Don King smiled at me.We made eye contact for a while, he pointed at me, and he smiled. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
I’ll admit I was skeptical of the genius boxing promoter who has been in court almost as much as he’s been near a ring. Then again, there really is plenty to say about him, and he’s got plenty to say back.
But that’s all “pious and benign prattle,” as King would say in his usual verbal maneuvering. Let’s not get into that “braggadocia.”
The truth is, King can make a showgirl blush with his charm. He made me feel welcome, and he was the visitor.
On Saturday at the Sports Pavilion, King brought his traveling circus to Minnesota for the first major title fight in this state since Scott LeDoux challenged Larry Holmes in 1980 at the Met Center for the World Boxing Council heavyweight title.
LeDoux, a native Minnesotan who is now the commissioner of Minnesota’s boxing regulatory board, got knocked out in the seventh round in front of more than 10,000 people in the stands and an ABC television audience.
On Saturday there were 4,136 people at the Sports Pavilion, which is closer to the amount of fans who show up for a Gophers women’s basketball game than a title fight. “But that doesn’t take away from the event,” LeDoux said.
There was a giant disco ball hovering about 30 feet above the center of the ring and hundreds of lights outlining it. There were 16 speakers, lasers and pyrotechnics, bikini-clad ring girls from Deja Vu, recording artists and celebrities, and, I almost forgot, there was Jesse Ventura!
I sat about 10 feet from the ropes praying I would get hit by some sweat — or maybe even blood — flying off the forehead of one of the boxers. Next to me was a ring announcer named Damian Pinto, who works for King and has a voice like Wolfman Jack. Nice guy, but he smelt like cheap cologne and reeked of overconfidence.
This was Minnesota’s return to championship boxing, and it was “macnonomous.”
The event featured the 106-pound Will Grigsby, a St. Paul kid who, less than three months ago, became the first Minnesotan to hold one of the three major boxing titles (WBC, World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation). Grigsby is the reigning IBF junior flyweight champ and his unanimous decision on Saturday over No. 14 contender Carmelo Caceres was his first title defense.
He’s about half my size, but I’ve got to call him the champ. It just doesn’t seem right. Still, he is the answer to Minnesota’s hope of hosting another championship fight, LeDoux said.
“You’ve got to get a fighter locally who’s got a championship and wants to fight in his home state,” he added. “This should help us out a lot.”
LeDoux said part of the reason championship boxing has struggled in Minnesota is the lack of support for youth leagues like the Golden Gloves.
“The community doesn’t support amateur boxing, but they don’t understand that the kids we attract are the kids who are getting in trouble,” LeDoux said. “We take them off the road and give them a place to be.”
Minnesota’s boxing legacy was soured more than 20 years ago, and ironically LeDoux caused it.
During a Don King-promoted boxing tournament, which was later dubbed “The Scandals of 1977” because it was rumored to have been fixed, LeDoux made his mark on the boxing profession.
Johnny Boudreaux, the fighter who had just won a controversial decision over LeDoux, was being interviewed by Howard Cosell when LeDoux started protesting the judges’ decision.
“Boudreaux turned around and made a face at me,” LeDoux recalled in a Star Tribune report on April 25, 1995. “I took a kick at him and missed. That’s the story of my career. Anyway, Boudreaux saw my foot coming, and he jumped out of the way, and he got tangled up in the wires down there.
“When Boudreaux jumped back, it jerked the headphones off Cosell, and his toupee went flying. I have the tape at home. When I’m feeling down, I’ll get it out, play it back and forth. It always gave me a good laugh to see Howard’s wig flying.”
LeDoux was suspended and eventually testified against King before a grand jury after an extensive investigation by the FBI about the possibility of the tournament being fixed. King was never charged.
And that’s the legend of Minnesota boxing. That’s what Minnesota boxers are remembered for around the country.
In LeDoux’s prime during the late 1970’s, he said the state hosted between 16 and 18 fights a year. Now there are about half as many held.
But after Saturday’s fights, King said, that’s all going to change. He said his puppet show will be back in Minnesota as soon as he can work it out.
“Don’t be surprised if you see a heavyweight title fight here,” King said. “I have a fascination with this great state. There’s no place more hospitable than the great state of Minnesota.”
King said Henry Akinwande, the No. 1 heavyweight contender who also fought at the Pavilion on Saturday, will fight the winner of this weekend’s Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis fight.
He later confirmed the possibility of that title fight, coupled with another Will Grigsby bout, being held in Minnesota.
Of course, that could be just a bunch of Don King’s gibberish. But you have to admit it sounds good, doesn’t it?
A fight card like that would “fastidiously” put Minnesota championship boxing back on the map, and oh, what a “glorificiously” great day that would be.
— Matthew Cross worked in the Daily’s sports department for four long years and is currently the Managing Editor. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]