LAS VEGAS — Bob Arum sits in his hotel suite on the 12th floor of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, awaiting the results of his coronavirus test. It’s the 12th time he has gone through the process, waiting to confirm he’s safe to go about his business — running one of the most established boxing promotional companies in the world.
The 88-year-old founder and CEO of Top Rank Boxing attended all but one card inside the bubble created in the MGM Grand Conference Center, as the promotion produced twice-weekly events on Tuesdays and Thursdays. From June 9 through July 21, Top Rank brought boxing back — 70 fights on 13 cards, all told.
There were struggles along the way. Some of the best fights were postponed or outright canceled. Injuries sidelined the light heavyweight contest between Eleider Alvarez and Joe Smith Jr., (now rescheduled for Aug. 22) and also scuttled a bout between junior welterweight contenders Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk. Positive COVID tests twice postponed a title defense for Jamel Herring. Others simply didn’t make weight — by as much as nine pounds, in one particular case.
“It’s daunting,” Arum says, “because such unexpected things happen now.”
But the safety measures set forth by Top Rank allowed the fights to go on. During the Summer Series, there were 2,359 tests for the coronavirus, with 19 positive results.
Few would fault Arum if he chose to do all of his business remotely, considering the risks a person his age faces if he contracts the coronavirus. But he needs boxing back as much as the fighters do. It’s in his blood, and if the show goes on, he will be there to oversee it.
“Bob understands what his presence means to the fighters and the Top Rank staff,” says Evan Korn, Top Rank’s publicist. “When he shows up, there’s a different energy. The staff feels it, and I believe the fighters do as well.”
“I have to do it,” Arum says, “because that’s part of leadership — to do it.”
ARUM’S PRESENCE INSIDE the Top Rank bubble is a small reminder of normal when normal is in short supply. From four-rounders to world champions, Arum says he believes he has an obligation to those he signs to be there.
“[I do it] to show them that I’m interested,” Arum says. “Whether it’s Jared Anderson or Mikaela [Mayer], they’re pleased that I’m there watching them. It got so that if I missed a show, the fighters would recognize my absence and feel disrespected.”
But even someone who feels so connected to boxing and his fighters understands that the all-day excursion, which involves testing and the stress of waiting for a result by yourself, can be a lot.
“It’s been a really terrible grind, but it’s necessary,” Arum says.
Although he’s committed and enthusiastic, the twice-a-week effort was a lot to handle, and Arum admits that Top Rank’s upcoming monthlong break will suit him well. So far, Arum’s insistence on attending all of these fights has generated worry from those close to him, including his wife, Lovee.
“She’s on my ass all the time about why I’m going,” Arum says.
ARUM ARRIVED AT the MGM on June 5, one night before the first Top Rank card inside the bubble.
The bubble was created to protect the health and security of the fighters and staff for the Summer Series. There are no fans in attendance and only limited personnel on-site, social distancing whenever possible. Everyone is tested for COVID-19 every time they enter the bubble, with their movements restricted to specific areas.
After going through the process once, Arum, a Las Vegas native, preferred to isolate in his home between fights instead. Once the fights concluded on Tuesdays, Arum went back to his home and repeated the process on Thursday morning. Staying at home allows Arum to enjoy breakfast and part of his usual routine before driving to the MGM.
“I’m 10 minutes away, I can sleep in my own bed,” Arum says. “This has worked out OK. It’s much easier [going back and forth] than sleeping here and showering here, and all of that.”
For the rest of the cards he attended, Arum arrived around 7 a.m. to get tested and then quarantined in his suite as he waited for the results.
Bob Arum on the state of negotiations for Fury-Wilder 3 and the difficulties of making big fights happen at this moment in time. (Courtesy of Steve Kim) Video by Tim Fiorvanti
But there’s been no downtime. On this Tuesday, like every fight night before it, while fighters and others inside the bubble play pingpong, video games or watch shows, Arum takes a working lunch. Wherever Arum is, it’s his office.
