Ali versus Frazier? Leonard versus Duran? Hearns versus Hagler?
All of them pale in comparison to the most vicious, most ruthless, most entertaining confrontation in boxing history: Arum versus King.
Between them, promoters Bob Arum and Don King have ruled boxing for two decades. But it certainly has been no partnership. They have fought over fighters, over dates, even fought when it seemed in their best interests to work together.
Arum and King arm in arm? There was a better chance of seeing Al Davis strolling with Marcus Allen.
Once asked to describe his relationship with Arum, King said, “Arum reminds me of the asp who asks the alligator to ride him to safety because the flood waters are rising.
“ ‘You know you going to bite me,’ the alligator says.
“They get to the middle of the creek and, sure enough, whomp, the asp bites him.
“ ‘Why? Why? Why?’ asks the alligator. ‘Now, we’re both drowning.’
“ ‘I can’t help it,’ says the asp. ‘I’m a snake.’ ”
But all that has changed. At a time when there is a truce in the Middle East and at least a semblance of peace in Bosnia, could a truce in Las Vegas, however tenuous, be far behind?
But it took Friday’s fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar De La Hoya at Caesars Palace, a fight that has the potential to be the richest in history, to bring Arum and King together.
At the crux of the alliance is the uncertainty over a contract between King and Chavez. King says it is valid. Chavez says it is not.
Arum, who has De La Hoya in his camp and millions within his grasp, decided it would be better to throw in with his archenemy than to jeopardize the fight.
“My first obligation is to Oscar,” Arum said. “I didn’t want the biggest fight of his life mixed up with litigation. At his age, I didn’t want him to get distracted.”
So Arum and King struck a deal to put the whole matter of Chavez’s contract on hold until after Friday and share in the Chavez-De La Hoya profits equally.
Arum and King have been squaring off since the 1970s. In 1978, Arum promoted the second Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fight.
When the bout ended, King, a ringside spectator, leaped into the ring ahead of Arum and threw his arms around Ali.
“To this day,” said Arum, still fuming at that decades-old image, “people think King promoted that fight.”
But that ring scene was a mere warmup for the one that occurred in 1987, when Sugar Ray Leonard beat Marvin Hagler at Caesars Palace.
Again, Arum was the promoter and King merely a spectator. Again, King tried to leap into the ring. But this time, Arum spotted him and yelled at a security official to keep King out of the ring. Arum himself grabbed King’s coattail from the back and a security guard, Lt. Bob Peach, confronted King from the front.
“You’re a brother,” Arum said he heard King tell Peach, who is black. “You’re supposed to be on my side. Why are you taking the side of that Jew?” Arum is Jewish.
King, who didn’t get into the ring that time, vehemently denies ever making that statement.
“I think that is as absurd as Bob Arum being accused of being a racist,” said Mike Marley, King’s public relations man. “For him to come out with this almost 10 years later is ridiculous.”
Whatever their differences, though, any fight of significant public interest is probably promoted by one or the other.
“Both guys have been successful, even though they have used different methods,” said Rich Rose, president of Caesars Sports. “Arum is much more buttoned down. He plays it straight. Don is much more of a riverboat gambler, someone shooting from the hip. They have both had great success. But Bob is the great businessman and Don is the great salesman.”
Their appearances match their personalities. King has the wild, straight-up hair and the wilder vocabulary, which includes words not found in any dictionary. Arum, who practiced law for the government under then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, is always well groomed and soft-spoken, although he is no stranger to hyperbole.
Rose once got in the middle of their feud, inadvertently, when he bumped into King at a 1989 Caesars Palace fight.
Confronting Rose, King said, “I’m not going to talk to you because you’re in Arum’s pocket.”
“The only pocket I’m in is Caesars’ pocket, because that’s who I work for,” he said. “I will do fights with Arum, but I will do fights with you too.”
Arum, seeing the confrontation, jumped in to defend Rose. King responded with his trademark cackle and took off.
The battles are understandable because Arum and King are carving out their fortunes in a sport in which the only territorial borders are those drawn by the people trying to protect their property. Imagine two prospectors independently discovering the same vein of gold on a narrow plot of land. When they start swinging their picks, ugly collisions and flaring tempers are inevitable.
Arum and King staked their claims in boxing when pay-per-view TV came along and every champion became a potential source of huge revenue. The same could be said for every cable system willing to show fights and every large Las Vegas hotel willing to stage them.
Circumstances pushed Arum and King into specialty areas. King has generally concentrated on the heavyweights, especially since corralling Mike Tyson, and Arum has made a fortune in the lower weight divisions, taking particular advantage of the golden age of the middleweights in the 1980s, when Leonard, Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran were in their prime.
But there was always some crossover. Chavez left King once before, in 1991, accepting a bonus from Arum, only to go back to King. This time Chavez insists he will not go back.
