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Bob Arum vs. Don King: Pugilism, potshots and politics

Top Rank CEO Bob Arum (left) and Don King. Photo credit: Mikey Williams/Top Rank
16
Mar

 

The OGs sat next to each other and the body language spoke almost as loudly as each of them… almost, because they are in their mid-80s, but Bob Arum and Don King can still bring the high heat verbally when the mood suits them.

OK, mid-to-high heat…

The decibel levels have been reduced. Like the rocker who used to crank it to 11, the boxing Barnums more often choose to “go acoustic”…They don’t want to elevate their blood pressure by screaming to high heavens about this iniquity or that transgression performed by a competitor. But they sat next to each other and you saw Arum grinning again and again and busting into hyena laughter a couple times. You saw King relaxed and never clenching his teeth. You saw rivals softened by aging but by no means soften altogether. They may be “O” but they most certainly are still “Gs.”

Yes, they are still Bob Arum and Don King.

Arum still busts chops and goes right at his not-as-high-haired rival for misbehaviors, like aligning himself with a certain PT Barnum of the political sphere. And King still needles, still tries to subvert his rival for the ages, pointing out a negative proclivity or three, seeks to compare and contrast the two and elevate himself as the bridge-builder and Arum as the bridge-burner.

But on this day, Thursday, March 15, 2017 – maybe, who knows, maybe the last time they ever share a stage (touting this Saturday night’s junior welterweight title vacancy filler between Jose Ramirez and Amir Imam, ESPN, 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m PT) and boast the dynamic which burned hot and mean in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and has been reduced to the occasional flare-up over the last 20 years – the OGs reminded those of a certain age when how they used to be and gave solid hints to young ‘uns how they could be better.

Arum threw a one-two; King caught and shot back. They clinched and, yeah, it was better than Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran III because, even in this era of their existences, their primes having past, their minds are still in good enough shape to win over the room.

They did, King and Arum or, maybe, rightly, we should say Arum and King. They won over the room.

All assembled (if this is indeed their last saddle-up, their last ride together), we won’t remember in 20 years that it was Jose Ramirez versus Amir Imam in a 140-pound title scrap, for the vacant WBC belt…or that the Irishman who will be the attractant to beer buyers at the Madison Square Garden Theater on this occasion was Mick Conlan…or that Puerto Rican pugilists were on the slate to attract the loyal New Yoricans in the region. We’ll just remember that the two promoters went at it, once again, and showed the kids how it is done, with a mix of humor and directness, hyperbole and restraint.

What, you want me to declare a winner? I guess I have to give it to the Brooklyn-born Arum, who makes Las Vegas his home and, just this week, cemented an extension with ESPN, which will put that much more Top Rank product on the ESPN platform…Arum UD 12 King with King scoring a few shots that buzzed “The Bobfather.”

“Don King, who’s sitting on my left, has a big picture of the man who is, unfortunately, the President of the United States. I’m here with a red cap that says, ‘pro-immigrant and proud.’ I really dedicate this card to the Dreamers, particularly, who deserve a pathway to citizenship because they are contributing greatly to this country,” Arum said.

Yeah, Arum likes to lead, he likes to see an opening and fire…or fire and then crack open a place to punch.

 

Photo credit: Mikey Williams/Top Rank

 

“And to the immigrants who came here illegally, who worked their whole lives in the fields, picking the produce that fed the people in the United States and around the world, we have to find a way to give these people the pathway to citizenship.”

If you didn’t know, Arum’s guy in the main event is Jose Ramirez, who, in fact, did work those fields, as a teen, breaking his back for 10 hours at a pop, the sun shooting its nasty rays down on his stooped shoulders. He did it because he wanted to contribute to his family’s income, help out mom and dad.

King’s an ace counterpuncher. He let Bob empty the chamber and then went into his patriotic schtick. “Only in America,” he said, reminding us that he is the embodiment of a rugged version of the American Dream, one that allows rogues to go off the rails, redeem themselves and become productive members of society. From the penitentiary to the penthouse and paying taxes to Uncle Sam along the way. “It’s a fantastic thing, being here, and to be at war with Mr. Arum,” King said and then showed he can still go rogue, this time in the hijacking trade. King spoke about one of his other fighters who isn’t on this Saturday’s card, portions of which will run on ESPN. He spoke of Ghana’s Rafael Mensah (31-0, 23 knockouts), who will be fighting undefeated WBA junior lightweight titlist Alberto Machado, a Golden Boy Promotions fighter, on some date to be determined. But not Saturday in New York City, though that detail was deemed immaterial to the OG boxing Barnum. Mensah sat with media and took a bow, as did King fighter Isaac Eko, a 32-3 hitter from Nigeria, who also is not fighting Saturday on the Top Rank card. Please add hijacking to King’s rap sheet…

But of course, King out-did Arum in the length department, as he filibustered some more. Arum is a slickster, he said, because he made it so Ramirez is top-billed, even though Imam is ranked higher. “You gotta always be ahead, otherwise you’re gonna be dead,” he said, offering a backhanded compliment to The Bobfather…we think.

King always has a portion of tongue firmly planted in cheek, which we noted when he said he and Arum will be having peace talks after the Saturday slate, in order to show the D.C. pols how those on opposing sides can co-exist (more) peacefully.

An element I’ve always appreciated about both guys, as long as I’ve covered them: Both fold in outside-the-ring events and situations and force non-news followers to at least hear about topics they might otherwise avoid. (For good or bad, Arum has been an influence on me, as has King.) King spoke up in favor of the Parkland, Florida, students and lauded how they are doing the right thing in trying to convince politicians swayed by lobbyist money to find their spines and consciences.

