to run the largest, most profitable concession stand in the desert.

All of which makes tonight’s Showtime-televised pairing at the MGM Grand King’s last, best hope for an important toehold in the sport, WBC heavyweight champion Bermane “B. Ware” Stiverne (24-1-1, 21 KOs), and challenger Deontay Wilder (32-0, 32 KOs) more notable than it might be solely on its pugilistic merits. Should Stiverne – a 36-year-old Haitian, formerly based in Quebec City, Canada, now living in Las Vegas – lose a fight that is by no means a sure thing either way, it could have the effect of ushering King off to the side, once and for all.

But if King is indeed on his way out, he’s going the same way he came in, with heaping measures of defiance, bluster and bullspit.

”This program is America’s return to glory in the heavyweight division,” King harrumphed, ignoring the fact that only one fighter, the one he doesn’t control, is a United States citizen. “It’s going to be a great event. This is a fight to bring boxing back to where it should be, and the glory back to the heavyweight division that has been lacking for quite a while now.

“A guy named Bermane Stiverne is an extension to (Mike) Tyson – awesome, brutal, a devastating puncher.”

Perhaps Stiverne will be all of that on Saturday night, or at least show flashes of the form King has assured everyone he possesses in sufficient supply to be compared to iconic heavyweights Tyson, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, all of whom His Hairness promoted at one time or another. But it seems more plausible that Stiverne is a cut or two below that uppermost tier, more in line with such King roster-fillers as Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Bonecrusher Smith, Tony Tubbs and Tony Tucker, talented bench guys whom he had rounded up primarily to serve as opponents for his marquee attractions. It was standard practice for King to arrange title fights between two of his fighters, assuring that the only guaranteed winner after the last punch was thrown was … Don King.

It is a ploy also used by King’s longest-running and most-bitter competitor for promotional domination, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, 83, who, on the surface, is everything that King is not. But while their pre-boxing experiences are hardly identical, their management objectives are eerily similar: Always, always be the one calling the shots and directing the play.

Forget Ali-Frazier; that series was a fleeting blip on the radar screen compared to the decades-long blood feud between Arum, the “master of trickeration,” as so dubbed by King, and his hulking, flag-waving nemesis with the mountain-range coif. But it says something about the arch-rivals that they occasionally got together to do business because, well, declaring intermittent truces was good business.

A couple of months prior to the April 8, 2006, matchup of King’s Zab Judah and Arum’s Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas, the enemies-turned-temporary-allies held a remarkable press conference in Atlantic City, N.J., to not only chat up the upcoming fight, but to turn their verbal guns on a nagging irritant, then-Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, whom each considered to be a threat to their established turf.

“If you were making a chart from zero to a hundred, Bob Arum – Harvard graduate, Kennedy raider, Jewish ethnic, got the complexion for the connection – would be the most likely to succeed,” chortled King as Arum sat close by, forcing a smile.

“Don King – African-American, ex-convict, served time in jail – on (a scale) of zero to 100, it would be 100 to zero for Bob Arum. But in reality, is hasn’t been that way because I’ve been extraordinary at what I do. Us playing off each other has been a blessing more than anything. At the end of the day, only the two of us are left standing. Collectively, the rest can’t tie our shoestrings.”

In the eight-plus years since that pronouncement, Arum has separated himself from King more than Dez Bryant putting a double-move on a confused rookie cornerback lacking top-end speed. Arum’s company remains a behemoth of the industry, with a deep roster ranging from the more-established likes of Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley Jr., Nonito Donaire, Terence Crawford and Nicholas Walters to such emerging attractions Vasyl Lomachenko, Zou Shiming, Felix Verdejo and Jesse Hart … about 50 fighters in all.

And it’s not just the quantity and quality of Arum’s inventory that keeps Top Rank strong. Ever the globe-trotting entrepreneur, Arum has made Macau, China, boxing’s hot, new destination for major bouts, and the recent thawing of his company’s frosty relationship with Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy, facilitated in no small part by the departure of Schaefer, his King-like substitute as an object of derision, has further entrenched Top Rank as a major player going forward. Arum also has a successor waiting in the wings in Todd duBoef, his stepson, who for years has been groomed to keep the TR brand buffed and polished.

