Kalle Sauerland has a Don King story to tell me. He promises it’s a good one and I don’t doubt him. You don’t become the most popular promoter in British boxing by telling bad stories. Besides, our lunch is approaching the two-hour mark and he hasn’t told me a dud yet.
Roundabout a decade ago, Sauerland and King were co-promoting the German light-heavyweight Jürgen Brähmer. Brähmer had a fight in Germany – Sauerland can’t remember the opponent – a fight the German tabloid Bild was failing to cover. Now, boxing’s most famous salesman was hardly going to accept such an insult – even on the wrong side of 80. King ordered Sauerland into the car.
They drove down to Bild’s office. King marched through the entrance, trailing a vocal entourage, demanding to see the editor at the top of his considerable voice. Staff were understandably surprised – it’s not every day your workplace is invaded by Don King – but when faced with the human equivalent of a tornado, the smart play is move aside. King was shown up to the editor’s office and told to wait for the end of the morning conference.
“Now, the conference of Bild is huge,” says Sauerland. “They’ve got 30 journalists in the room and every regional Bild across the whole country on screens. Probably 100, 150 journalists.” King was told to wait but King waits for no man – not even the editor of Bild, arguably the second most influential person in Germany after the chancellor. He barged into the conference. All across Germany, journalistic jaws dropped.
The Don went off like an AK-47. “Ah’m here from America with love and I want to know why the fuck are you not writing about our fight?” As the tirade continued, journalists in the room and on the screens started laughing, clapping, cheering. “Luckily it was a Friday,” Sauerland deadpans. “The guys thought it was fantastic. They did pictures with him, gave him a tour of the building. Got him a glass of champagne.”
The next day, the Brähmer fight duly entered the back pages of Bild. The report of Don King’s visit made the front page – accompanied by a photo of King posing in the editor’s chair. “It showed me what a promoter the man was,” says Sauerland, while then acknowledging the darker side of King’s reputation. “He’s not a babysitter. It’s a tough world. But,” Sauerland grins, enjoying himself, “that was not the Don King story.”
I package violence for media consumption
He mightn’t have the celebrity of Eddie Hearn or the longevity of Frank Warren, but over the past decade Kalle Sauerland has established himself as the People’s Promoter, beloved by fans for a personality that’s simultaneously larger-than-life and utterly relatable. “I’m a natural buzz seeker,” he says. “In my spare time, I love fast cars and I love a fast lifestyle. I love a lot of the trimmings.” In the divisive sport of boxing, Kalle unites. Ask a dozen fans the best promoter in the game and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers. Ask a thousand fans which promoter they’d want on a night out, and the response will be unanimous: Don Kalle.
Unfortunately, I have to settle for lunch. It’s more than adequate compensation: as you’d imagine, the man is phenomenal company. As well as Don King, his many anecdotes include partying with Lennox Lewis in Saint Moritz, getting blackout drunk with Russian mobsters outside Moscow, and being mistaken for a Yakuza in a Tokyo gym. And those are the ones he’s willing to share in print. He’s lived a ridiculous, rollicking life and has palpably loved every second.
“I package violence for media consumption,” Sauerland tells me at one point. It’s a statement both ineffably cool – I want to package violence for media consumption – and one that cuts straight to the bloody heart of boxing. There will be violence. And people will consume it.
Weeks later, when I catch up with Sauerland for the London photoshoot, I repeat the quote back to him. He grins and tells me his Whatsapp bio is ‘Orchestrator of controlled violence’. Then he strolls down to Trafalgar Square and poses in front of a lion.
Chasing the buzz
On the weekend of our interview, the violence has landed in Cardiff: Chris Eubank Jr vs local boy Liam Williams. Sauerland and I lunch at the Parkgate Hotel the afternoon before the bout. His cream jumper bulges with muscles: Sauerland doesn’t gym by half. He doesn’t anything by half – including, happily, interviews. During our lengthy conversation, various familiar names flash up on his phone, although he ignores every call but one. On the next table, his brother Nisse – a more laconic presence than Kalle but no less sharp – chats to the owner of a nearby luxury watch shop. “The trimmings”, as Kalle would say.
