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.
January 27, 1974
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.
Cartel might be the proper description, yet it is not that exactly. International unity is what it is, says Arum. More like an invisible belt of power around boxing, a less subtle man might say. The lineup is this: George Parnassus (the Far East and any place he chooses to alight); Tito Lectore (South America); Rudolfo Sabbatini (Italy and France); Jarvis Astaire (Great Britain); Bob Arum (the U.S.). If there is major action to be cut up anywhere, it is a solid bet that each of these men, controlling the closed-circuit machinery as well as all else in their regions, will have a knife in his hand.
Their common bond, then, is that they all make money for each other. There is nothing thuggish about it, or even piratical, Arum says. "I like to get something done cleverly, but not by stealing. I like to outwit an opponent. Stealing makes me very uncomfortable." Arum balks also at any implication of "family" here, of something dark yet undefinable. Then why are he and his nonfamily always bent over the same pie? Simply because, says Arum, "there are so many dummies in this game, who else can you work with?" Jim Wicks, the old manager of Henry Cooper, perceives something else. Speaking of Astaire—Arum's major confederate—he says:
"If you don't want to work for certain people, you have to get out of the game. If a manager says two words wrong he is barred, he don't get no more work. I don't want to name anyone, but certain people...."
Says Astaire: "I'll tell you why this situation arises. There isn't room at the top. There will always be one person, one group or faction at the top, but there is not room for two. Everyone pays lip service to there being room for everybody, but it's on the way up, not at the top. There can be only one No. 1. I'm sorry, but there it is."
Urbane and a student of money, Astaire is clearly Arum's kind of operator. So is Mike Burke, the latest high priest at Madison Square Garden. "We did no negotiating with Teddy Brenner or Ali-Frazier," Arum emphasizes. "We made the deal with Mike Burke over dinner at '21'." Why Burke instead of the old tradesman Brenner? "Because," Arum says, "Mike Burke is a very intelligent, sophisticated man. And Teddy Brenner is a good matchmaker." He pauses: "I categorize Brenner as an honest person. Extremely unimaginative. He is a boxing purist and a traditionalist. He still doesn't understand the impact and importance of the TV aspect of boxing."
For Arum, phones do not go dead at the mention of his name. But people are cautious, and even his enemies stop at total candor. The late Yank Durham—Frazier's manager—never could abide Arum's presence in the same room and, try as he might, Arum never could close a deal with Durham. The manager would not elaborate; only a grumble and scowl signified his feelings. "To this day," Arum says, "I don't know why he disliked me so." Genuine hurt, sometimes mild shock, crosses Arum's face whenever the question of his unpopularity arises; it confounds him that anyone would not like him.
For one thing, he says, every fighter should be grateful to him for his New Deal. Not only has he opened fertile foreign markets, but for the first time the fighter is getting an "honest count" in the closed-circuit business, a complex and maddening end of the game. "The fighters are getting what they deserve," says Arum, "and I can tell you that's never happened before. Poor Floyd Patterson will never know how much was denied him. Sonny Liston lost a small fortune, and Ali never got all that was coming to him at first. But now we bring them up here, show them how to go over things, and they can bring anybody along to help them." Ali, for one, does not seem all that appreciative of Arum. Is he your friend? Ali was asked. He replied icily: "No."
Friends and associates of Arum—and they are difficult to find—seem to have short tenure. One partner was Bob Kassel, who set up Ali's comeback fight in Atlanta with Jerry Quarry after considerable frustration. A contract for an Ali-Frazier bout in Detroit was signed, but Michigan backed off. Conrad was working Washington, Judge Roy Hofheinz was trying to swing Houston, but Ali would not take a three-fight agreement that the judge wanted. Cleveland fell through when Mayor Carl Stokes would not risk his political future. More negotiations collapsed, and Kassel grew impatient. He was the money behind it all, Arum was the dealer. "It cost me $50,000, and Arum came up with nothing," says Kassel. "So I made my own deal." Arum was out.
Says Arum: "I always remember what people do to me—not for me." Arum did not forget Kassel, exhausting every channel in an effort to destroy the Atlanta fight. There was litigation, about which there are differences. "Somebody got a lawyer to try and prove I took money from the company off the fight," Kassel says. "And without the suit ever being in court, the person mailed a copy to Herbert Muhammad. I don't know who it was, but Herbert somehow wound up with a copy. There are 40,000 men in New York with cleats on who want to run right over you." Kassel temporarily faded from the picture, but the two are back now on good terms. Arum denies any wrong-doing, saying it was a class action suit brought by the stockholders of the company. "When a lawyer called me for background material I told him everything I knew."
Nor is all calm between Arum and Herbert Muhammad. Dick Fulton, the lecture agent who held Ali together during his long absence from boxing, says that Arum and Herbert split up in 1971. Arum had asked Herbert to make up a $10,000 loss from the Buster Mathis fight. The two did not speak until January of 1972, when Ali was being sued for missing a lecture engagement in Jamaica. Arum handled the case for $5,000, and came out of it with a four-year contract as Ali's lawyer. Chauncey Eskridge, Ali's longtime attorney, inadvertently helped Arum's cause by getting a promise of payment for the J√ºrgen Blin fight in Zurich instead of an irrevocable letter of credit, an uncharacteristic error that cost Ali $100,000. Now Ali needs Arum more than Arum needs him; more than ever Ali's affairs need careful handling.
