Don King and I

Mark Butcher
10/05/2015 1:59am

There have been two notable comebacks at Don King Productions this year; the rousing return of Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad will not have escaped your attention, but another that probably slipped under the radar was the homecoming of charismatic PR guru Alan Hopper.

For almost two years, the fight game lost one of its great characters after Hopper left DKP’s offices in Deerfield Beach, Florida, to work at the new Cache Creek Casino in California to be close to his then-ill mother. But when his mother’s health improved, Hopper, longing for what he calls ‘the freedom and creativity he had experienced at DKP’, returned and was welcomed back by King and boxing media alike. Ironically, Hopper’s final promotion in his first stint at DKP was Trinidad’s last bout with Haccine Cherifi in steamy San Juan so it was rather fitting their returns coincided.

“While I was gone, Tito retired so I never stopped working with him,” said Hopper. “I rejoined right before he faced Ricardo Mayorga, With Tito retired, I had felt it was easier for me to leave because I felt so close to him so when I came back he had this big fight and didn’t even know I’d been gone! So that was terrific!”

Hopper was born in 1961 in Reno, Nevada, to a father who owned a janitorial business and later a successful self-service car wash and a political activist mother who in 1972 was one of the first women to run for State Senate in the history of Nevada. A boxing fan as a youngster, he somehow scraped together  $25 to watch Ali-Norton II on closed circuit in the local theater in September 1973.

But while the sport was his first love, Hopper ‘s grounding was in showbusiness, starting at the world famous William Morris Agency, the oldest and largest talent organisation in the world. He started out in the famous mailroom that launched David Geffen among others before progressing to full showbusiness agent working with stars like ‘The Beach Boys’ and managing country music band ‘Boy Howdy’ to national chart success.

“William Morris arguably invented showbusiness,” said Hopper. “The hallmark of the agency is that you go to work in the mailroom. After you finish in the mailroom, you deliver packages and scripts to the stars. The people who started in the mailroom of William Morris is like a who’s who of the entertainment business so it was a big honour for a small town kid from Reno, Nevada, to start there and make it all the way to agent. That’s when I worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry and showbusiness in general. The training I received there set the tone for the rest of my career. There’s no such thing as a masters degree in showbusiness or entertainment, but the closest thing is having worked through the training programme at the William Morris Agency.”

After many successful years as an agent and manager, Hopper first met King while working at the Las Vegas Hilton - where Alan served as Public Relations/Entertainment Director - just after the promoter had signed a deal with Park Place Entertainment. Like many, Hopper had preconceived ideas about King, but that all changed when they met face-to-face.

“I fell in love with guy right when I met him because I’m a promoter at heart, too,” said Hopper. “And Don and I were like gas and a match. The first big fight I did with him was Lewis-Holyfield II and I created the most expensive credential ever produced! They were $7 apiece and specially die-cut in the shape of Don King’s crown and Don loved that. And that’s when I think he really took notice of me.”

An impressed King promised Hopper a job should he ever need one and, shortly afterwards, when Hopper left the Las Vegas Hilton he called the promoter, who was as good as his word. Understandably, given their parallel history, Hopper singles out Trinidad as the fighter he most enjoys working with.

“I’m very partial to Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad,” he said. “I have been with him since the De La Hoya fight and I love him and his family. He’s the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet. Many of the gringo press – that what I like to call them! – and us gringos who work in boxing don’t know what a nice guy he is because of the language barrier. He’s just very good-natured and that’s why I think he boxed so poorly when he faced Bernard Hopkins. I think the terrible events of September 11 influenced his poor showing.

“I’ve never seen anything like the Coliseo de Roberto Clemente when Tito faced Haccine Cherifi. The way his countrymen mix patriotism and boxing together. They all bring Puerto Rican flags and write Tito No.1 on them and the outpouring of love and the connection between he and the islanders of his home nation is a sight to behold. And Tito is very humble there. He always acts like anyone else, signs autographs for people, he’s always very careful to be like any other guy in Puerto Rico. I also really like Hasim Rahman. He is a delight. He’s very childlike and fun to work with. But I like him a lot better in the 230lb range than the 260lb range!” joked Hopper.

