Arum, most powerful promoter in boxing, still collecting memories (cont.)
Back in the 1970s, one of my big closed-circuit exhibitors was Vince McMahon Jr. He called me one day and said, "Bob, my son wants to be in the promotion business. I'd like him to be around you, do some projects with you." So Vince Jr. called me up, said he had met this guy, Evel Knievel, and he was going to do this crazy thing where he was going to build this rocket ship and jump over the Snake River Canyon. I was working with Ali at the time, so I said I wasn't interested. Then Don King made Ali a crazy $5 million offer and wound up promoting the Ali-Foreman fight. So I decided to go ahead with the Knievel thing. When I met him, I realized he was a bit of a nut. But I made a deal with him: I guaranteed him $250,000, and he would keep the gate, and after expenses he would get the lion's share of the closed circuit.
The night before the press conference he says to me, 'One thing: When we talk to the press, you have to announce that I have a guarantee of $6 million.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'If those two black guys' -- and I'm cleaning his language up -- 'can get $5 million apiece, I can't get any less.' I said, 'OK, but nobody is going to believe it.' So I write him a check for $6 million and he waves it around at the press conference. Afterward we go over to Maxwell's Plum, this big pickup bar in New York City, and Knievel gives the check to the bartender and asks him to make change.
Arum counts his experiences with Knievel as among his wildest. Knievel walked around with a diamond-encrusted-cane that was hollowed out and filled with Wild Turkey whiskey to ensure, Arum says, "that he was almost always drunk." At one stop on the press tour to promote the jump over Snake River Canyon, Knievel became irritated at a group of soldiers partying at a nearby pool. "So he took out a gun," says Arum, "and started shooting into the pool. He was totally insane."
The jump itself almost didn't happen. "The day before the jump, Evel decides that he wants to spend the last night at home in Butte, Montana," Arum says. "So we fly him to Butte, and the next morning we bring him back to Twin Falls. On the way back he calls me from the plane and says, 'Bob, I'm not going to jump unless two conditions are fulfilled.' I say, 'What are they?' He says, 'When the helicopter lands, I want all the press there so I can tell them just how dangerous this is.' I say, 'Evel, that's impossible. If I start moving people I'm going to have a riot.' He says, 'I'm not jumping.' I say, 'How about we get you and we bring you to where the press is, and you can set up a platform and talk to them?' He says OK.
"The second condition was that I bring my two sons to his trailer, because he wanted to talk to them before the jump. So I arrange for Knievel to speak to the press. Then he goes to his trailer, and I'm there with my kids. He says, 'Tonight your father will be the most unpopular person in the world, because I'm going to die and everybody is going to blame him. But I want you to know it's not your father's fault, this was my idea.'
"So my kids are completely stunned. Then he says to me, 'One more thing. I want your kids to sit next to my family when I jump.' So I take my kids out of the trailer and they say, 'Dad, we don't want to do it. We're not going to sit with his family. When he dies, they are going to kill us!'
"Finally I convince them to sit with the family. So they load Evel into the rocket ship. The ship had a dead-man switch. If he got the rocket to the other side and he blacked out, the switch would give way, the parachute would come out and he would land. But he was so nervous. He kept saying that he was going to get killed. His hands were shaking like crazy. Finally the engine starts and he panics, lets the switch go, and the parachute comes out right after the ship gets off the ramp. The ship goes 20 feet and drops into the water. I jump out of the truck to see what is happening, and as I'm coming out I see my two kids running as fast as they can down the beach and away from his family."
I loved Marvin Hagler. Most loyal, honorable guy you could ask for -- except for one time. When we did Hagler-Hearns in 1985, we got this Gulfstream II from Caesars Palace for this 14-day, 26-city press tour for one fighter and I rented another plane, a slightly smaller one, for the other. The deal was that we started the tour in New York and Hagler would fly on the G-2 going west, then Tommy would get it when we came back east. We're in Las Vegas and Hagler's manager, Pat Petronelli, calls me and says 'We have a problem. If Marvin can't fly on the G-2 going east, he's leaving the tour.' I said 'he made a f------ deal!' So I go to Hearns and ask him to stay on the small plane, and he tells me to f--- off. So I told Hearns that I would go rent an identical plane, which he agrees to. It costs me tens of thousands of dollars. But for the longest time I could never figure out why Hagler, who was such an honorable guy, would do that. Years later I went to Pat and asked him why. He said, 'Are you an idiot? Marvin was [having an affair with] the stewardess.'