With his growing reach around the world—not to mention his ambition—there is a permanence about Arum, a tenacity that will not be quenched by the enmity that is part of the nature of those who work in boxing. (It is said that once a man gets involved in the ring he will stay forever just to get even.) Arum sees a real mother lode in the sport, and it is doubtful that he will stop until he has mined it completely. And if he has a prototype—the running, unconscionable Sammy Glick seems a favorite of his critics—it is Roy Cohn from the Patterson-Liston days. Arum says he is not fond of Cohn, disapproves of his methods, but not many can forget the night Cohn walked into a restaurant and shook Arum's hand. Cohn then left and Arum said unjokingly: "I've finally made it."
A fight Cohn was involved in first made Arum curious about the financial end of boxing. Arum was working in the U.S. Attorney's office when the IRS called on it to prevent money from the first Patterson-Liston bout from finding its way to Switzerland. "That's where I learned about the business," says Arum. Later, at the Chuvalo-Terrell fight in Toronto, the first bout Arum had ever seen, he met Jim Brown, who had a direct line to the Muslims. "Why can't we do what Cohn did, only better?" Arum asked the ex-Cleveland fullback. Brown was impressed by Arum's desire to give the fighters what was coming to them and eventually a meeting was arranged between Arum and the Muslim leaders. What soon followed was Ali's declaration of the Muslim faith, the disintegration of the Louisville Syndicate that had launched and supported Cassius Clay and the formation of a new company to guide and promote Ali. It was called Main Bout, and it was run by Arum.
Things went awry only when Ali adopted his controversial stance concerning his religion and the draft. Where was Arum then, a lot of people have wanted to know? Arum denies now that he deserted Ali. "I tried desperately," he says, "to get him back in the ring. I even loaned him money." Lecture Agent Fulton agrees: "Yeah, all of about the immense sum of $500. Can you imagine?" While Ali was inactive, Arum was not. He had set up a new group called Sports Action, and it ran the lucrative World Elimination Tournament to find a successor to Ali. None of the profits of this promotion—not a dime—was channeled to sustain Ali, to blunt his draining legal fees; he was alone.
It is true that Arum was not bound by contract to assist Ali financially, but it was his failure to do more as a friend that offends the people who know Arum. The Mark Fine case is also given as an example. Fine had been convicted of murdering his bookmaker over a World Series bet and Arum took over the case when the conviction was appealed. "Arum won a reputation out of the case," says a former associate, "but he didn't know Fine had ever been alive after the trial."
Says Arum: "He was a client. I bled my guts out working on that case. But I never professed to like the guy. What does Mark mean to me? He's a faceless guy in prison. Sure I have compassion, but I don't consider him my friend. I got aunts and uncles in the wilds of Brooklyn I should visit first."
Arum was raised in Brooklyn, a son of an accountant. He went to Harvard Law School, and since then his climb has been steady: a Wall Street firm, the U.S. Attorney's office, and then with Louis Nizer before opening his own large practice. For all of his background, another ex-associate says, "he's a very innocent sort of naive guy in a strange way. He thinks everybody likes him. He always has to believe he's doing right. It's all egocentric, more than with anybody I've ever met. Arum, understand, is his own friend, fiercely his own friend. That's his way. If you're in trouble, forget Arum. But if things are good, he can be terrific. And generous. I kinda like him, but I don't respect him. I mean how can you work with a guy who has one foot in the lifeboat all the time?"
Obviously a sense of outrage persists about Arum. Yet, no one can or wants to be specific, and it may well be true that the criticism is the result of busted egos and outwitted brains. For all of his operations and the arguments about him, Arum personally does not seem a striking figure, sinister or otherwise. He has no panache, and what is seen is a bargainer whose sense of life and of people seems to have been vivisected by money and corporate maneuvering. "Boxing," Arum says, "means nothing to me. It's a business. Two guys fighting in a ring, that has nothing to do with me. If somebody came to me and said I have the greatest match mankind has ever seen, and you can put it on for the benefit of mankind but there's no money to be made, I'd...well, I'd look at him like he was crazy."
That, of course, may be the way it has always been with those who have run the ring's back room. If so, well at least there was an air of slapstick, of humanism—however scruffy—about it. But there is no such feel here, just a droning buzz through a ganglia of telephone wires between impersonal men putting a package together, the dry air from a roomful of accountants, the scent of lawyers.
Sonny Liston was noted for his bluster, but only two things ever truly agitated him: he would become infuriated at anyone who asked his age, and he despised lawyers. A long time ago he made an observation that summed up his view. "I'll tell ya, man," he said at the end of a long string of epithets, "give me the oldtime dealers. Somebody's gotta git these lawyers outta boxing."