The back room of the modern ring has seldom had a secure location, the exceptions coming during the dear-dumb-rich reign of Mike Jacobs and the veneered squalor of Jim Norris and friends. In other times, too much greed among amateurs, too many private wars among lifers, and the disloyal nature of the species itself have combined to obstruct any single grab for power. Like those crap games that never used to end, the room had a new address—and often a new set of faces—nightly. Sessions were freelance and so human; the high players all had long fingers.
Back room or out in front, the murky dealings of boxing were part of the ring's intrigue—if that word ever can be equated with the realism of pain and blood. A perverted pleasure, maybe, but to all save the most implacable of innocents it was a merry sight to see one manager up against another, to observe their mendacity, their slanders, to witness the braille-like moves of commissioners, all so obvious. The Jacobs era was a model of rascality, though one with personality. Later came Norris and Frankie Carbo, who had the mien of a tarantula and a very long reach with a blackjack at the end of it. The back room of the ring was in a flophouse.
Since then it has taken over a decade for real power to emerge once more, but today it can be found on the 31st floor of one of those Park Avenue success palaces. You will not find anyone slurping soup there, or any mangled cigars—not even the screams of paranoia that usually go with the block and tackle of a boxing deal. Everything is quiet and clean, like the nicking off of a button with a razor blade. "The fun is all gone," says Harold Conrad, looking over the offices of Top Rank, Inc., financial home of Muhammad Ali, cradle of the New Deal, World Unity and boxing's latest strongman, Robert Arum.
"He's here to stay," says Conrad, who works for Arum. Conrad knows about such things. Around boxing, he long has been regarded as something like a well-thought-of monsignor at the Vatican, close enough to hear the whispers behind cupped hands but never too close for his own good. If Conrad's opinion is not enough, then just a glimpse of Robert Arum himself will do. He looks like...well, merely say he should be seated across from Sidney Greenstreet, each with a fez on, and only one of them is sweating beneath a creaking fan. It is not Arum, for he has all the smuggled guns—as usual.
Whip-leather tough and as clever as the smallest of night animals has to be, Arum is no sudden figure in boxing. He was visible through most of the '60s, a fringe presence that seemed to be grating on the old soldiers. There was nothing striking about him then. He tended to a slight heaviness, could be a bit loud and he seemed always to wear a strange sort of grin, an unsettling one, that looked as if it were painted on his face. It took a while, but soon it became clear that he was not a hanger-on but a gusting force steadily gathering strength in the center of the sport.
This week, as the rematch between Joe Frazier and Ali becomes a reality, a lot more is noticeable about Bob Arum. Besides his new look, lean and meticulously pin-striped, it is apparent that his is one of the most rankling names to surface in boxing in a long time. It is also plain that he does not have a scintilla of interest in the ring. "He's on the outside," says matchmaker Teddy Brenner, "not down with a fighter's blood and sweat." That vantage point suits Arum. "Fighters bore me," he says, adding that he prefers more—if he must—the company of larcenous managers.
The cornerstone of Arum's power has been Ali. At times it was a tremulous alliance, but now it has settled into a secure pact. As Ali's lawyer, Arum owns 10% of him—forever. Through Top Rank, the closed-circuit television empire that Arum heads, he also gets his share of whatever the company is able to work out for Ali. The rewards have been handsome for Arum as well as Ali and Herbert Muhammad, who represents Black Muslim interests. More vital to Arum, though, is his hookup to the world link of the ring.
There is truth to the old maxim that whoever controls the big name among the heavyweights, or the champion, has the sport by the throat. Thus, many believe that if Ali loses to Frazier, Arum will be through. On the surface that would seem to be the case, but Arum is more than the controller of an eminent heavyweight. He is a boxing version of that figure one seems to bump into at every turn of life in America: the man with the package. No people, no beliefs, just packages to be assembled and moved.
With a firm grasp of the ways of TV, Arum is unique as a boxing packager. No loose ends dangle when he is involved in a major bout. He is precise, knows where the money is all the time, and everyone—Arum included—gets what is coming to him. No more, no less. "I want to make Foreman and Quarry," says Arum, "but I can't work with Foreman's man. He wants something I can't give." Arum then moans over the amount of grief one must bear in boxing, the number of empty-headed recalcitrants and the general chaos in the sport.
Even so, Arum is known as a hard man to impede for long. He can bristle at wasted motion and stupid delays. "I get results right away—now," he says. "I can pick up a phone and in one call make a fight that would take three or four weeks for somebody else scrounging around. And I'll have a letter of credit up in two days." Much of this power—Arum prefers the word influence—is tied directly to several figures throughout the world. They are the makers and the breakers of the ring, and one cannot deal around them. Nor would it be bright to do so, because they are the money.