King’s operation hasn’t fared nearly so well by comparison.

The tried-and-true tricks King used to telling effect in the past – opening up a satchel of money, dumping it on a table, and telling a fighter raised in poverty that he had to sign multiple blank contracts with King if he wanted to leave with the booty, and maybe the keys to a new car – aren’t the guaranteed deal-closers that they once were. Nor is the race card King has been known to play with black fighters who were schmoozed into feeling more comfortable with one of their own.

Don King Productions moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan – the tony section of New York that, rightly or wrongly, perceives itself as the center of the known universe – to Deerfield Beach, Fla., in the late 1980s. Once, DKP handled a Top-Rank-sized lineup of premier fighters, necessitating a staff of around 50 to keep the operation humming. Now, the number of employees has been pared to 10 or so, with many of King’s most trusted lieutenants having either died off or, sensing the seismic shift taking place within the organization, gotten out while the getting was good.

But the man himself remains in the game, even if marginalized, even if an increasing number of former employees and associates, having broken free from his iron grip, now excoriate him as a ruthless taskmaster whose public persona is as purposefully crafted as anything that has ever been sold to gullible consumers.

Bernard Hopkins was unhappily under contract to King when he won the middleweight unification tournament with a surprise (or so some thought), 12th-round stoppage of a King favorite, Felix Trinidad, on Sept. 29, 2001. It gnawed at Hopkins that the Sugar Ray Robinson Award, which had been commissioned to go to the ultimate victor, had been engraved with Trinidad’s name before the final. And if there is anything that can be said about B-Hop, it is that he files away all real and perceived slights, and draws upon them for inspiration as needed.

When Hopkins, no longer with King, was to take on King fighter Tavoris Cloud, the IBF titlist, on March 9, 2013, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the then-48-year-old Philadelphian, who would go on to score a unanimous-decision victory, reveled in the notion that he was going to shovel the last spadeful of dirt upon the professional grave of his onetime promoter.

“I am surprised that King agreed (to make the fight) because Cloud losing to me will shut down what’s left of King’s company,” Hopkins said. “He’s pretty much down to Cloud. Cloud is Don King’s last big hope.

“Who would have thought that I would have stayed around long enough to destroy Don King? I started the process with Tito (Trinidad). Look, I made a history of beating Don King fighters. Robert Allen, John David Jackson, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, Trinidad. That’s five so far. There’s probably more.”

Nor is Hopkins the only former King fighter who has told tales of chicanery and financial improprieties of a colossal magnitude, which served to mostly enrich the promoter instead of the guy eating the punches. Former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon filed a $25 million lawsuit against His Hairness in 1987, alleging that he had been bilked out of significant chunks of his purses. When Witherspoon, the WBA champ, fought Frank Bruno in London on July 19, 1986, for instance, HBO paid King $1.7 million to deliver “Terrible Tim,” and the Associated Press reported that his share of the pot would be $900,000, the same as Bruno’s. But although Bruno – a non-King fighter whom Witherspoon stopped in 11 rounds – received his full guarantee, ’Spoon was handed a check for $90,094.

“It’s like we’re racehorses,” Witherspoon, who after years of legal wrangling settled with King out-of-court for $1 million, said of his role as one of the King-controlled “Lost generation of heavyweights” in the 1980s. “They race us ’til we drop and then they shoot us. And if we win, they tie a blue ribbon around our neck.”

More damning accusations were cited, chapter and verse, in “Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King,” by Jack Newfield, which was published in 1995. In the book, Newfield, who died in 2004, wrote that Muhammad Ali was shorted about $1.2 million of his contracted $8 million purse for the horrific beatdown he suffered at the hands of Larry Holmes on Oct. 2, 1980. While a clearly diminished Ali was recovering, Newfield detailed how King got a trusted Ali associate, Jeremiah Shabazz, to bring “The Greatest” a suitcase filled with $50,000 and a contract that not only precluded him from pursuing punitive damages against King, but gave King the option to promote any of Ali’s future fights. Weary and confused, Ali signed the contract and took the cash.

