NEW YORK – Bob Arum’s boxing career has spanned nearly five decades. He has worked with everyone, from Muhammad Ali to Manny Pacquiao, from Butterbean to Evil Knievel. He has promoted shows all over the world and seen boxing rise and fall too many times to count. The crippling impact of the coronavirus, Arum said in a telephone interview this week, is unlike anything he has experienced before.
“It’s totally unique,” Arum said. “It’s not something anything in all my years in boxing could prepare us for.”
On Tuesday, Arum’s company, Top Rank, will put on the first major U.S. show since the COVID-19 pandemic ground the sports world to a halt in mid-March. Shakur Stevenson—who was set to headline a March 14 show at Madison Square Garden that was cancelled just days before the event—will return in a 130-pound bout against Felix Caraballo. The fight will take place at the MGM Grand Conference Center after Las Vegas casinos were cleared to re-open last month. Top Rank intends to hold shows there every Tuesday and Thursday throughout June, each televised by ESPN, which has an output deal with the promotional company.
“We have been working on this for two months,” Arum said. “It’s not easy. We have had to interface with more medical people, learn new methodology, worked closer with the Nevada commission than ever before. It’s a new experience, for everyone.”
Establishing safety procedures was a first step. UFC created a blueprint when it returned to action last month. Top Rank has built on that. Fighters are required to complete the final stages of their training camp at sanitized facilities at the MGM Grand. Upon arrival, they are isolated in a bubble, an area of the MGM that is only accessible by those who have tested negative for COVID-19. Dated wristbands are required for access. Fighters are limited to two cornermen on site—and no family members.
“It’s really been a work in progress and continues to be a work in progress,” said Arum. “Imagine guys come into Vegas to get into the bubble, which is a special floor at the MGM. They have to be tested. They’re in the bubble. They have to be escorted to a place to shake out and train, a place to eat. We have a special dining room set up in the convention center. All of this is something that none of us is used to.”
Even with stringent procedures, infections will happen. Over the weekend, Mikaela Mayer, a rising lightweight star who was set to fight as the co-feature on Tuesday, announced she had tested positive for coronavirus. Mayer, who was asymptomatic, was pulled from the show. There was a ripple effect: Mayer’s assistant trainer, Kay Koroma, is also Stevenson’s head trainer. While Koroma tested negative, the Nevada commission will not allow Koroma to work Stevenson’s corner.
Top Rank isn’t coming out of the gates with marquee events. Stevenson, a 126-pound titleholder who will jump to 130-pounds for this fight, is an overwhelming favorite against Caraballo, who will be making his U.S. debut. Thursday’s show will be headlined by a super bantamweight fight between veterans Jessie Magdaleno and Yenifel Vicente. The fights will improve—a light heavyweight fight between Eledier Alvarez and Joe Smith is set for next month, while Arum is hopeful that a twice rescheduled clash between unified 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez and former titleholder Viktor Postol can get back on the books by August—it will be some time before the more significant fights take place. The uncertainty about the future of live crowds has shelved a third fight between the Top Rank promoted Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder—the second fight between Fury and Wilder, in February, generated a live gate of $17 million—while fighters like Terence Crawford have said they will not accept a pay cut to return.
“If a fighter said ‘No, I don’t want to fight without an audience,’ or ‘you have to pay me more,’ that’s okay,” Arum said. “I respect that. It’s next man up. Again, nobody can force anybody to fight and nobody can force a promoter to use them. I’m going to have to use those fighters who have managers who realize the situation they are in.”
Arum, like other promoters, believes this pandemic will significantly reshape boxing’s financial model. DAZN, the subscription-based streaming service that launched in the U.S. in 2018, inflated fighters’ purses as it tried to establish a foothold in boxing. Eddie Hearn, the head of Matchroom Boxing who works closely with DAZN, told Sports Illustrated recently that promoters “needed to get tough with fighters” and “eradicate the warm-up fight or the easy fight for big money.”
Arum, colorfully, agrees.
“The way our contracts work, we have minimum purses set up for fighters,” said Arum. “But because that assh--- Eddie Hearn comes along, putting out crazy money for fights on DAZN, our fighters have been fighting for 2-3 times their minimum. Now, we are going back to the basics.”
For boxing, there is an opportunity here. For decades the sport has been tied to Saturday nights, largely due to the ability to draw larger crowds on weekends. With crowds no longer a factor—at least for a while—Top Rank will get a chance to see what viewership will look like on weeknights.
“More people watch TV on weeknights,” says Arum. “The ratings will be higher.”
As crowd gathering laws are relaxed, promoters can get creative on reclaiming gate revenue. Arum hopes Allegiant Stadium, the soon to be opened home of the Las Vegas Raiders, can be used for boxing events. Arum envisions the 70,000-plus set venue scaled to fit a socially distanced 10,000, which would allow more significant fights to take place. One possibility is the lightweight unification fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez.
“There will be a lot of pressure from big sports like the NFL to allow a limited number of people to watch these football games with fewer people in there,” Arum said. “That’s what they are working on. We hope to benefit from the work that they are doing, both in the NFL and in baseball.”
One step at a time though. For now, the 88-year old Arum is just happy to be going back to work. “Boxing is going to come back,” Arum said. “Believe me, bigger and more important than ever.”