And then Arum’s best combo, the one which gave him a 10-8 round…As King was droning on about how President Donald Trump is the best thing that has happened to America since the original colonies were formed, Arum had a thought. He perked his mic up, told Don to zip it and said, “Where’s the young man from Ghana? And where’s the young man from Nigeria?”

And maybe you thought he was going to boot them from the premises, being that King added them to the guest list of a closed party. But no…

“I want to welcome you here…are your countries sh*thole countries?”

“No,” came the response.

“No, of course not,” said Arum. “Thank you, I rest my case.”

Of course, only a certain percentage of the crowd knew what Arum was referring to, that the “sh*thole” reference was to a President Trump brouhaha.

More queries were dispensed, by host Crystina Poncher, of Jose Pedraza, the new signee to Top Rank, fellow Puerto Rican Christopher Diaz, the junior lightweight who zipped past Felix Verdejo in the prospect department last year and said he aims to steal the show, Verdejo, who proclaimed himself newly matured, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, a 14-0 light heavy who wants to be added to the A-list of 175s, Gvozdyk’s foe Mehdi Amar, a 34-5-2 Frenchman who has been invited to New York to be a resume builder and, of course, the humble Ramirez, who makes the anti-immigrant and “illegal” bashers seem small and mean, when you hear him talk about working the fields, and Imam, who promised to exert his power edge on the Central Californian.

But, enough promoting of the fighters, back to the promoters: King will get to 87 first, in August. Arum reaches 87 in December. The quips come slower, OK. Now and again, they sub in a first name when the last name of a boxer cannot be summoned but to perseverate on deterioration is needlessly critical. Why not celebrate the longevity of the two, who represent the full range of quirks of the system, such as it is, which makes boxing special. We have no league office setting policy and enforcing structure. Instead, entrepreneurs freelance and make their moves and a “May the best man” win ethos predominates. Yeah, our sport could be improved so much…but its merits are instructive to those DC cads. The Arums and Kings do listen to the people, the fans, and the wishes of the rooters more often than not get filled.

Ah, there I am, getting sentimental and digging down for correlations that might be, at best, mildly applicable…What about Arum? How did he see this occasion? Does it bring up…stuff…in him?

“It was a lot of fun because we play off each other,” Arum told me a few hours after the press conference. “We obviously have different styles, different views on life, so we went at it but we did it in a nice way. It wasn’t vicious or unseemly.”

Google it; they used to get vicious and unseemly on each other. It’s true.

“But no, I don’t really have an extra appreciation for it now…I don’t think it is sentimental. Whatever energy we have, we are both old men and, when we go at it, it’s two old men going at each other, different than in our primes.”

And you felt you needed to opine on Don’s oversized Trump button on his denim jacket?

“Don felt the brunt of that. He’s a Trump supporter and I’m really horrified see this country run by a president who is not fit and qualified…He’s someone we should fear for the danger he could be. I love standing up for immigrants; I really feel that sincerely. It’s not something I do for a laugh.”

And Arum confessed, he appreciated his sh*thole countries counterpunch.

“I thought it was classic. I knew he’d brung them in. They had nothing to do with this card and when he said they were from African counties, I couldn’t resist.”

The duo up there, it had me think about Arum’s remarkable run. Who can offer one or more examples of a guy who has stayed on top an industry for as long as him, at 86, halfway to 87? But apparently I was stuck in that zone more than Bob. He told me he doesn’t sit down and shake his head in amazement or give himself a zesty “Atta boy!” now and again. “No, vis a vis Don; that’s the last thing I think about,” Arum said. “I think about the fact we are doing well; we started the deal with ESPN. I take pride in that. But no ego, not thinking, ‘This keeps us number one.’ You mentioned (Top Rank President and Arum’s stepson) Todd duBoef. I’m glad you did, Mike, because so much he’s been the architect of the ESPN thing. He relates to those people, (ESPN President) Jimmy Pitaro and (Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling) Burke Magnus. He’s more or less contemporaries to them. It was really Todd, CAA (Sports) who reps us, they brought opportunity.”

Arum continued to spread around praise, deflecting it from himself, “We have all these good young solid people, the (Jose) Ramirezes and (WBO super middleweight titlist Gilberto) ‘Zurdo’ (Ramirez) and (WBO featherweight beltholder Oscar) Valdez and all. Props go to them and the matchmakers are really responsible for bringing them to where they are. Valdez gave us on Saturday a classic. The guts, the broken hand and jaw, he showed such a heart…and all the matchmaking and planning can’t take credit for what the kid himself demonstrated.”

My three cents: I tried, my friends. Yes, I was hoping that Bob would join me and drift into a sentimental zone, where he assessed his past and summed up his legacy and offered misty-eyed ruminations, which offered a peek into his soul, and wisdom pearls, much coveted from such an industry leader. Nah, Bob wasn’t going there. Maybe he does “off camera” but I don’t feel like he’d be the type to consciously compartmentalize like that. The man says what’s on his mind and that in itself, that comprehension that he doesn’t sink into sentimental quagmires and is so matter-of-fact about his place in the world, is able to accept and verbalize that he sees himself as an “old man,” is illuminating. Anyway, this I know: We won’t again get two – heck we might not even get one – promoters in this sphere, who are characters of the likes of King and Arum. So we can look back and linger in a nostalgic haze…or look present and bemoan deterioration…or we could do as Arum does: Keep on keepin’ on and enjoy what is front of us here and now. If this was their last ride together, I’m glad I’m able to be here to see it, soak it in.

Only in America – and only in boxing.

 

 

 

Follow Michael Woods on Twitter @Woodsy1069.

 

 

 

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