Arum, one of boxing's most powerful promoters, still hustling
Bob Arum, who turns 81 on Saturday, is the most powerful promoter in boxing
Arum, who promotes Manny Pacquiao, also promoted 25 of Muhammad Ali's fights
Since coming into boxing, Arum has become a figure both revered and reviled
They call it The Lab, though the chilly, fireproof vault tucked into the back of an undistinguished one-story building in a North Las Vegas office park looks nothing like a laboratory. Beyond the locked doors, past the two guards and inside the dustless room that requires a punch-in code and a thumbprint scan for entry, are tapes of every event Bob Arum has promoted: more than 40 years of history sealed in a cramped 450 square feet.
For Arum, who turns 81 on Saturday, the same day Manny Pacquiao will face Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, every fight evokes a memory -- and, usually, a story. For starters, there's Muhammad Ali versus George Chuvalo in 1966, the first fight Arum promoted. Jim Brown introduced Arum to Ali, and it wasn't long before the Hall of Fame running back asked Arum for a favor: Put me in the ring with the champ. I can take him.
Arum knew Brown was tough. He had heard the stories. Brown had beaten up Cookie Gilchrist, the 6-foot-3, 251-pound AFL fullback. He had flattened John Wooten, the 6-2, 230-pound NFL guard. Make the fight with Ali, Brown said, and we'll all make a fortune.
"So I went to talk to Ali," Arum recalls. "He says, 'Jim wants to do what? Bring him here.' So I took him to Hyde Park in London, where Ali used to run. Ali said, 'Jimmy, here's what we're going to do: You hit me as hard as you can.' So Brown starts swinging and swinging, and he can't hit him. He's swinging wildly and not even coming close. This goes on for, like, 30 seconds. Then Ali hits him with this quick one-two to his face. Jimmy just stops and says, 'OK, I get the point.'"
Bob Arum has been making his own point -- often just as forcefully as Ali -- in boxing and beyond for the past 46 years. He has promoted champions such as George Foreman, Marvin Hagler and Floyd Mayweather Jr. And while many of his former rivals are either dead or out of the game, Arum has shown no sign of slowing down. Through three marriages, the accidental death of a son and bitter battles with such competitors as Don King and Oscar De La Hoya, he has maintained a singular focus.
He is arguably the most powerful promoter in boxing, with 50 fighters in his stable, including eight world champions. He gives marching orders to Manny Pacquiao and is considered by many to be the biggest obstacle to a potential $180 million superfight between Pacquiao and Arum's former client, Mayweather. Unapologetically abrasive, combative, a veteran of countless lawsuits, feuds and government investigations, the man who famously said, "Yesterday I was lying. Today I'm telling the truth" -- a haunting quote Arum says he made in jest after a few too many drinks with reporters -- he has, through it all, stayed true to his own kind of integrity while continuously reinventing the role of the promoter.
On the steel shelves of The Lab, meanwhile, Arum's more than 9,000 fights are mixed in with a handful of other events he has promoted. Few are as memorable as Evel Knievel's 1974 attempt to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Arum didn't like Knievel much. "Mean guy," Arum says. "He once told me, 'There are three things I hate in the world: New Yorkers, lawyers and Jews. And you're all three.'"
That didn't stop Knievel from hiring Arum to promote his jump. And what an event it was. More than 250 newspapers and magazines sent writers or photographers to Twin Falls that week; the event was broadcast on closed circuit and later on tape delay on Wide World of Sports. B-list celebrities from Suzy Chafee to Margaux Hemingway to Michael Ford, son of President Gerald Ford, poured into town. Arum brought in crazy acts such as Mr. TNT, who blew himself up in a box filled with dynamite. ("Great career choice," Arum says.) He enlisted the Flying Wallendas to walk a tightrope across the canyon.
Everything was going great until the day before Knievel's jump, when vendors abruptly raised the price of beer. The crowd of more than 15,000 that had gathered near the canyon's rim became unruly. Stands were looted, and people charged the television trucks. Alarmed, Arum assigned two Native Americans working on his staff to serve as scouts -- yes, scouts -- to bring back reports of what was going on in the crowd.
As the unrest increased, so did Arum's uneasiness. Finally, at 3 a.m., Arum had seen enough. He went into one of the trailers organizers had parked on the site and, he says, snorted a small packet of cocaine. When he emerged, he says, he ordered his security staff, already armed with handguns, to shoot into the crowd. "Thank God they didn't listen to me," says Arum. "My life might have turned out totally different."
Of course, different is just the word to describe Arum's life. This is a man, after all, who felt the need to be smuggled out of Germany and into Switzerland after the Ali-Richard Dunn fight in Munich in 1976 to avoid a lawsuit. This is a man who says he once partied with Ali in Mexico and watched as the boxer took six women up to his room while Arum took one. A few hours later, Arum says, Ali's adviser, John Ali, came to his door and said Muhammad wanted his girl, too. This, finally, is a man who married his second wife, Sybil, because he read Shogun and "decided I wanted to marry a Japanese broad."
