Even for the fight racket, Rick “Elvis” Parker was beyond the pale. In a pursuit as morally cloudy as boxing, Parker seemed to be the symbolic apex of all its ills. Obese, crooked, obnoxious, drug-addled, erratic, and unscrupulous, Parker personified the subterranean nature of outpost boxing. Away from the neon dreams of Las Vegas and New York City, far from the klieg lights of national television, prizefighting was a barely regulated netherworld from the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt. In high school gymnasiums, bingo halls, VFWs, ballrooms, and armories; in Sheratons, Hyatts, and Desert Inns, the seedy side of a sport that had once been an outlaw pursuit in America flourished. To think of Rick Parker today is to recall some of the lunatic fringe moments of the late 80s and early 90s: apartment wrestling, Lobster Boy, Jack Kevorkian, Branch Davidians, Moonie weddings, G.G. Allin, weeping televangelists.
Born in Missouri in 1955, Parker grew up in a broken home and dropped out of high school when he was 16 years old. But Parker, street-smart and, in his own devious way, ambitious, would not need a formal education to get where he wanted to go. In 1968, he moved to Lakeland, Florida, where he eventually began his career in flimflam as a pool hustler. After bamboozling the denizens of the Gulf Coast with his Sneaky Pete cue, Parker discovered the joys of door-to-door scamming when he stumbled across a cleaning agent he dubbed “Sun-Station.” He founded a company with the generic name American Safety Industries and began making serious money by expanding his territory across the country. Parker recruited his sales force from a seemingly endless population of teen runaways and hotheaded ex-cons. In fact, his goon squads—which, in some ways, resembled cults—were modeled on magazine crews, a coast-to-coast phenomenon that eventually sparked a congressional hearing in 1988.
In the early 80s Parker branched out to promoting rock concerts, and the nighthawk glamour of hair-metal acts like Ratt and Bon Jovi seemed to stir a desire for a flamboyant lifestyle to go along with his nouveau riche status.
Throughout his short career as a boxing promoter on the very fringes of the fringe, Parker claimed that it was a chance meeting in 1985 with one of his idols—Don King—that led him into the Red Light District of sports. King and Parker sat next to each other on an airplane, where, supposedly, the electro-haired humbug encouraged Parker to enter the twisted world of boxing promotion. According to Parker, it was King who kick-started his overriding obsession—winning the heavyweight championship of the world. Parker called his goal “The Windfall Factor.” In 1994 Parker explained its meaning to 60 Minutes: “Oh yes. The windfall factor. All of your dreams coming true. Millions and millions of dollars, all at one time.”
In 1987, Parker, who wore outrageous sunglasses and an even more outrageous red hairpiece as part of his Mid-South Championship Wrestling style, staged some of the earliest George Foreman comeback fights, but he was elbowed out by Bob Arum before the real money started pouring in. Underwritten by sales of his Sun-Station solution, the Rick Parker carnival was on the slow trail to nowhere, with only journeyman Tim “Doc” Anderson gaining some notoriety in a losing performance against Foreman in Orlando, Florida. But Parker had one legitimate if war-torn fighter in a reclamation project named Bert Cooper. Although Cooper was a basket case with a spotty record, he had a left hook that could make or break dreams in a nanosecond.
In 1990, Bert Cooper seemed on the verge of reversing his misfortunes. He knocked out Orlin Norris in February to win the NABF heavyweight title and dropped a spirited decision to hard-hitting Ray Mercer six months later on CBS. Over 12 explosive rounds, Cooper showed the heart and determination against Mercer that had been lacking so often since his downward spiral began in 1987. But a few months later Cooper was demolished by a young Riddick Bowe in two rounds. Even against a rising powerhouse like Bowe, then less than two years away from winning the heavyweight championship of the world, Cooper could not keep his impulses in check: cocaine had been one of the most popular items on his training camp menu. This time, Cooper tried to patch himself up in Salem, Virginia, where, presumably, the lure of wild nights would be far from his reach.