By his own estimation, King has spent $30 million defending himself against lawsuits, and not only those filed by disgruntled fighters. The FBI went after him for tax evasion, among other things, but King beat the rap that landed Al Capone in Alcatraz. In 1995, he beat a nine-count indictment on insurance fraud. Almost without exception, King, claiming he was the target of jealous or unscrupulous adversaries, came away unscathed.

“They went down the list of every known charge conceivable to man,” he said after outpointing the feds on the tax-evasion beef. “Racketeering, skimming, kickbacks, ticket-scalping, fixing fights, preordaining fights, corrupting judges, all the way down to laundering money. Everything but the Lindbergh baby. Instead of using me as the true attestation of the American dream, they threw the book at me.”

The book missed King, as large as he is, but maybe Deontay Wilder will land the takeout shot to Stiverne’s jaw that will finish the job so many have taken upon themselves dating back to the 1970s. Then again …

There are two sides to every story, of course, and King has an array of accomplishments to counteract the impression that he is a shameless con artist who only takes and never gives anything back to the sport that made him a legend and instantly recognizable figure here, there and everywhere. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, which is a pretty big deal, even though some critics said his enshrinement was akin to electing Willie Sutton or John Dillinger to the banking hall of fame. But, DK’s acknowledged warts aside, it is also undeniable that he has promoted more than 500 world championship fights and made millionaires (90 or so, at last count) of numerous children of poverty who were handy with their fists. OK, joke if you must about how he showed all those people how to make a small fortune: Start out with a large fortune, then watch as Don King chipped away at it with a laundry list of dubious deductions.

But even the most persistent snipers who have always taken aim at King would have to admit that boxing would seem, well, a little less interesting with him totally absent from the picture. And he was totally in the picture during his decades-long heyday, hogging more on-camera face time than even today’s most ubiquitous grandstander, Al Haymon associate Sam Watson, who is as out there as Haymon, boxing’s hermit-like Svengali, is not.

When King – who had been prohibited from doing business in Atlantic City for seven-plus years while his insurance-fraud case was pending (he finally was acquitted) – returned to the Jersey shore with a Dec. 5, 1998, show headlined by the matchup of WBA bantamweight champion Nana Konadu and popular challenger Johnny Tapia at the new Convention Center, the focus was on you-know-who. In King’s world, he is always the centerpiece, with the fighters playing support roles.

“I don’t understand this. I’m the one who’s fighting, right?” a perplexed Tapia, who claimed Konadu’s title on a 12-round majority decision, said of the prefight press conference whose prevailing theme appeared to be “Don King makes triumphant return to Atlantic City!”

King has his familiar props and mannerisms, from the electrified hair to the little flags he always waves to the brandished stogie to the malaprops he sprinkles into his every turn at the microphone or even in casual conversation. Ask him a question, about anything, and a reporter is apt to get 15 minutes of stream-of-consciousness, with King randomly dropping such names as W.E.B. duBois, Frederick Douglass, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, occasionally making you chuckle with a misstatement that, upon further reflection, seems part of a well-rehearsed act.

This was – and probably still is, even in his dotage – one very shrewd dude. When I introduced my father to him at the second Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight in Las Vegas, King immediately turned on the charm. “So you are the daddy of one of the boss scribes!” he bellowed, enveloping my 5-6½ father in a bear-hug.

“He must like you,” my dad said as we walked away.

“Depends on the most recent story I wrote about him or one of his fighters,” I replied.

But I wondered then, and still do, if King was playing me, the media being as susceptible to mind games and flattery as anyone else. And now Bermane Stiverne could be the last twitching fish on the end of King’s line, ready to be reeled in along with a new generation of willing and malleable reporters whose first rule of journalism is the insatiable need to find the most interesting story, and to ride it hard.