There are those who love Arum, such as the family of late former super featherweight champion Genaro Hernández, who are forever grateful to Arum for paying the boxer's medical bills while he battled cancer. And there are those who loathe Arum, such as De La Hoya, his former fighter turned rival, who has been going to war with Arum over fighters since founding his own company in 2002. They have such a contentious working relationship that they haven't seriously co-promoted a fight since Hatton-Pacquiao in 2009. In declining an interview about Arum, De La Hoya refers to him as "a senile old man."
Arum has taken it all in stride. Now his mind, like his vault, is a treasure trove of memories -- some inspiring and some embarrassing, some thrilling and some tragic, but no amount of memories is enough to quell the drive that still keeps him going after so many decades.
In 1966, Ali went to England to defend his title against Brian London. When we got there, Herbert [Muhammad, Ali's manager] said to me, 'Bob, we met this rich Muslim in Pakistan. He has this beautiful daughter, and he wants me to bring Ali to the house for her to meet him. There could be a lot of business stuff talked about there, so I want you to come along. So Ali, Herbert and I set out on a Sunday to go to this man's house.
As soon as we got there, I realized this guy was full of s---. He lived in this small house in a lower-class neighborhood. No way he had money. And his daughter was no beauty, either. But Ali, he didn't miss a beat. He went in there and played the piano, he flirted with the daughter, he goofed around with the family.
We were there for three hours, and Ali didn't complain once. I remember thinking to myself, How would you have reacted?
Robert Morris Arum was not born into boxing. In fact, into his 30s, he had never watched a fight. Baseball was his game. Growing up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, packed into the top floor of a three-bedroom duplex with his parents, two sisters, an aunt and an uncle, Bob was a fixture at nearby Ebbets Field, paying 10 cents for a bleacher seat at countless Dodgers doubleheaders.
He stayed close to home for college, attending NYU, where politics and the law first attracted him. A superior student, Arum was elected president of the student body as a senior and was accepted by Harvard and Yale law schools. His girlfriend at the time was from Massachusetts, so he packed up and moved to Boston. At Harvard, Arum developed a taste for tax law. His third year he won the award for the top tax and evidence student in his class, and when he graduated in 1956, he was recruited by Barrett, Cohen, Knapp and Smith, a small Wall Street firm that specialized in tax and corporate law. There Arum became a close friend of Vince Broderick's, one of the firm's general counsels.
In 1961 Broderick got a job with the U.S. Attorney's office and took Arum along with him. Arum quickly rose to head of the tax division, handling most of the major civil and criminal litigation. One of his cases was against a promoter named Roy Cohn, who in 1962 was promoting Floyd Patterson's heavyweight title defense against Sonny Liston. Cohn, Arum learned, was trying to cut a deal with Patterson under which Cohn would take the fighter's purse, put it in a bank in Europe and then pay Patterson in installments over 17 years. Arum initiated a seizure of all the fight's proceeds, from the live gate to the closed-circuit revenues. For more than a year he immersed himself in boxing, becoming an expert on the sport's various and often murky revenue streams.
But working for the Justice Department wasn't all Arum wanted out of life. In 1963 he was prosecuting a group of mortgage brokers who had been indicted for tax evasion and, desperate to cut a deal, came to him claiming the money was going to various banks for political contributions. After months of investigation, Arum finally traced the corruption back to Floyd Cramer, the president of the Washington Heights Savings and Loan Association and the mastermind of the crime. Arum persuaded a grand jury to indict. A few hours later Cramer committed suicide.
The incident shook Arum to the core. "[Cramer] was guilty of all this stuff, but deep down I believed he was a good guy," says Arum. "I asked myself, What kind of person causes another man to take his own life? I was ashamed. I knew then that I wasn't cut out to be a prosecutor."
In 1965, Arum moved back to Wall Street, taking a job with the prestigious firm Phillip, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim and Ballon. In his first few months he reconnected with Lester Malitz, a television executive whom Arum had met during the Patterson-Liston investigation. Malitz was promoting a heavyweight fight between George Chuvalo and Ernie Terrell in Toronto and hired Arum to represent him. In the weeks leading up to the event, Malitz confided to Arum that they were doing terribly selling the closed-circuit broadcast. Arum says he offered up a suggestion: Why not get a black commentator?
"You have to remember, in 1965 there had never been a black guy on a national network as a commentator," says Arum. "It would open up a different market and create a buzz around the event. First I went to Willie Mays. He didn't want to do it. I had a friend, Ken Malloy, who had steered Jim Brown to Syracuse, and he told me Jim would be interested. Without meeting him, we hired him to do the telecast for $500."
The decision to hire Brown was a success -- and yielded an unexpected result. After the fight Brown suggested that Arum get into boxing full time. "I wasn't interested," says Arum. "I told him there was only one guy who mattered, Cassius Clay, and he was tied up." No he isn't, Brown insisted. I'll introduce you. Arum didn't think of the conversation again until six weeks later, when Brown called and said he was flying to New York City to meet with Ali and his manager. Would Arum like to join them?
