The 78-year-old man traveled to the Pacific Northwest last month to bury his son. Days later, boxing promoter Bob Arum was back at work, beating a typhoon to the Philippines to visit his sport’s superstar, Manny Pacquiao.
On Monday, Arum was airborne again, traveling to Dallas for his latest promotion: Saturday night’s Pacquiao versus Antonio Margarito junior-middleweight title fight at Cowboys Stadium.
Arum, long ago an attorney for Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, is in his 44th year as a boxing promoter. It’s a career that has taken him from Muhammad Ali to Marvin Hagler, George Foreman, Oscar De La Hoya and Pacquiao. With Pacquiao in his stable, Arum shows no signs of slowing down.
“A lot of people who seek retirement are bored at what they’re doing. When I’m doing these big promotions, it’s never same ol’, same ol’,” Arum said.
Arum doesn’t have time to be feeble or worry about his age, so he returns to the number-crunching he has known for years, his mind racing to overcome any flaws in his business plan.
For Saturday’s fights, Arum’s Top Rank boxing promotions owes guaranteed purses of $18 million to Pacquiao, plus $3 million for Margarito and $2 million for the undercard. Arum will get about $9 million in site fees from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and fight ticket sales are strong. “We’ll certainly have more than 60,000 people in there,” Arum said.
He’s thinking too about the pay-per-view HBO TV audience for his two fighters: newly elected Filipino congressman Pacquiao and the scandalous Mexican anti-hero Margarito, banned more than a year for nearly fighting with plaster inside his hand wraps. Arum is confident the good guy-bad guy hook will lure enough live TV customers at $54.95 a pop. “We need to get 700,000 [sales] to have a decent payday,” he said.
The son of an accountant, Arum was raised in a Jewish neighborhood near Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
Arum went to New York University, then Harvard Law School, where he was the top tax student in his class. In 1961, at 30, he was recruited for Kennedy’s Justice Department office in Manhattan, where Arum headed its tax division until 1965. “The most exciting four years imaginable,” Arum said. “You represented the United States, dealing with tough legal issues in big, earth-shaking cases.”
One case that crossed Arum’s desk involved a World War II hero who ran a savings and loan and was diverting money into a slush fund. The day the war hero was indicted, he hanged himself. “I can’t take this,” Arum decided. He went to work for a New York law firm, but he’d already learned that there was a lot of money in boxing.
At the Justice Department, Arum worked on a case about illegally funneled profits from a Floyd Patterson- Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight sent to a Swiss bank account, he said. Arum was authorized to seize all live gate ticket sales and closed-circuit broadcast funds from the bout — and he collected $5.5 million.
Then, as a private lawyer, Arum began representing those same closed-circuit businessmen. In 1965 they were working on another a heavyweight title bout and asked Arum if he had any bright ideas to help fuel interest.
Arum suggested the unprecedented hiring of a black commentator. NFL star Jim Brown agreed to do it for $500. Brown appreciated Arum’s sticking around after the bout and critiquing his performance. “You shouldn’t be the lawyer,” Brown told Arum. “You should be the promoter.”
Brown, who was friends with Ali, set up a meeting for Arum with the champ. Arum established a promotional company and Ali joined him; he promoted 25 Ali fights in the next 12 years.
With Ali, promoting fights was “like getting into a car and putting it on cruise control,” Arum said. Most events, though, require some bright ideas to promote sales.
Arum said his most “masterful” campaign was directing the comeback of George Foreman. He encouraged the once-surly former heavyweight champ to have fun with his age and weight, creating a new persona en route to a stunning title victory at age 45 in 1994.
For all of Arum’s success, though, he has offended some along the way.
In a 1979 bout, Arum was so outraged by a judge’s score he repeatedly yelled “Fix!” in the Puerto Rico ring, prompting a lawsuit by the judge and an out-of-court settlement. In the 1990s, Arum paid a boxing manager who intended to use the cash to bribe a boxing official to help sanction a title fight. And in 2004, the FBI also raided Arum’s office because a convicted murderer-informant alleged fight fixing by Top Rank after Arum retained him as a fighter. No indictments were filed.
Arum is also celebrated for saying in 1981: “Yesterday, I was lying. Today, I’m telling the truth.”
“That’s why I could never be a fight promoter,” HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant said. “They have imaginations that go beyond me.”
“You’re never totally comfortable with [Arum],” said HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg. “He’ll use tirades, diatribes against us as a negotiating ploy. Brilliant mind. He’s always thinking 400 steps ahead, and it’s your job to keep pace and figure where he wants to go.”
Arum suffered a tragedy in September when he learned that his 49-year-old attorney son, John, fell to his death on a hike in Washington.
“I tried to inculcate my children with the feeling I have: that you must look to help people, realize where you came from and not run from that like so many people who become successful have done,” Arum said, pausing to wipe tears.
Arum’s long success continues to draw young fighters and he tells new boxers he signs that he’ll be around for their entire career. “That’s the excitement,” he said. “That’s why I’m not going to retire.”
He signed Margarito as a 20-year-old in 1998, impressed by the “Tijuana Tornado’s” crowd-pleasing fighting style and tough chin. Last year Arum also spent nearly $500,000 to appeal Margarito’s suspension. “I’m very grateful and appreciative for all that he’s done for me,” Margarito said. “I’m with the best.”
Not all of Arum’s dealings with fighters end happily, however.
In 1992 Arum signed a young talent from East L.A. who’d just won a gold medal at the Olympics. With Oscar De La Hoya, a bilingual fighter with movie-star looks and a killer left hook, Arum tapped into the growing Latino population in the U.S.
“What we were doing was making a statement about what Hispanic people can accomplish in this country,” Arum said. “Oscar was the face of all those aspirations.”
In 1999 De La Hoya’s fight against Felix Trinidad set a then-record of 1.4 million pay-per-view buys, worth $71.4 million. Arum told reporters his company pocketed $14 million from that bout, while De La Hoya took a guaranteed $21 million, rather than risk it on pay-per-view sales.
But the money Arum made from De La Hoya’s bout apparently strained their relationship. De La Hoya had some bitter things to say about Arum — and formed a rival company, Golden Boy Promotions — before splitting with him in 2004.
“Since then, I’ve had nothing but contempt for him,” Arum said.
De La Hoya declined to comment for this story.
In 2007, Arum happily trumped De La Hoya by signing Pacquiao. And the Filipino’s brilliance under Arum included the 2008 victory that sent De La Hoya to retirement.
Arum calls Pacquiao the best fighter he has ever promoted. This month, as the boxer entered a packed Hollywood gym, Arum spoke up: “Make way for the king! Manny Pacquiao!”
Because of Pacquiao’s congressional duties, he’s not in peak condition for Saturday’s fight. Could Pacquiao lose to Margarito?
“I don’t believe Manny will fall into that trap,” Arum said.
His mind races ahead. “I have no concerns,” Arum added. “I promote both guys, anyway.”