“Bob Arum gives me more freedom,” Chavez said through an interpreter.
King, not conceding that he has lost Chavez, says he is hurt by what he perceives as a lack of loyalty by Chavez. At least some of that might relate to Chavez’s testimony last year in King’s trial on charges of filing a false insurance claim after a 1991 Chavez bout that was canceled because of an injury. Chavez did not provide a smoking gun for prosecutors with his testimony, but he also didn’t say anything that could have cleared King. The case ended in a mistrial.
“People saw [Chavez] as the caboose and Tyson as the engine,” said King of the years he promoted Chavez. “They wouldn’t buy the caboose. I suffered and sacrificed and worked to get him to the glory of his career, and he has turned on me like a reptile. His career had to be built brick by brick and, for that, you need a bricklayer like me.
“You know, when you are no longer cold and hungry, you can forget you were ever cold and hungry. He took what he could and ran like a thief in the night. He is a victim of his own success. But you have to remember, he is just a prizefighter. He is not a Rhodes scholar.
“I still love [Chavez], but I am very hurt. I loved him very much like a son of mine.”
Chavez isn’t the only fighter in the midst of the long-running feud. King signed junior flyweight Michael Carbajal from under Arum’s nose two years ago.
King then told The Times, “If Arum had paid more attention to taking care of his fighters and less to calling me a cancer, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. . . . He said I was a cancer. And he has gotten so close to me, he has the disease.”
Despite the vicious talk, the antagonists have worked together twice in the past: on the first Leonard-Duran fight in 1980 and on a 1990 heavyweight doubleheader, King promoting Tyson against Henry Tillman and Arum promoting George Foreman against Adilson Rodrigues.
“They can go along to get along,” Rose said.
And now, in their third collaboration, there even are words of admiration for each other, although they seem to come cloaked in criticism.
“King is very bright, a great salesman,” Arum said. “But, to a large extent, he can be unscrupulous. The only thing that is important to him is money. People used to say that he would rather steal 50 cents than earn a dollar. But with Tyson, I think King’s plate is filled now.”
King says there is a big difference between him and Arum.
“I am more concerned with fighters as human beings, rather than as commodities,” King said. “When we work together, we can be an invincible team, when you don’t let larceny and jealousy come in. He has been a Dr. Moriarty [fictional archenemy of Sherlock Homes] to me, but look at how much better we do when we work together.
“I never had a hatchet out for him. He had one out for me. But I can justify his inadequacies.
“It must have been painful seeing the things I accomplished. He was a Harvard graduate while I was just hard-core ghetto. And I didn’t have the complexion to get the protection. But I outperformed them all, even though [Arum and other promoters] used everything at their disposal to try and thwart my upward mobility.
“We are both in our 60s now, and it is idiotic to keep beating one another over the head. Think of the energy we have wasted. We are Siamese twins. If we keep beating each other, one will die and then the other will die.
“I recognized that years ago and I welcome the opportunity now to share with Bob Arum the fruits of this great nation.”
At least through Friday.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
DE LA HOYA vs. CHAVEZ
“I think Chavez will be trying very hard to hurt De La Hoya; he’ll relentlessly keep coming. And eventually, De La Hoya will just start winning rounds and out-quick him. Oscar, by a decision.”
Director Ron Shelton
Where to See the Fight
Southern California venues for Friday’s telecast of Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Oscar De La Hoya, according to the fight’s promoters:
* Paramount Ballroom, Los Angeles
* Cal State Los Angeles
* East Los Angeles Community College
* Long Beach Convention Center
* El Palacio Ballroom, Sylmar
* Rose Bowl, Pasadena
* Forum, Inglewood
* Hollywood Park, Inglewood
* Sports Arena
* Pomona Fairplex
* Ingall’s Auditorium, Monterey Park
* Mercado del Pueblo, Huntington Park
* Fullerton Stadium
* Freedman Forum Theatre, Anaheim
* Teatro Fiesta, Santa Ana
* Palm Springs Lanes, Cathedral City
* Double Tree Inn, Cathedral City
* Riverside County Fairgrounds, Indio
* Ventura County Fairgrounds
* Performing Arts Center, Oxnard
* Boys’ Club, Carpenteria
* Arlington Theater, Santa Barbara
* Cahuilla Creek Casino, Anza
* Charley’s Rock ‘n Roll, Adelanto
* Imperial County Fairgrounds, Imperial
* San Diego Sports Arena
Los Pinos, South Gate; Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City; Grand Olympic Auditorium; Alpine Village, Carson; The Pond, Anaheim; Drapers, Apple Valley; Municipal Auditorium, Riverside; Fantasy Springs Casino, Indio; Anaheim Convention Center; Panorama Theater, Panorama City; Sumra Theater, Simi Valley; Alex Theater, Glendale; California Theater, Huntington Park.