It wasn’t long ago that the landscape of boxing was decorated with Don King attractions. Since King entered the sport in the early 1970s, boxing’s most infamous promoter brought us some of the most transcendent battles in the history of the sport including, The Rumble in the Jungle, The Thrilla in Manila, Holmes vs Cooney, and Chavez vs Taylor.
But while Don King Productions staged action and drama to satiate the fans, boxers who fought for King have largely felt exploited and betrayed. King has been sued by the likes of an ailing Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson, Terry Norris, Lennox Lewis, and Chris Byrd, some of whom received upwards of seven figure settlements from DKP. Thus, it comes as little surprise that fighters have been increasingly reluctant to sign with King in recent years, making the Don King stable virtually non-existent in comparison to where it stood in the 90s.
However, 2004 US Olympian Vanes Martirosyan and former three-time title challenger took the risk and trusted King to put his career back on the right track in March of 2017.
“The biggest mistake I made [in my career] was leaving Al Haymon,” said Vanes, who reached out to The Fight City for this interview. “He cares for the fighters. So when I tweeted that I’m not happy with Al, it was because somebody in the staff that was talking to me. I wasn’t happy with them and I said it to the wrong person. I got a call from Don King’s office to go see him. I went and he put $300 grand in front of me. I signed, and then Don King became my promoter.”
When Vanes signed with King, he had been off for nearly a year following his loss to Erislandy Lara and hence the perceived $300 grand signing bonus was an easy sell for Martirosyan. What Vanes didn’t realize, however, was that King never intended for this gesture to be a signing bonus. As DKP Public Relations representative Steve Brener stated to The Fight City, it was simply a loan that King would be expecting a return on.
“I thought that since he’s giving me $300 grand he would try to get that money back by giving me fights,” said Vanes, who expected Don to resurrect his career in an attempt to get a return on his investment. Instead, Martirosyan waited 14 months on the sidelines before getting a call on two weeks’ notice to face Gennady Golovkin in a last minute attempt to save the show at the StubHub center. It would be his first fight in nearly two years.
Vanes’s purse was reported to be $225 thousand, but according to Martirosyan he was supposed to take home almost double that. But then King wanted his $300 grand signing bonus back.
“We get attorneys involved and decided to divide it fifty-fifty, so we’re both supposed to get $200 grand. But when the fight was done, I get a check for only $160 000, with King saying the difference was his fee.”
Despite getting paid less than his promoter for taking on one of the most dangerous middleweights in the world on two weeks’ notice, Vanes decided to persevere, going to King months later requesting his promoter give him more fights. Vanes walked out of the meeting with an extra fifty thousand that DKP told The Fight City was a loan to support Martirosyan’s father Norik, who is struggling with bladder cancer. It wasn’t until recently, however, that Martirosyan was notified that he now owes a whopping $350 grand to DKP, in addition to the money he just found out he owes to the IRS since he received a 1099 tax form for the $225K that went to King following the GGG fight.
“Why does he need to do that? 87-years-old and he still wants to screw people,” said Martirosyan, who is seeking a way to break free of what has so far been a disastrous relationship with Don King.
In addition to Vanes’s promotional hurdles, he claims to have been wronged by the WBC, who recently dumped him from their 154 pound rankings. Prior to his fight against GGG, a WBC 154-lb title eliminator between Martirosyan and Maciej Sulecki was ordered by the WBC, a fight that went all the way to a purse bid before Sulecki announced he would fight Danny Jacobs instead.
“He moved up to fight Danny Jacobs and he lost. I moved up and fought Golovkin, I saved the show for the WBC to get paid, all the belts to get paid, everybody to get paid. Don King, Tom Loeffler, Golovkin got a million dollars. I saved the Cinco de Mayo fight on two weeks notice. So where’s the love, guys? I go home and see I’m not even ranked in the WBC, but Sulecki is still number four [at 154] today.”
Speaking about WBC president, Mauricio Sulaiman, “I really loved his dad (Jose). When he [Jose Sulaiman] passed away, Mauricio told me personally that his father loves me, he cared for me, so he was going to respect him and keep his honor. But when I brought this up about the Sulecki thing, and I told him I’m going to file a lawsuit, ‘he said “don’t ever contact me again, contact my lawyer’.”
Martirosyan also claimed that Don King was incensed at Vanes’s intent to file a lawsuit, stopping him from doing so. It’s no secret that King and the Sulaiman family have been close for quite some time, and many have questioned the ethics of what became widely perceived as a partnership between King and the WBC. However, Vanes couldn’t speak to whether he suspected collusion between the two parties, but suggested it was odd that he got the title shot at Golovkin ahead of Jaime Munguia who was in shape to take the fight.
When asked whether his experience with King and the WBC negatively affected his motivation to continue in the sport, Vanes replied, “Every fighters’ dream is to be a world champion. If I know I wasn’t good enough, I would quit. Why would I want to get brain damage? Look at the guys who are champion. The guy I beat [Willie Nelson] knocked out the champion [Tony Harrison] but I don’t got the title. I think I did better than Tony Harrison did in the Jermell Charlo fight. He got the victory, but I didn’t. So there’s a lot of depression that fighters deal with outside of boxing.”
When Vanes gets out of his contract with Don King, which DKP told The Fight City is ongoing for another three years, he stated that he would love to work with Eddie Hearn, who Martirosyan believes cares about the fighters like he believes his former manager Al Haymon does.
“Those guys care about the fighters and they care about making fights. Eddie Hearn is the man, and also a good person. He has so much positive energy when he’s talking to the cameras, you can tell that he cares.”
For Vanes, at 32-years-old and with only one fight in nearly 3 years, it’s all about making something happen before its too late. And having a promoter that guarantees he fights frequently and receives a fair shake is crucial for the hard-luck veteran, especially at this stage of his career.
“Why shouldn’t a fighter get $1M or $2M? Why not?” says Vanes. “We’re the ones getting brain damage. The next day they’re playing golf while we’re chewing down ibuprofen for a whole week. You leave a part of yourself in every single fight.”
But while boxing is essentially a one-on-one sport inside the ring, talented fighters like Vanes Martirosyan are proof that becoming a champion requires a championship caliber team. And while Martirosyan has every reason to walk away from the sport after being disillusioned by empty promises, legal hurdles, and inactivity, he chooses to risk his life in pursuit of one thing: to become a champion. Perhaps someday the boxing world will wake up and enact a form of federal oversight that protects the fighters from such injustice, but until then, the ones with the most to lose are often made to feel like the odd man out. — Alden Chodash