Only Cleveland could have produced a character as splendiferously vindictive as Don King. A Kent State dropout and former local numbers-runner, King killed two people in our fair city (one was ruled self-defense, the other manslaughter) before breaking into the boxing racket as a ruthless promoter — or, more appropriately, a pugilistic embezzler. From Larry Holmes to Mike Tyson, King has spent the last 30 years confusing and trapping pudding-headed boxers into surrendering their winnings. Even Muhammad Ali, one of the shrewdest men to step into a boxing ring, got stiffed and manipulated by this ultimate conman.
How do we know all this? We just got the DVD of the HBO biopic Don King: Only in America, starring Ving Rhames with a Bride of Frankenstein ‘fro. ...
The film is a gleeful, almost loving rendering of this uber-scoundrel, focusing mostly on his greatest achievement—creating the epic Ali- Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight bout in Zaire. King, then a fledgling promoter, conned everybody from the boxers to the president of Zaire to the government of Liberia in putting together this huge event for which he had no money to pay anybody—and which would become a seminal moment in sports history.
Rhames, best known as that Huge Black Guy Who isn’t the Huge Black Guy from Green Mile, is usually given roles that require that he speak really slowly and look like a badass. In Only in America, he had to get as incessantly ecstatic as King, and he pulls it off. Case in point: the scene in which King, aiding a witch doctor in reversing a curse put on Evander Holyfield in Zaire, has a spirit-driven seizure, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. The film’s over-the-top, sensational, and often hard-to-believe—perfect for its subject.
For a more even-handed treatment of King and the Zaire rumble, try the documentary When We Were Kings. The ’96 Oscar-winner focuses more on Ali and Foreman than King, but there are a few moments of hilarity with the fight’s organizer, along with one of the best summations of the man to date, from boxing historian Thomas Hauser: “Don King is one of the brightest people I've ever met, he's one of the most charismatic people I've ever met, he's one of the hardest working people I've ever met. He is also totally amoral.” – Gus Garcia-Roberts