By Lindsay Toler
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As the sun set on downtown Los Angeles, more than 6,300 fans filed into the Staples Center for a night of world-class boxing. Showtime cameras swept the dramatically lit stadium, poised to beam the evening's fights worldwide. Ring girls in blue and silver bra tops sauntered the floor among celebrities including Jack Nicholson, Mickey Rourke and Tom Jones.
If things had gone the way they were supposed to, Coyne's mother, stepfather and wife would have joined them, flown in from St. Louis along with a gaggle of uncles and cousins from Coyne's sizable Irish family. Producers from DreamWorks, the studio that put together the boxing reality-TV show The Contender, would have also been there to support Coyne as a former cast member.
The opponent that night was to be Nathan Cleverly, a formidable Welsh fighter and the World Boxing Organization's light heavyweight championship titleholder. Ask Coyne today, and the six-foot, 190-pound southpaw with an undefeated record (21-0) can still see how he would have done it. He'd have gone straight to Cleverly, gotten him to trade blows, broken up his combinations and hurt him. He'd aim for the mid- to late-round knockout, while trying to remember what his trainer — three-time world champion heavyweight Michael Moorer — had been telling him for weeks.
"Don't rush in. Be smart. Box smart."
But when the bell rang inside Staples Center, Coyne was no where to be found. A hastily chosen, lesser-known fighter took Coyne's place, fought and lost to Cleverly in eight rounds by technical knockout.
Coyne, who'd been unceremoniously dumped from the fight just days earlier, watched the bout in disgust from his home in St. Louis. And ever since that day he has had to answer the same question from well-meaning fans over and over again: What happened to that big title shot?
"It's fucking embarrassing," he says.
Instead of battling for the title in the ring with his fists and wits — the way a boxing narrative is supposed to go — Coyne got knocked out with high-priced attorneys and threatening letters. Most bizarre, the person Coyne blames for the fiasco should have literally been in Coyne's corner: his promoter, the legendary Don King.
"This guy stole something from me," Coyne seethes. "I'm going to think about that for the rest of my life."
Now Coyne finds himself going toe-to-toe with King in court, and he's finding the octogenarian boxing chieftain to be his most vexing opponent to date.
"It's sad to say," says Moorer, Coyne's former trainer. "But that's how boxing is with Don King involved."
The paparazzi caught Don King as he collected his bag at the Miami International Airport back in January. Relatively speaking, his appearance was subdued — he wore eyeglasses and a brown leather coat instead of his customary bedazzled jean jacket with his own portrait painted on the back. The 81-year-old clutched only one small American flag rather than multiple. Were he not a living icon, he could have passed as someone's eccentric grandfather.
"I'm supporting Chef Josie," King told cameras for the celebrity gossip site TMZ. "Chef Josie is the people's chef."
Earlier that week, King's press team aggressively pushed a story to members of the national media: Don King is outraged at the elimination of Josie Smith-Malave, a contestant on the reality-TV cooking show Top Chef. King, apparently a huge fan of the show, prepared a whole poem about it for reporters.
"Her food is ambrosia for the masses and the classes," he sing-songed for the camera. "Her magic lies in her cooking ties."
Then he rattled off the text code to vote Smith-Malave back on the show.
These days, news of the weird is the only type of mainstream media attention King seems to generate. The loquacious promoter has become a lovably wacky, flag-waving patriot, quick with his catchphrase, "Only in America!" Never mind that it's a reference to his stint prison — only in America could a former numbers runner who stomped a man to death over a $600 debt rise to the highest echelons of fame and fortune. Or that he made his millions from exploiting some of the greatest fighters boxing has ever known. History, it seems, has already forgiven Don King. Even Mike Tyson, who once called his former promoter a "slimy, wretched, reptilian motherfucker," responded to a Riverfront Times request to say, "I don't hold grudges anymore. I wish him and his family well."
Boxing was a dirty sport long before Don King entered the scene in the 1970s, but it has resisted reform unlike any other. Despite all the shenanigans of the '90s and the rise and dramatic fall of Tyson, there's still no national boxing commissioner, no boxers' union looking out for fighters' rights, no healthcare or retirement for fighters — not even a simple online database where anyone can find the names of fighters and who represents them. Regulation occurs on a state level and varies wildly in its rules and enforcement.