Michael King has owned pieces of the New York Yankees, the New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils. He's a lifelong sports fan, but the famed television producer has a love affair with boxing.
He worshipped Muhammad Ali and recalls watching Ali's epic third fight with Joe Frazier, the famed "Thrilla in Manila," on closed circuit from the nosebleed section of Madison Square Garden back in 1975.
"When Ali announced a fight, it was like counting down the days until Christmas," said King, who founded the company King World with his brother, Roger, which distributed such television shows as Wheel of Fortune, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Jeopardy!
But in the 36-plus years since Ali stopped Frazier in arguably the greatest heavyweight bout ever contested, the division has essentially died.
Boxing itself is no longer regarded as a mainstream sport and only a handful of fighters, including guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, are easily recognizable to the general public.
There are as many reasons offered for the decline of boxing as there are people who say they once were boxing fans. Some of those reasons – no national broadcast television deal, inept or corrupt sanctioning bodies and athletes choosing other higher-paying sports – have merit.
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King has his own thoughts, but unlike most frustrated fans, the millionaire businessman with the highly placed connections is in a position to do something with them.
He founded All-American Heavyweights, a development program based in Carson, Calif., which is attempting to convert highly skilled athletes into heavyweight boxers. King envisions reviving the sport and believes the best way to begin is by invigorating the heavyweight division. He eventually wants to mine talent in all weight classes, help them to win medals in the Olympics and then see them turn professional.
For now, though, he's focused on the division that, when it's healthy, is far and away boxing's most popular.
"We've brought over 800 athletes in from Division I and schools all over the country, and we have five [remaining we're working with]," King said. "That's only five. But imagine if one of them turned out to be a Pacquiao. That's what my goal is, ultimately.
"My goal is to have depth in this weight class, which is the super heavyweight weight class in the amateurs and the heavyweights in the pros. And when we succeed in this one, we're going to start moving back into the other weight classes, because right now, there's almost nobody left who is a star."
King has already invested upwards of $20 million in the project which he considers a much better investment than the one made by the group fronted by Magic Johnson that paid $2.15 billion to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Yankees won the World Series and the Devils won the Stanley Cup while King was part of those ownership groups. The Nets lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals when he had a piece of that franchise.
King said he is intimately aware of the finances of the major sports and said that the development costs he's borne will be well worth it if he only develops one top-flight professional, let alone a series of them, as he envisions he will.
"I can do an event, one night, that can do more business than Major League Baseball, more than the NHL, more than any other sport combined in one night," King said. "Baseball, most teams don't make money. That money the new owners of the Dodgers paid, I guarantee you they will have to wait a long, long time before they get anywhere close to breaking even. … I can put a world championship heavyweight fight on, and I'll rival any major sporting event in the world.
"I don't care what it is. At one point, the heavyweight championship was bigger than the Super Bowl. There is opportunity there. When you look at what it would cost me to get in any other investment [in sports] and what kind of an upside I'd have, I don't care what sport you're in, including the NFL, you can't do in one night what you could do with [a major boxing pay-per-view show]."
All-American Heavyweights picks its athletes now from among men who are between 18 and 24, who are at least 6-feet-3 inches and who weigh more than 230 pounds.
They bring them to the 25,000-square-foot training facility in Carson, affectionately known as "The Rock", and give them access to state-of-the-art everything: nutrition, coaching, sports science, video equipment, sports medicine, etc.
They pay the fighters a stipend and try to develop them.
Will it work? It's a long shot, to be sure, because boxing is one of those sports which requires a great deal of experience. It isn't always the best athlete who becomes the best boxer. Frazier was notoriously poor as an athlete in other sports, but he was one of the greatest heavyweight champions in history.
As proof that the plan is working, King points to former Northern Colorado quarterback Dominic Breazeale and ex-New Orleans Saints defensive end Jonathan Hamm.
Hamm, who went to camp with the Saints in 2007 but was cut, won the 2011 USA Amateur Boxing super heavyweight title. Breazeale won the title in 2012 and will go to a qualifying tournament in Brazil next week where, with a top-three finish, he'll become the super heavyweight representative on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
The fighters are immersed in boxing at All-American Heavyweights. Breazeale, who harbored dreams of playing quarterback in the NFL but was never invited to a training camp, pushes his body beyond his limits, working on the smallest movements over and over. He pores over film of himself, in both workouts and fights.
He could always see he was as athletically gifted as just about anyone he competed against, but it wasn't until he had a long run of coaching that he started to see results.
"Being the bigger, faster, stronger guy is always good in sports, but you need [technique], too," said the 6-foot-7, 250-pounder. "And that's what we've gotten. We get incredible instruction at just about everything you can imagine. If you have the athletic ability, it's doable."
Hamm said it's a matter of patience. And while he said he knows there are some who scoff at King's concept, he believes King will be the one laughing at the end of the day.
Once boxing has another heavyweight who commands mainstream attention, it might start to attract other quality, young athletes to the sport.
Hamm said it's a sure thing.
"You see other guys getting the attention and making the money and being on TV and all over the place [in the media] and you want it, too," he said. "Right now, there aren't a lot of heavyweights out there. There will be soon, though, and that's going to change things."
King is certain of it and is willing to continue pouring money into the program to churn out quality professional fighters.
It's not all altruistic – he plans to make money by promoting their big fights – but he also knows if he can revive the sport, he'll be remembered forever.
"Boxing is a great sport and the concept of bringing a phenomenal mass appeal sport back to prominence … is exciting to me," King explained. "If I'm successful, this will be the greatest turnaround in the history of modern sports. That also appeals to me."
He's a long, long way from having any success. The plan is sound, though, and the money is there.
It may sound crazy, but at least there is potential.
And for boxing fans, particularly fans of the heavyweight division, it's something they've dreamed about for years.
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