Despite his well-earned reputation as a party boy – and look, Kalle likes a party, he’ll be the first to admit that he likes a party – the promoter is one of the great pioneers of 21st-century boxing. Only a man who thrives on the inherent madness of the sport would embrace the Quixotic task of imposing order upon it: first with the Super Six, then the World Boxing Super Series. Tournaments that pitted the best in their weight classes against each other to crown an undisputed champion. Knockouts in every sense of the word.
“It’s about creating fights that people care about. Who cares? Why should they care? How can I make them care?” The narrative of the tournament structure is one solution: when fights are not merely for belts but also semi-finals, finals, and fans can plot their favourite boxer’s route to glory. “Our business is often chaos,” says Sauerland. “But your job as a promoter is to bring it together.”
Like life, boxing often finds a way: beset by injuries and dropouts, the Super Six stretched from October 2009 to December 2011. But it also produced some great fights: notably Carl Froch knocking out Jermain Taylor in the dying seconds – and, in Andre Ward, a first ballot Hall of Fame champion. Sauerland condensed the format for the WBSS, leading to a series of successful tournaments across multiple weight categories. Both Oleksandr Usyk and Josh Taylor unified their respective divisions, while bantamweight Naoya Inoue achieved stardom after beating the great Nonito Donaire in a fight hailed as a modern classic.
With boxing, it always reinvents itself. Every new event is a new buzz.
Last year brought fresh excitement: Team Sauerland was bought by the gigantic Wasserman Media Group, leading to the creation of Wasserman Boxing, a new promotional company with Kalle as its figurehead. A recent deal with Channel 5 has brought boxing back to terrestrial TV. He may change the packaging but the core product remains the same. “There are two things that will always sell in life,” Kalle proclaims, tucking into a grilled rump steak. “Sex and violence.”
Both have their merits but it’s the latter to which he has devoted his life. Orchestrating it, packaging it, again and again. “I’m a natural buzz seeker,” Kalle says, and boxing offers the greatest buzz of the lot.
“You can get a brand new Ferrari. Drive it the first time, it’s fantastic. After the tenth time, it’s great. After the hundredth time, it’s good. And after the thousandth time? So-so. With boxing, it always reinvents itself. Every new event is a new buzz. It’s always fresh. It is, for me, the biggest buzz on the planet.”
He first tasted that buzz as a boy. He hasn’t stopped chasing it since.
Meeting the mob
Kalle and Nisse were born into boxing: their father Wilfried was himself a Hall of Fame promoter. (Wilfried is German but his sons grew up in London and sound more Tottenham than Teutonic.) Sauerland Senior worked with fighters such as John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, a fearsome Ugandan who fought a war with Marvellous Marvin Hagler and acted as Kalle’s first babysitter. You assume the kid behaved.
Yet Kalle took the scenic route into the sport. He applied to business school, and his first promotional gigs were not fights but night clubs. “It was a way to have some fun and make some money as a student,” says Kalle. “But it also taught me a lot. You have to reinvent the wheel sometimes when you’re competing with other nights.”
Not all reinventions are successful. In 2001, Kalle hosted a night called ‘Fake’ at Eve Club on Regent Street. Themed fancy dress, essentially: Hawaiian night one week, Pimps and Hookers the next. The young promoters would distribute the flyers on Regent Street, dressed up in the week’s theme. The Arabian Night occurred two days after 9/11. Displaying a fortitude that would serve him well in the world of boxing, Kalle took to the streets wearing a robe and turban. “We got a bit of abuse but it was all tongue in cheek,” he recalls. “We still had a good club night. By ourselves, because no-one turned up.”