In 1976, Herbert Muhammad approached Arum with an offer: A group of Japanese businessmen were willing to pay Ali $6 million to fight Antonio Inoki, a legendary wrestler who had dabbled in mixed martial arts, in Tokyo. At first Arum was reluctant: Ali was already planning to defend his heavyweight title against Ken Norton later in the year. But $6 million was $6 million, so Arum called Vince McMahon Sr., who offered to script the fight.
"The way Vince wrote it, Ali was supposed to come out and look like he was hitting Inoki with punches," says Arum. "Now wrestlers, they use razors to cut themselves. So Inoki was supposed to cut himself, and blood would be everywhere. Then Ali would turn to the ref and say, 'Hey, please stop the fight. Then Inoki would jump on Ali's back and pin him. Ali would get up and say this was just like Pearl Harbor, then we'd all go home. So Ali leaves for Japan. When he gets there he meets with Ron Holmes, the American liaison for Inoki. And Holmes thought everything was legitimate!"
"So I fly over there and me, Ferdie [Pacheco, Ali's doctor], Angelo [Dundee, his trainer] and Herbert meet with these Japanese promoters. I said, 'Hey, we have to figure out how to do this thing.' After about 20 minutes of negotiating the ground rules, these Japanese guys started getting pissed off. They started making all these threats about how Inoki was going to break Ali's leg, how Ali was not going to fight Norton. Then they wanted us to sign a piece of paper saying it was winner take all. When we left the room we had no f------ idea how this fight was going to go. But we had to do the fight. We had sold tickets to the closed circuit at Shea Stadium, with an undercard between Chuck Wepner and Andre the Giant. There was a lot of money on the line.
"So the bell rings, and in the first round, Inoki comes out and flops on his ass and starts kicking his legs out. I'm thinking, OK, this is interesting. Maybe he's playing possum. Second round, same s---. By the fourth round Ali is yelling, 'You bastard, get up and fight.' But Inoki, he's kicking Ali's legs and they start bleeding. Finally Inoki gets up, and Ali swings and misses him by a foot. But Inoki, he staggers back into the ropes like he just got shot. After 15 rounds the referee calls it a draw. Ali's legs got infected, and we almost had to call off the Norton fight."
You could never bluff Tommy Hearns out of a poker pot. He played poker the way he fought, balls to the wall. We were on the plane during the press tour for his fight with Marvin Hagler and somehow, when I had no hand, I bluffed. And Hearns folded his hand. I was so elated that I showed Hearns my hand, that I had nothing. And he got so pissed off that he wouldn't talk at the next stop at our press conference. So we had to tell everyone he had laryngitis.
Promoting, by definition, involves dealmaking, and few are better at the bargaining table than Arum. Seth Abraham, a top executive at HBO Sports from 1978 to 2001, cut countless deals with Arum and, he says, "I made sure I got a good night's sleep before every one." In 1980, Abraham was an executive in HBO's sports-programming department when he got a call from Arum pitching a welterweight title fight between Wilfredo Benitez and Harold Weston at Madison Square Garden. It was a good fight, so Abraham quickly signed off. A few weeks passed, and Abraham noticed the bout wasn't getting much publicity. It was as if the fight didn't exist. When Abraham called MSG, it turned out the fight didn't exist. "Bob was working backwards," says Abraham. "He didn't have either fighter signed. He wanted to make the deal with HBO so he could take it to them. I bought a phantom fight."
Though Abraham was wary of Arum -- "He once told me, 'If I think I can beat you, I'm going to try'" -- he had the highest regard for Arum's negotiating skills. "He is a very unconventional CEO," says Abraham. "He doesn't conform. He thinks outside the box. He behaves out of the box. He always wants to be a foot ahead of everyone else. I truly believe that if you took Bob outside of boxing, he could run a Fortune 500 company."
Running such a company, though, wouldn't be nearly as interesting as what Arum does. In 1974 he and Teddy Brenner, the longtime matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, went to visit Ali and Herbert Muhammad at Ali's New York City apartment. Jerry Quarry, whom Ali had already beaten twice, had won a few fights in a row, and Arum and Brenner wanted to see if Ali was interested in a third match. As they discussed the deal, Brenner noticed that Muhammad was acting strangely. Without warning, Brenner stood up and bellowed, "Don King, come out of the bathroom." King never did, but later that day Muhammad admitted that King was indeed hiding in one of the bedrooms.