After all these years, Don King – Mr. Only in America – remains a story that can still be milked. He and I probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tank Davis and the Charlo Twins Featured on the Loaded Showtime/PBC Schedule

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Tank Davis and the Charlo Twins Featured on the Loaded Showtime/PBC Schedule

PRESS RELEASE — SHOWTIME Sports and Premier Boxing Champions today unveiled a loaded five-month boxing schedule of nine high-stakes world championship events beginning Saturday, May 15, live on SHOWTIME. The schedule delivers two events per month through August. Thirteen matchups have been announced thus far with no less than seven world title fights, and 12 fighters defending undefeated records. The lineup features many of boxing’s best young fighters taking on career-defining challenges in their primes. All fights on the schedule will take place before a live audience, keeping with applicable local COVID-19 safety protocols.

The sizzling summer run features the dynamic Charlo twins as undefeated electrifying champion Jermall Charlo defends his WBC middleweight world title against Juan Macias Montiel in a special Juneteenth homecoming in Houston on Saturday, June 19, live on SHOWTIME.

The following Saturday, June 26, unbeaten Mayweather Promotions star Gervonta “Tank” Davis moves up two weight classes for a chance to become a three-division world champion when he takes on fellow undefeated champion Mario Barrios for his super lightweight world title in what will be Davis’ second pay-per-view showdown.

The next month, WBC, WBA and IBF 154-pound charismatic world champion Jermell Charlo looks to make boxing history when he takes on WBO junior middleweight world champion Brian Castaño in a mega-fight to crown the first four-belt 154-pound world champion.

The SHOWTIME boxing schedule features eight editions of SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING and one premier SHOWTIME PPV event, all presented by Premier Boxing Champions:

  • MAY 15 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING
    • Luis Nery vs. Brandon Figueroa, WBC Super Bantamweight World Title Fight
    • Danny Roman vs. Ricardo Espinoza Franco, Super Bantamweight Fight
    • Xavier Martinez vs. Abraham Montoya, WBA Super Featherweight Fight
    • MAY 29 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING
      • Nordine Oubaali vs. Nonito Donaire, WBC Bantamweight World Title Fight
      • Subriel Matias vs. Batyrzhan Jukembayev, IBF Super Lightweight Title Eliminator
  • JUNE 19 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING 
    • Jermall Charlo vs. Juan Macias Montiel, WBC Middleweight World Title Fight
  • JUNE 26 – SHOWTIME PPV
    • Gervonta Davis vs. Mario Barrios, WBA Super Lightweight World Title Fight
    • Erickson Lubin vs. Jeison Rosario, WBC Junior Middleweight Title Eliminator
    • JULY 3 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING
    • Chris Colbert vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa, WBA Super Featherweight Interim Title Fight
  • JULY 17 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING 
    • Jermell Charlo vs. Brian Castaño, Undisputed IBF, WBA, WBC & WBO Junior Middleweight World Title Unification Fight
  • AUGUST 14 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING

                  Guillermo Rigondeaux vs. John Riel Casimero, WBO Bantamweight World Title Fight

         AUGUST 28 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING

    • David Benavidez vs. Jose Uzcategui, WBC Super Middleweight Title Eliminator
  • SEPTEMBER 11 – SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING
  • Stephen Fulton, Jr. vs. winner of Nery-Figueroa, Super Bantamweight World Title Unification Fight

“High-impact, meaningful fights amongst many of the biggest names and brightest stars in combat sports. That is what SHOWTIME promises and that is what we are delivering,” said Stephen Espinoza, President, SHOWTIME Sports. “With an opportunity to crown an undisputed world champion at 154 pounds, a highly anticipated super bantamweight title unification, a stacked pay-per-view showdown and more than a dozen fights between 118-168 pounds, SHOWTIME is presenting boxing’s best young fighters, all daring to be great by putting their world titles and undefeated records on the line.

Editor’s Note: This press release has been edited for brevity.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Regis Prograis, Paul vs. Askren, and Kahlil Poe

Arne K. Lang

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Regis Prograis returns to this ring this Saturday, April 17, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. In the opposite corner will be Ivan Redkach, an LA-based Ukrainian who brings a 23-5-1 (18) record.

