Don King aims for boxing match in North Korea

Story highlights

  • Don King, who turned 81 this week, is still promoting boxing matches
  • He hopes to sponsor a boxing and music event in North Korea
  • His office in South Florida is a virtual museum of his legacy
  • "I'm a guy that uses boxing as a catalyst to bring people together," King told CNN

He's known for his big hair and his big personality and at 81 years old, legendary boxing promoter Don King is still hard at work trying to turn his big dreams into reality. His latest endeavor: a boxing and music event in North Korea.

"This came about by me thinking about Korea and feeling that Korea, that it should be one Korea," said King. When asked about the odds of this event actually coming together, King says, "It's very difficult to believe, I understand that."

Understanding King may help explain why he believes he can make this event happen.

The hallways of the Don King Productions office in South Florida are lined with photographs of him posing with world leaders, celebrities and athletes. There are old boxing posters and newspaper articles framed and hanging on the walls.

It feels more like a museum than an office building. For decades, King has appeared alongside boxing greats including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield -- promoting legendary matchups that have catapulted many boxers into lifelong fame.

Boxing has always been more than a sport to King, who contemplates the photos.

"Gen. David Petraeus, that was my friend," said King, pointing to a photo signed by the former Army commander, now CIA director. "I went to Iraq with him."

    On the other side of the room is a picture of King with a young Michael Jackson, who "told me that music is the ribbon that ties humanity together," King recalled. "And I added to that boxing is a catalyst that brings humanity together to be tied."

    A framed letter from former President George W. Bush hangs on the wall, as does his picture with Bush and one with Bill Clinton.

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    "I am not a Democrat and I am not a Republican," explained King. "I'm a 'Republicrat' and that means that I'm for the American people first and the party second."

    He is a fan of President Barack Obama and believes that Bush paved the way for an Obama presidency: "George Walker Bush had the most diversified Cabinet in the history of the nation."

    Another photo shows King with former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, who gained fame after sending National Guard troops to Kent State in 1970. Rhodes pardoned King in 1983 for a prior manslaughter conviction. The boxing promoter spent four years in prison for the fatal beating of a man who King says owed him money.

    King admits this wasn't the only man he killed during his early years, when he was running an illegal gambling operation on the streets of Cleveland. He had no problem describing what happened when an intruder entered his home in 1954:

    "I was shooting him and he's shooting at me," recalled King, "he goes downstairs and into the alley somewhere and falls dead in the alley." King claimed he fired in self-defense and the case was ruled a justifiable homicide.

    For both of them, I suffered deep contrition," said King, adding, "How do you expiate for that? You expiate for that by helping others and that's what my life is dedicated to."

    That life is reflected in his hallway of photographs chronicling nearly every moment of King's rise to fame.

    Another photo shows King wearing a prison number, not his, but 46664 -- the prison number of former South African President Nelson Mandela. King said Mandela asked him to wear the black T-shirt with the number printed across the front.

    "What I take from him, he says you can do more for world peace," King said, recalling the day they met. Mandela spoke to King about bringing people together through sports.

    That concept of sports diplomacy is what King hopes to achieve on the Korean peninsula. A phone call from South Korea's ambassador to the United States interrupts our guided tour of King's hallway of photos.

    King heads back into his office, asking the ambassador the progress of the North Korea project.

    "You took the statement both to North and South ambassadors?" King asks on speakerphone. "I wrote a letter to Kim Jung Un and have we heard anything back from the supreme leader?"

    King explains he met with the ambassador and a North Korean representative during a trip to New York and he recently sent his proposal to Kim. He has not heard back from officials in North Korea.

    Cult of personality surrounds new North Korean leader

    Before hanging up the phone, King thanks the ambassador and says, "I will call you back because I have to move on to the rest of the world, God bless you and God bless Korea."

    Not one to sit around and wait for things to happen, after talking to the ambassador, King leaves his office for the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, where he was promoting a fight.

    As King strolls through the casino on a Monday afternoon, guests instantly recognize the figure with the wild hair and American flag tie, jacket, scarf and necklace charm. In case the red, white and blue apparel was not enough to show his patriotism, King carries two American flags, one for each hand.

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    King likes his props, especially the flags. For this outing he made sure he also had the Seminole Tribe of Florida flag to carry with him. He also likes the attention he gets from the public, gladly stopping every few feet to pose for pictures, as he makes his way to the event hall, where his boxers are getting ready for a fight.

    "Our customers, our guests, they're as interested in being exposed to Don as they are the fight card itself," explained Jim Allen, chief executive officer of Hard Rock International's casinos and restaurants.

    King publicly embraces the caricature of himself that he has spent decades cultivating. He is a public figure whose name alone can evoke adoration or abhorrence.

    When he's out of the limelight, King is a family man often quiet and deep in his thoughts, according to his son, Karl King.

    Karl, 55, is one of three children King had with his wife of over 50 years, Henrietta. She passed away in 2010 at age 87. During King's time in prison, it was Henrietta who protected the children and kept the family together.

    "We moved out of the city where he was so well known ... to a rural part of Ohio," recalled Karl.

    After his father's prison stint, Karl King said his mother continued to hold the family together while his "workaholic" father financially provided for the family during his rise to fame as Don King the promoter.

    "I think it's what gives him life," explained the younger King. "The art of closing a deal, the art of waving the flags and being something more than just a boxing promoter who puts on boxing shows."

    King's life at 81 seems to continue as it has for decades, with him being at the center of the ring, taking on projects that may seem impossible to others. King knows the odds of the North Korea endeavor are not in his favor.

    But he says it's not about the fight.

    "I'm not a boxing guy," King explained. "I'm a guy that uses boxing as a catalyst to bring people together."