Michael King wants to rekindle the world's passion for boxing, and the television mogul believes he can make it happen by putting on a show.
Spurred by his lifelong love of the sport, the executive who brought "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to national syndicated audiences spent the past several years trying to develop amateur fighters into champions.
After mixed success and a few millions spent, King is moving aggressively into professional promotion with a Hollywood flair. He is staging his first event Wednesday night at a converted airplane hangar in Santa Monica.
"I've been punched, I've been kicked, and I keep getting up," he said with a laugh. He knows boxing promotion can be a sucker's game, but he seems fairly certain that's because only suckers were playing it. King is overflowing with ideas about how to return boxing to its golden age, and he has both the patience and wealth to determine whether he's right.
"I never expected to break even," King said. "It's not about making money. It's about showing the people how it can be."
It's also about creating a night to remember for people who still remember what boxing once was.
At the Barker Hangar near the Santa Monica airport, actor Kevin Pollak will host an eye-catching show mixing comedy between five bouts. His boxers aren't famous in the U.S., but King is confident fans and celebrities alike will be enthralled by even matchups between fighters who will mature before their eyes.
"It's exciting as hell that not everyone is going to know who these fighters are," said Pollak, also a devoted fight fan. "Because they won't forget afterward."
King's passion for boxing permeates every corner of his King Sports office in Brentwood. A larger-than-life image of Muhammad Ali looms over a cream-colored lobby surrounded by glassed-in offices where his staff works on changing the sport. King speaks of Ali with reverential zeal, noting he watched or attended almost every fight of his career.
King's first show will include a few names known to hard-core fans: middleweight Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam, welterweight Chris Van Heerden and unbeaten Charles Martin, who developed into a prospect at King's All-American Heavyweights program in Carson.
King attempted to work with USA Boxing while turning athletes from other sports into heavyweight contenders. One of King's AAH fighters, Dominic Breazeale, qualified for the London Olympics — and then promptly left King's program.
"I don't care how great an athlete you are, boxing is just too difficult to master in a short period of time," King says now.
So King went to work finding professionals who were underappreciated, under-promoted or unknown to American audiences. With a detailed statistical analysis he describes as "Moneyball for boxing," he selected fighters for his first show and signed several to long-term contracts.
While King would consider signing an established champion, he believes fans will develop interest in young fighters growing on his Santa Monica cards — and eventually on television, where King is confident he can build and sell a product that will attract lucrative broadcast deals.
But the debut show comes first. The Hangar only seats about 1,200, but celebrities and well-heeled fans will make red carpet arrivals before sitting ringside in VIP lounge areas with good food, drink and company.
Pollak has been a boxing fan since his youth in the Bay Area, where he remembers taking bets on fights from school classmates.
"We grew up in a time when not only was it one of the most exciting sports on TV, but it was clearly the most exciting sport to be at live," Pollak said. "The idea of the Barker show is to bring back that live experience, with no television deals or anything. Just to get that atmosphere in place."
King is fairly bursting with ideas to change the business.
He wants to do shows around the world, putting them in multiple cities in the same night for TV audiences. He doesn't understand why most major cards are only held on Saturdays, remembering his youth when Monday night shows were common — but that's just one symptom of the poor promotion and lack of cohesion infecting the entire sport.
"If I was selling 'Oprah' the way they're selling boxing, you wouldn't know her," King said.