There was a time when there was a raging debate as to whether Prograis belonged on the pound-for-pound list. That talk quieted when Prograis lost to Josh Taylor in a battle of unbeatens in London. But the bout was a humdinger and Prograis, a slight favorite, didn’t lose by much. One of the judges ruled the fight a draw as did many watching at ringside and at home.

Prograis returned to the ring of October of last year, stopping the previously undefeated Juan Heraldez in the third round. That boosted his record to 25-1 (21 KOs).

Prograis vs. Redkach isn’t a particularly compelling match-up, but Prograis is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport and one would have thought that the match would have attracted more buzz. But no, all the talk about Saturday’s card has been about the main event between YouTube star Jake Paul and Ben Askren. It’s all yours, folks, have at it: Paul vs. Askren, Prograis vs. Redkach, other supporting bouts, musical entertainment, and a vast array of commentators including Snoop Dogg, Mario Lopez, and supermodel Taylor Hill for $49.99 on FITE TV.

ESPN writer Cameron Wolfe predicts that Saturday’s show will outsell every other PPV in 2021 outside of Tyson Fury vs. Anthony Joshua and Mike Tyson exhibitions.

“There is little doubt that boxing purists hate it,” notes Wolfe.

Number me among the purists. Paul vs. Askren is an insult to all the boxers who toil for years in the gym to hone their craft and give an honest effort each time they fight. Award-winning Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro notes that Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez earned $600,000 between them for their recent 12-round barnburner, an instant classic. Jake Paul and Ben Askren will earn millions for their encounter, a cruiserweight bout slated for eight rounds.

Having said this, I confess that I find the bout intriguing. As much as I hate to admit it, Jake Paul does possess a modicum of boxing skill and in Ben Askren he is facing a fellow who hates to lose at anything, be it frisbee golf, at which he’s very proficient, or a combat sport. The Hartland, Wisconsin native was 17-2 in MMA and 153-8 as a wrestler at the University of Missouri including an 87-0 mark in his last two seasons. A two-time NCAA champion and a 2008 Olympian, Askren is flat out one of the greatest college wrestlers of all time.

UFC honcho Dana White purportedly put down a $100,000 bet on Askren. (White has been known to win or lose that much at a blackjack table.)

The drawbacks to Askren from a handicapping standpoint are that he left MMA after undergoing a major hip surgery, he’s 36 years old, 12 years older than Jake Paul, and as an MMA fighter he wasn’t much of a striker. Also, there’s a possibility that he will lose his cool in the heat of battle and revert to a wrestling move, getting himself disqualified.

In one of the supporting bouts on the show, Frank Mir, a former two-time UFC heavyweight champion, opposes Philadelphia’s Steve Cunningham. A former two-time cruiserweight world title-holder, Cunningham gave Tyson Fury a heap of trouble before getting knocked out in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden in 2013.

Frank Mir turns 42 next month. Cunningham is 44 and has been out of the ring for 44 months. We won’t dignify this bout, slated for eight rounds, by talking more about it.

Khalil Coe

The latest boxer to cast his lot with Eddie Hearn is New Jersey light heavyweight Khalil Coe who officially joined Hearn’s Matchroom firm yesterday, April 12.

khalil

khalil Poe

Coe scored one of the biggest upsets in U.S. amateur boxing history when he starched Cuba’s Julio Cesar La Cruz in the opening round on June 23, 2018 at a tournament in Halle, Germany. A veteran of nearly 200 fights, La Cruz was a four-time world amateur champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist. Coe was competing in his first overseas tournament.

Coe, who turns 25 in August, has a style that is well-suited to the pro ranks. But does he have the discipline to maximize his potential? He did not participate in the 2019 Olympic Trails (the 2020 edition was postponed by the pandemic) and according to BoxRec hasn’t fought since February of 2019 when he advanced to the finals of a tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria, only to lose on a walkover.

Coe hails from Jersey City. The second most-populous city in the Garden State, Jersey City sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Crime has long plagued the residents of Jersey City and Coe is no stranger to the court system. He was arrested in April of 2017 on a gun possession charge and arrested again in March of 2019 in Newark. Details are murky.