Most of his contemporaries went into banking. Kalle had other ambitions. He read a book called What They Don’t Teach You In Harvard Business School and saw his future. The book’s author Mark McCormack was the founder of global sports management agency IMG. It took seven interviews but Kalle secured an internship with the company. Then things got interesting.
His first Monday at IMG started with a team meeting. A whiteboard displayed the names and job titles of the new starters. There was a blank space next to Kalle’s name – somebody had forgotten to record his internship. Sensing an opportunity, Kalle picked up a pen and wrote a title down.
A few minutes later, the MD is introducing the new recruits. “We’d like to welcome our two new interns,” he read their names off the whiteboard, “and our new marketing manager Kalle Sauerland.” The other interns stared at Kalle in disbelief. In a smaller company, he’d have been rumbled; but IMG is vast. He was probably somebody’s nephew. They printed out his business cards that very day.
He thrived as a marketing manager. He handled the commercial interests of around 300 footballers, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Teddy Sheringham and Paolo Maldini. He flew all round the world, negotiating deals with British Airways, Kappa, Puma. He was still on an intern’s salary. For obvious reasons, he couldn’t really ask for a raise.
Eighteen happy months passed in a blur of airports, offices, handshakes, signatures on the dotted line. Then IMG decided to restructure its football division – which is management speak for fire everyone. One by one, workers were marched out of the building. Yet when Kalle got the summons upstairs, he received not a P45 but a perplexed frown. Top brass couldn’t work him out. He’d been flying round the globe, doing deals, filing expenses – yet he appeared to be on an intern’s contract…
“Yeah,” said Kalle. “I got promoted.”
He left IMG and started his own agency, Kentaro in 2003. His timing improved: he bought the broadcast rights to the Greek national team the year before they won Euro 2004. Flushed with this unexpected windfall, Kentaro began promoting Brazil, staged the opening fixtures at Wembley and the Emirates, as well as England vs Argentina in Geneva. Business was booming. And then his father called. Wilfried wanted his son to travel to Russia to sign the Olympic gold medal heavyweight Alexander Povetkin.
Russian Olympic gold medallists are national treasures, closely guarded. After four days at the Hyatt Moscow, Kalle got the summons – not to meet Povetkin but his handlers. Keen to impress this formidable group of gentlemen, Kalle and his colleague ordered vodka with beer chasers. Repeatedly. Two hours later, the pair were carried from the bar, poured into the back of a Mercedes and chauffeured back to Moscow.
He was packing his bags when his phone rang. “They loved you. Now the big boss wants to meet you.” The big boss? “There’s always a big boss,” says Sauerland. “Let’s leave it at that.” He spent four days with the big boss, hunting, fishing, sharing saunas and stories. Finally, he was introduced to the boxer – although since Povetkin didn’t speak a word of English, conversation was limited. Even today, the two men communicate via sign language and translators. “Only boxer who never forgets my birthday, never forgets my kids’ birthday,” says Sauerland fondly. “And he was my first.”
There have been many more since: David Haye, George Groves, Derek Chisora, now Eubank Jr and a host of young British talent. But Sauerland has worked with boxers the world over. Helped turn many of them into millionaires. Promoted events in approximately 25 countries, every continent bar Antarctica. His bonhomie is no act: Sauerland is that rarest of creatures, a boxing figure with no apparent enemies. He readily works with his fellow promoters and holds no grudges against fighters who leave his stable.
Take Povetkin: the pair shared dinner a few weeks after the amicable separation that followed Povetkin’s unsuccessful title challenge against Wladimir Klitschko. Povetkin turned up with a black eye. A legacy of Klitschko? “No, no,” said Povetkin. “Playing in the gym. We make game.” The game entailed Povetkin and friends standing in front of each other and throwing head shots – the psychopath’s equivalent of penalty shootouts. No foot movement allowed.
“He’s a beast,” laughs Sauerland, shaking his head. The subtext is clear: only in boxing.
