By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
In 2000, Senator John McCain's Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act added language to existing federal law meant to protect fighters from exploitative promoters. And though his name is nowhere in the language of the bill, the kinds of abuses enumerated in the act have Don King written all over them. The law makes it illegal for a promoter to also act as a boxer's manager; it also forces promoters to give fighters a detailed breakdown of the costs and payout of a bout before the match takes place. The act, however, has proven to be utterly toothless. To this day, not a single case has been prosecuted under the law.
"The federal government has done some great things, don't get me wrong," says Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions. "But why have a law if you're not going to enforce it?"
As a result, promoters like King — and he is certainly not the only one — continue to operate much the same way they did in decades past, to the frustration of people like manager Tom Moran. In the 1980s, Moran famously tangled with King over his treatment of heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon.
"The people who think it's all in the past — no, it's not," says Moran. "What ends up happening is, the next generation comes along, they're none the wiser, and they get caught in it."
Even the mellowed-out Tyson acknowledges that allegations of King's continued manipulation of fighters are not exactly out of left field.
"I am not surprised," Tyson writes. "You have certain people in your life, and you expect they will do right by you, but the reality is someone is always waiting to [pull one over on you]."
In a brightly lit arena somewhere in Singapore, a massive right hook crashes into Ryan Coyne's skull.
"Oh, you motherfucker!" his coach bellows from the sidelines.
Almost instantly, the left side of Coyne's face is covered in blood, and black stains splatter his chest. It's 2008, and throughout the fight, his coach has been yelling at him to quit leading with his head, a habit he blames on Coyne's years as a Mizzou linebacker in the early 2000s.
"What did I tell you?" the coach hollers at the end of the round as the cameras zoom in on a jagged crimson slash arcing over Coyne's eyebrow.
This is Coyne's first fight on the NBC Sports Network (then called "Versus") reality show The Contender. He's something of an anomaly on the show — the youngest, the most inexperienced and lacking the made-for-TV back-story of fighting his way out of the ghetto. Coyne's a political-science major from St. Charles. Still, the dark-eyed, square-jawed Coyne earns airtime during the round-the-clock filming by stirring up trouble, sauntering into the gym one day with another contestant's name written across his headband — a "disrespectful" call-out.
With his cutman working overtime, slathering the gash with coagulants and Vaseline, Coyne makes it through five rounds and ultimately finds himself in center ring, his glove in the referee's hand.
"Your winner by split decision, ladies and gentlemen," the announcer calls out, "Ryan Coyne!"
Coyne leaps into the air screaming at the top of his lungs.
It's a nice moment, but the cut, it turns out, goes down to the bone. Coyne is sent home in the next episode.
Rather than bagging the contest's $250,000 prize, Coyne's reward came in the form of a phone call from an acquaintance with connections at Don King Productions — the man himself had seen Coyne on TV and was eager to meet.
"I thought Don King was the greatest promoter who ever lived," Coyne says. "To me this was the biggest opportunity of my life."
Coyne flew to Florida in September 2009 and says he spent most of the 48-hour trip waiting in his hotel room by the phone. On the second day, hours before his return flight, he was summoned to King's gleaming palace.
King headquarters is a $2.8 million building cased in inky-colored glass and plopped in a grove of palm trees, like an oasis for ambitious boxers. "Only in America" reads the side of the building facing the highway. Inside, the rooms and hallways are lined with news articles and accolades, photos of King with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
Coyne, who says he was told he couldn't bring a lawyer, waited at a long conference room table with two of King's employees before the man himself finally stepped in from his office, dripping in jewelry and grinning.
"Oh, Danny boy," King trilled. "Irish eyes are smiling! Leprechauns jumping from glen to glen."
Despite the babbling, King was warm and charming, and Coyne liked what he heard when King promised a shot at a world title within two years of signing with DKP. An assistant produced a contract and slid it in front of Coyne — eight pages of miniscule type — and asked him to sign on the dotted line. Coyne hesitated.
Although the contract states in several places that the signer should "seek the advice of an attorney," Coyne says the mere mention of bringing a copy back to his lawyer in St. Louis completely changed the tenor of the meeting.