“Inside the bubble, Bob was being Bob. Whether he was quarantined in his hotel room or hanging out in the Top Rank office inside the MGM Grand, he was busy making deals, strategizing for future shows, and talking to reporters on the phone/Zoom to promote the shows,” Korn says. “In the most unique situation of his 54-year promotional career, his energy never wavered.”
As Arum sits in the suite, his phone rings a few times and he continues to make deals for future fights. One of his primary concerns at the moment is looking ahead to the fall and the logistics around a handful of high-profile fights. Arum is working the numbers, trying to figure out how to make the finances work for the lightweight title unification fight between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr., tentatively set for Oct. 3.
After pre-COVID talks of putting this fight in Madison Square Garden or another major international venue with tens of thousands of fans, Arum is of the mindset that this fight will no longer benefit from a live gate.
“We have to figure out how much money we have for that fight in order to put it on,” Arum says. “That would be a major card.”
ON MOST FIGHT days inside the bubble, Arum was downstairs in the temporary Top Rank offices by 2 p.m. But with the Raphael Igbowke-Genc Pllana bout canceled on the morning of the fight, after Igbowke tested positive for COVID-19, Arum walks into the conference room at 3 p.m. — two hours ahead of the first bell.
As the first fight approaches, Arum is in his element. He’s taking more phone calls and talking with his stepson — Top Rank president, Todd duBoef — and anyone else who is around. By 4:30, Arum is near ringside, where a table is set up for him about 25 feet from the ring. He greets Nevada Athletic Commission judge Patricia Morse Jarman, and jokingly asks, “What are we gonna do for the next few weeks on Tuesdays and Thursdays?”
During the card, Arum intently watches the action, but despite being ringside, Arum primarily views the fights through a TV monitor, and wears headphones to listen to the broadcast. Part of that decision has to do with a glare from the overhead lights, which Arum says makes it hard to see the ring and the fighters clearly.
The only time Arum gets up from his seat is to congratulate boxers like Edgar Berlanga, Elvis Rodriguez and Oscar Valdez after their fights. He’s eager to see how Berlanga (whom he describes as ”unbelievable”) and Rodriguez develop.
“It was a good night,” says Arum, shortly after the final bell. “Berlanga, that’s something; Rodriguez, that women’s bout [between Kim Clavel and Natalie Gonzalez] was good and exciting. Valdez, his guy hung in there, that was a great fight.
“So all in all, a good show.”
TOP RANK WILL reconvene inside the bubble on Aug. 22, with big fights such as Eleider Alvarez-Joe Smith Jr. and a junior welterweight title bout between Jose Ramirez and Viktor Postol already on the docket over the next couple of months. After going through the first stage of fights in the bubble, Arum is cautiously optimistic.
“The fights we’ll be doing in August and September, the whole cards are loaded with good fights and talent,” Arum says. “But we have no control over people getting the coronavirus. I mean look at baseball — baseball may go down because teams, they’re not in a bubble. If you’re not in a bubble, I don’t know how you do it with all the virus going around.”
In the afterglow of pulling off these bubble shows, the longtime promoter is relieved and proud of his company. Producing multiple shows a week under less-than-ideal circumstances didn’t make it easy.
“It’s tough during this pandemic to program for three hours, really tough,” Arum says. “The shows we’re used to doing are two hours, so OK, they need the extra hour. But it’s worked out. I really believe it will get easier now that we’re going once a week. Twice a week is a b—-. It’s tough on the matchmakers, it’s tough on everyone.”
Once a week is the plan moving forward, but the only constant in the current state of the world is change.
“All I know is we are booked every Saturday from the middle of August to the end of September,” Arum says. “There is a possibility that we will go twice a week, if needed, depending on whether these other sports are going to be operating.”
For now, those decisions are out of Arum’s hands, and he’s focused on making the best fights he can on those August and September cards. No matter whose name is on the marquee on a given night, Arum will be there for as many of the Top Rank cards as he can attend.
After getting out of the bubble, Arum is set to visit the Top Rank offices on Wednesday and Thursday to perform his regular duties, before taking off to Los Angeles, where he will stay at his other home for a week.
But the work never really stops.
“No,” says Arum. “Of course not.”