“Then there’s Ricardo Mayorga. I know people say he’s crazy, but I’ve just had a ball with that guy. I helped to perpetuate and publicise his image. I started all that. I knew he drank beer and was smoking cigarettes and his trainer tried to hide all that stuff. Ricardo was back in the dressing room smoking a cigarette after he knocked out Andrew ‘Six Heads’ Lewis and his trainer said, ‘Throw those away’ and I said, ‘No! Bring them to the press conference! And grab a beer!’ And he did it and the rest is history. I was only promoting the truth. I wanted people to know the truth about this guy. I found it fascinating that someone could drink beer and smoke cigarettes during training and still win.

“As far as difficult fighters go. I didn’t like Bernard Hopkins when he almost got all of us killed in Puerto Rico! As hard as he is to deal with, I still like him,” added Hopper. “But he can be tough.”

Hopper has good reason for those sentiments having witnessed at first hand the incredible press event in Puerto Rico in 2001 where Hopkins disrespected the Puerto Rican flag in front of 10,000 of the nation’s fiercely patriotic countrymen. That no-one was killed in the ensuing mayhem is perhaps a minor miracle.

"Oh, I was with Bernard the whole week!” gasped Hopper. “In New York on the Monday or Tuesday, whenever we started, Hopkins throws the Puerto Rican flag down, right? So we go to Philadephia and I tell him, 'Bernard, you cannot do that. You cannot throw that Puerto Rican flag down. It’s poor sportsmanship. Puerto Rico’s a great country. They’re very patriotic and it’s just the wrong thing to do, so naturally he throws the flag down again in Philadelphia! And then everyone else came down on Bernard to never, ever do that again.

“So we thought we were in the clear. All of us thought, no-one’s crazy enough in the middle of the Coliseo De Roberto Clemente with 10,000 rabid, screaming, flag-waving, Puerto Ricans to do that. But Bernard just threw that flag down again! I was sitting behind him up in the bleechers and I saw the whole thing unfold and I thought, 'Oh my God'. I think if the Puerto Ricans had got hold of Bernard, and they were able to overwhelm him, that they would have killed him. They would have ripped him to bits. He had to deck a guy with a left hook as he ran back to the dressing room to hide out.

“A little known fact is that we were later in a subterranean dressing room that had very high windows and I suddenly saw a window crack and there was a hole in it. It was a gunshot from outside that came through the building and went right over the top of my and Don King’s head. Tito’s people ran out there and told them, ‘Hey, Tito's down there, Don’s down there. Don’t be doing that!’ They later told me that there were bad guys up there thinking about spraying that dressing room with bullets looking for Bernard.”

After his limousine was destroyed by enraged Puerto Ricans, Hopkins was eventually airlifted to safety, but if boxing politics were overcome and a rematch was made would Hopper ever go back to Puerto Rico with ‘The Executioner’ to promote it? “You never, never know,” laughed Hopper. “If it happens, you can bet I’ll be standing there waiting to get fed to the lions again!”

Hopper’s most memorable promotion was – for sombre reasons – that Hopkins-Trinidad bout initially cancelled due to the horrific events of September 11. While many left New York in the aftermath of the tragedy, Hopper and DKP had to stay as the September 15 showdown was briefly postponed for two weeks.

“Everybody else got to leave and clear out, but we had to stay,” remembered Hopper. “The police tried to commandeer one of the vans we transported fighters in as it was a national emergency. They can just take vehicles off the street and worry about it later. They chose not to after talking to us. We almost got evicted from our hotel because the US Marshalls were moving in, but they were able to keep us there. Getting motivated to present something as inconsequential as a middleweight world title fight, it was hard to jump start the enthusiasm, but when we realised we were going to be one of the first major sporting events in New York and the country it took on new significance. We wanted to just sit down and remember the fallen and mourn, but it’s also important to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and move on and we realised we were carrying that mantle. And, for those that were there on that fight night, there was an uncertainty in the air. There was talk that maybe our fight could be a target. Not to mention that we had a bunch of firefighters there and police officers. We had one foot in Madison Square Garden that night and the other in September 11.”

