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Opportunity denied: Don King's war on fighter independence

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"I am one of those who has mastered the situation of working with people," says Don King

"The Irish Outlaw" Ryan Coyne (21-0, 9 KOs) was on the verge of the biggest break of his career. Not only was the 30-year-old Missouri-based club fighter set to challenge WBO light heavyweight champ, Wales' Nathan Cleverly, on the November 10 undercard of a Showtime event, but he would also be receiving a low six-figure purse. It was the type of fight that makes up for a career's worth of poorly-paid, low-level bouts far away from the spotlight.

Unfortunately for Coyne, just as soon as the fight was announced, it began to be torn apart.

Leading the efforts to kill the fight was promoter Don King, who was claiming to still hold promotional rights to Coyne despite not having actually promoted a fight for him in about sixteen months.

Right or wrong in his claims, King proceeded to poke, prod, and threaten everyone involved with the fight until Cleverly's promoter, Frank Warren, decided to find another opponent for his fighter. This was to be Cleverly's official American, main stage debut and talk of lawsuits and emergency injunctions with days to go before the event just didn't sit well with the veteran UK promoter.

The efforts to squash the fight weren't surprising to those who follow the modus operandi of Don King Productions (DKP), nor were Coyne's subsequent claims of professional mismanagement.

For younger fight fans, Don King is the elderly, flag-waving caricature with the spiked hair who occasionally talks loudly about boxing on TV. But veteran boxing enthusiasts have a far different view of King.

A former street hustler, King emerged from a prison stint for manslaughter in the early '70s with a burning passion to be somebody-- and he found a home in the shady world of boxing promotion. Equally known for strong-arming boxing's biggest stars as for putting on big shows, the Cleveland native became the most controversial figure in a controversial sport for the better part of 30 years.

These days, though, the 81-year-old King barely registers as a blip on boxing's radar. Whereas the prime Don King was known as a mega-hustler who could out-think anyone in the business, the current version is best known for allowing his dwindling stable of fighters to wither on the vine from inactivity while jealously enforcing his contractual control over them.

IBF junior middleweight champ, Cornelius "K9" Bundrage recently refused to re-sign with DKP after only being delivered three poorly-paid fights in more than two years, even with the leverage of a world title behind him. Former bantamweight titlist Joseph Agbeko hasn't fought for one full year and is currently in professional limbo due to a financial dispute with King.

The stories could go on, but they all have the same plot: Promises are made, bouts are not delivered and fighters under contract waste valuable prime years waiting for opportunities that often never come. But if they balk at the situation or try to end the relationship, the repercussions are swift and aggressive.

In 2009, Ryan Coyne, then 13-0 with 4 KOs, entered into a promotional deal with DKP without the benefit of an attorney present. The length of the deal is now in dispute, but Coyne maintains that King's company never lived up to their part of the contract and, at the end of the relationship, simply opted to stop working with him.

"I sent e-mail after e-mail to DKP pleading, in fact begging for a fight, having not received a single penny in income from the company that claims to represent me in nearly a year and a half," Coyne said.

According to the fighter, in his three-year deal with DKP, he only made a total of about $41,000 and barely saw enough ring action to stay relevant. And after hiring well-known manager Tom Moran to help him barter for fights, what little cooperation he had seen completely disappeared.

Moran, a central figure in Jack Newfield's tell-all expose on King, "Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King," had earned a reputation as a high-end boxing manager, but more importantly, became Don King enemy no. 1 after securing a settlement of more than $1 million for former heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon in the boxer's well-publicized early '90s lawsuit against the promoter.

Coyne and Moran kept pursuing bouts, but, according to Coyne, they were met with an unwillingness on DKP's part to negotiate seriously.

"We tried to negotiate with DKP on fights and continuously accepted lower purses, only to find out every time we did so the opponent would change or the purse would go down," Coyne said. "[Then] DKP cut off any communication with us and all communication of any type stopped in entirety."

Broke and needing to work, the fighter and his manager set about making their own fights.

"I had to contact my opponents myself to keep my career afloat and even had to pay for them while DKP was nowhere to be found," Coyne said.

The DIY matchmaking eventually brought him to Sheffield, England, in a contest that caught Frank Warren's eye and led to the offer of the Cleverly fight.

King and his attorney, however, claim that Coyne was in breach of contract for the four bouts he had outside of King's promotional reach and had no right taking the Cleverly fight without the company's consent.

While Coyne and his manager insist that their contract was a three-year deal, which expired on September 17, 2012, DKP says otherwise.

When approached for comment, Dana Jamison, Vice President of Operations at Don King Productions, forwarded a copy of her company's complaint against Coyne. In the breach of contract lawsuit, DKP asserts that their deal with Coyne was for an "initial term of three years, with two separate one-year renewal periods at the option of DKP."

However, the New York State Athletic Commission, under whose authority the promotional contract was signed, gives mixed signals as to the legality of this kind of contract:

ยง208.17 Boxer-promoter contracts -- mandatory provisions. (b) No contract between a promoter and a boxer shall contain a provision permitting the contract to be automatically renewed or extended. Notwithstanding the foregoing, such contracts may contain a provision granting the promoter an option to renew for a period not to exceed one year, excluding any time that a boxer is unable to compete due to injury or other cause. Such contracts may not contain more than two such options.

The vaguely-worded provision appears to contradict itself and provide enough of a case for both parties to claim the legal high ground.

Unless one of the parties steps aside, what awaits is a long, drawn-out legal battle for a fighter's right to self-determination. King really has nothing to lose. On the other hand, Coyne's entire professional life is on the line and, at 30, every tick of the clock is crucial.

"My title challenge against Cleverly was a monetary amount that the King of the '80s or even '90s would've laughed at, but for me that was an opportunity that I may never see again. A time in my career and life that cannot be recouped," Coyne said. "King refused to try to work with us, but readily uses every resource to prevent me from fighting. It has now gone from an issue of money and influence to almost sadistic control."

"I believe Don King is the most corrupt individual in sports history," Moran added. "No evildoer has ever been allowed to operate so freely, openly robbing and destroying the athletes and the sport for over 30 years, like Don King. You would think he might get old and mellow, but instead he is just as crooked and deceitful as back when he was the sports' biggest power...No other sport would ever allow such corruption and blatant exploitation of the athletes."

These types of legal manipulations happen in boxing more than anyone cares to admit. The sporting world's bravest athletes in the world's toughest sport always seem to find themselves at the mercy of vaguely written statutes manipulated by shady characters with the power and money to destroy lives at their discretion.

The fighters simply don't have the money, know-how, or connections to fight back. More importantly, they just don't have the luxury of spending their prime athletic years toiling away in legal battles while their hopes and dreams pass them by.

Last Saturday, Ryan Coyne saw Shawn Hawk take his spot in an unsuccessful bid for Nathan Cleverly's title. With little to show for six years of hard knocks on boxing's club circuit and a future full of legal battles and professional uncertainty, all Coyne could do was watch the fight on TV and wonder about what might've been.

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Paul Magno was a licensed official in the state of Michoacan, Mexico and a close follower of the sport for more than thirty years. His work can also be found on Fox Sports and The Boxing Tribune. In the past, Paul has done work for Inside Fights, The Queensberry Rules and Eastside Boxing.

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