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How Muhammad Ali's lasting gift to Bob Arum is paying off for Michael Conlan

 

Dream team: Michael Conlan and Bob Arum have world title glory in their sights
Dream team: Michael Conlan and Bob Arum have world title glory in their sights
The Greatest: Muhammad Ali in action at Croke Park in 1972
Michael Conlan
David Kelly

By David Kelly

It may seem strange, but if Michael Conlan enjoys the night of his career so far at Falls Park and progresses to the status of world champion, he can, to some degree, be thankful to the late, great Muhammad Ali.

The promoter of Saturday night's clash between Conlan and Argentinian Diego Ruiz, Bob Arum, freely admits that he owes all he has done in boxing to arguably the greatest sporting icon of all time, and, having guided countless fighters to world title status, the 87-year-old now has a masterplan for the Belfast man to enjoy the same success.

Born in New York, Arum worked for the late US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy during the period when JFK held office, and it was within that context that he found himself charged with keeping a close eye on the first heavyweight title bout between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson.

As with all nights featuring the giants of the sport, there was money to be made, and the US government were keen to make sure that it was fair and square - as best they could.

"I was working as a prosecutor in the tax division under Bobby Kennedy at the time. Bobby hated this lawyer called Roy Cohn, who coincidentally became the mentor for our current President Donald Trump," explained Arum.

"Cohn had been involved in the promotion of the Patterson-Liston fight and the IRS got word that he was going to take the money out of the country and pay Patterson on a deferred payment basis, which is legal now but not then, so Bobby came in and put me in charge of seizing all the money relating to the promotion.

"So we had to get all the gate money and the closed circuit money. There were 350 arenas around the country showing the fight, this was before the days of pay-per-view.

"All those owners used to cheat, but I had a guy in every box office and we came away with $5m, which in 1961 was an absolute fortune.

"I handled the case, I took Cohn's testimony for 10 days and in that time I learned all about the boxing business, but I had never seen a fight.

"So in 1965 when I left the office - the President John F Kennedy had been killed, Bobby had left - and I went into private practice with a firm that was distributing television for boxing. They were doing badly and asked me what to do.

"The first thing I did was hire the first black commentator to ever be on television and that was Jim Brown, the famous American footballer. I got him for $500. We became really good friends and he said, 'You shouldn't be the lawyer for these guys, you should be the promoter'."

While still not quite sure how he would fit into the world of boxing, a meeting with Ali and his management changed everything, and the foundations were about to be laid for his Top Rank company - the most powerful organisation in boxing for the past four decades, having guided legends such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya and Manny Pacquiao to the summit.

"I had said to Jim Brown that I didn't know anything about boxing and that there was only one guy that matters, and that's Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay and he's taken. But Jim said he could introduce me to Ali and a few months later they flew me out to Chicago and I saw the honourable Elijah Muhammad, he blessed me and I became Ali's promoter," said Arum.

"Ali was a larger than life character. Early on people would say I was a genius for the way I sold his fights but I would just look at Ali say it was him who sold it. Ali taught me everything I knew about promoting.

"He was instinctively a great promoter, he was tremendous.

"You know, he contributed a lot of money to the Nation of Islam movement and was giving so much I said to him, 'Champ, you need to start saving', but he turned to me and said something I never forgot, 'Don't worry, God will provide'.

"When he stopped fighting he had nothing and he made trips to the Middle East and so forth and he never lacked for anything. He made a deal for the use of his name and got $50m for it, so he was right, God provided.

"Years later, when I was promoting Manny Pacquiao and he was spending money everywhere, buying motorboats for fishermen for example, free houses for people in the Philippines, I warned Manny the money is going to stop at some point, and he said the same words, 'Don't worry, God will provide'."

The first time Arum was involved in a promotion on the Emerald Isle, it ended in something of a farce at Croke Park when Ali fought Al Blue Lewis.

"I saw all these fans without tickets just climbing over the walls!" laughed Arum, who returns to Belfast for a first show since the night he brought mandatory challenger Bernard Taylor to the King's Hall to face Barry McGuigan.

"Belfast was very different then, it was so tense. You couldn't park your car in the street or the army might blow it up, you couldn't go here, you couldn't go there, and then on the night of the fight everybody came together to support McGuigan, it was amazing. My friend Barney Eastwood did a great job."

The legendary promoter insisted after Conlan's controversial ring entrance music at Madison Square Garden - which included the lyrics "Ooh ah up the Ra" - that the Belfast man had not wanted to cause offence, and while he said he felt people needed to "get over it", Arum also noted: "But I'm an American so my opinion probably doesn't count."

Unbeaten featherweight Conlan is adamant there will be no repeat of such a ring entry and that the choice of tune was due to a mix-up.

So, as he prepares to take to the Falls Park stage, Conlan is fully focused on continuing to make Arum's job of moving him ever closer to a world title shot as smooth as can be, with a dominant victory over Ruiz the expected outcome.

"After this fight we're going to put Michael in more significant fights than he has been in. We're going to move him up the rankings and I hope by some time early next year fighting for a world title," said Arum.

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