LAS VEGAS Don King sits high on the throne these days.
King promoted this year’s successful middleweight championship tournament at Madison Square Garden. He is promoting tomorrow night’s highly anticipated title fight between heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
King, who controlled no heavyweight titles nearly two years ago, now controls all three. Rahman holds the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation belts, and John Ruiz reigns as World Boxing Association champion.
In the midst of this success, a quiet threat to King has emerged from most unlikely sources: a former Washington heavyweight, an obscure South Carolina matchmaker, and a District police officer turned boxing manager who blew the whistle on his own fighter.
In August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Organized Crime Strike Force in Las Vegas indicted Thomas Williams, a Washington area heavyweight who had moved to South Carolina, and South Carolina-based matchmaker Bobby Mitchell on charges of fixing fights.
Boxing industry sources say, though, that the investigation is aimed at King, the flamboyant promoter who has been the target of numerous criminal probes involving corruption. King has never been convicted because of the probes, and he was not named in this indictment.
The charges stem from a fight that took place Aug. 12, 2000, in Las Vegas involving Williams and another heavyweight with a suspect record, Richie Melito Jr. of New York.
The indictment states that Mitchell arranged for Williams to fight Melito on the undercard of the first heavyweight championship fight between Ruiz and Evander Holyfield at Paris Hotel and Casino. The indictment charges that Williams agreed to intentionally lose the fight in exchange for “money or other considerations.”
Williams and Mitchell were charged with sports bribery and conspiracy to commit sports bribery. Melito was not charged. A trial date has been set for Feb. 25.
The charges came as a result of someone who had grown tired of the corruption in boxing and the sport’s growing lack of credibility: George Peterson, a former District police officer, amateur fighter, trainer and manager who has lived in South Carolina for 24 years.
Suspicions about the fight were first reported on a Web site called TotalAction.com just hours after it took place. The site’s editor and publisher, Charles Jay, wrote that Williams told Peterson, his manager, before the fight that he was going to take a dive and that he had thrown two of his previous fights. Peterson already was suspicious of Williams, Jay wrote, and secretly taped the conversation.
Melito knocked out Williams late in the first round. Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said he witnessed the fight and saw nothing unusual. “Melito landed a right hand and knocked him through the ropes and out of the ring,” Ratner said.
Authorities refused to discuss Peterson’s role in the investigation. Peterson confirmed that he is involved but said he had been told not to talk about it.
However, Peterson did indicate that the probe is likely to go far beyond the Williams-Melito fight.
“I would like to see this stuff cleaned up,” he said. “There is quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This is a major step.”
Any “major step” would lead to King, and the indictment indicates that federal authorities hope to cast a wide net. The charges against Mitchell state that he and “others associated with the professional boxing world conspired to fix boxing matches for the purpose of promoting the professional boxing career of Richard Melito Jr.”
King was Melito’s promoter, and this particular fight took place on King’s Holyfield-Ruiz heavyweight card. King also previously worked with Mitchell. Mitchell has high-powered and high-priced legal representation: the Las Vegas firm of Jimmerson and Hansen. (Jim Jimmerson has represented Mike Tyson.)
The lead attorney, according to one of the firm’s lawyers, is another well-known name in boxing circles: Philadelphia lawyer James Binns, legal adviser to the president of the WBA, who also has represented King. He has also served as the president of the WBA North American division, according to WBA vice president York Van Nixon.
Binns’ presence in a case involving fight fixing, given his standing in one of boxing’s recognized sanctioning bodies, has raised questions within the WBA.
“It certainly shows very bad judgment,” Van Nixon said.
Binns did not return phone calls.
Williams has no such high-profile legal team. He is being represented by the federal public defender’s office. His attorney, Art Allen, said he could not discuss the case. Williams could not be reached for comment.
When asked if he believed the Las Vegas probe was aimed at him, King dismissed any connection.
“I heard some things about one guy saying something about another guy,” King said. “I don’t put much stock in any of that. That’s what makes this judicial system such a wonderful system. We have the right to face our accuser, and the presumption of innocence is there until proven guilty. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now. To be accused is one thing. To be convicted is another.”
