In 1965, Bob Arum was a distant satellite in Muhammad Ali’s universe, working as an attorney for a closed-circuit telecast company, a role in which he handled funds for Ali’s second fight against Sonny Liston and his next bout against Floyd Patterson. He wasn’t a boxing fan and never had attended a fight, but he had met the great football player, Jim Brown, who was close to Ali, and had impressed Brown.
“Jim said, ‘You should be a promoter,’” Arum recalled Thursday at Madison Square Garden, where he is marking his 50th anniversary as a boxing promoter by staging an HBO Boxing After Dark card featuring WBO junior lightweight champion Roman (Rocky) Martinez against WBO featherweight champ Vasyl Lomachenko.
“I said, ‘Only one fighter means anything, and he’s tied up,’” Arum recalled. “Jim said, ‘No, he isn’t. I’ll set up a meeting.”
The meeting with Ali and manager Herbert Muhammad at the New York Hilton went well, but Arum was stepping into the maelstrom of social upheaval that surrounded Ali. The plan called for Ali to face Ernie Terrell in Chicago, where the Nation of Islam was headquartered. About six weeks before the bout, Ali’s classification for the military draft was changed from 1-Y to 1-A, making him eligible.
When the news broke, a Miami television sportscaster named Bob Halloran, who later became a public relations executive at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, rushed to interview Ali, who made his famous comment: “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong.”
Ali’s decision to join the Nation of Islam had been controversial, but his stand as a conscientious objector made him, as the 84-year-old Arum recalled, “a pariah. He was reviled by upwards of 90 percent of the people in this country. You cannot believe the hate that was thrown our way because of Muhammad’s positions.”
Chicago mayor Richard Daley asked the Illinois commission to ban Ali from fighting there. When Arum tried to move the fight to Montreal, politicians there refused. Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard then invited Arum to bring the fight to Toronto, but Ballard’s partner, Conn Smythe, disagreed.
“Ballard went to the bank and borrowed money to buy out Smythe,” Arum said. “Then, Terrell pulled out, and George Chuvalo stepped in. Out of the blue, the Ontario Parliament wants consideration of whether to have the fight. It approved the fight by one vote. All of this was so extra-legal, but people were acting in strange ways.”
The fight against Chuvalo on March 29, 1966 was the first bout Arum promoted or attended, and it began a string of seven Ali fights Arum promoted within a year, including bouts against Henry Cooper and Brian London in London, Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt, Cleveland Williams and Terrell in Houston and Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden.
A week before the Folley bout on March 22, 1967, Ali was told to report for induction to the Army in April. When he refused to step forward, he was convicted and banned from boxing the next 43 months while his case wound its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled 8-0 in his favor.
“They deprived him completely of his livelihood,” Arum said.
The promoter said he had a law partner who was treasurer of the Democratic Party and had worked out a deal for Ali with the Lyndon Johnson administration. “He had to give exhibitions at military bases,” Arum said, “but he would be allowed to fight professionally.”
Ali turned it down. “He was the most courageous person I had ever seen,” Arum said. “Here was a guy giving up his livelihood for what he believed.
“When people saw he was a man of his conviction, willing to sacrifice everything, the atmosphere changed. He gained tremendous respect slowly. Around the world, he was beloved.”
Arum later promoted several other Ali fights, including his return to the Garden against Oscar Bonavena on Dec. 7, 1970 just before Ali-Frazier I three months later, and he promoted Ali-Ken Norton III in 1976 at Yankee Stadium.
Arum said he learned from Ali how to be a promoter and a whole lot more. “The legacy is the impact he had,” Arum said. “Ali realized he could connect with people. Ali spent a year under the tutelage of Malcolm X, and he realized he could use that talent to say what he wants about the racial situation. People were not only shocked, but angry. It’s ancient history now, but it’s hard to believe people thought that way and acted that way.”
Arum received word from the Ali family last Thursday that he was near death and was told on Friday that Ali was in his final hours. He believes Ali belongs among the icons of the 20th Century along with such figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.
“That’s for the historians,” Arum said. “It’s very sad. Death is the final arbiter.”