Book smart and street smart, Arum at top of boxing
He's been called generous and charming, ruthless and conniving, yet he's universally respected for spending the better part of five decades atop a pitiless sport.
"Bob Arum is one of the 10 smartest people I've ever met, not one of the 10 smartest boxing people I've met," says longtime HBO executive Seth Abraham, who has known Arum as both a businessman and friend. "He combines, which is extra formidable, traditional book smarts with street smarts, common sense and experience.
"You put those things together and he is truly brilliant."
The former Justice Department attorney had seen only a few fights before he promoted one, and never envisioned a lifetime spent just outside the ring. But as he approaches his 78th birthday, having guided the careers of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Oscar De La Hoya, Arum closes in on one more masterful achievement in a professional life full of them.
His Las Vegas-based promotional company, Top Rank, will stage the biggest and most lucrative fight of the year when Manny Pacquiao meets Miguel Cotto on Nov. 14 in Las Vegas.
Both of the charismatic fighters are promoted by Top Rank, part of a stable that includes nearly a dozen world champions. Indeed, while rival promoters like Don King have fallen by the wayside, and upstarts like De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions try to claim their piece of the business, Arum is proving once more that he's the best in the game.
"When you get to be my age, you appreciate more the things that mattered to you when you were coming up," he says, folding his hands in the cozy dining room of the Friar's Club in Midtown Manhattan, where he spoke to The Associated Press at length about his life and career.
"Right now, this is something that keeps me going, keeps me young."
The son of an accountant, Arum excelled in school before landing a job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm. He soon went to work in the U.S. attorney's office, where he was ordered to seize the assets of a heavyweight fight between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson.
The experience made Arum enamored of boxing - or, more specifically, the money in it.
Arum's break came when he was introduced to Muhammad Ali. The idea was that Arum would help promote a fight and then continue on as his lawyer, but they wound up spending more than 20 years together. Ali became a legend and Arum a legend-maker.
"I could tell who was a good person, who was not, who was a selfish person, and who was an OK person, and who was a great person," Arum says. "And Ali was a great person. I'm talking about what was in his heart of hearts - what was he deep down, what was he made of."
His opinion of Ali never wavered, even when Don King came on the scene and stole him away to promote the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight against George Foreman.
In the 1980s, not long after Ali retired, Arum had the foresight to see he could make more money with less risk by turning his attention to lighter weights. He signed dozens of the best fighters and began pitting them against each other, often under the twinkling lights of Caesar's Palace.
Arum's business acumen showed in his mastery of closed-circuit television, the precursor to pay-per-view, and his knowledge of cable. From 1980-95, Top Rank oversaw the longest-running weekly boxing series in TV history on ESPN, and agreements with Spanish language channels have helped grow the Hispanic market.
"Bob is unmatched in the business of boxing," says Rich Rose, who was in charge of sports at Caesar's Palace during the 1980s. "He may not be the most flamboyant guy, but he gets it, and he's not afraid to do something that's a little off the chart."
That includes using modern-day "bobbysoxers" and other creative ploys to help build a charismatic lightweight gold medalist into the Golden Boy.
With the wily promoter pulling the strings, Oscar De La Hoya became a crossover star in just a few years. He went from the undercard of main events to headlining his own, on his way toward 10 titles in six weight divisions during a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
He also became a prime example of how virtually everyone who runs across Arum has a run-in with him. Their relationship soured over the years, strained even more when De La Hoya began building a rival promotional company. The rift runs so deep that De La Hoya declined multiple interview requests for this story, and Arum had few positive things to say about him.
"Oscar was an uneducated kid who was very good looking, who was a lot better fighter than he turned out to be," the promoter says, shrugging. "I don't want to demean him, but when you talk about substance as a person, he was just ordinary."
That's only scratching the surface of how controversial Arum can be.
Asked about mixed martial arts leeching away his sport's fan base, Arum replied: "Our audience in boxing is ethnic: Hispanic, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Mexican. ... UFC are a bunch of skinhead white guys watching people in the ring who also look like skinhead white guys."
It was vintage Arum.
Several years ago, he was fined by the Nevada Athletic Commission for allegedly bribing the IBF to rank Axel Schulz so that Foreman could defend his title against him - which Arum admitted to being "a stupid, wrong thing to do." In January 2004, the FBI raided the Top Rank office over match-fixing allegations, a case that was closed with no evidence of wrongdoing.
"You have to be a bad guy sometimes," says former champion Ray Leonard. "You have to have that thick skin, and Bob has that. Nothing hurts Bob. He dealt with Don King, with casinos and venues and things of that nature, and he's still kicking."