ST. CHARLES, Mo. Every few minutes, the front doors of the pub opened, and newcomers walked past kilt-wearing waitresses toward a high top table occupied by Ryan "The Irish Outlaw" Coyne.
Some asked for autographs on boxing gloves. Others clenched their fists and posed for pictures with the southpaw. Most just said: "Good luck."
This feeling, the slow build of attention one gets as a fight date nears, is something a successful boxer should experience often. Yet, it's one Coyne has missed out on a lot, especially for a fighter who is a perfect 23-0.
The 30-year-old blames one man for the ceiling that's been placed on his career. It's none other than "Only in America!" Don King, the world-famous boxing promoter Coyne made the mistake of signing on with when he entered the fight game years ago.
Now, Coyne is so desperate for a fight that he's had to eat his pride and agree to appear in a King-sponsored event one more time a fight against undefeated Marcus Oliveira at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Friday.
How is it possible to participate in a fight put on by the man you publicly despise?
"How much time do you have?" Coyne responds.
The boxer knew he wasn't signing a contract with an angel. When the former contestant on The Contender inked his name to the document that would later haunt him, he figured his business relationship with King would likely include the shortchanging and swindling upon which his former promoter built an empire.
"I had no illusion," Coyne said. "I expected to be robbed. I expected him to steal some money from me while I was making a lot of it. But I never expected this."
Coyne says King stole his time, something more valuable than cash. He blames the fast-talking boxing business man for a stagnant fighting career during the time their partnership was valid, and a sabotaged one after their legal agreement was void.
"I didn't think the hardest fight of my career would be to actually get a fight," Coyne said. "I thought it would be the fight itself. It turns out it's the opposite."
Things went smoothly enough in early stages of the three-year contract Coyne signed with King in September of 2009. King arranged fights. Coyne continued to win. But something changed in 2011, the same year Coyne dropped from cruiser weight to light heavyweight.
"King stopped offering me fights," Coyne said.
The sharp decline of King's dominance in the boxing world has been well-documented. As the promoter's empire falls, Coyne found himself among the many boxers who were left to rot on the vine. Emails and phone calls went unanswered, and Coyne realized he would have to schedule his own fights in order to continue his career.
"I was put in a position where I had no choice," he said. "I could let my career die and go to the graveyard of broken, lost, wasted, squandered potential like a lot of fighters who are too scared to stand up for themselves. But I'm not going to do that."
Coyne never heard complaints from King about scheduling his own fights, and the independent approach paid off big shortly after the boxer's three-year agreement with the promoter had expired. Fresh off a knockout win against Hungarian boxer Peter Vecsei, Coyne landed a shot at Nathan Cleverly, the World Boxing Organization's current champion at light heavyweight. Finally, Coyne would have a chance at a title until King decided to intervene.
According to Coyne, King said he had decided to extend Coyne's contract, citing some unclear fine print in paperwork signed long ago. Later, he filed an injunction to stop the fight, which resulted in the WBO calling it off. Then, King sued Coyne for breach of contract.
"He did absolutely nothing to put me in fights, but he did everything he could to keep me from fighting," Coyne, who has since countersued, said.
Cleverly fought, and knocked out, a replacement fighter instead. Coyne lingered on what could have been.
"He King took away something from me that I can never get back," he said.
That anger is still there. And Coyne has no intention of hiding it. He's agreed to participate in one more King event, but only due to a lack of other options and a lot of legal haggling that has ensured him he will exit this weekend unscathed.
Coyne believes King offered the fight against Oliveira as a bargaining chip in a pending cycle of lawsuits. His new management, along with his lawyers, heavily edited the content of the one-fight agreement, then sent it back with plenty of changes to the terms. To Coyne's surprise, King agreed to them all.
The bout was originally scheduled for March 9, but was postponed when Coyne sustained a serious cut above an eye in a sparring session. He figured that alone could derail the event. But again, King has stuck to the rescheduled plan so far.
"I'm excited, but cautious," Coyne said of the Friday fight in Sin City.
For good reason.
First, the opponent. Oliveira (24-0-1) is another one of King's basement dwellers, a fighter whose potential has also been hidden by King's mismanagement. Win or lose, Coyne's opponent could be looked at as a nobody. Second, the promoter. King orchestrates every detail of his fights. Coyne is certain he'll receive no breaks.
"Judges aren't going to do me any favors," Coyne said. "I'm being set up to lose. I know this going in. If he King can get me beat in the ring, that's his way of getting rid of me. If I go in there and kick this guy's ass, that's my way of getting rid of him. We both have a lot on the line here. I have to look great and win in convincing fashion."
Despite the risks, Coyne believes the potential reward is too good to pass up. The winner of Friday's fight earns the title of mandatory challenger to current WBA light heavyweight champion, Beibut Shumenov. If Coyne beats Oliveira, no one will be able to stop him from getting a shot at a belt. Not even You Know Who.
"Believe it or not, even as nasty and ugly as Don King can be at times, even he can't prevent a chance to get a world title shot if you win," Coyne said. "At least that's how it's supposed to work."
Then the boxer closed his right hand, reached out over the high top table and knocked on wood.