The buffer between Khalil Coe and promoter Hearn is Split-T Management whose co-founder David McWater was named the 2020 Manager of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Split-T’s deep roster includes Teofimo Lopez, Charles Conwell and others including a bevy of intriguing young prospects. Coe is in good hands.

According to yesterday’s press release, Coe will make his pro debut on May 29 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas underneath Devin Haney vs. Jorge Linares. He is expected to drop down a weight class as his career progresses and chase his first title at 168 pounds.

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Ramsey Clark and Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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Ramsey Clark, who championed human rights throughout his life and served as Attorney General of the United States during the last 26 months of Lyndon Johnson’s administration died on April 9 at age 93. In one of history’s ironies, Clark (probably the most liberal attorney general in the history of the United States) was responsible for approving the 1967 criminal prosecution of Muhammad Ali for refusing induction into the United States Army.

Clark was born in Dallas in 1927. He served in the Marines during World War II, was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, and earned his law degree at the University of Chicago. As Attorney General, he filed lawsuits to combat discrimination in employment and housing and in support of school desegregation and voting rights. After leaving office, he moved considerably further to the left, making some former allies uncomfortable. In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly honored him with its Prize in the Field of Human Rights, an award given out at five-year intervals. Previous recipients included Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela.

“A right is not what someone gives you,” Clark once said. “It’s what no one can take from you.”

I met Clark in 1989 when I interviewed him while researching Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Several years later, I interviewed him again when Frank Macchiarola and I co-authored a book entitled Confronting America’s Moral Crisis.

Speaking of Ali and Vietnam, Clark told me, “I opposed the war in Vietnam as early as I became aware of it which was sometime in the mid-1960s. I can remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and thinking that Wayne Morse and Earnest Gruening [the two senators who voted against the resolution] were heroes. And I remember William Fulbright’s limited opposition to the war and thinking it was good but not enough. Then, in September 1966, I was named acting attorney general and the appointment became final in February 1967.”

“I can’t say that I had a studied judgment on whether or not the war was legal,” Clark continued. “But I had grave doubts about it. If we’re going to be a constitutional government, before we get a half million men in a foreign country shooting and killing, we ought to know whether it’s constitutional and permissible to do it. Maybe as attorney general, I should have been out there saying, ‘This war is against the law.’ But I didn’t, and part of the reason was I had come into the government in 1961 in the midst of the civil rights struggle. By 1967, it might have looked like things were going well, but the truth is we were very badly embattled. There was quite a bit of conflict between those who wanted to keep expanding in the area of civil rights and those who did not, and we were barely able to hold on. Also, I was opposing the death penalty. We had stopped federal executions in 1963, and 1968 would be the first year in the history of the United States that we didn’t have a single execution despite the fact that that was the year Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy were assassinated. Those struggles were very real and very important to me. There were a lot of people who wanted me to abandon them by resigning over the war in Vietnam, which was clearly the overriding moral issue in our society at the time. But in terms of all the things I believed in and all the causes in which I was involved, that would have let a lot of people down.”

Regarding Ali, Clark recalled, “Muhammad’s conflict with the draft board was a great concern of mine, although I’d have to say, not as great as the concern I had for the poor young black kids from the ghettos or the rural poor from the South who never had a chance to question whether or not to go to Vietnam and who got brutalized and killed. My own personal view was that a person should have a right to conscientious objector status without professing a specific religious faith, and that one should be able to base it upon what you might call philosophical rather than religious grounds. But that of course was not the law then, nor is it now. I don’t recall and doubt very much that I discussed the case with President Johnson. I had a strict policy not to discuss criminal cases with the president. I felt it would have been dangerous in appearance and potentially dangerous in fact to insert politics into a criminal matter, and the White House is a political office. Obviously, Muhammad’s indictment involved some hard choices. But the good thing about it was, there was power on both sides to shape and test the issues. I wasn’t particularly happy about it, but life is full of turbulence and conflict, and I never try to avoid either. In fact, I guess I seek them out because that’s where the chance to make a difference is.”

Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of unlawfully refusing induction into the United States Armed Forces. Four years later – on June 28, 1971 – the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

“The government didn’t need Ali to fight the war,” Clark said afterward. “But they would have loved to put him in the service, get his picture in there, maybe give him a couple of stripes on his sleeve and take him all over the world. Think of the power that would have had in Africa, Asia, and South America. Here’s this proud American serviceman, fighting symbolically for his country. They would have loved to do that.”

Thereafter, Clark and Ali worked together on several projects. On one occasion, Ramsey and his wife joined Muhammad and Lonnie Ali as guests for dinner in my home. The mutual admiration between the two men was obvious.

“To me, Muhammad Ali is a totally spiritual person,” Clark said later. “It doesn’t have to do with the Christian faith in which he was raised, and it doesn’t have to do with the Islamic faith to which he converted. It has to do with his love for life, his faith in the human spirit, and his belief in the equality of all people. I see Ali as a human being whose sense of purpose in life is to help others. He must lay awake at night, wondering what he can do to help people, because wherever people are in need, his priorities are there. He sees children who are right next to him, but children who are starving in Africa and threatened by bombing in Iraq are also within the scope of his imagination. He wants to help everyone and he travels at great personal burden and financial expense to be wherever he’s needed. I say, God bless him. He makes an enormous difference.”

And there were other thoughts that Clark shared with me over time:

*         “I don’t like boxing. I oppose boxing because I think it’s violent and damaging to the young men who participate in it. It symbolizes our glorification of violence and the rule of violence over compassion and the rule of law. I also don’t believe in fame. I think fame, like power, is a profound misunderstanding and distortion of what is good and desirable. One of the most damaging beliefs people have is that only those who are famous or hold power can change things or make a difference. True social change has to come from the people. Each of us has to want to be involved and has to believe that we as individuals can make a difference and that our ability to make a difference doesn’t depend upon our being elected to the House of Representatives or being the preacher of the biggest church in town or president of a corporation or heavyweight champion of the world. Those roles tend to be selfish and self-fulfilling and debilitating in terms of the pureness of one’s commitment. You make so many compromises in pursuing those careers that it’s an illusion to think that’s how you make the changes you care about, if you care about justice and social change.”

*         “Muhammad Ali made an enormous difference. There was a quality of pure goodwill about him. There always has been, and I believe, always will be. Here was a young black man from American poverty. He could very easily have been embittered, hateful, racist. But through all his trials and tribulations, he never manifested any of those qualities. And when he spoke, he said loving things. In his mind, wishes came true, and that’s the way a good portion of his life has been. He meant different things to different strata of American society. But to the poor, he meant you can do what you will; anything is possible.”

*         “Muhammad Ali gave people hope. He inspired and continues to inspire millions of people. And to everyone, he meant that you can be gentle and strong, that there’s not a contradiction there; because for all his obvious physical strength, he always evoked gentleness and love. With Muhammad Ali, you saw grace; you saw joy. He meant charity in the truest sense of the word. He made people proud to be who they were.”

*         “It’s not an anomaly; it shows the way we are, really, that he came to the opportunity to do all that he did through fighting. But he’s always had a vision that goes beyond the violence of boxing. His character causes him to want to help others. And character is destiny. That’s the character we need. He hasn’t been able to accomplish all that he wanted. Much of what he set out to do never materialized. But he’s a person of unique good will and good works. He touched so many lives and brought out the better angels in millions of people.”

*         “You know, the joy of life is that you have to persevere and do what you can to make this a better world. We’re going to have a billion more people on earth before the end of this century. The great majority of them will have dark skin and live in terrible poverty. Hundreds of millions of them will have shortened lives and suffer from hunger, malnutrition, ignorance, and disease. But if the rest of us can come through in the manner of Muhammad Ali, we can solve the problems that lie ahead. The most important thing he communicates is his love and desire to do good. That was what he taught us all. And if you can really communicate that, that there are people who love; well, then maybe you’ll change the world.”

And there was a final grace note.

“I see him from time to time,” Clark said of Ali. “And the last time I saw him, I told him – and I meant it – I said to him, ‘You’ll always be my champion.’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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