In a ballroom at the Hilton, Arum made his pitch: In Ali's previous deals, he says, the fighter had gotten only 30 percent of the profits. Arum promised to get him 50 percent and to generate more revenue than anyone Ali had ever worked with. When the meeting was over, Muhammad asked Arum to fly to Chicago and meet with his father, Elijiah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. "When I got there, [Elijah] started talking about white devils, spaceships and all that s---," says Arum. "He went on for like 15 minutes. Then he snapped back and would talk business again. He wanted to know my background. I never felt any anti-Semitism from Elijiah. Anti-white, yeah. But those guys didn't know the difference between an Italian and a Jew."
With Elijah Muhammad's approval, Arum promoted Ali's next fight. He signed Terrell to face Ali in Chicago in 1966. Tickets sold quickly. Closed-circuit sales soared. Everything was going well until weeks before the fight, when Ali announced he would refuse induction into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War, uttering the now famous lines, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" and "No Viet Cong ever called me n-----."
Ali's words didn't play well in Chicago. Newspaper columnists urged the Illinois State Athletic Commission to ban Ali. Politicians and veterans groups opposed the fight. Unable to raise money, Arum moved the bout to Toronto, replacing Terrell with Canada's George Chuvalo and financing the entire promotion on his Diner's Club card. The fight generated $180,000. Arum made just enough to pay his expenses. "But," he says, smiling, "that fight got me started in the business."
I did this fight in 1978 between Mate Parlov and John Conteh in Belgrade. A few weeks before the fight there was a decree from the U.S. government that there could be no more cigarette ads on television. So I went into the dressing rooms and told both camps that if they wanted to put a sponsor on their trunks, it couldn't be a cigarette logo. But Conteh, he was a wise guy. He came out of the dressing room with these Marlboro decals all over his trunks. First thing I think is, F---, CBS is going to cut the signal. So I jump into the ring and I start ripping that s--- off of Conteh.
Now the fight starts, and it's close, but the decision goes to Parlov. Afterward the Yugoslav government had this big party on a boat in the Danube. On the way there word gets out that Conteh's family, particularly his mother, blamed me for his losing the fight and that they were going to throw me overboard. I didn't think much of it, but the government took it seriously and had these two little speedboats with soldiers follow the boat after we took off. Fortunately for me the Contehs were big drinkers, and the cruise didn't start until one in the morning. By the time we got out into the water they were drunk and passed out.
Working with Ali gave Arum a taste for promoting, and Arum's determination and his understanding of revenue streams made him effective. He continued to promote Ali's fights -- 25 in all -- but gradually branched out. In 1968, Arum took Jimmy Ellis to Sweden to fight Patterson. Ellis was the new WBA heavyweight champion. Patterson's career was winding down, and the bout was supposed to be a soft touch for Ellis. It wasn't.
"Patterson was beating the s--- out of Ellis," says Arum. "I don't think Ellis won a round. During the fight Chris Dundee, who was close with Ellis, came over to me and started talking about a rematch. Now, there were no judges, just the referee, who had come over from the U.S. And at the end of the fight he raises Ellis's hand in victory. Everyone went nuts. At the hotel later I asked the referee [Harold Valen], 'Are you f------ crazy?' He said, 'Bob, who brought me over?' I said I did. He said, 'Well, you promote Jimmy Ellis. What was I supposed to do?'"
Arum loved promoting fights abroad. Italy, Germany, Indonesia -- in all, Arum has promoted bouts in 100 cities in 22 foreign countries, none more controversial than South Africa. In 1979, while the country was still under apartheid, Arum and hotel magnate Sol Kerzner promoted a heavyweight fight in Pretoria between white South African Gerrie Coetzee and John Tate of the U.S., who was black. Arum was vilified for doing business in such an unsavory country. "Bob never respected the whole Civil Rights movement," says Rev. Al Sharpton, a frequent combatant of Arum in the 1970's. "He didn't understand the war he was dealing with or how going there would be viewed. Here we have Muhammad Ali's promoter going to South Africa. I mean, are you kidding me?"
According to Kerzner, an irate Jesse Jackson flew from South Africa to the U.S. to put pressure on Tate not to fight. While Jackson was en route, Arum says, he moved Tate's flight up and got him out of the U.S. before Jackson could land. "They probably passed each other in the air," says Arum.
Arum admits that he was "motivated by my pocketbook"; Arum's company, Top Rank, was struggling financially, and the stadium in Pretoria seated 86,000 paying customers. But once in South Africa, Arum saw just how deep the racial divide was. He insists now that his presence had a positive impact. Shortly after arriving in the country Arum told the press that the sports minister had informed him that the stadium would be integrated. When the government denied it, Arum says, he erupted, saying he would honor his contract for Tate-Coetzee but would never hold a fight in South Africa again. A few days later the government relented, integrating the stadium.
"After the fight the board of directors at this [South African] racetrack invited my wife and me to come to the track," says Arum. "Before the first three races they gave me tips, and every tip they gave me won. After about an hour they came to me and said, 'Bob, you have to do us a favor. You have to demand the tracks be integrated.' See, they had a good-sized Indian population living in South Africa. Some of them were wealthy horse owners whom the track wanted to attract. So I called a press conference and demanded that the track be integrated. I raised hell. About two weeks later, it was.
"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life."