Don and Kalle
I suppose I should mention the gurning. The facial twitches that manifest at every press conference and staredown, much to the delight of social media. Basically, a large number of boxing fans like to believe that Kalle is permanently on the bag. It’s all incredibly good natured: commentators celebrate the legendary Don Kalle, interviews are overdubbed with The Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode, YouTube channels select the most compromising thumbnail for their videos.
Kalle embraces his online persona. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t you print the legend? He has also attributed the gurning to a nervous tic in his jaw, and noted it would be difficult to run an international boxing promotion while permanently on the sesh. (At least, not successfully.) He’s a father in his mid-forties who rises at dawn six times a week to workout. For the record, he drank water during lunch.
But Kalle in his twenties was a different animal – “before I had kids, let’s say I lived the fast life” – which brings us to the second Don King story. In 2006, boxing’s odd couple were co-promoting the giant Russian heavyweight Nikolai Valuev. An event in Hanover had been a success. King was flying back early Sunday morning, while 28-year-old Kalle was celebrating in his hotel. Celebrations that were disturbed when King’s assistant phoned his room. “Don’s leaving,” she said.
“Great,” said Kalle. “Say goodbye.”
“No, no. He wants to see you.”
Kalle’s eyes widened. “I’m thinking, fuck me, I’m in no state to see Don King! It’s 6am and we’re having it large! We were in a room with a load of ladies! It was going off, we’re having a good time, and Don King’s calling!”
But like the German press, Kalle can’t refuse Don King. “I’m not in a good way, but I’m holding it together.” He stumbled downstairs to find his partner waiting in a large conference room. “I’d always seen Don smiling, flags out. This was the time I saw Don without a smile and his eyes cold. Fear went through the body. Let’s put it this way, I sobered up quickly enough from the afterparty.”
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King wanted to review the international TV sales. Kalle started listing all the territories and their price. “France, 40 grand; Middle East, 70 grand; Iceland, three and a half grand. Nigeria X, Malawi Y.” On and on for several neverending minutes.
King listened in silence. Then he spoke. “Kalle. Double-O.” (His nickname for Sauerland was 007.) “Why the fuck did you only get three and a half out of Iceland?”
Somehow Double-O kept his composure. “Don, as you know, Iceland pay a flat rate for every show.”
Finally, King smiled. “Kalle, I was just testing you, boy. Now continue the party and I’m flying home!”
Sauerland chuckles at the memory. Even two decades later, you can still see the affection, the awe. “He’d gone through the list, multiplied it all in his head – it was the one figure he came back on! Showed me so much about the man. How sharp he was. Great, great promoter.”
King is still active today (90 years young). Meanwhile, his former partner is thriving. More than a million viewers watched Eubank floor Williams four times to win by unanimous decision. Another big domestic clash beckons, then perhaps a world title shot. Our photoshoot coincides with a well-attended media day at Wasserman offices ahead of the Channel 5 show on 13 May. And a third season of WBSS has been announced, the first to showcase female fighters. All systems are go – just the way Kalle likes it.
Towards the end of our interview, I bring up Sauerland’s friend and fellow promoter Eddie Hearn. Only a couple of years apart in age, the two men share many similarities: both sons of legendary promoters, both sharp of suit and silver of tongue. Yet while Hearn speaks openly of his desire to conquer the global boxing market, Sauerland follows more visceral urges.
“My drive is purely for the buzz. My drive isn’t to take over the world. No one will ever take over the world of boxing. Impossible. You have your highs, you have your lows. I’ve had my highs in the sport, promoting the biggest events on the planet. And I’ve also unfortunately had the lows of the sport. Sitting in hospitals with families of boxers who’ve been injured.
“I’ve experienced the rollercoaster of boxing from top to bottom. From the day I was born, probably to the day I die.
“I won’t ever get out. No-one gets out.
Watch Linus Udofia vs Denzel Bentley on Channel 5 this Friday at 10pm