Many of those in the District fight scene know “Top Dawg” Williams, a Washington heavyweight with a 25-9 record and a reputation as a talented but underachieving fighter. He has sparred with former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, who once hit Williams so hard that he knocked out several teeth, and, most recently, Rahman.
Ollie Dunlap, a former adviser to Sugar Ray Leonard and District fighter William Joppy, knows Williams from his teen-age days in Palmer Park.
“He had good talent, but no discipline,” Dunlap said. “He could have made a decent living at the sport. He had good hand speed and punching power, but he wasn’t dedicated. He had three or four managers and would hop to whoever would give him a few dollars.”
Adrian Davis, Rahman’s trainer and owner of Round One Gym in Capitol Heights, said he was surprised to hear Williams was in trouble.
“When he first turned pro, he was undefeated for a while, and it looked like it might be something,” Davis said. “Then he left town, and when he came back, he wasn’t doing too well. He was sparring with Rahman for a while, then he disappeared.”
Williams disappeared to South Carolina, but he had a Washington connection there in Peterson, a former District police officer whose roots in the city are in the boxing ring. Peterson was an amateur fighter in the same era with Leslie Powell and Ham Johnson, and he later stayed in the game by teaching kids how to box in the police Boys’ Clubs.
He wound up managing and training some of the young fighters who asked him to help them after he turned pro. He left the police department, managed a liquor store in Northwest Washington and continued to work with fighters. He moved to South Carolina in 1977.
It’s not clear when Peterson became Williams’ manager, but he was for that fight at the Paris Hotel and Casino.
According to initial reports, the fight took place behind locked doors and under the watch of FBI officials, who had been tipped to the fix. However, Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said he recalls the doors were open and a handful of people were in the arena for the fight.
“All of my people and the judges were there,” Ratner said. “The fight was scheduled for the second fight of the night, but one of the fighter’s hands for the first fight had not been wrapped yet, so they requested to move the second fight up, if it was ready to go. That’s not unusual.”
Ratner said he saw Melito land a powerful right hand that knocked Williams through the ropes.
“There wasn’t a semblance of thought that it wasn’t a real punch,” Ratner added. “I’ve seen films of it. There wasn’t a second thought.”
However, several days later, the FBI came to Ratner’s office and asked for the contracts for the Melito-Williams fight.
It was Melito’s 25th win against one loss, an impressive record for the Long Island heavyweight. However, according to a New York Post investigation, Melito’s wins came against questionable opposition: Some opponents had little professional experience; others had lengthy losing records. The opponents for at least a dozen of those fights were supplied by Mitchell. Melito’s only loss came against veteran Bert Cooper in one round in July 1997.
If indeed the federal probe is targeting King, it will be just one in a long line of attempts to bring down the controversial promoter, a former Cleveland numbers boss who once served five years in an Ohio prison for beating a man to death. He has been brought to trial twice, once for income tax evasion and later for wire fraud. He was acquitted both times by juries that he later treated to vacations.
King was the target of numerous other investigations, most recently last year when the founder and director of the IBF, Robert W. Lee, went to trial on 33 counts of bribery, conspiracy, racketeering, fraud and other charges in a federal investigation that uncovered payoffs for ranking fighters.
King was an unindicted co-conspirator and clearly was the primary target of the probe. Tapes from the primary government informant, IBF ratings chairman Doug Beavers, detailed payoffs that Beavers testified were for King. The FBI raided King’s West Palm Beach, Fla., offices to take thousands of documents.
Lee was acquitted of all but six of the charges including the bribery charges. That killed the prosecution’s chance of then going after King. King’s rival promoters, Kushner and Bob Arum, testified about their own bribery payments. Arum testified that he made a $100,000 payoff to the IBF to sanction a heavyweight title fight between his fighter, George Foreman, and Axel Schulz in 1995. Kushner testified he made a number of payoffs to the IBF for his fighters.
Both Arum and Kushner who lost Rahman to King earlier this year in a battle for his promotional contract were fined and suspended in several states, including the influential Nevada Athletic Commission, for their role in the IBF scandal.
And Don King is center stage this week in Las Vegas.