Arum, one of boxing's most powerful promoters, still hustling
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
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:
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.
"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
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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
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
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.