For decades Arum and King despised each other. Arum would sue King. King would sue Arum. Arum would try to steal Julio César Chávez from King. King would go after Marvin Hagler, who was represented by Arum. With black fighters, King would play the race card. In 1983, Hagler was in Worcester, Mass., fighting Tony Sibson. After the fight, Arum spotted King in an empty corridor chatting up Hagler's mother: "He kept saying, 'Why are you with this Jewish guy?' There wasn't much Don wouldn't say. Then again, there wasn't much I wouldn't say, either."
Arum was never Arum to King. He was Lonesome Bob. Plantation Bob. The Apostle of Apartheid. Arum says King used to recruit Al Sharpton to picket his offices in New York. King won't confirm the story, but when asked he doesn't deny it, either. Says Sharpton, "Bob took everything personally. He's the kind of guy who would think the South Africans were letting Nelson Mandella out of jail to screw up one of his fights." Whenever King was indicted on tax charges, Arum says, Jesse Jackson "would issue these releases saying Brother King has been indicted; why hasn't Arum been indicted too?"
Deals between the two promoters were difficult. In 1999 the boxing world was buzzing over a possible bout between De La Hoya and Félix Trinidad. To help broker a deal, HBO vice president Mark Taffet flew to Las Vegas to meet with Arum and King. In a hotel ballroom the two promoters negotiated. Problem was, they refused to talk to each other. "They wouldn't look each other in the eye," recalls Taffet. "They would look at me and say, 'Tell Bob this' and 'Tell Don that.' This went on for 30 minutes. But when they finally broke the ice, it was masterful. They both have an endless stream of ideas."
When Arum and King did agree on a deal, they were a perfect match. Arum wanted to make all the decisions on the pay-per-view and foreign distribution rights. King wanted to pop off at press conferences and count the money after the fight. "People can say what they want about Bob Arum, but when you shook hands with him, you never had to worry about him," says King. "I respect the man. I love the man. He's an honorable guy. Yeah, he has a hot temper. You can push a button on Bob Arum and he won't back down. You push that button and you could be the pope or the president, you are going to get called a dirty motherf-----. He always speaks his mind. I admire that."
Indeed, other competitors of Arum's respect his skills as a promoter. In 2005 Arum was co-promoting a fight between Mayweather and Arturo Gatti with the Duva family's Main Events. On the morning of the first press conference, Main Events CEO Kathy Duva was at breakfast with Arum when she got a call from Gatti's manager, Pat Lynch. Gatti wasn't coming to the press conference, Lynch said; he's drunk and holed up with a woman. Anxious, Duva returned to the table and relayed the news.
"Bob says, 'This is what we are going to do,'" says Duva. "'We're going to say that these guys hate each other so much that we can't put them in the room at the same time. We're going to have two press conferences. We're going to have two weigh-ins.' It didn't take him 30 seconds to come up with that plan, and it made the fight even bigger.
"I've learned so much from Bob. You have to keep your guard up with him, but he treats me with respect. At the end of the day, doing events with him is creative and fun."
Will Arum ever retire? He can seem like a dinosaur in what is rapidly becoming a younger man's game. At a time when promoters have Twitter handles, Arum is still getting comfortable with e-mail. His net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions. His company is in good hands: His stepson, Top Rank president Todd duBoef, has taken over most of the day-to-day responsibilities. Simply selling the distribution rights to the fights in his vault would earn Arum a comfortable living. Still, he has no plans to walk away. "I don't think he will ever quit," says his third wife, Lovee, whom he married in 1991. "He enjoys it too much."
And why should he quit? He's healthy. He can remember making only one trip to the hospital in his life, in 1994, after he tore his Achilles tendon playing tennis. The loss of his son John, who died in a mountain climbing accident in 2010 at 49, shook him, but Arum says, "other than missing him, it hasn't affected me much." (Arum has two other children: Richard, 49, and Lizabeth, 45.) He has goals. He wants to see his young fighters -- junior welterweight Brandon Rios, super bantamweight Nonito Donaire -- emerge as stars. He hopes to live long enough to see Pacquiao elected president of the Philippines. And if a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight is ever made, Arum will be one of the key figures behind it.
"Bob long ago passed the money question," says Abraham. "It's no longer about money. It's no longer about his legacy. He passed that long ago, too. It's about learning new things. His mind is like a sponge. That inquisitive mind is all the vitamin he needs."
Yes, the career of the most successful promoter in boxing history will continue, indefinitely. After so many fights and so many stories, Arum still wants to add a few more to the vault.