Longtime boxing promoter and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum turned 86 last Friday, but his non-stop energy and sharp wit allow him to keep up with fight game contemporaries half his age.
Arum has promoted some of the sport’s biggest names over a storied 51-year career, including Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Top Rank has also been at the forefront of delivering the most exciting fights to fans via technology, from closed circuit distribution of the 1974 Ali-Frazier fight, to the then-record-setting 2015 Mayweather-Pacquiao fight on pay-per-vew, to becoming one of the first promoters to offer live fights over the internet.
Top Rank’s huge multiyear, multi-fight deal with ESPN signed earlier this year looks to expose the sport and some of today’s marquee boxers, including champions Terrence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko, to a wider audience via basic cable.
Arum recently spoke with B&C contributing editor R. Thomas Umstead about the state of the sport and his past, present and future in the boxing promotional ring. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
When you recall the first fight you promoted, did you ever think you’d be promoting fights for this long?
When I think back to the first fight I promoted in March of 1966, not only did I not think I would be doing this today, but I never thought I would even promote a second fight. I just wanted to do it once, and that turned out to be the most difficult experience of my career. We were thrown out of Chicago and chased all the way to Toronto where we put on the [Muhammad Ali-George Chuvalo] fight. After that I really got angry, so I took Ali to England and to Europe to promote fights, and 51 years later I’m still stuck doing the same thing.
How has the sport changed since then?
When I first broke into boxing, there were no satellites, and at that time Ali was known worldwide, particularly in England. So to get that fight to England we had to bring the signal through telephone long lines to a laboratory in New York where they made a kinescope. Then we would rush the kinescope to the airport, and if we made the last plane to London we would get $50,000 — if we missed it we would only get $25,000 because they would have to wait two nights to show the fight. Then international and domestic satellites came along.
How do you see the state of boxing on TV today?
I think boxing is ready for a tremendous renaissance. With ESPN putting boxing back on free television on a regular basis and establishing it, at least for them, as a major sport, I think it will raise all boats. Boxing is a sport which, in my opinion, has more of a fan base than UFC, which in itself has been successful. As we move away from total dependence on premium television, where you have to pay monthly fees in order to see it, toward free television, the sport will be greatly enhanced. Down the road as we go to direct-to-consumer, boxing will emerge worldwide as one of the top three or four major sports.
Are you looking to launch your own over-the-top service?
Yes. We’re not giving up linear, but gradually you will see a shift to direct-to-consumer product from us. I’m not afraid of change … I just turned 86 — I hope I’m around to see this dream come true.
Do you see yourself ever retiring?
I’m never going to retire. When people ask me when I’m going to retire I say to them, ‘When are you going to retire from playing golf?’ They say, ‘I play golf because I love to play golf.’ I say ‘I’m doing this because I love to do it — why would I retire?’
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