Don King: Only in America
directed by John Herzfeld
(HBO, 1997)

You can doubt the quality of his fighters, the veracity of his testimony or the aesthetics of his shock-crop 'do, but you can't deny the influence Don King has had on boxing in the last 25 years.

Some would say Don King is boxing: King would be one of them.

Decades before there was rap music, King gave us a "Rumble in the Jungle" and a "Thrilla in Manila." More importantly, he took boxing out of the arena of sports and made it high drama, or at least good theater.

Just how that came about is the subject of the HBO-made movie Don King: Only in America, a riveting polemic in which King, as portrayed by Ving Rhames, defends himself against any and all comers: the mob, the press, the IRS, the FBI, even his own fighters.

Most people think King came out of nowhere; actually, he came out of Cleveland. That's where Only in America begins, with King shooting an intruder who's broken into his home, ostensibly to get money King owes him.

King pleaded justifiable homicide in the case and won. It was the first in a long line of legal victories awarded to a man famous for signing blank contracts and assuring his co-signers not to worry. "We'll fill it in later," he'd say.

Only in America is filled with such vignettes, interspersed with diatribes from King (Rhames) himself, standing in a boxing ring, often in front of blown-up clippings of his exploits, explaining or rationalizing acts which were often dubious, always audacious.

And that's the fun of Only in America. It captures on film the sheer chutzpah of a man who with only a few thousand dollars in his pocket -- or a brown paper bag -- could line up a $10 million fight. Watch him line up "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, where he finds the stadium has no seats or phone links, the country has no satellite feed and no one has the price of a ticket. It's absolutely nerve-wracking.

He was the son of a steelworker, self-educated in prison, who does to the English language what his fighters do to one another, and yet he could outcrook the biggest crooks in the business and live to tell about it.

As King, Rhames is frighteningly real; in many scenes he could pass for newsreel footage. He even ages well, portraying King over four decades of a demanding life. Still, Rhames is matched nearly stroke for stroke by Vondie Curtis-Hall as Lloyd "Mr. Personality" Price, King's longtime friend and partner, and Darius McCrary as Mohammad Ali, the only man in the boxing business who could out-King King.

Don King: Only in America has a lot to say about Don King, a lot to say about boxing and a lot to say about America. More importantly, it says all of that literately and compactly.

King was famous for insisting that a boxing match had to have more than a couple of fighters. It had to have heroes and villains, a good guy and a bad guy. Don King: Only in America has both. It has Don King.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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