King is a tireless individual, according to Hopper, and the legendary promoter’s dedication toward the sport remains undiminished even in his 70s. Hopper himself works from 9am to often 9pm in the evening on normal days, however his shock-haired employer works seven days a week and is often surprised to find his employees need a day off!

“Don creates so much work that we struggle to keep up with it all the time,” said Hopper. “What he’s been able to accomplish in his career is staggering and it’s all been done through hard work. But he thinks people should work every single day because he does. Truly funny, but he’s like that. That’s the work ethic he has.

“Don’s talking about to going to Dubai and it’s those type of events that just consume you and make you feel a tremendous weight. Like I did in China. The fight didn’t take place and that was a terrible disappointment to us because John Ruiz had to back out due to injury. But you feel a great weight because you are working for a man who created history with ‘The Rumble on the Jungle’ and ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ and when you go abroad you feel those fights are with you at all times. You feel a tremendous obligation to perform well because Don’s legacy internationally is so strong.”

King often receives a bad rap from the press and that’s something Hopper feels his employer ignores due to his firm belief in fixing on the positive.

“I don’t think Don does enough to confront the people who say bad things about him though I think that’s changing in him,” said Hopper. “Once you get to know Don, you find he has very little time for any negative thoughts – he only shoots for the stars and wants to talk about positive things. So he really doesn’t have time in his mind to deal with negativity. And that’s been one of the great lessons I’ve learned from him. ‘Look on the sunny side of the street’ because that’s what he does. I think that’s the reason he lives so long and why he’s still so successful through the power of positive thinking. He has a saying, ‘I have eliminated the word failure from my vocabulary – the occasional setback absolutely, but failure never’. I’ve learned from him that it’s better to find ways to succeed than worry where you came up short. There’s a reason why this guy has done what he’s done and, when you look, a lot of successful people share these traits.”

But, despite what you may think, King is not entirely consumed by the business of boxing. “One thing that people don’t know about Don is that he’s a big movie buff, but he only likes one type of genre, Westerns,” revealed Hopper, whose own passion is downhill skiing. “All the old Western movies from the 40s, 50s and 60s, all the way up to ‘Silverado’ and ‘Unforgiven’. Very few people know this unless they go to his house or fly on his plane. But everywhere he goes he watches Westerns. He loves Westerns as much as he loves eating! You should have seen the look on his face when I bought him a DVD of ‘Silverado’ for Christmas. He looked at me and said, ‘This is great! I don’t have this!’ and he got very excited!”

So, as a man on the inside, has that famous hair ever been known to droop? “I just talked to someone this past week who said they saw his hair at half-mast early in the morning,” laughed Hopper. “I have seen it dishevelled. I’ve seen it when it’s less than perfect, but always standing at attention! I’ve seen it at various heights depending on time of day, but always at reasonable attention. It’s turning grey, but it’s still coming out strong.”

After a varied career, Hopper says he is back in boxing for good now and he couldn’t be happier. “It’s been a crazy life, but it’s been a lot of fun,” reflected Hopper. “I’ve taken some risks, but I think it’s time to stay put in boxing. I’m getting a little long in the tooth to be taking any more chances. I think I’ll stick with Don!

“I feel like I am an employee of every press person who calls DKP. My job is to give the media information and be kind and courteous while doing so. I know who signs my paycheck. It’s every writer and journalist who covers boxing. It may be Don’s signature down there, but that’s just the end result. If I service and respond quickly to enquiries from the media then I’m going to be popular and one way or the other that gets back to Don and that’s the insurance to keep my job - to work hard for you guys.

“I owe a debt to all those journalists who helped me along and showed me the way,” added Hopper. “The team of people who work in the boxing media and the companies who present fights are like a big family of carnies! We’re the carnies of boxing! But the boxers are the guys who do the hard work. None of us are getting hit!”